WESTMINSTER HALL DEBATE NO-DEAL EU EXIT: PUBLIC SECTOR CATERING
A debate was held recently (5th March 2019) in Westminster Hall amongst MPs considering the effect of leaving the EU without a deal on public sector catering. The MP for Washington and Sunderland West, Mrs Sharon Hodgson moved the debate and representatives from the Hospital Caterers Association were present to listen.
The full transcript of the debate is below:
No-deal EU Exit: Public Sector Catering
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
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.
Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). She is a hard act to follow, and I have had to do so twice today—I was on the Delegated Legislation Committee with her this morning.
To be perfectly honest, I had not really thought about this subject in any great depth until I was asked to sum up for the SNP in this debate. I have learned so much listening to the hon. Lady, and I congratulate her on her speech. Having now considered the issue, I realise that a worrying, appalling impact may result for the most vulnerable people in our society.
The hon. Lady talked about three main areas—cost and availability, quantity and quality of food, and workforce retention. They are all points that the Minister must take on board. I hope he will be able to reassure all of us, and the wider public, about these issues in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
I have some wonderful organisations in my constituency of Motherwell and Wishaw. My office and I run a poverty action group, which meets quarterly. The next meeting, due in the next month or so, is sure to have this issue very high on the agenda. We deal with carers and people who work in the public sector, and mainly with organisations that help the most vulnerable. It is really important to consider the point that was made about how, at present, 40% of some household budgets is spent on food. If there are food shortages, which are a possibility with a no-deal Brexit, that percentage is going to rise, and could rise significantly. That will also affect the nutritional value of what can be done in the home and in public sector catering.
North Lanarkshire is a Labour-controlled council, and I frequently comment on whether it does well or badly, according to my lights. In this case, it does a wonderful job through its running of an organisation called Club 365 that provides nutritious meals for those children in primaries 1 to 7, aged 5 to 12, who receive free school meals during the school week, at weekends and in school holidays, with the aim of ending holiday hunger. I know many Members across the Chamber have been working hard to prevent that for quite a long time.
Although there are fewer public sector care homes than there used to be—that has been forced on many local authorities—it is appalling to think that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, many older people could finish up with poorer quality meals, at a time when for many of them a hot meal is the main part of their day, especially if it is provided through meals on wheels or other similar organisations. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) made a good point about food banks and other organisations that rely on donations also being affected in the event of no-deal Brexit.
The knock-on effect of a no-deal Brexit on food is quite appalling to consider. I am sure the Minister is going to reassure us that it will all be all right on the night and that there are contingency plans already prepared and that no one will go hungry, but I do not think the United Kingdom is ready to dig for victory, as it had to do in the second world war. We need to know that people will still be able to access nutritious, fresh food. Perishable food being held up at channel ports does not bear thinking about.
The point about perishable food being held up at ports is really important. I am vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for fruit and vegetable farmers. We have heard such scare stories, but they are not scare stories, because they are rooted in reality. This is a combination of two things. About 90% of our mushrooms now come from Poland because it is cheaper to grow them there, and those products will be held up at ports, and, obviously, they go off very quickly. There is also a real shortage of workers to pick the fresh fruit and veg in this country now. A crisis is looming—the fruit and veg farmers have been warning of it for a long time. We may find that even though food might be growing in plentiful quantities, it will still be rotting in the fields.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Only last summer in Angus in Scotland, many fruit farms could not recruit the workers who traditionally came from EU countries and a lot of the fruit lay rotting in the fields. This is a really serious issue.
This is perhaps slightly off key—I apologise, Mr Hollobone. I was thinking of EU nationals and public service catering, and I like to think that I provide a public service in being a Member of Parliament! I started to look around at the number of people who were serving me. So many of them are EU nationals, but because of the almost hostile environment—there is a current story in Scotland of a woman who has been here for 47 years and does not understand why she has to register because this is her home; what else is she going to do?—there are real difficulties for the many EU nationals who are here and who might stay and register. In Scotland, they are very welcome. There will also be many who are completely put off even thinking about coming to work here.
For example, so many EU nationals work in care homes. It is all very well for the Government to say that those jobs could be done by UK citizens, but they are not being done by UK citizens. I do not think that anyone is going to suddenly change their mind and make a career in catering or in care homes, just because there is a job available.
I hope the Minister is able to answer some of the fears that have been expressed here today. Leaving with no deal is a serious and worrying prospect. The SNP is against the United Kingdom exiting the EU, but nevertheless we put forward suggestions on how compromises could be made so that there would not be such a brutal disruption to life in this country after we leave the European Union.
Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to make the winding-up speech for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate. As other hon. Friends have said, she does a huge amount of work in this area, not least through her chairpersonship of the all-party parliamentary group on school food. She has done the House a real service by focusing our attention on the likely impact of a no-deal exit from the EU on public sector catering, and on all those who are looked after by public sector institutions. Her warnings were all the more powerful for being delivered with her customary frankness and thoughtfulness.
This is not the first debate in which hon. and right hon. Members have raised concerns about the implications of a no-deal exit from the EU and it is obvious why that is so. An exit from the EU on 29 March or any date thereafter without agreement would be nothing short of a national disaster, affecting every facet of our national life and every region and nation of the UK. It would end, at a stroke, the whole body of legal arrangements we have with the EU, built up over many decades. Its effects would extend far beyond the absence of a trade deal, leaving the UK without rules to govern trade in a range of crucial areas, from financial contract clearing to medicines regulation. It would threaten the complex law enforcement and judicial co-operation arrangements that keep Britain safe. It would almost inevitably result in infrastructure being placed on the Irish border, place untold strain on the Good Friday agreement and Anglo-Irish relations more generally, and exacerbate the political instability in Northern Ireland.
In short, such an exit is the hardest and most chaotic of departures possible. To be honest, no one knows for sure how extensive the negative impact would be, yet among Brexiters, brimming with the misplaced confidence that has defined their approach to this process, the fantasy of a cost-free, no-deal exit lives on.
The most cavalier among the Brexiters dismiss any concerns out of hand as the latest round of “Project Fear” alarmism; others concede that there will be disruption, but insist it would be only temporary and would be outweighed by the new legal freedoms and opportunities arising from being completely outside the EU’s orbit. In debates in the House, they exhort us to have faith that the British people would make the best of it. I have no doubt that they would make the best of it, but why would any Government force the British people to cope with an entirely avoidable act of self-harm, which opinion polling suggests only a minority of the public support?
No Government in their right mind should countenance a no-deal exit from the EU, especially when the other party to the negotiations knows full well that that is an empty threat. The tragedy is that instead of simply announcing that under no circumstances will the UK leave the EU without a deal, this Government have adopted such an outcome as their official plan B, endlessly repeating over many months the mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal. They have spent significant sums of public money trying—I emphasise that word—to ensure they are prepared for it.
The Government have kept alive the possibility of a no-deal exit in spite of the stark conclusions of their internal assessments of the implications. From the no-deal impact assessment summary, which was forced out of the Government two weeks ago, we now have a clearer idea of what a no-deal Brexit would entail in specific sectors and for different regions and nations of the UK. The impact summary makes it absolutely clear that the UK is simply not prepared for a no-deal exit on 29 March, with Departments on track for just over two thirds of the most critical projects. The summary is honest about the fact that in the event of a no-deal exit the UK would be at the mercy of the actions of the European Commission, EU member states and EU businesses. In other words, the Government would not be in control of the situation. The summary admits that there is little evidence that businesses are preparing in earnest for a no-deal scenario, and the readiness of small and medium-size enterprises is particularly low.
The impact summary plainly restates the UK Government’s estimate that, compared with today’s arrangements, the economy would be 6.3% to 9% smaller over a 15-year period, which brings me to the subject of this debate. The summary makes it clear that the anticipated effects of a no-deal scenario across a range of areas would include the UK’s food supply being affected by delays in goods crossing the channel and a likely rise in food prices, and many businesses in the food supply industry are simply unprepared.
Disruption to food supplies and an increase in food prices would affect every single one of us. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West is absolutely right to draw attention, by way of this debate, to the significant implications of a no-deal exit for people who rely on public sector catering for their meals, especially if the UK exits without a deal on 29 March—a time of year when we import a large proportion of our fresh food from Europe, and in the run-up to the Easter weekend.
My hon. Friend is right to make it clear that we are talking about 10.5 million people potentially affected—hospital patients, care home residents, prisoners and school pupils—of whom I think she said 1.5 million are children who are eligible for free school meals. I want to emphasise concerns about the impact of a no-deal exit from the EU with regard to the cost and availability of meals; the quality, quantity and safety of food available to public sector providers; and the issue of how we ensure that we recruit and retain a workforce to deliver the service. In saying that, I very much echo the comments made by the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows).
I was particularly struck by the revelation that many caterers have been advised by Government to stockpile food, and that one local authority has already spent £1 million on doing so. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West is right to point out that most schools and hospitals lack the money and the necessary storage space to stockpile food. She set out in painstaking detail how tight the margins are on the meals these institutions supply, and how sensitive they are to price increases. She rightly drew our attention to the fact that the implications of any food disruption, particularly with fresh fruit and vegetables, and an increase in food prices would be especially stark for the 1.5 million children in this country who are eligible for free school meals, and, in a wider sense, for people who rely on the social security system and find themselves in deprivation.
My hon. Friend also raised a series of important points, not least the deficiencies of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 with regard to food. I will not go over all of them. However, in the light of the concerns she raised, may I press the Minister to set out in detail what specific contingency planning the Government have undertaken, or are currently undertaking, to ensure that public sector caterers can cope with food disruption and/or food price increases? Will he explain precisely what his Department is doing to ensure that public sector institutions of the kind we have discussed do not find themselves in competition with the private sector or private consumers for food essentials in the event of a no-deal exit?
I expect the Minister to ignore the following question, as his colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union have done repeatedly in the past week, but it would be fantastic if gave me an answer. Will he tell us whether the Government intend on 13 March to whip against a no-deal exit, should the House once again vote down the deal on the preceding day? It is simply not good enough to dismiss the question on the basis that it is a hypothetical decision on a hypothetical vote. There is a high likelihood that next week we will confront this issue and that of extending article 50, and the country really deserves to know the Government’s intentions on whipping their Members of Parliament on that vote.
There are now only 25 days until 29 March. By my calculation, there are 16 sitting days. Although an extension to the article 50 process is now almost certain, it is not guaranteed. Even if the House votes for an extension on 14 March, we could simply end up facing a much sharper cliff edge if the Government insist only on a short, one-off extension and recklessly continue to run down the clock in the hope that the failed strategy to which they have adhered for the 49 days since 15 January will pay off.
The possibility of a no-deal exit—whether by accident or design—is still very real. On 29 January, a clear majority in the House voted against a no-deal exit by backing the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman). I have no doubt that the House will do so again on 13 March if the Government’s deal goes down to a second defeat.
It is time that the Government responded to the will of Parliament and announced that under no circumstances will the UK leave the EU without a deal. To do otherwise risks the Government finding themselves responsible for a disastrous outcome that, as we have heard today, would endanger the health and wellbeing of people who can least afford it.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Rutley)
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing the debate, for her contribution and for all the hard work she does in Parliament on these and related matters.
Let me reassure hon. Members that the continued provision of nutritious, high-quality and safe food in the public sector is a top priority for Departments across Government and for the devolved Administrations. I shall go on to explain the steps that are being taken to ensure that is the case. The best way to avoid a no-deal exit is to secure a deal, and hon. Members will have an opportunity to have our say on that next week. Securing a deal with the EU remains the Government’s top priority. However, as a responsible Government we have a responsibility to actively prepare for the possibility of a no-deal exit and to look at other scenarios as well, as has been recognised by Members of different parties in this debate.
We have a highly resilient food supply chain in the UK, with access to a range of sources of food. That will continue whether we leave the EU with or without a deal. There would continue to be an adequate supply of food to ensure people continue to have a balanced diet. The food industry in the UK is highly diverse, competitive and well versed in dealing with scenarios that can affect food supply, from adverse weather damaging crops in other countries to transport issues abroad. It is a resilient sector.
Prior to this life, I used to run Asda’s home shopping business. As a Minister, I work with the industry and attend high-level meetings with representatives every week—I will do so after this debate—to ensure that we are prepared for any eventuality. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been contributing to cross-Government contingency planning, which has involved working with the food industry to understand the potential impacts of a no-deal scenario and to support such planning by the industry.
The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) asked about contingency planning, and I can assure him that there is a lot of it going on. We are working very closely with industry, which has led most of the contingency planning—we are providing support and direction. The industry has the expertise and capacity to help ensure that we minimise any potential disruption to supply.
We have been working through various forums, including DEFRA’s long-standing food chain emergency liaison group, which has been through many experiences in the past. As a result of extensive engagement with the food industry and cross-Government discussions, as previously stated, in a worst case no-deal scenario consumers and businesses will continue to have access to a wide range of food products. We are working to mitigate possible disruption in availability and choice of certain seasonal products in that case, which I think it is fair to say would indeed be a worst case scenario.
DEFRA is working with the Department for Transport and with industry to ensure that, in the event of a no-deal scenario, goods can continue to be transported on existing trade routes, including across the Dover straits, as quickly as possible. That includes securing extra freight capacity across the English channel, and ensuring a functioning customs, VAT and excise system from day one, to facilitate the flow of goods. To have that consistent supply is vital.
We are working closely with the industry and across Government through the border delivery group—a co-ordinated effort across Government to tackle that vital issue. We have also been working with the Cabinet Office and lead Departments in their work to ensure the resilience of food supply in public sector settings, including schools, hospitals and social care settings, as well as prisons and the military. Some of those have been mentioned in the debate. The lead Departments include the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence. We have been working flat out to ensure that we have robust contingency plans in place for public sector food provision. We are reviewing catering services and contracts and have engaged with providers of food, such as hospital trusts and schools, to identify the risks and contingency measures for their sectors.
That has included working closely with catering suppliers to ensure that contingency plans are in place. Suppliers have been looking at a variety of contingency measures to ensure the continued provision of food that meets standards—for example, looking at alternative suppliers and adjusting menus in line with product availability while continuing to meet school and hospital food standards. It is vital to continue to meet the requirements of those standards. Lead Departments are confident that the public will continue to receive nutritious meals in public sector settings. If time permits, I will go into some more detail about the various sectors.
The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich asked about prioritising between public and private sectors. In the contingency plan, we want to ensure that food is available to all sectors but, as he rightly stated, for many public sector services and vulnerable groups we need to ensure food provision. We believe that, even in a worst case scenario, customers will continue to have access to a broad range of food, and that will extend to those services as well. Different choices of food types might be necessary, but there will be enough food to ensure the balanced diet that people need.
Another question was about food prices. Clearly the best way to ensure against any impact on food prices is to get the deal, but in a no-deal scenario it is again to minimise the disruption to food supply. We therefore need to work across Government to find ways of ensuring that the food supply is available. DEFRA officials are working with the DFT to find ways over potential hurdles and challenges to ensure that continuity of supply. As we do that, we will ensure that any potential price rises are kept to a minimum, and of course we have mechanisms in place to help those who are most needy if prices were to rise significantly. Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions are aware of the potential impacts, and we are working with them on that. I hope that addresses some of the concerns expressed today.
Moving on to the Department for Education and schools in particular, a number of points were made about schools. The DFE is confident that schools will continue to be able to provide pupils with nutritious school meals no matter what the outcome of EU exit is. It expects schools still to meet the school food standards in a no-deal scenario. Schools have a great deal of flexibility in the foods that they can deliver under those standards. If a particular product is not readily available for any reason, the standards allow schools a wide range of freedoms to substitute similar foods that are available.
In January, the Department for Education published a technical notice on no-deal preparations for schools in England, including information on food supplies. The DFE is also engaging with leading school food suppliers, local authorities and schools as part of its preparations. We will continue to monitor that and work with the Department.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) asked about school meals. Schools and their suppliers have considerable freedom to source food that offers the best value for money. When considering the potential for any price rises, it is important to note that the UK has a high level of food security built into a diverse range of sources, including strong domestic production and imports from other countries, as I said before. We do not envisage a scenario in which the Government would need to provide additional funding to support schools with rising food costs, for the reason I set out earlier: the UK has a high level of food security. We are confident that schools, colleges and other settings will continue to be able to provide pupils with nutritious school meals whatever the outcome of Brexit.
Another hon. Member asked about the Civil Contingencies Act. It does cover food supply, but it is designed for a national emergency. In a worst case Brexit scenario, we do not believe that overall food shortages would be such that it is necessary to invoke the Act. In the scenarios that we are working to, that would not be required. None the less, as I have said several times, we are working with and speaking to colleagues across Government to minimise disruption and to consider the possible impacts on vulnerable groups.
The hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who is no longer in her place, and the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) mentioned the potential impact on food banks. Again, we do not expect overall shortages of food, but we speak regularly to retailers—in fact, I will be speaking with a group of them after the debate, so I can re-emphasise concerns expressed in this Chamber—and our aim is to ensure that we can continue the food supply so that consumers do not need to alter their shopping patterns.
The hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) mentioned watering down standards. The hon. Member for Bristol East holds my feet to the fire on this issue regularly, and she has a consistent record on it across Government. We respect her views—no question—and she knows that, but it is important to recognise that, no matter the future challenges, there are also opportunities. However, we do not want to see the watering down of food standards in any way. I think she is aware that protections are in place as far as chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef are concerned—I cannot resist mentioning that.
The Minister is appearing before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee tomorrow afternoon, so he can expect a little more of that treatment then.
I look forward to it with glee. I am sure that I will get more of that treatment. We can talk in more detail then, but I hope the hon. Lady understands the reassurances given consistently in various settings in the House.
I will move on to health and social care. The DHSC is confident that its contingency plans for ensuring the seamless supply of products and services after we leave the EU are comprehensive and robust, and that food supply for patients will be protected in a no-deal scenario. The Department is working with food providers and suppliers to understand their contingency planning and mitigation activities. That work covers both social care and NHS providers.
The DHSC is working closely with Public Health England and nutritional specialists to ensure that nutritional standards are maintained in hospitals and care homes. Standard guidelines are being finalised for health and adult social care providers to support the continued provision of a balanced diet, in line with the Government’s “eatwell” guide. The DHSC is also working to ensure that it has the necessary resources and contingencies in place to continue to protect patients and to have uninterrupted supplies of any specialist nutritional products, including infant formula. It is important to note that, because a lot of the focus has been on ensuring continued supply of vital medicines—or vet meds, for that matter—but we will also protect key nutritional products such as infant formula.
We are working very closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that local authorities are able to support vulnerable people such as the elderly and vulnerable families. Hon. Members are probably aware that we are working very actively with local resilience forums. Local authorities need to work with their local resilience forums to plan and prepare for localised incidents, identify potential risks and produce emergency plans to prevent or mitigate the impact of any incident on their local communities. We are doing that at a local level. We meet regularly with key contacts in LRFs to share intelligence on the impacts that a no-deal EU exit would have on local areas. DEFRA and MHCLG have provided advice to LRFs on food supply impacts, to support their preparedness for a no-deal exit, and particularly to consider any impacts on vulnerable groups if they should arise. We are working closely to mitigate issues with vulnerable groups at a local level.
The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West was assiduous in mentioning workforce retention, which is vital across Government. We rely very heavily on those citizens in many public services, and in services that are provided in the public sector for the public. I share her concern; we want to continue to make them feel welcome, whatever the scenario might be.
The Government have been clear that we will protect EU citizens’ rights, including in a no-deal scenario. All EU citizens resident in the UK by 29 March will be able to stay. They will have until 31 December 2020 to apply for settled status. We want them to feel welcome and we recognise the contribution they make. DEFRA will continue to work with the Home Office as the future immigration system is fully developed, to ensure that we have a clear strategy for those who work so hard in the food supply chain, often in critical sectors—slaughterhouses, meat processing and vets. It is uppermost in our mind.
As we leave the EU, the Government are committed to securing the best possible deal for Britain that works for farmers, food producers and consumers, and ensures strong public services. Although we do not want or expect a no deal, the Government are taking sensible measures to prepare for all scenarios.
The Minister will know from the no-deal impact assessment summary that one particular concerns is that, despite communications from the Government, there is little evidence that businesses are preparing in earnest for a no-deal scenario. Does the Minister have a sense of whether the public catering industry suppliers and providers are responding to the Government’s call to prepare themselves, or whether the industry is lagging behind, as others clearly are?
The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. I meet the National Farmers Union, the Food and Drink Federation, UKHospitality and the British Retail Consortium every week to review their concerns and considerations. We have established a good dialogue at a senior level with those trade bodies and their members, but it is fair to say there is still more work required with small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly our smaller and micro businesses. Some are prepared and some need further information. I hope that he recognises that across Government a far greater weight of activity is being put out to encourage people to find out more about what is going on and to engage in the processes. We are working very hard on that but there is more work to do.
The UK has a high degree of overall food security, and that will remain the case, deal or no deal. As well as DEFRA’s work to support contingency planning by the food industry, and the industry’s proven capability to respond to supply chain disruptions, steps are being taken by my colleagues across other Government Departments. We are all working to ensure the resilience of food supplies in the public sector. Across Government, Departments are putting into place the necessary steps to ensure that patients, school children and others who are reliant on the public sector will be supplied with nutritious, high-quality and safe food in all exit scenarios.
I thank everyone who has attended the debate. I am sure that if there was not so much other business, not least the no-deal statutory instruments in almost every room in the House, many more Members would have taken part. It was definitely a case of quality over quantity.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist), for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), as well as the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). I hope it does not come to a situation where we have to dig for victory. I was not around then and I do not think the hon. Lady or any of us have dug for victory—I would definitely have to give up false nails if it came to that.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) for his excellent contribution. I used the figure of 24 or 25 days, but he has worked out that there are 16 sitting days before we could crash out without a deal. We all hope that it will not come to that, and that next week we can get a deal through the House that everyone can vote for, but the subject of this debate was no-deal preparation for public sector catering. We sincerely hope that if it comes to that, public sector catering providers will be prioritised if there are any food shortages, as they cater to some of the most vulnerable people in our society who are least able to prepare, stockpile or go in search of food.
The Minister said that he believed there will be no need for the Government to help to fund any shortfall or costs for schools or other public sector catering, as the Government feel that the food supply is secure enough to withstand a no-deal Brexit. I do not have access to all the research he has access to in the Government but, following my research, I do not share his optimism. I hope that the Government will commit to revisiting the decision if that situation arose. I thank everyone once again. Let us hope that we will not be in the position that we have all been talking about.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the effect of leaving the EU without a deal on public sector catering.
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