On 10 June 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion:
Lord Krebs (Crossbench) to move that this House takes note of the Report from the Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment Committee ‘Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food’ (Session 2019–21, HL Paper 85).
House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment Committee
In June 2019, the House of Lords agreed to establish a special inquiry (or ad hoc) committee to “consider the links between inequality, public health, food and sustainability”. The House’s Liaison Committee had recommended the creation of such a committee in March 2019.
Following its appointment, the House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment Committee announced a call for evidence in July 2019. It stated that it would focus on:
- causes of food insecurity and its impact on public health;
- the barriers that prevent people from accessing healthy food and eating a healthy diet;
- the impact of food industry practices (including product formulation, portion size, packaging and labelling) on consumers’ dietary choices; and
- whether efforts to improve food production sustainability could offer solutions to improving food insecurity and dietary health in the UK.
During its inquiry, the committee heard from a number of individuals and organisations through both oral and written evidence.
On 6 July 2020, the committee published its report: ‘Hungry for Change: Fixing the Failures in Food’. It found that “the UK’s food system—the production, manufacture, retail and consumption of food—is failing” and that there are “stark contrasts” in the way that people experience food. It argued that for many people, food is a source of “considerable anxiety”, with significant numbers of people unable to access the food they need, “let alone access a healthy diet”. It also highlighted that the NHS spends billions of pounds every year treating “significant, but avoidable” levels of diet-related obesity and non-communicable disease. In addition, the committee found that food industries, manufacturers, retailers and the food services sector “perpetuate the demand for less healthy, highly processed products”, with this not only impacting public health, but also inhibiting efforts to produce food in an environmentally sustainable way.
Looking at the impact of coronavirus, the committee reported that the pandemic had exacerbated many of the problems relating to poverty, food insecurity and health inequalities. It argued that it should serve as an urgent wake-up call to the Government that people should not only be able to access enough food, but also the food they need to stay healthy.
Focusing on its purpose—to consider the links between inequality, public health and food sustainability—the committee concluded that there are barriers “at all levels of the food system that make it harder for people, particularly those living in poverty, to access a healthy and sustainable diet”. It argued that a lack of unifying Government ambition or strategy on food has:
Prevented interrelated issues such as hunger, health and sustainability from being considered in parallel, meaning that opportunities have been missed to develop coherent policies that could effect widespread change.
The committee made a number of recommendations which it said were built around the central aim of ensuring that everyone, regardless of income, has access to a healthy and sustainable diet. These recommendations included calls on the Government to:
- Start detailed and routine monitoring of the levels of food insecurity. Data should be published transparently and subjected to scrutiny to “ensure that trends in food insecurity can be linked to wider socioeconomic reforms, and can inform policy in other areas such as public health and welfare so that efforts to tackle food insecurity can be targeted effectively”.
- Make changes to Universal Credit. The committee urged the Government to “rethink and replace the current system of the five-week wait” and added its support to calls for the Government to urgently address “the long-standing problems with Universal Credit”.
- Factor in the cost of a healthy diet to benefit rates. The committee recommended that “a fuller understanding of the cost of a healthy diet should be reached and factored into the calculation of benefit rates”.
- Publish consultations on proposals to impose restrictions on the marketing, advertising and price promotion of less healthy foods. This would enable policies to “finally be developed and enacted to conclusively tackle the factors in the food environment that make the less healthy choice so readily available”.
- Step up efforts to encourage the food industry to reformulate its products to reduce harmful levels of salt, sugar and unhealthy types of fat, with clarity on what statutory action will follow if the industry does not respond comprehensively and swiftly to voluntary targets.
- Extend and reform Healthy Start vouchers, free school meals and holiday hunger programmes, and combine these efforts with a “renewed and more targeted effort to communicate public health messages”.
- Create a standardised framework for every public good outlined in the Agriculture Bill to allow measurements and targets to be clear, consistent and easy to use.
- Stand by its commitment that it will not compromise on high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards in trade agreements.
- Establish an independent body to be responsible for strategic oversight of the implementation of the National Food Strategy.
Acknowledging the increased levels of public spending because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the committee said that it had been selective in its recommendations. However, it argued that the recommendations it made would, if implemented, “reduce the many burdens that poor diets place upon the environment, the NHS, and the wider economy”.
The Government published its response to the committee’s report on 4 September 2020. It said that it was committed to:
Ensuring our food system delivers safe, healthy affordable food for everyone, regardless of where they live or how much they earn, and which is built on a sustainable and resilient agriculture sector.
The Government outlined a series of actions it had taken to help achieve this aim. This included:
- appointing a two-part National Food Strategy independent review;
- publishing an obesity strategy; and
- making health education compulsory for all pupils at state-funded schools.
It also responded in detail to the committee’s recommendations, outlining both the committee’s recommendations, its response and its reasons for the decision.
In its response to the committee’s report, the Government mentioned several pieces of work which it highlighted as relevant. An overview of these is given below.
National Food Strategy: parts one and two
In July 2020, part one of the National Food Strategy independent review was published. Led by Henry Dimbleby, the report explained that it contained “urgent recommendations to support this country through the turbulence caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and to prepare for the end of the EU exit transition period on 31 December 2020”. It said that a comprehensive plan for transforming the food system would follow in part two of the strategy.
Focusing on the impact of Covid-19 on the food system, the report said that it had “endured its biggest stress test since the Second World War”. It found that despite “a wobbly start”, the fact that there were no serious food shortages “is a testament to the flexibility and entrepreneurialism of so many food businesses, and the resilience of the system as a whole”. However, it also highlighted that workers in the food production and retail sectors have suffered some of the highest death rates from Covid-19 and that those in the hospitality sector “have taken the biggest economic hit”. In addition, the report noted that the rise in unemployment across the population would likely create a sharp rise in food insecurity. It also said that the virus has shown “with terrible clarity the damage being done to our health by the modern food system”.
Responding to these issues, the report made a series of recommendations which covered two main themes:
- making sure a generation of our most disadvantaged children do not get left behind; and
- grasping a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to decide what kind of trading nation we want to be.
The report argued that these recommendations are urgent, specific and carefully targeted and said that:
In this period of acute crisis they could save many thousands from hunger, illness and even death. They will also help shape a more sustainable future for this country through enlightened trade deals.
The Government has said that part two of the strategy will be published in 2021. This will include a root and branch examination of the food system and the economics that shape it. It will also investigate the interwoven issues of: climate change; biodiversity; pollution; antimicrobial resistance; zoonotic diseases; and sustainable use of resources. The Government has committed to responding to the review’s recommendations in the form of a white paper within six months of the release of the final report.
Also in July 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care published its policy paper: ‘Tackling Obesity: Empowering Adults and Children to Live Healthier Lives’. The paper argued that “tackling obesity is one of the greatest long-term health challenges this country faces”.
Highlighting the scale of the issue, it said that:
- around two-thirds (63%) of adults are above a healthy weight, and of these, half are living with obesity; and
- one-in-three children leaving primary school are already overweight or living with obesity, with one-in-five living with obesity.
The Department said that these rates of obesity are storing up future problems for individuals and the NHS. In addition, it highlighted consistent evidence that people who are overweight or living with obesity who contract coronavirus are more likely to be admitted to hospital, to an intensive care unit, and to die, compared to those of a healthy body weight.
To tackle these issues, it set out a number of actions it would be taking forward, including:
- introducing a new campaign focusing on a call to action for everyone who is overweight to take steps to move towards a healthier weight;
- working to expand weight management services available through the NHS;
- publishing a four-nation public consultation to gather views and evidence on the current ‘traffic light’ label system for food;
- introducing legislation to require large out-of-home food businesses—including restaurants, cafes and takeaways—with more than 250 employees to add calorie labels to food they sell;
- consulting on plans to make companies provide calorie labelling on alcohol;
- legislating to end the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) by restricting volume promotions such as buy one get one free, and the placement of these foods in prominent locations intended to encourage purchasing, both online and in physical stores in England; and
- banning the advertising of HFSS products being shown on TV and online before 9pm and holding a short consultation on how to introduce a total HFSS advertising restriction online.
It also set out a number of actions in the ‘next steps’ section of the paper.
The House of Commons debated the strategy on 27 May 2021. Speaking for the Opposition, Alex Norris, Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care), said that “the 2020 strategy contains many such proposals that we are very keen indeed to see implemented”, but called for further information and debate on some of the policies.
- House of Commons Library, Obesity, 26 May 2021
- Debate on ‘Child Food Poverty’, HC Hansard, 24 May 2021, cols 1–25WH
- House of Commons Library, Food Poverty: Households, Food Banks and Free School Meals, 30 April 2021
- Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), Food and Drink Reformulation to Reduce Fat, Sugar and Salt, 2 February 2021
- Chris Baraniuk, ‘Fears grow of nutritional crisis in lockdown UK’, BMJ, 2020, vol 370, p m3192
- Esther Dermott and Gill Main (eds), Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK, 2018
- Graham Riches, Food Bank Nations: Poverty, Corporate Charity and the Right to Food, 2018
- Policy Leeds, ‘Tackling childhood food poverty in the UK’, 2020
- Rebecca O’Connell et al, Living Hand to Mouth: Children and Food in Low-income Families, 2019
Cover image by Nico Smit on Unsplash.