John Stevenson: The Government’s obesity strategy risks punishing businesses – at a time they need help most

22 Jan

John Stevenson is the Conservative MP for Carlisle.

As a country, we are too fat. This is an inescapable fact. High obesity levels lead to many other problems and health complications, which cause misery to those affected. And the Government – rightly – wants to do something about this.

To my mind, this can only happen by working with the food and drink industry itself. The food and drink industry in our country is incredibly advanced – employing nearly half a million people and with a turnover of £105 billion.

It is the largest manufacturing industry in the country, accounting for almost 20 per cent of the sector’s turnover. Food and drink has a manufacturing footprint all over the country, and with Nestle, McVitie’s and other food plants in my own constituency, I know just how important it is.

As the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Food and Drink, I also know that the research and development departments in the UK’s food and drink industry are world leading. Reformulation and portion control efforts have led to some impressive innovations and have had a real effect on consumption.

However, it seems in looking for strategies to tackle the obesity crisis, the Government is going the way of banning, restricting, and prohibiting – and I was more than a little disappointed to the see its recent consultation and response on promotions of products “high in fat, sugar and salt.”

These proposals include a total ban on online advertising, which comes on the heels of other measures that will restrict or impose costs on industry, including restrictions on promotions and even where these foods (which would include the likes of sausage rolls and peanut butter) can be located in a shop.

These proposals are considered by the Government as a cornerstone of its obesity strategy announced earlier this year. But according to its own impact assessment would only reduce calorie intake by just 2.8 calories a day.

This will have a small impact on obesity, but a real impact on product innovation, the ability of new companies to compete in the market, the price of the weekly shop and – yes – informed consumer choice.

But worse of all, this all comes at probably the most terrible time possible for the industry – the end of the UK/EU transition period and in the middle of a global pandemic. At a time when some government Departments are rightly looking at measures to give business a much-needed boost, other parts of government are introducing restrictions. This doesn’t appear to be joined-up thinking.

It is evident that these proposals will stifle investment. Businesses in the UK will be deterred from developing and innovating new, healthier product ranges, while advertising and promotional restrictions will act as a barrier for businesses abroad from entering the UK market. With a food and drink industry keen to play its part to tackle obesity, shouldn’t the Government be working in collaboration with the UK’s largest manufacturing sector rather than penalising it?

It is marketing that helps shift consumer behaviour towards healthier choices over time and long-lasting habits to remove calories from diets. Without this, food and drink manufacturers have no tools to encourage consumers to switch to their products which they have been working hard to make healthier.

Indeed, introducing these measures would lead to the position where products that have been reformulated so that calories and sugar levels have been reduced cannot be advertised to consumers, or placed in certain positions in a supermarket. Scrapping years of hard work by industry to make healthier products surely cannot be the Government’s intention.

The food and drink industry and its advertisers already use sophisticated online tools to target advertisements to adult audiences, overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority. Existing rules and sanctions can be used and tightened, and this would raise UK standards further (which are already some of the strictest in the world). It is disappointing that the Government has disregarded this as a route forward.

As we all celebrated Christmas, albeit in a much more limited way than normal, it occurred to me just how amazing our food and drink industry is. Amid a global pandemic, national restrictions, and a tense and tight Brexit finish, our shop shelves remained stacked, the food we needed was produced, and the goods we rely on for our celebrations were on the tables – just as normal.

I know that this does not happen by accident. There is a tremendous amount of work that goes on behind the scenes for this to occur. I do think that the food and drink industry, and the workers who make up the industry, have been some of the unsung heroes of the past year.

It would be a shame, therefore, at these most difficult of times for the Government to take this blunt approach to the UK’s largest manufacturing industry and for consumers to be stripped of choice and information. Let’s ensure the Government and the industry continue to work together to fight the common enemy – obesity.

Ryan Bourne: If you want to feed hungry children, don’t target food poverty. Aim to reduce poverty as a whole.

28 Oct

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Covid-19’s initial economic impact fell disproportionately on those least able to mitigate it. An Institute for Fiscal Studies paper in July found that single parents, low educated poor households, and ethnic minority groups suffered the worst relative hit. Since then, workers in low-wage services industries such as hospitality, transport, and retail, have faced both the worst of unexpected job losses and uncertainty about their income.

With this unique shock, it is unsurprising that a welfare state built around previous experiences has exhibited failures in protecting against hardship. Falling incomes, especially for those without savings or access to government benefits, have consequences. The Food Standards Agency reports greater food bank use, self-reported hunger, and families eating out-of-date produce.

That context is why the Government faces intense pressure over extending free school meals during school holidays through Easter 2021. Given the uncertainty around the efficacy of other government support, you can see the temptation to follow the advice of Iain Martin, who proposes caving to Marcus Rashford’s campaign again. Give the “£20m, handshake with Marcus R on steps of Number 10 on Monday and Royal Commission into child poverty,” Martin tweeted.

That defeat might seem a small price to pay to end the optics of opposing meals for hungry children, regardless of any questions you might have about the realities, or the desirability of extending the government scheme. As Isabel Hardman writes, the belief that Conservatives are insensitive to “food poverty,” coming first in righteous anger over food bank use in 2010-2015 and now “free” school meals, has hung around the Conservatives for a decade, whether fair or not.

Martin’s short-term solution, however, neglects that campaigners won’t be satiated by extending out-of-term meal vouchers to Easter 2021. Rashford’s campaign’s ultimate aim, remember, is to implement the Dimbleby Review, which would double the number of kids on benefit-triggered free school meals by extending eligibility to every child from a Universal Credit household (an extra 1.5 million kids.)

Crossbench peer Baroness D’Souza is already pushing for out-of-term meal vouchers to become a permanent feature. Combined, that would be billions of pounds, year on year, not tens of millions.

Come next year, no matter the labour market’s health, the Government will face the same criticism. If much of austerity taught us anything, it’s that even when acute need passes, wrapping up programmess will renew accusations that Conservatives “want to starve kids” by “snatching” their lunches.

Milton Friedman’s warning that “there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary government programme,” in part stems from recipients’ aversion to losses. A Royal Commission packed with do-gooders who examine food poverty in isolation will bring further demands for spending and diet control.

That is why, I suspect, some Conservative MPs vociferously oppose the Rashford campaign. It’s not heartlessness, or even this specific extension they oppose, but the precedent and direction of travel. They can foresee the vision of government this type of reflexive policymaking and its paternalistic particulars end with.

The problem for them is that they are on a hiding to nothing in claiming this specific measure risks creating longer-term “dependency” or “nationalising children” if the public think today’s needs are real. Conservatives who believe in a small, limited state have to have answers —about what responsibility the Government should have in dealing with hardship, what tools it should use, and what its role should be for those falling through gaps.

After ten years in government and riding cycles of support for the welfare state, there’s a lack of clarity in the Party’s position, with a mix of preferences among its MPs for income support, service provision, civil society solutions, and combinations of the three. There is a clear, principled alternative vision of how to deal with poverty if the Tories want it. But it requires getting off the fence.

That alternative would say that “food poverty” is not distinct from poverty. Free school meal campaigners are broadly right that hunger is not usually caused by parental fecklessness.

Therefore, logically, food poverty largely results from insufficient disposable income for some families. If widespread hunger is evidenced, the debate should therefore be about whether benefit levels or eligibility are sufficient to meet basic needs—the goal of a safety net welfare state.

This type of limited support that trusts people to use top-ups for the betterment of their families is vastly preferable to a paternalistic state stripping us of responsibility, through demeaning out-of-term food vouchers akin to U.S. style food stamps.

In deep unexpected crises, the case for additional emergency income relief is greater. But if there really is a more structural problem of hunger, then it demands examining why wages plus benefits are insufficient to deliver acceptable living standards. Rather than just look at benefits then, we should examine living costs, too—the poor spend disproportionately high amounts on housing, energy, food, clothing and footwear, and transport.

My former colleague Kristian Niemietz wrote a free-market anti-poverty agenda back in 2011, which I’ve pushed MPs to adopt since. He showed that market-friendly policies on housing (planning reform), food and clothes (free trade), energy (ending high-cost green regulations), childcare (reversing the credentialism and stringent ratios), and cutting sin taxes to economically-justified levels could shrink poverty by slashing the cost of living for the poor, so reducing food hardship, homelessness and more.

Most of this agenda would require no extra spending or busybodying from government paternalists; some of the policies would bring the double-dividend of raising wages .

The Government has ambitious policies in a number of these areas. But why are they never linked to the poverty discussions? As they press for planning liberalisation, why is nobody highlighting how cheaper housing would lessen these tales of distress? Why is nobody identifying the discrepancy of some campaigning about food poverty while opposing trade deals that would make food, clothes, and manufactured goods cheaper, to the huge relative betterment of poor consumers?

Sure, there would be families who make bad decisions and find themselves in trouble, even in a world of cheap and abundant housing and an effective safety net.

But instances of poverty owing to lack of resources would be much lower and these thornier challenges (often stemming from addictions, loss, ill-health, criminality and more) are much better identified by local charities and civil society groups anyway, as Danny Kruger argued in the Commons last week in relation to hinger. Giving nearly three million kids “free” school meals year-round would be an absolute sledgehammer to crack any remaining nut.

In today’s emotive debates, it’s not enough to just oppose proposals when the need is perceived as urgent. Conservatives must be better at re-setting the debate on their terms—a task much easier if they held a clear vision of the role and limits of state action.

Andrew Bowie: Evidence today that Ministers won’t negotiate trade deals that expose British farmers to unfair competition

29 Jul

Andrew Bowie is MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

As someone who believes in the levelling-up agenda and vision of a Global Britain, I am excited by our re-emergence as an independent trading nation. For the first time in more than 40 years, we are able to devise our own trade policy and export the best of Britain abroad in ways we haven’t always been able to.

As MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, home of the best beef, lamb and malting barley, I cannot wait to see more of our brilliant food and drink sold abroad. But as we develop our own agricultural trade policy once again, it is absolutely vital that the voice of the industry and the public are heard, and that their interests are advanced and protected.

Alongside many colleagues, that is why I welcome the government’s decision to set up the Trade and Agriculture Commission – which launches formally at an event in Whitehall today. Now is the right moment to step up engagement not just with the farming industry, but also with consumer, animal welfare and environmental groups across the UK.

The Commission includes representation from all these groups, and will be engaging more broadly with stakeholders like the RSPCA, British Veterinary Association, National Sheep Association, Food Standards Agency, and Tesco – all of whom are at today’s launch event.

The Commission will work with these and other organisations across the UK to ensure that the UK agriculture sector remains among the most competitive and innovative in the world. Its work will inform the fundamental principles of the UK’s agricultural trade policy, and provide expert advice to government on areas like increasing export opportunities, and on how Britain can remain a world-leader in animal welfare and environmental standards.

To her credit, Liz Truss has been clear that this government will stand up for British farming as part of any trade deal, and will never sign an agreement that means British farmers face unfair competition. I, for one, am reassured by that, and see this Commission as further evidence that the government is serious about taking expert advice and pursuing trade policy that benefits farmers and consumers.

We should be optimistic out there for some of the fantastic opportunities available to out UK farmers and producers. The US, for example, is the world’s second biggest lamb market – if we take a three per cent market share, it could boost lamb exports by £18 million a year. One in five agri-food and drink companies sell abroad, so there is a real opportunity to increase that number and sell more of our brilliant produce overseas.

We also have the opportunity to lead the global debate around agriculture trade policy and drive higher standards across the world. Our environmental and animal welfare standards are among the highest in the world. Leaving the EU actually gives us the freedom to engage the WTO on this issue and build an international coalition that pushes up standards beyond Britain. This is part of the work of the Commission.

Its establishment is a welcome step at a critical time for UK farmers and food producers, and will help ensure British farming and consumer interests are at the heart of UK trade policy.