Lord Benyon (Con)
I am grateful to the two Front-Bench spokesmen for their responses, but I wonder whether they have read the same report as I have. On food poverty, the first point that I would make is that I hope the noble Baroness does not really believe what she just said about poor people, because I find it extraordinary to assume that people like myself do not care about people on low incomes. That was a very direct statement and one that, in time, I hope she might recant.
A great many families are suffering at the moment for a variety of reasons but principally because of other constraints on household incomes, particularly in terms of energy. It is for that reason that the Chancellor recently announced £15 billion of support for households and continued other measures right across the concerns that households have about their incomes. Food is a significant part of household expenditure, though it is actually lower in this country than in many others and has stayed stable, at around 16%. It is creeping up, which is a matter of genuine concern for people on all sides of this House. We want to do what we can to help those families tackle these problems.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned free school meals and eligibility. The threshold must be set somewhere. We believe that the level we have selected, which enables more children to benefit while remaining affordable and deliverable for schools, is the right one. For a typical family on universal credit, the current £7,400 earned income threshold, depending on exact circumstances, equates to an annual household income of between £18,000 and £24,000 when benefits are taken into account. To be effective, welfare benefits should encourage people to take up work while supporting them to do so. We need to avoid creating a cliff-edge disincentive whereby people cannot afford to take up work, which is what a significant increase in the scope and funding of free school meals is likely to do. However, from 24 March this year we have made permanent the extension of free school meals eligibility to include some children from groups who have no recourse to public funds.
The noble Baroness asked about crops rotting in the fields. We work very closely with the industry on the demand for seasonal workers. For that reason, we have increased the number of seasonal workers visas, by 10,000, to 40,000. She will be aware that a large proportion of our seasonal workers came from Ukraine, and that is why we have spread out the countries where we are offering these visas to fill that gap. Let us be frank: many of those people are remaining to fight or have other reasons as they deal with that tragedy in their country.
The noble Baroness talked about trade. I would just add that we are keeping to our pledge that we will maintain animal welfare and environmental standards on the imports that we receive under trade deals.
The unsexy thing to talk about in this place is data, but data actually matters and the food industry has access to a large amount of data. By working with the food industry and through the food data transparency partnership, we are giving consumers the information they need to make more sustainable and ethical, and healthier, choices. We are talking to the industry about expanding animal welfare labelling to help consumers, but it is important that people have that data on what they are eating, where it comes from and what it contains.
On dealing with unhealthy foods, which were rightly pointed out in the Henry Dimbleby report, the Government are taking forward a variety of policies. For example, we have seen the amount of sugar in cereals and yoghurts reduced by 13% since we brought in changes there, while the addition of calorie counts on menus is making choice better for people. Later this year, we are also bringing in a ban on poor quality foods being available at checkouts.
The noble Baroness for the Liberal Democrats made a point about subsidies being cut; no subsidies have been cut. The support system for agriculture is ring-fenced at £2.5 billion to the end of this Parliament. That is a commitment that was given and will continue to be given. We are developing a range of supports encouraging farmers to be innovative and to tackle the ardent ambition that more quality food should be produced from home.
Finally, on the noble Baroness’s point about soils, I could bore this House for weeks about what we are doing on soils. She only has to look at our soils standard in the sustainable farming incentive to see how important soils are in trying to reconnect some in agriculture, who have lost that connection with the soil, to produce healthy food and make ecosystems and the environment function as two sides of the same coin with food production.