The environment secretary has suggested people struggling to afford rising food bills should consider working longer hours.

Asked how the government is ensuring food security after food banks in York began running out, Therese Coffey said people could increase their income by getting into work, “potentially” working more hours, or getting “upskilled”.

Labour MP Rachael Maskell, who posed the question in parliament, was heard saying “that’s appalling” as the cabinet minister replied to her concerns.

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Ms Coffey said there is “no doubt inflation is really tough at the moment” and outlined schemes in place for vulnerable people – such as the household support fund and local welfare grant.

She added: “Of course we do know that one of the best ways to boost their incomes is not only to get into work if they’re not in work already, but potentially to work some more hours, to get upskilled, to get a higher income.”

Ms Maskell called her comments “shocking” and accused her of blaming struggling people for food poverty.

Speaking after the exchange in the Commons, she told the PA news agency: “With food prices going up 16.8% over the last year, the secretary of state said that people needed to work more hours to pay for their food.

“It is shocking that the environment secretary shifted blame for food poverty onto people because they are on low wages and are poor, expecting them to work even more hours to put food on the table.

“People are going hungry, often limiting themselves to one small meal a day or missing food altogether. It is time her government supported families in need, not making them work harder for a crust.”

Rachael Maskell MP said food banks in York are running out of food

During environment, food and rural affairs questions, York Central MP Ms Maskell earlier accused the government of building its food poverty infrastructure “with dependency on voluntary donations and retail waste donations”.

She said that “due to demand, food banks in York are running out, eking out food supplies”.

Ms Coffey insisted that while prices on shelves are rising in the UK “we still have a situation where generally across Europe we have one of the lowest proportion of our incomes being spent on food. Supermarkets have been very competitive”.

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Official figures show food in the UK is continuing to increase in price faster than anything else, with inflation remaining at a 45-year-high.

However, there are early indications the speed at which prices are rising may have peaked, with inflation now at 16.7% – down on December’s record highs of 16.8%.

Inflation began to increase in late 2021 when supply chain problems linked to COVID lockdowns and the associated worker shortages meant demand for goods could not be met.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine then exacerbated the problem.

Conservative MPs have previously come under criticism for comments about food poverty.

The new deputy chairman of the Conservative party, Lee Anderson, has repeatedly hit out at food bank usage, saying people relying on them don’t know how to cook or budget properly.

Last year, former cabinet minister George Eustice said consumers facing the biggest rise in shop prices in more than a decade should buy “value brands”.

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