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Food Insecurity

Volume 632: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2017

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Government to monitor and report on food insecurity; to make provision for official statistics on food insecurity; and for connected purposes.

People are going hungry, and with each passing day of this terrible excuse for a Government, more and more are falling into poverty with little chance of escape. There are no second chances in Britain today. Food poverty is a clear consequence of this Government’s ideological assault on the social safety net and the people who rely on it, and of their ongoing inaction on poverty pay.

Each time hunger is raised in this Chamber, I have heard Secretaries of State and Ministers denigrate statistics from charities, food banks and colleagues, claiming that the figures are not robust enough, or that the information is not reliable enough to inform Government policy. Denying the accuracy of the data or simply turning a blind eye allows Conservative Members to pretend that the problem does not exist.

Today, with this Bill, I am giving the Government an opportunity to rectify this data gap and to robustly measure the levels of hunger in the UK, because we all know that what gets measured gets done. The problem of food insecurity in the UK is increasing. While the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland are taking steps to implement measurement, this Government doggedly persist in refusing calls from the Food Foundation, Sustain, Oxfam, myself and a host of others to routinely and robustly measure levels of food insecurity. United Nations estimates from 2014 suggest that as many as 8 million households in the UK are food insecure. That is 8 million households who cannot afford to eat, or who are worrying about where their next meal will come from. But that estimate is based on a small survey of around 1,000 people, which is not nearly good enough to properly inform policy.

In 2016, when the Food Standards Agency surveyed households about food insecurity as part of the “Food and You” survey, it found that 21% of households in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were moderately to severely food insecure. That one-off measurement gives a snapshot of the problem, but does not allow for an analysis of long-term trends or the ability to track the impact of policy changes.

This month, the Office for National Statistics released data showing that due to the drop in the value of sterling as a result of Brexit uncertainties, food inflation had risen more than 4% over the past year. We need up-to-date information on the impact that that is having on UK families’ ability to afford enough healthy food, because being food insecure has lasting health impacts. We already know that the UK is facing a double burden of food insecurity and obesity, which is no surprise given the types of meals that a food insecure family can afford. More worryingly, in the last financial year, a count of hospital admissions in England revealed that nearly 8,000 adults and more than 300 children were admitted as a result of malnutrition. Those figures should shame any Government, but for a Government in one of the richest countries in the world, they are simply unforgivable.

The latest data provided by the Trussell Trust shows that just over 1 million three-day emergency food supplies were given to people in crisis over the past year, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the Trussell Trust collects data only from its own food banks. Independent research has found that there are at least 1,000 food banks in operation. There are also the “hidden hungry”, who will not go to a food bank and rely on the kindness of their friends, family and neighbours, or, worse still, go hungry so as not to face the shame of having to ask for food.

The desperate state of this problem is something that I and my colleagues see every day in our constituencies. I recall a woman who called my constituency office in desperate need of help after having problems with her benefits. She had no money for gas or electricity, and no food to feed herself and her four children under the age of 10. She was alone and unable to afford to get to the nearest food bank. In the end, our local volunteers in Shields managed to get food to her. The fact that faith groups and charities have had to fill a gap left by the state reveals a massive dereliction of duty by the Government. As a result, food banks are now a permanent part of our welfare state.

According to United Nations data on food insecurity in the UK, as many as 17 times the number of people using Trussell Trust food banks are food insecure. Also, food bank use is an indication of last resort, when families are at imminent risk of going hungry. Recurring or moderate food insecurity is not captured by measuring food bank use. We also know that measuring the proportion of income spent on food is not an adequate measure of food insecurity. New evidence from Canada shows that food insecure households will continue to spend the same proportion of their income on food when their income falls, and that they then experience increasingly severe food insecurity. In addition, these measures do not inform us about food affordability, the socio-emotional issues faced by people who are food insecure, the use of survival strategies, or people’s inability to meet needs. These issues can be captured only by measuring a household’s experience of food insecurity.

Capturing and measuring the experience of food insecurity is easier than we all think. Many survey tools have been validated and are being used in countries around the world. The United States Department of Agriculture’s food insecurity module includes questions that assess both household and child food insecurity. The method involves asking a series of questions about people’s experiences of accessing a sufficient quality and quantity of food. The results rank a household’s food insecurity on a scale from mild to severe. The Bill proposes that such questions should be inserted into representative UK-wide household surveys that the Government already conduct.

What I propose is very simple. Adding the food insecurity module to an existing survey, such as the living costs and foods survey, could be cost-neutral if some less important questions were removed. For example, the survey currently asks households about the food they grow at home. We need new questions for new times.

This straightforward Bill proposes introducing an existing measure into an existing survey, which could be done cost neutrally. As we negotiate new trading arrangements with Europe and beyond, as global populations rise, as conflicts spread and as more extreme weather affects food supplies globally and domestically, food security will become an even more important issue. In order to meet the challenges of the future and the urgency now, the need to measure food insecurity here in the UK is more important than ever.

As I present this Bill, there will be a mother in my constituency wondering how she is going to feed herself and her toddler today. There will be schoolchildren struggling to focus because their stomachs are rumbling, parents who have yet again skipped breakfast to ensure that their children did not have to, families searching their cupboards for what is left, and elderly people who are unable to access fresh food. But that is not just happening in my constituency; the situation is the same in constituencies and homes right across the UK. As I have outlined, implementing the measurement is not an insurmountable or costly challenge, and the Government owe it to every man, woman and child who woke up hungry this morning and will go to bed hungry tonight, in one of the richest countries in the world, to do so. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck, Frank Field, Kate Green, Jim Shannon, Liam Byrne, Kerry McCarthy, Stephen Timms, Dan Jarvis, Alison Thewliss, Layla Moran, Mr Jim Cunningham and Grahame Morris present the Bill.

Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 2 February 2018, and to be printed (Bill 136).