Sharon recently secured a one hour Westminster Hall debate on the effect of leaving the EU without a deal on public sector catering. This followed concerns raised by the sector.
You can read Sharon's speech below:
Mrs Sharon Hodgson MP:
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of leaving the EU without a deal on public sector catering.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I start by thanking all the public sector catering providers, users and campaigners who have been in touch with me over the past week to raise their concerns about this issue. I can see a number of them in the Public Gallery today. I am extremely grateful and pleased that they have made the journey here today.
Although a no-deal Brexit in general is deeply concerning to me and many others up and down the country, I tabled this debate because the quality, quantity and safety of the food provided to some of the most vulnerable in our society is often overlooked in the debates around a no-deal Brexit. I therefore wanted to speak up today for the estimated 10.5 million people in the UK who rely on public sector institutions for at least some of their food. Some are completely reliant on such institutions for all their meals. I want to say clearly to the Government that no deal should not mean no meal.
The Soil Association brief sent to me yesterday reads clearly:
“It is very likely that a No deal Brexit would be disastrous for public sector catering.”
Institutions including schools, universities, hospitals, care homes, meals on wheels and prisons will be adversely affected by a no-deal Brexit. They feed some of the most vulnerable in our society. Without those services, many would simply not eat. High quality public sector catering is so important to the health and wellbeing of millions of people across the country. A drop in standards or the availability of nutritious food because of a no-deal Brexit would be extremely detrimental to service users.
I want to focus on three main concerns today, which I will address in turn: the cost and availability of meals; the quality, quantity and safety of food available to public sector providers; and, finally, workforce retention.
At the end of last year, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, told the Treasury Committee that in the most “extreme” no-deal Brexit, food prices would rise by 10%, but that in a less severe scenario, the increase would be about 6%. Either scenario is concerning to suppliers of public sector catering, which are already struggling to cover the cost of nutritious meals.
For example, the allowance for universal infant free school meals is £2.30. That goes directly to schools and is not ring-fenced. It has not been increased since the start of universal infant free school meals in September 2014. In many cases, the caterers do not receive the full amount. Bidfood has calculated that with 13% inflationary costs and the potential increase in costs following no deal, the meal allowance would need to be increased by 69p to bring the allowance back to where we are now. There are serious concerns about the impact Brexit could have on the provision of school meals in some schools, particularly small rural schools, that no longer receive the small school allowance of £2,000, which ceased about two years ago.
Due to Brexit uncertainty, caterers have reported an overall increase in costs of up to 20% for some ingredients over the past 12 months, with the cost of eggs reported to be up by 14%.
Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate and making the case about food price rises. Is she not also concerned that a no-deal Brexit might lead to trade deals that lower standards, particularly with the US? The National Farmers Union has said that it is concerned about US practices and that trade deals should
“not allow imports of food produced to lower standards than those required of British farmers”,
such as chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-fed beef. We might be pushed to lower standards for cheaper food. That is a huge health and safety issue for our children.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend, and I will touch on the issue he raises later in my contribution. This morning, I sat on a no-deal Delegated Legislation Committee with my shadow Public Health Minister hat on. In that Committee Room, we were talking about the very issues my hon. Friend raises in respect of a no-deal Brexit. The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), assured me that our chicken will still be washed in drinking water and not in any form of chlorine. However, my hon. Friend’s worry is very much taken on board, given that the money will not be there and costs will be cut to the bone—no pun intended.
In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the prices of raw materials and commodities will go up, but who will absorb the price increases? Social care providers, particularly those with a majority of local authority-funded residents, will not have the capability to accept increased catering costs. Will the Government therefore increase the budgets for public sector catering to cover the shortfall?
Diana Johnson (Kingston Upon Hull North) (Lab)
I apologise for being slightly late for the beginning of the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing it. In my city of Hull, there has been an attempt to keep school meal prices as low as possible—50p, rather than the normal £2-odd. What concerns me is that there is already pressure on that budget. It has already gone up to £1 because of school budget pressures. What does she think about the fact that there is a public health initiative to try to ensure that children are eating healthily and well, yet the cost may go up even more due to what she has described in her contribution?
That is the worry. As Bidfood worked out, the cost will have to go up by 69p a child just to stand still. In areas that are trying to keep the price as low as possible, that initiative disappears, but in other areas that are already paying £2.30 or £2.40, what will happen? Parents cannot afford to pay much more than that, so the quality of the food, children’s health and the health of the 10.5 million people who rely on this food every day will suffer as a consequence.
If the Government do not cover the shortfall, menus may have to be reduced so that providers do not overspend. As my hon. Friend has just said, that will compromise the nutritional value of the meals given to service users. An increase in the costs of public sector meals could therefore see an increase in poverty, childhood obesity and malnutrition in hospitals and care homes, which could have serious implications for the health and wellbeing of service users.
The affordability of food post Brexit, especially in the event of no deal, is an incredibly alarming issue. That is the case for all our constituents, but even more so for those who rely on public sector catering for their food. General food shortages due to panic buying or an impact on deliveries due to fuel shortages are of particular concern, especially for public sector catering in hospitals and care homes. The Government should communicate openly and factually about the food challenges ahead and encourage the food industry, caterers, institutions and organisations to do so too.
One person wrote to me to say that the Government had given them
“no real guidance, other than to stockpile food”.
One local authority caterer told Food for Life that it had invested more than £1 million in stockpiling ingredients, including 250 tonnes of meat. However, the caterer is concerned, as that food will only last for a short period. Not every caterer has the capacity to stockpile food. What advice have the Government given to suppliers and caterers? Is advice being updated clearly and regularly?
The Federation of Wholesale Distributors has expressed concern about the continuity of food supplies to schools and hospitals in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It has suggested that food supplies should be triaged and prioritised for those most in need, but that could happen only with Government intervention. Is that something the Minister has considered? Concerns have also been raised with me about products being diverted to more lucrative customers, rather than being prioritised for vulnerable people. Will the Minister address that point too?
The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 does not deal directly with food—probably nobody ever thought that we would be in this position—nor does it identify responsible agencies with a food remit. Has the Minister had any conversations with his Government colleagues about including food in the 2004 Act, particularly for vulnerable people?
The meals distributed in schools, universities, hospitals, care homes and prisons each day are crucial to those who eat them. Caterers are already beginning to remove higher quality produce from menus, with some school caterers considering a move from hot food to cold meals. That could result in a reduction in the nutritional value of meals, which would be detrimental to children or to service users in the case of the other provisions.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
My hon. Friend does amazing work on schools through the all-party parliamentary group, and through the children’s future food inquiry, which I am pleased to be involved in. She will know that there is real concern about children living in food poverty. Indeed, the Food Foundation assessed towards the end of last year that around 3.7 million children are living in households that would have to spend 42% of their annual income to meet the guidance of the “eatwell plate”. That is simply unaffordable and if food prices rocket because of Brexit, it will become even more so. Does she share my concern that we are reaching crisis point?
I am really grateful that my hon. Friend has made that point. The average person spends 17% to 18% of their income on food, but people living on benefits and in poverty spend around 42% of their money on food, and that is at today’s prices. We do not need a mathematician to work out what a vulnerable position people will be in if food prices go up. Even the 6% increase would have a detrimental effect.
Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
Does my hon. Friend agree that there must also be a concern about food banks, and especially about schemes such as FareShare and organisations such as the Pickle Palace in my constituency that provide low-cost meals and “pay-what-you-can” food for people on low incomes.
That is another very good point. Often, those who supply local authority caterers are some of the best for supplying food banks and FareShare. When they have to trim and trim again, that will be one of the charitable aspects of their operations that will sadly have to go. Again, that will have a knock-on effect on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
My hon. Friend is being very generous. I am involved in something called Feeding Bristol, which is an offshoot of Feeding Britain—an organisation that aims to eradicate food poverty. We were discussing this matter at a meeting last week. Food prices going up will create an affordability issue, and if people stockpile and panic-buy food and the supermarkets run dry, donated food to hostels and food banks will dry up completely. Not only will people be more likely to have to go to food banks because they will be unable to afford food—and they might not be getting such good quality food through public sector catering—but food banks will run out as well.
I hope that the Minister acknowledges the picture being painted of the potential knock-on effects. I appreciate that this is the worst case scenario—a no-deal, catastrophe scenario—but, given that there is no deal on the table that the majority of the House can vote for, a responsible Parliament has to prepare for it. These doomsday scenarios could become the reality for many people’s lives, despite none of us in this room wanting that to happen.
Does the Minister share my concern about a reduction in the safety and nutritional quality of food served to those using public sector catering, especially given that those meals are, as we have heard, the main source of nutrition for millions of people—10.5 million people, day in and day out, up and down the country? Equally, public sector caterers must provide food that meets specific health or cultural needs, such as kosher, gluten-free, vegetarian or allergy-specific food. There are many other examples. For some, it could be a matter of life or death. For others, a failure to provide nutritionally complete meals would slow down their recovery and increase the risk of malnutrition, or result in a deficiency in other nutritional values.
I received a message from the National Association of Care Catering that reads:
“We have 60 plus residents in our home, so have to provide 60 meals three times a day, with the average age of 86, how do we ensure regular supply?”
That is of great concern across the industry. Even where contingencies can be made, it may involve people eating very bland or repetitive menus, which I know goes against the entire ethos of public sector catering.
Finally, the workforce are crucial to public sector catering. Have the Government engaged with the catering sector to understand the challenges that a disorderly Brexit might pose to its workforce and services? The public sector employs a considerable number of EU nationals, and I am told that some are already returning home. The threat of a no-deal Brexit will only make the situation worse, thereby posing a threat to the services that the sector provides, and having an impact on safety.
Although new members of staff can, of course, be recruited, it takes time and money to train them. A workforce gap in the event of a no-deal Brexit would limit the effectiveness of public sector catering, which is already facing all the challenges that I have highlighted. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the public sector catering workforce are trained, equipped and funded to provide vital services in the event of no deal?
Public sector catering is fundamental to the care provided in schools, universities, hospitals, care homes and prisons. A delay in food deliveries, an increase in the cost of food and a decrease in nutritional standards or safety could be detrimental to service users and, in some cases, a matter of life or death. When we talk about the impact of no deal on our health and wellbeing, we must also consider the availability of food to the most vulnerable in our society, which a number of my hon. Friends have spoken about.
What about those who cannot afford to stockpile or lack the capacity to do so? What about those who are in hospitals, care homes or prisons? They cannot stockpile food in their little bedside cabinet. I do not have time to discuss this issue fully now—thankfully others have mentioned it—but we must remember that a surge in food prices could mean a reduction in donations to food banks from public sector caterers, some of whom are very generous to not only food banks but to holiday provision. I know that Bidfood supports holiday clubs. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) spoke in glowing terms about Bidfood’s support for her holiday clubs at the last APPG meeting. All of that will have implications for families already living in poverty.
Brexit should not be the reason that millions of people go hungry, and I hope that after the debate the Minister will have considered another aspect of a no-deal Brexit that perhaps the Government had not already considered. I hope that he will urgently relay what I have said back to his Government colleagues. In closing, I reiterate that no deal should not mean no meal. I look forward to the Minister’s response.