The working class is over-represented in Red Wall areas. People in the Midlands and the North of England are much more likely to suffer through poverty and food insecurity. As we hurtle towards a cost-of-living crisis, the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs should pay particular attention to their constituents’ food shopping bills. With the Government so insistent on a nanny-state approach to tackling obesity, they might find themselves blamed for worsening the cost-of-living crisis, leaving families unable to make ends meet.
The situation was already dire, even before the crisis took hold. Food insecurity is an under-discussed and horrifyingly widespread issue in this country. According to research by the Food Foundation, 4.7 million people – 9 per cent of the UK’s adult population – live in households which experienced food insecurity in the year leading up to March 2021. In that period, the Trussell Trust’s network of food banks distributed 2.5 million emergency food parcels to people in crisis – a third higher than the previous year.
In Red Wall areas, anecdotal evidence suggests that already this year, many households are in serious trouble, unable to feed themselves and their children. Batley Food Bank, which has seen the number of food parcels it delivers double since last summer, says it is often unable to help everyone because there are so many people in need of support to access food. “We can only accommodate so many people. Sometimes it’s just not logistically possible to do the amount of referrals we get in a day.”
For the poorest households, the situation is only going to get more painful as 2022 goes on. The increase in energy bills set to arrive in April of this year will fall disproportionately on low-income families, who spend far more of their income on utilities. According to the Resolution Foundation, the share of income the poorest households spend on energy bills is set to rise from 8.5 per cent to 12 per cent – three times higher than the income share spent by the richest households.
It’s not just monthly bills which are going up – food prices are set to skyrocket. Supply costs were going up anyway for a range of reasons, not least supply chain problems. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation puts the year-on-year increase in food commodity prices at 30 per cent. So far, much of the cost increase has been absorbed by manufacturers and distributors, keeping prices relatively stable. But with inflation and the energy crisis taking hold, prices in shops are already climbing.
In that context, the Government’s insistence on inflating the nanny state at direct cost to consumers seems barmy. The Health and Care Bill is set to bring in a whole host of new anti-obesity measures, starting with banning promotional offers (e.g. ‘buy one get one free’) on unhealthy foods. The Food & Drink Federation says that will add £160 to household annual shopping bills (on top of higher energy bills and already inflated food prices) and disproportionately affect poorer households.
The Bill also includes the long-awaited ‘junk food ad ban’. Advertising for foods the government deems unhealthy will be banned before 9pm on TV and radio in a new ‘watershed’, and at all times online. The Advertising Association says that policy will come at an eye-watering cost of £200 million to British broadcasters. Worst of all, it won’t work – according to the Government’s research into its own policy, it will reduce children’s calorie consumption by 1.7 per day. That’s the equivalent of a single Tic Tac, or half a Smartie.
Growing the nanny state and talking down to the public about their dietary choices is likely to be wildly unpopular in the Red Wall, especially when it exacerbates an already painful cost-of-living crisis. Come the next general election – and in the more immediate future, the May local elections – Tories across the Red Wall who acquiesce to the Government on this could be punished by disgruntled voters for putting unnecessary strain on household finances.
Now that Downing Street is weak and backbenchers have leverage, the Red Wallers should stand against the never-ending growth of the nanny state and stick up for common sense and personal responsibility by pushing for the Government to bin the short-sighted new food regulations in the Health & Care Bill, which won’t make us any slimmer but will make our wallets feel lighter.