Interview with Neil Parish MP: “The government was constantly playing catch-up”

In an interview with PB, the chair of the EFRA Select Committee and Conservative MP for Tiverton argues there should be a new Minister for Food Security. And he makes the case poultry processing workers should be paid during self-isolation to help avoid COVID-19 outbreaks in meat plants.

Neil Parish has never been afraid to criticise his own party – or indeed anybody else. The Conservative MP for Tiverton & Honiton and chair of the EFRA Select Committee hit the headlines previously, when he rebuked Ranjit Boparan for sending him a box of biscuits at Christmas two months after he was grilled over alleged hygiene failures at a 2 Sisters poultry processing site in 2017, which was filmed by undercover journalists.

Likewise, in the EFRA report into the impact on coronavirus on the food chain, published in July, he is highly critical of some parts of the Government’s response, and has questioned why the Government appeared unprepared for the impact of hospitality business closures on food and drink suppliers, and the possibility of empty shelves in supermarkets, given that the virus had hit other countries first and the impact on the food chain was therefore predictable.

ENTIRELY PREDICTABLE

“Despite warnings from other countries, it seemed as though the Government was constantly playing catch-up in trying to support the food industry during this crisis,” he says. “The Government’s actions to lockdown the country and close businesses were necessary, but they had huge impacts on the food supply chain.”

“Once the pandemic set in, Defra responded well. However, there were misunderstandings in Government about where – and how – people were going to get their food just before and during lockdown. Rather than panic, it was entirely reasonable that many people would be buying much more food in shops and online.”

The report scrutinises the Government’s response to turbulence in the food supply chain during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, laying out a series of lessons that must be learned and measures to be implemented before a possible second wave this winter, or in the case of local lockdowns.

SICK PAY IN POULTRY PLANTS

At the height of lockdown, poultry processing plants were forced to adapt very quickly, introducing social distancing where possible, and providing PPE that was in short supply. There were also problems with high levels of staff absence, and increased demand from retailers for poultry. There have been several well-publicised outbreaks of coronavirus among food processing workers. Speculation has been rife about why this may be the case, but there have been no clear answers.

Parish believes the industry handled the unprecedented situation well, but says the Government was slow to provide advice to business. “The advice needed to come a little quicker. They got the advice right but it took a little while coming. “On the whole we found that most of the plants were adapting and social distancing in the plants was OK. We also found most of them had PPE albeit it a little bit slow to start with.”

But he says a big worry now is whether workers’ terms and conditions are good enough to prevent future outbreaks at poultry processing plants. “Our main worry was sick pay benefits,” he says. “Many of the workers wouldn’t necessarily want to go sick if they were suffering symptoms, and that is something we want the industry as well as the Government to look at.”

Does he therefore think there should be statutory sick pay for workers self-isolating? “I think it can be done,” Parish says and suggests it could be funded jointly by processors and Government. “I have a large poultry processing plant in [his constituency]Willand in Devon [owned by 2 Sisters],” Parish says.

“The workers live in very close proximity to each other and we are worried that COVID-19 might spread outside the factory as well as inside the factory. Everybody with a temperature does need to stop work, and so if they had some sick pay I think they may be more likely to say they are sick and not have to go back to work, so that is what we are looking at and are asking the Government to look at as well as the industry.”

HELP FOR HOSPITALITY

When the hospitality sector closed, there were huge volumes of food that struggled to find a market, feeding right back down on to the farm. Now the sector is reopening, but Parish says the Government may need to do more and become an “insurer of last resort” to prevent more businesses collapsing. Some wholesalers may be reluctant to supply pubs or hotels if they’re not sure they will survive. He says there needs to be “either some kind of insurance policy or some sort of help from the Government” for suppliers to the hospitality sector, to enable wholesalers and other suppliers to be “confident to restart supplying” to pubs or hotels or restaurants.

“What we are looking for is a kick-start from the Government, in order to help wholesalers have confidence to supply some of the smaller businesses, some of the smaller restaurants, where some wholesalers might be worried about their financial viability.”

He stresses the Government “hasn’t actually agreed to this yet”. “But the hospitality sector has been one of the hardest hit so therefore in order to get it supplying poultry meat into the hospitality sector, if you are supplying that sector you ought to be absolutely certain you’re going to get paid, otherwise we’re not going to get the hospitality sector moving again. “The Government would need to be the insurer of last resort. They shouldn’t put up public money just for the sake of it, but it does need to give the industry more confidence basically.”

‘DISTURBING’ RISE IN FOOD BANK USE

Another worrying side effect of the pandemic is a huge increase in people who have lost their jobs and can’t afford to buy food. Parish says he is disturbed by the rise in demand for food parcels distributed by charities such as the Trussell Trust, which supports a network of 1,250 food banks.

The EFRA committee heard evidence from Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, who told the inquiry the impact of the pandemic was “instantaneous and profound”. In the last two weeks of March, there was an 81% increase in demand year-on-year, Revie told the committee, and a 122% increase in the number of children receiving food through food banks.

Parish praises how food banks and other food redistribution organisations “have reacted heroically to a disturbing spike in demand for food aid, but this problem is likely to get worse before it gets better,” he says. But what does he make of the prevalence of food banks generally, which have emerged in the past 10 years? Is it a sign of failure of the existing benefits system that they are needed in the first place?

“As a politician I would prefer that food banks were not there,” he says. “But I think they are very necessary and I think charities do excellent work.”

“Most people can be supported through extra benefits. But there is a need to get food to some parts of our population, who perhaps even if they had the money, wouldn’t necessarily spend it on the right food.

“So, some of the work done by food banks is essential for parts of our society. I think we want to see them much less used in the future, but at the moment they certainly play an important role and unfortunately with the downturn in the economy, more people are likely to lose their jobs.

“There will be a greater need for food banks in the short term, but in the long term we would like to see less use of them.” Parish is now calling for a new Minister for Food Security, to work across Government, ensuring everyone has access to food. And he is calling for the continued funding by Government of Fareshare, which currently has £5 million in funding to help buy surplus food directly from farmers and distribute it.

“Shockingly, millions of tonnes of food are wasted every year in this country,” he says. “The Government must continue to fund efforts to redistribute surplus food at the farmgate to those who need it. 

“I think the industry, wherever it has got surplus food which is of reasonable good quality, that needs to be filtered into the food banks via Fareshare, because what we found is with the downturn in the economy, more people are needing to use food banks. More children are needing school meals. All these things are essential we get right. Industry and Government can work together along with the large retailers.

“There are lessons we can learn and I would like to see Defra continuing its scheme of buying food directly from farms to get to those who most need it, because it is a good use of taxpayers’ money and good value for money.”

A RIGHT TO FOOD

The committee discussed a proposal that the UK should introduce a ‘right to food’. Parish is lukewarm on the idea. A Minister for Food Security is a more practical way to proceed, he says. “The right to food itself is perhaps a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t actually deliver food to those who most need it,” says Parish.

“So, what I want the Government to do it take a positive approach across all government departments. Those of us who have enough food are very lucky, and those who are hungry – we need to make sure they have food.”

LESSONS FOR BREXIT

Parish says as the end of the Brexit transition period approaches, the disruption caused to the food chain can provide valuable lessons. Crucial to that is the smooth running of imports and exports. “What we have found is many of the preparations that were put in place for Brexit actually started to help through this crisis. But what it actually showed is, if you want to keep the market going which the Government successfully managed to do, you do have to get your products through the borders.

“When we do the final deal with Europe, we need to have a system of import and export that works, is not slow, that will deal with all the bureaucracy and paperwork; that is key.” How optimistic it he there will be a deal with Europe? Parish laughs. “Reasonably optimistic is the answer. There is a lot of negotiation going on; I think there will be a lot of rhetoric. I think there will be a deal, but I suspect not until the last minute and I suspect that is not what the industry wants to hear because the industry needs confidence to carry on.

“The politics of these negotiations with Europe usually means it is the last minute before things are agreed. I hope that is not the case, but I rather fear it might be.” 

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