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Government takes leisurely approach to tackling food security

17 November 2023

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee today (Friday 17 November) publishes the Government’s response to its report on Food Security, published in July. The report addressed the availability and affordability of food from the household to the national levels and called in the broadest terms for a sea change in the Government’s attitude towards food security. 

The Committee’s report highlighted that the UK is in the midst of an obesity crisis and is facing a situation of around 40% of the adult population being obese by 2035. Consistent with this, MPs called for a full impact assessment of the introduction of a sugar and salt reformulation tax, acknowledging that while such a tax might cause consumer prices to rise, it could lead consumers to substitute cheaper healthier foods into their shopping basket. The Committee is disappointed by the Government’s response that it will not commit to an impact assessment. The Government says it ‘does not consider that now is the right time to introduce new taxes that will push up the cost of food’.

The report also noted that people on low incomes are more likely to be obese, owing to the fact that food that is high in fat, sugar and salt is often considerably cheaper per calorie than healthy food, and called on the Government Food Strategy to set out steps to break the junk food cycle. The Government responds by saying that the Department of Health and Social Care has an ambitious programme to help people achieve and maintain a healthy weight, such as new regulations on food labelling and restrictions on the location of less healthy products in shops.  

Regarding this issue the Government adds that ‘creating healthy lives is not just a matter for Government. It also means empowering and enabling people to manage their own health and engage in healthy behaviours across their lives’.

On the issue of unhealthy food, the report stated its regret that the Government’s ban on volume price promotions had been delayed for a third time, until October 2025, from the original date of April 2022, and questioned the rationale for this, doubting that the delay will save consumers money and asserting that it will certainly make it harder to reduce unhealthy eating and obesity. The Government’s response states that it has delayed the ban because it believes it could contribute to an additional rise in the cost of living. However, within its response, the Government also acknowledged that volume price promotions encourage the over purchasing of less healthy products. The Committee is doubtful therefore whether the decision to delay the implementation of the restrictions will help consumers in the current cost-of-living crisis. The Government also accepts that the delay will postpone the start of the consequent health benefits.

As one element of food security, the report called on the Government to examine whether low-income households are receiving enough financial support from central and local government and charities to ensure household food security without depending on support such as foodbanks. In its response the Government references the April 2023 rise in the National Living Wage as well as its support to households through the welfare system and the Healthy Start scheme. 

The Committee’s report also drew attention to the provision of free school meals (FSMs), urging a detailed study of the existing literature on the costs and benefits of extending FSMs, either to all children in a Universal Credit claiming household, or to all school children. The Government rejects this recommendation, asserting that it has extended FSM eligibility several times but that extending the eligibility to all families on Universal Credit would carry a very significant financial cost and ‘would result in around half of pupils becoming eligible for a free meal’.  

Considering the issue of domestic food production, the EFRA Committee report raised the issue of labour shortages in the food and farming sector, which have resulted in serious negative impacts on the food supply chain and urged the Government to respond as an imperative to the recommendations of the Shropshire review on the subject. The Government states that its response to the Shropshire Review will be published by the end of the year. The EFRA Committee looks forward to reviewing this. 

The Committee’s Food Security Report concluded that there is an incoherent approach to food policy across Government and emphasised the need for policy coherence and strong leadership, recommending a comprehensive review of departmental responsibilities and structures. The Government agrees on the importance of policy coherence, which it says is provided by cross-Whitehall structures enabling coordination. 

To maintain a consistent overview of the UK’s food security landscape, MPs called for an annually updated UK Food Security Report, together with an annual Food Security Summit, to be chaired by the Prime Minister. In its response the Government makes no commitment to any annual updates on food security. The response flags the Global Food Security Summit, which the Government is hosting next week. 

In their report MPs noted that the Government’s Food Strategy (GFS) fell short of directly responding to Henry Dimbleby’s independent review, commissioned by the Government, and urged the Government to publish a detailed response to each of the review’s recommendations. The Government has responded that it is not usual to publish cross-Whitehall policy discussions but says that it did fully consider the review when developing its own Food Strategy.  

The cross-party Committee’s report called on the Government to facilitate a visit by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, as soon as possible, inviting the Rapporteur to assess the propriety of enshrining the right to food in UK legislation. The Government says it is in touch with the OHCHR at the UN to arrange a date.  

The report made a number of other recommendations, covering issues including a proposed suite of food security indicators, the resilience of the supply chain for nitrogen fertilisers and the Government’s Land Use Framework.  

Chair's comment

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Chair, Sir Robert Goodwill MP, said:

“The Government has the opportunity to act now to improve people’s health and their access to healthy food in the immediate term, by adopting the specific measures that we recommended. We are disappointed that in the midst of an obesity crisis, the Government is taking a leisurely approach to tackling unhealthy eating habits and we are also concerned that current Government measures do not adequately track food security, at either the household or the national level.

“The UK has a successful food and farming sector and we must ensure that the Government works proactively to promote the sector’s good work in supplying the nation with healthy food. While we are glad that the Government says it takes all aspects of food security very seriously, we would have liked, in the interest of transparency, for the Government to publish its detailed response to the recommendations made in the National Food Strategy Independent Review. We would also have liked the Government to commit to updating the UK Food Security Report annually. The UK Food Security Report should be central to steering Government strategy and policy making on food security and therefore should be as up to date as possible.”

Further information

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