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3 Jun 2008 : Column 237WH—continued

Let me put food security in the context of wider food policy. As I said, we do not have a lead Department on the issue in this country, although food is one of the three points of delivery for Department for Environment,
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Food and Rural Affairs. As I said, however, the responsibilities of other Departments abut food policy, and we need some clarity about where food security fits in our wider food policy. I hope that the Minister can at least begin to provide that.

I want to move on to a couple of final points about where we are going in terms of food. We have more choice than we have ever had, although that choice will perhaps become a bit more limited as food prices rise and people eat out less often. However, there are also issues such as obesity and the changing nature of food. Clearly, there is the debate on genetically modified food, and the Government are right to have been incredibly hesitant in their approach to GM, although I would like them to be even more hesitant because I do not agree with GM, which is the wrong way to go. However, GM does not represent the totality of the way in which food is provided. We now live in the era of functional foods, some of which can be incredibly important to people with health-related problems, who can, in effect, eat to overcome those problems. However, I am somewhat worried about other aspects of functional foods and about what is being supplied to whom. Such issues matter in terms of security, because there is only so much food that we can produce.

On the world context, I am not going to second-guess what comes out of the Rome conference. It is important that the conference is seen as a significant staging post in terms of how we look at what food is available. It is extremely good that food supplies have risen more quickly than population. However, there is the problem of climate change, and there have been conflicts in places in Sudan that I know very well, as well as in Bangladesh. Is that a sign of things to come? Much though I am talking about the national need to highlight food security within a wider food policy, the international context must be writ large. If there is a lack of food and an ongoing population increase, the relationship between food supply and demand will increasingly become one of disequilibrium, and that will have a huge impact on us. We have been rather complacent in believing that food will be available to us and that it will be cheap and plentiful, because what happens elsewhere in the world—either in the developed or developing world—has huge ramifications for us.

Will the Minister examine the issues that I have raised? This is part of an ongoing debate and the matter is worthy of further examination in an international context when Ministers and others return from Rome. It is about time that we in this country spelled out what our worries are and the need to highlight food security. As I said throughout the debate, we should say where that fits into the wider food policy debate, which is as close to our basic integrity as human beings as we can get.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on his impeccable timing—he rightly referred to the high-level summit that is taking place in Rome over the next couple of days. We await the summit’s conclusions with anticipation. The Government believe that the international response to the food price situation
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must be ambitious and comprehensive and that it should address the short-term, long-term and underlying causes. I hope to reflect those things in my speech.

We take food security extremely seriously. The UK enjoys a high level of food security: we have access to enough quality and nutritious food from the UK and from the range of countries with which we trade. In addition, recent CAP reforms mean that European farmers are much better able to respond to market signals. However, there are increasing pressures on land use arising from climate change, the need to feed a growing global population with changing consumption patterns, and competition from other uses such as biofuel production, which my hon. Friend mentioned—his remarks were considered and appropriate.

We are not complacent. The recent increase in food prices has put the spotlight on some of the challenges that we face both in the UK and overseas. High food prices have been caused by a combination of supply and demand factors—some temporary, some structural. For example, poor harvests resulting from bad weather, particularly in Australia, and low stocks account partly for the increases. Other factors include the steep increase in the price of oil, and increased demand from China and other rapidly growing countries. Much of the Chinese population used to have a very basic diet, but now, like us, they seek more luxury items, because they have developed a middle class. We have enjoyed the fruits of that growing economy through cheap goods, but it means—for us and the rest of the world—more pressure on our resources, including food.

We recognise the effect of high global food prices for consumers around the world, but the developing world feels the impact most. As my hon. Friend said, that is important, which is why the Prime Minister wrote to the Japanese Prime Minister, who chaired a G8 food summit on 22 April. We need a coherent and holistic response from the international community. Helping the worst affected is an immediate challenge. Food is becoming increasingly unaffordable for, and inaccessible to, poor households around the world and the humanitarian agencies that provide food aid. Every day, 25,000 children die because they do not have enough to eat.

Food prices are expected to fall from their current peak, but they are likely to remain above recent levels in the medium term, so we need to tackle the underlying causes and long-term challenges of poverty and hunger facing 850 million people on our planet. We agree with the World Bank that there is enough food in the world to meet demand, but there are clearly problems with distribution—there is not enough food in the right place—and affordability.

We must also prepare for the impact of climate change on agricultural markets and the livelihoods of the poor. Any response to the current situation must be environmentally sustainable in the medium and long term. We must not jeopardise the long-term availability of our natural resources or exacerbate the climatic changes that already threaten food production in the world’s poorest and most vulnerable nations. For example, harmful land use changes, particularly deforestation, contribute to climate change.

Although rising food prices are a global problem, we are conscious that UK consumers have been seriously affected too. However, the increase in commodity prices is already stimulating an increase in agricultural production
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around the world, which is a good thing. British farming is responding to market signals, resulting in a fall in prices on agricultural futures markets in the expectation of higher volumes. That means that the rate of food price inflation, currently 6.6 per cent., is likely to fall again in the near future. My hon. Friend said that he did not want to upset the National Farmers Union by referring to CAP reform. I have not found that the NFU is upset when we discuss CAP reform. It is always eager to engage in constructive dialogue on the matter.

The latest UK household food expenditure figures—for 2007—show that the impact of the rise in food prices on the amount that households spend on food is still relatively minor compared to the long-term downward trend. The proportion of average household expenditure on food was 9.2 per cent. in 2007. That is still 1.5 percentage points below the level 10 years ago, which was 10.7 per cent. If current commodity prices are maintained throughout 2008, we might expect the proportion of expenditure in 2008 to rise to around 9.5 per cent., the level in 2001.

We recognise that low-income households spend a greater proportion of their household income on food. The lowest quintile spend 15 per cent. We also recognise that rising energy and fuel prices are putting pressure on consumers. My hon. Friend asked where food security and the issue of food sit, and referred to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Food is a cross-Government issue; for example, many Departments have been involved with the year of food and farming.

I was at a farm earlier this week meeting children who were seeing livestock to understand where food comes from. It is pertinent to the global debate about food production and consumption and vital that the generation of our children now in school grow up understanding and valuing food, not just so that they eat healthily—another cross-Government issue—but so that they do not waste food. We waste around £10 billion-worth of food every year. What would my hon. Friend do if he had a phone call from the Chancellor saying, “We’ve stopped wasting all the food and we’ve got £10 billion to spend”? It would all go to Stroud, of course—that is what my hon. Friend would do.

Those are important aspects of the debate. We are engaging actively with consumer representatives to explore what further can be done for low-income consumers, who are particularly affected by increasing food prices. As a Minister, I hosted such a meeting earlier this month. The Government are considering their response to the recent Competition Commission investigation into the groceries market, referred to it by the Office of Fair Trading, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend.

We will continue to investigate allegations of price fixing. The investigation into milk prices found signs of collusion between certain major supermarkets and dairy producers, which led to fines of more than £116 million. We take the matter seriously. In the longer term, we need an open global trading system, and an end to trade-distorting subsidies and export restrictions.

As for reform of the common agricultural policy, we do not want subsidies for food production. We want subsidies or public money being used for the public good. That is why we have seen an increase in the rural development programme for England. That is the future for public subsidy, not production. We are not alone in that view among member states. As a member of the
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Select Committee, my hon. Friend will be only too well aware that the debate divides member states, but I believe that we are in the ascendancy; the Commission has planted its flag on future reform.

My hon. Friend raised a number of questions. He is concerned about animal disease coming into the country. People bring in food that they should not, and it gets into the waste chain; that is a serious concern, and we are taking action. My hon. Friend mentioned bluetongue and the purchase of vaccinations. There is a model partnership between Government and industry, with a core group making the important decision to purchase the vaccine. It will be done on a voluntary basis, because that is what the industry wants. My hon. Friend said that he wanted to focus on the domestic agenda, but his remarks and mine show only too clearly that in today’s world we cannot operate food security in isolation.

We have an abundance of different types of food. My hon. Friend mentioned local produce and local purchasing. There are more farmers markets, and people are now far more discerning and enjoy a better quality of food. However, in contrast, we are also eating more unhealthily; we have that juxtaposition within society. The Government, through the Department of Health, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and even the Cabinet Office—my hon. Friend mentioned its recent publication—seek to inform, to educate and to promote better food, better consumption and less waste.

Against all that, one thing is clear. Farming and food production matter. We want a flexible, skilled and market-oriented domestic agricultural sector that makes a positive contribution to our environment. Our farming industry has much to be proud of when it comes to the environment. We are now celebrating 21 years of agri-environmental projects. On open farm Sunday last weekend, a farmer showed me that the margins he had created were producing ladybirds that in turn were eating the aphids; as a result, he did not have to use so many pesticides. It is cheaper for him and better for the environment. We want to champion British food. We want the skills and innovation, the investment and branding, and the quality assurance of the farming industry rather than a policy that simply maximises domestic self-sufficiency.

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Post Office Closures (East Devon)

1.29 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I am glad to have secured this debate on threatened post office closures in my constituency of East Devon. Time is fast running out and many important factors have still not been taken into account.

The local post office is a key service in an area such as east Devon, which is a rural district with a higher than average proportion of older people and pockets of deprivation. The countryside, whose essential services have gradually been systematically and unfairly decimated by the Labour Government, has suffered cuts that are often felt far more keenly than in urban areas and it is now about to see the post office network pared down once again.

Post offices provide important social and economic benefits to isolated communities across the country; they support vulnerable residents and serve as a focal point for numerous communities in urban and rural areas alike. In many sparsely populated parts of my constituency there is a greater need for local post office services. However, despite that, under the Government 4,000 post offices have already been closed and another 2,500 are to shut, with the East Devon constituency alone being threatened with the loss of another four. In fact, despite assurances both now and in 2007 on maintaining the network size, there is neither a policy in place to prevent the further shrinkage of the network, nor is the Government’s commitment shared by Post Office Ltd, which does not believe that

Why is that? I invite the Minister to restate the Government’s policy.

It seems to many of us that the countryside is under sustained attack. Our rural communities, which should be supported, are declining rapidly, neighbourhoods have already lost vital amenities such as general practitioners’ surgeries, jobcentres, magistrates courts, shops and schools, and now post offices are being added to that ever-expanding list. Rural services provide the glue that holds local rural communities together. In that respect, they play a far more significant social role than in towns and cities.

The decline of rural services has been exacerbated by continuing inequalities of funding. Statistics reveal that, since 1997, councils in London receive twice as much per head as their rural counterparts, with a country dweller receiving 57 per cent. of the money spent on the average Londoner. Why? Rural post offices give valuable human contact and informal support for those who are socially isolated or vulnerable. Two thirds of postmasters in rural areas each keep an eye on between one and 30 people by helping them with forms and official papers, as well as inquiring about their health if they do not make their normal visit to the post office. Does the Minister concede that this is an important but immeasurable benefit?

In 2000, the Government made a clear and continuing commitment to rural-proof their policies and programmes, yet the Commission for Rural Communities has repeatedly reported that it is disappointed in the overall performance of Departments in meeting that commitment. Stuart
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Burgess, the Prime Minister’s own so-called rural advocate, has warned that poorer people in the countryside

If the Prime Minister is genuinely listening to what the people want rather than indulging in a cynical public relations stunt, will the Minister raise with him that particular point?

Although the Government pay lip service to green credentials, the post office closure programme does not consider the wider environmental impacts on rural areas resulting from increased car use and car dependency. Much of the increased travel that will result from closures can be expected to require use of a private car, given the infrequency or lack of rural bus services in some areas. That will increase carbon dioxide emissions and further reduce rural tranquillity.

Rural needs are not being consistently addressed through policy making. The countryside is facing many challenges that are not being taken into account. According to research carried out for the Commission for Rural Communities, the loss of 2,500 post office branches could entail the loss of between 560 and 900 village shops. However, since the access criteria reflect only post office provision and not the presence or otherwise of other local services in rural communities, the proposals are having the perverse effect of forcing the closure of the only local service centre or hub of the community in a locality, to enable a post office in another “nearby” location to be more viable.

The loss of the last remaining service hub in a village would be a critical threat to social interaction and the informal social support it can generate. That argues for more sensible and more sensitive criteria so that other services in the area—a village store, a petrol station with retail, a pub and so forth—are taken into consideration in any closure decision, alongside the proposed stricter distance criteria. The Government criteria have given specific protection to post offices in urban deprived areas, but they neglected to introduce a similar provision for rural deprived areas. Why? The Government must recognise that in some rural areas deprivation is just as acute and they should, therefore, reassess the need for rural deprivation criteria.

It is imperative to stress how important it is for local consultation to take full account of the needs of rural communities, if any restructuring process is to have legitimacy or prove successful. Rural areas receive a significantly lower level of per capita public investment than urban areas, even before the additional disadvantage of rural population scarcity is factored in. The way in which the closure programme is being implemented is unfortunate, because communities are being pitted against each other in a dog-eat-dog style as they are forced to work to save only their own post office. It is also wrong that the consultation period is six weeks rather than three months, as recommended by the Cabinet Office guidelines. The time allowed for local consultation is insufficient, and does not permit due consideration of those who rely on post offices. The proposed closures will serve only further to fracture community structures and make life increasingly difficult for older people and the most vulnerable.

It is hard to disagree that post offices often provide the focal point for a local community, particularly in rural villages, and perhaps that is no more the case than
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with a post office in my constituency threatened with closure. The post office in Offwell, which I had the pleasure of opening four years ago, is a perfect example of community cohesion. In December 2002, it was discovered that the local post office was to close and it was recognised that there was a community need for a post office. This prompted the formation of a local rural services association which, with the aid of local fundraising and grants of £28,000 secured, set up a combined post office and shop in a temporary building on the village recreation ground.

Four years ago, Post Office Ltd helped the village with guidance and grants to open its post office. Presumably, it was thought a viable business venture at the time, yet after four years of successful trading the company now considers it suitable for closure. Why? From the outset, the need for good free parking and disabled access to the shop was recognised, which has proved very popular, and the large farming community that uses the service can actually park tractors on the doorstep. A community-led and sustained effort is now being threatened by the closure proposal, and it is not certain that the shop itself can survive without the added attraction of the post office. That could have an adverse effect on the local ageing population and on local suppliers, which would spell a tragic end for a venture that was supported by the Post Office authorities from the outset and one which surely should be encouraged given the visible and sustained community involvement.

That post office is an example of rural community life at its best and has been maintained through volunteers and fundraising. With the full backing of Post Office Ltd, in the four years since the post office opened, it has become a pivotal part of the village. The village put its heart and soul—not to mention a great amount of money—into the project and it has had the wholehearted support of not only Offwell, but many surrounding villages. The variety of products on offer in the shop has increased and it has been so successful that those involved want to move to a permanent building. The post office is a much needed lifeline for elderly local people, and is a proud achievement for the entire village. That achievement is now apparently in danger of being taken away from them.

The vast majority of residents who rely on the service are over 50. Many do not drive and are therefore reliant on the post office and village shop. Post Office Ltd has quoted the fact that, as the crow flies, Offwell post office is 2.9 miles from Honiton post office and states that its criteria are that anything under 3 miles can be closed. However, it has neglected to note that the post office serves not only Offwell but the surrounding villages of Northleigh, Southleigh, Farway, Wilmington and Cotleigh, which do not have retail facilities and are more than 3 miles away from the Honiton branch. Post Office Ltd is also arguing that Offwell receives fewer customers than Honiton. However, the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee stated in its recent report that

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