Political News: We all need the Right To Food

Ian Byrne MP on his campaign to end food poverty

Ten million people in the UK are experiencing food insecurity and some of our children are being raised by parents barely able to survive due to hunger. Something must change.

Working with a range of partners since November 2020, I have been leading a campaign to see the “Right to Food” enshrined into legislation in Parliament, ending the scandal of hunger and foodbanks once and for all.

I have had fantastic support on the ground from national fan activist network Fans Supporting Foodbanks and backing from supporters as wide-ranging as the Daily Mirror, Liverpool FC, Everton FC, trade unions, charities, faith leaders, businesses and members of the public.

My Early Day Motion in Parliament was supported by 59 crossparty MPs and in January 2021 Liverpool became the first Right to Food City in the UK when the city council unanimously called for the Right to Food to be incorporated into the National Food Strategy, an independent review commissioned by Government into the UK’s food system. Liverpool set a precedent and I am delighted to say that Right to Food cities and towns now also include Manchester, Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Liverpool Combined Authority Rotherham, Brighton and Hove, Haringey, St Helens, Newcastle, Durham and Portsmouth.

Following several months of campaigning in Parliament and in communities across the country, our campaign made its formal submission to the National Food Strategy review in March 2021. We saw this as a fantastic opportunity to tackle hunger in Britain – here was a Government commissioned interrogation of the UK’s food system with a real opportunity to bring about the systemic change needed to lift 10 million people in the UK out of food poverty.

KEY ASKS

Our submission centered around five key “asks” of Government that, if adopted, we believed would provide an achievable, tangible and legally binding route out of food poverty for millions of people in the UK. These were:

  1. Universal Free School Meals. Every child in compulsory education should be provided with a nutritious, free school breakfast and lunch.
  1. Community Kitchens. These will provide dining clubs and “mealson- wheels” for the elderly and vulnerable, school holiday meals for those most in need and cookery clubs and lessons for the wider community. There should be duties, shared by national and local government, as well as state-funded schools themselves, to provide them.
  1. Reasonable Portions in Benefits and Wages. To tackle the choice that too many people must make between food, fuel and other daily essentials, the Secretary of State should be under a duty when setting minimum and living wages and any relevant social security benefit (on which people are expected to live) to state how much of that sum has been calculated for food. This transparent figure can then be subject to public scrutiny, parliamentary debate and, ultimately, review in the courts.
  1. Ensure Food Security: There should be a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure food security for our nations and to take this duty into account when setting competition, planning, transport, local government and all other policy. There should be corresponding powers to issue compulsory directions to private parties in the context of anticipated local, regional or national “food emergencies” relating either to food standards or supply.
  1. Independent Enforcement. The various new rights and duties outlined above will only be meaningful if accompanied by sufficient over-sight and enforcement powers granted to a new independent regulatory body. This could take the form of an enhanced and additionally resourced combined Food Standards and Security Agency.

 

SMALL STEP FORWARD

We set out a tangible and workable blueprint for how to turn the Right To Food from a concept into reality, and we submitted this to the National Food Strategy team (you can read our Right To Food campaign submission in full at www.ianbyrne.org/righttofoodcampaign).

In July, the National Food Strategy reported back to Government following its two-year review into the UK’s food systems and infrastructure, having been tasked with setting out a vision for a better food system, particularly considering Brexit and the Covid pandemic. However, the Right To Food campaign cannot help but be disappointed at the apparent lack of political will and ambition in the review to bring about systemic change in the UK.

We started the Right To Food campaign to change, improve and save lives being lost and destroyed by food poverty. We needed radicalism in the National Food Strategy, but unfortunately it did not meet our own ambition.

We certainly welcome aspects of the recommendations, such as the increased eligibility of 1.1 million children for free school meals, as a step in the right direction and a small step toward tackling the evils of food poverty in the UK – and as a nod to our campaign.

But accepting the analysis of our Right To Food campaign without meeting its political ambition – to make it a legal right for every person in the UK to have access to food – does not help the 10 million people living in food poverty right now. Will these people feel the review speaks for them, and will they believe it will really help them? We don’t believe so.

Let’s look closer at the issue of universality. Universal free school meals are one of the five key “asks” we made in our campaign submission to the National Food Strategy.

DRAMATIC DIFFERENCE

Universality is key not just to the right to food but also to the fight against obesity and for better nutrition, and to helping with food poverty and stigma. There are likely many children from families with significantly more than a £20,000 per annum income who are not well-fed at home. Healthy balanced meals at school can make a dramatic difference to a child’s health, educational performance, behaviour and life chances. And, as a matter of principle, if the state says you must be in school, it also has a responsibility to look after you – in terms of shelter, safety and food – while you are there.

Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, a key supporter of the Right To Food campaign who helped to write our submission to the National Food Strategy, was disappointed with the outcome. She said: “These recommendations duck both the need for universal free school meals and a duty on the Government to state how much of minimum wages or benefits it has apportioned for food. These were just two of the key ‘asks’ in our submission to the National Food Strategy.”

Shami, I believe, summed up our campaign response to the review perfectly when she said: “There are perfectly credible ideas in the report but nothing resembling a Right to Food. This is a wasted opportunity.

“The set of duties which make up the Right To Food are achievable and should be the beginning of the conversation, not the pinnacle of our ambitions. In the words of the great Nelson Mandela: ‘Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural.

It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.’”

The Right To Food campaign will of course continue the fight for a legal right to food for the millions of people currently living in food poverty in the UK. We will not stop in our efforts to secure the right to food for all and to end the misery of systemic food poverty. Ten million people are depending on us.

Follow our campaign at www.ianbyrne.org/righttofood-campaign Twitter @IanByrneMP and @SFoodbanks #RightToFood

Ian Byrne is the Labour member of parliament for Liverpool West Derby

Representing over 30,000 Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers, the POA is the largest UK Union in this sector, able to trace its roots back more than 100 years.