While food prices skyrocket, the minister responsible refuses to intervene

Therese Coffey foodbank
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Thérèse Coffey has come under fire for her cavalier attitude over rocketing food prices. The rising prices have left people malnourished, starving, or dependent on charity. But Coffey, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, rejects responsibility.

Exploiting inflation

Back in January, it was reported how some food producers could be exploiting inflation to hike up prices. In this respect, when Tesco CEO John Allan was asked if food producers were taking advantage of the poorest in society, he answered “entirely possible”.

At a parliamentary select committee, Barry Gardiner MP questioned Coffey about what Allan said. Gardiner pointed out that post-pandemic profit levels were a massive 97% higher than pre-pandemic.

There followed an argument over whose responsibility it was to provide the evidence regarding Allan’s assertion. Gardiner argued that it was Coffey’s, because she was ultimately responsible for regulating the market:

Ignoring malnourishment

In the same select committee, Geraint Davies MP raised a point to Coffey about malnutrition. He argued that ensuring people are not malnourished in the first place, rather than simply leaving the consequences to the NHS, would mean lower costs all round:

When pressed further about what she was doing about food poverty, Coffey failed to answer fully. Instead, she told Davies he was being “pathetic”.

Disagreements over price increases

Meanwhile, Reuters has reported that food prices were 15% higher than at the same point last year, according to the British Retail Consortium. Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson added that shop price inflation is “yet to peak”.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) worked out that the inflation rate for food and non-alcoholic beverages was 18.2% in February. This was the fastest rise in 45 years. It quoted one survey that showed 50% of adults were buying less food. The ONS added that around “one in six adults in Great Britain (16%) were classed as food insecure”.

One Twitter user listed the prices for food items they had purchased over a slightly different 12 month period. The results were startling, with one item costing 70% more:

The ‘B’ word

The cost of food is only one element in the economy. Secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities Michael Gove blames problems facing the UK economy partly on the war in Ukraine and partly on the pandemic.

Meanwhile Richard Hughes, chair of the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), argued that Brexit was:

a shock to the UK economy of the order of magnitude to other shocks that we’ve seen from the pandemic, from the energy crisis.

Hughes blamed Brexit for supply constraints.

Also, the Centre for Economic Performance found that Brexit cost households more than £5.8bn in higher supermarket bills. Moreover, it’s claimed that Brexit cost the average UK household £1,000.

Food prices: Sunak disinterested

On Brexit and the single market, prime minister Rishi Sunak appears to be in denial. He was asked by Angus MacNeil MP why, like the north of Ireland, the rest of the UK can’t access the EU single market and its benefits. But instead of answering the question, Sunak waffled on about trade deals, free ports, and gene editing:

In contrast, Liz Webster, chair of campaign group Save British Farming, is clear that the main cause of problems with food supplies is Brexit. She added that the shortage in labour supply post-Brexit was another factor. She concluded the solution is simple: that Britain returns to the single market and customs union:

Government is criminal

In February, the Canary reported on the problem of food shortages and the arguments over what was to blame. Such shortages, and the related rising cost of food, worsen poverty in general.

Indeed, 29% of children in the UK for the period 2021-22 were already living in poverty, says the Child Poverty Action Group. For Black and minority ethnic groups, the figure for the same period was 48%. Nor is this about lack of work, as 71% of children in poverty are in a household where at least one person is working.

Poverty is about the huge disparity between income and expenses: it is avoidable and a crime. No one should have to go without food or depend on food banks.

But the government isn’t listening. Perhaps another Jarrow Crusade, that saw 200 jobless men march from Jarrow to London, is needed. This time, maybe it should be a march on parliament from every corner of the UK. Enough is enough.

Featured image via Wikimedia – Chris McAndrew cropped 770×403 pixels

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  • Show Comments
    1. It was a mistake to include the section on the relative cost of preventing vs treating malnourishment. That kind of cost comparison perpetuates the framing of basic necessities for the masses as only being achievable under favourable market conditions. We should be arguing on our own terms, not our opponent’s

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