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Right to Food in Legislation

Volume 682: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the right to food in legislation.

I called this debate because of the humanitarian crisis we are seeing in every community and in every part of this nation. The crisis of food insecurity, which is leaving no MP’s constituency untouched, affects the basic human rights of millions of our citizens every day. We are seeing a crisis of food poverty born out of the political choices and systemic failings created over the past four decades, which have now reached a tipping point for so many in our communities. The figures are devastating for one of the richest nations in the world and highlight the inequality of the UK in 2020.

The Trussell Trust reports a soaring 81% increase in emergency food parcels from food banks in its network during the last two weeks of March 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, including a 122% rise in parcels given to children as the coronavirus pandemic continued to unfold. As long as I live, I will not forget meeting a community leader in Liverpool five minutes from my home and seeing what I thought was a queue for the bingo in my local community centre. There were people, young and old, drawn from across my community. I was corrected by the community leader, and told that, in fact, it was a queue for the food bank. It haunted me then, and it haunts me now, because it was so unfair and so wrong.

The problem of escalating food poverty in the UK can be fixed. We can see in the evidence available the direct correlation between the cuts in Government welfare spending and the numbers of families with children, pensioners, the working poor and homeless people queueing up for food parcels because of those cuts. Like austerity, this is a political choice, not a pre-determined occurrence. Therefore, it cannot be fixed without a concerted effort by the Government of the day to take clear responsibility in developing solutions and policy to eradicate the problem’s root cause. We need more voices like the inspirational Marcus Rashford, bringing the plight of hungry children to the attention of the public and the political classes.

One key recommendation made by civil society organisations and various independent experts, such as United Nations committees, is to introduce a right to food into domestic law. That approach recognises that the UK has ratified international treaties such as the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights and three separate international conventions, protecting children, women and people with disabilities, but has never incorporated them into domestic law. Each of those treaties contains a specific mention of the right to food, yet those legally binding international treaties have limited influence and bearing in domestic courts. The right to food would need to be strengthened by the establishment of a strong system of domestic legal entitlements and the provision of easily accessible accountability mechanisms that redress violations and contribute to the improvement of citizens’ wellbeing.

I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing forward today’s debate. Since the start of the lockdown, the use of food banks in York has increased by 300%. I agree with and support his call for a statutory right to food. Does he agree that, within that, everybody should be able to access a hot free meal every day?

Absolutely. I agree wholeheartedly with my colleague. That is a hugely important principle, which we should adhere to as a civilised society, and we may discuss Marcus Rashford’s petition later. Having the right to food in law would hopefully result in people having the ability to have a hot meal a day. That is why I am here today to discuss this topic.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended that the Government consult on whether a right to food should be given a legislative footing to ensure that the Government have a reference point for action to tackle and measure food insecurity, with the flexibility to meet that commitment using different measures. Some of the evidence from the Committee’s session was compelling. Professor Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City, University of London, told the Select Committee:

“If you do not have it in legislation, you do not have indicators and it does not happen.”

Anna Taylor, who is working with Henry Dimbleby on the national food strategy, represented the Food Foundation at the evidence session. She added:

“If we get the legal structures right, the governance arrangements are right and Parliament is involved in scrutinising those, we will not be in the situation we have now with such high levels of unmet need.”

The second part of the national food strategy being drawn up by Henry Dimbleby gives us a real opportunity to recommend the right to food, and I really hope he can be persuaded that it must be a key recommendation.

The right to food should not be seen in isolation. Having enough food for your family is part of a decent standard of living. Hunger is a symptom of broader social inequalities and rights violations, not least low-paid, insecure jobs and a broken social security system—all of which have been exposed even further by the current economic crisis under the pandemic.

In Wales, we are hoping to pilot the universal basic income initiative, because, as my hon. Friend has just alluded to, prevention is much better than cure in terms of food poverty. Does he endorse the recommendation of the Welsh Senedd that it is now time to introduce universal basic income so that nobody has to go without food?

I do endorse that call. I am a huge supporter of universal basic income. It should be looked at as one of the possible strands of the solution to what we are facing as a society. I hope the Government listen to some of the calls for universal basic income and look at different solutions. We are in extraordinary times at the moment. Universal basic income could be one of the strands of the solution, so that we do not have 9 million people who are struggling to put a meal on the table. That is hugely important.

As I said, the right to food should not be seen in isolation. We are living through extraordinary times and seeing a spotlight shone on the inequalities in society. According to the Independent Food Aid Network report, 82.7% of food banks in its sample that collected relevant data

“indicated waiting on a benefit payment or decision as one of the three most common reasons for food bank use, and 73.8% of food banks indicated interruption or reduction in benefit payments as one of the three most common reasons for food bank use.”

The solidarity shown during the covid-19 pandemic has been heartwarming, and it is one of the positives that we can draw from the period, completely at odds with the ideology of Thatcher and the infamous quote about there being “no such thing as society”. That has been exemplified in grassroots mutual aid efforts across the country, in all our communities, and we can all be proud of that. I speak with personal knowledge from Fans Supporting Foodbanks, an organisation started in Liverpool five years ago and built with the magnificent efforts of football supporters from across our nation, particularly Newcastle, Leeds, Burnley, Aston Villa, Manchester United, Manchester City and West Ham. That sort of collaboration has been absolutely magnificent and has been welcome in our communities.

I thank my hon. Friend for all that he has done in working with the football community and the broader community, and even Man United fans—I declare an interest. He walks the walk and is passionate about the issue, but there are things we can all do together, collectively. We come here to make a difference. We should not even be talking about the right to food. Let us all come together and make a difference. I pay homage to my hon. Friend and thank him.

Many thanks. Fans Supporting Foodbanks says, “Hunger doesn’t wear club colours”. It certainly does not, and we have fantastic friends in Manchester and across the board, and solidarity with Manchester in these troubling times.

I also pay tribute to the trade unions that have been involved locally, such as the GMB north-west and Irish region, which has been magnificent in supplying help, aid and support. That is acting collectively, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) said, to tackle food poverty in the communities they serve. It has been a joy to behold, but we cannot forget that it is just a sticking plaster on a broken leg.

Sabine Goodwin of the Independent Food Aid Network has said:

“The amount of people needing to go to food banks is not remedied by food banks… The problem is a lack of income and a lack of food. It stems from the fact that there is a level of poverty that is being ignored.”

We cannot tinker around the edges of food insecurity. It must be addressed head on with political courage and a morality that has been lacking in the past decade. Ensuring that millions of our fellow citizens do not go hungry and that their basic rights, including the right to food, are protected is a moral duty. Those things should be a legal right.

I thank the Minister. I enjoyed the chat we had, which was informative. I look forward to working with her. I also thank hon. Members who have attended the debate. I note with interest that the Leader of the House wrote to his Cabinet colleagues calling for bold and ambitious Bills for the upcoming Queen’s Speech.

I know that my hon. Friend is about to conclude, but is he aware of a charity called Foodshare? It goes around the country looking at food wastage, and deals with companies that might, for example, have quite a bit of food wastage in their production, and puts money into them. It also goes to farmers who may have over-produced a crop. Instead of those farmers putting the crop back into the ground, Foodshare gives them the extra money they need to produce the crop so that they can give it to food banks. It has been doing that work with food banks across the country. Does he agree that there is enough food in this country to feed everyone, given all the waste we have, and that the Government should put money into organisations such as Foodshare to help alleviate food insecurity?

Absolutely. I am fully in agreement. I would be interested to find out more about that organisation, because that is exactly what we need to be doing. We need to ensure that the food being produced is used and targeted. There are some fine organisations that do that, alongside organisations such as FareShare, which we have talked about. There are plenty of organisations out there, but we need more of them and we need a more targeted approach. The waste in this country is unforgivable when we have 9 million people struggling with food insecurity. That is something we need to rectify.

We have heard about the Leader of the House’s call for bold and ambitions Bills. I can think of nothing more bold than legislation that recognises the simple, basic human right to food, which would help lift 9 million people out of food insecurity. Many more people will be following them over the next six months. I look forward to working with colleagues to achieve that aim, because regardless of political party, we surely all support that. It is the decent and right thing to do, and it is where we should be as a country.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) on securing such an important debate. I, too, enjoyed our chat about food charities before the debate, and our previous conversations in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I look forward to working with him over the coming winter, which we all know will be a challenging time.

The last few months have highlighted to everybody the importance of access to food. I put on record my thanks to all those who have kept the nation fed at this difficult time, including the people who work for Fans Supporting Foodbanks, such as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, who was too modest about the work that he has done for that charity. I would like to thank the community fridges in my area, particularly the one run from Banbury mosque, which has done sterling work to feed Banbury during the pandemic. Later I will touch on FareShare, which has a depot in my constituency, and with which I have been pleased to work closely in my ministerial role.

I was privileged to chair a cross-Whitehall ministerial taskforce—I wish it had not been necessary, but I was pleased to be involved—that was set up to ensure that food and essential supplies reached the vulnerable during the pandemic. We worked with industry to smooth the way wherever we could, including relaxing competition laws and drivers’ hours. We worked on access issues. At the beginning, that was very much physical access issues for people who were stuck at home, but we then moved to focus more on economic access to food.

The continuation of the taskforce is one of the recommendations listed in Henry Dimbleby’s interim report, published in July this year. We are taking his recommendations very seriously. We have made a firm commitment to publish a food White Paper within six months of his final report, which is due next spring.

As part of our wider commitment to regular reporting on food, we have a duty under clause 19 of the Agriculture Bill—if and when it receives Royal Assent, which I hope will be soon—that commits the Government to lay before Parliament a regular report containing an analysis of statistical data relating to food security, in the widest sense, in the UK.

We listened to concerns raised, particularly from the House of Lords, regarding the frequency of the food security report, so we have reduced the minimum frequency of reporting from five to three years, but I stress that is a minimum. In times of real pressure on the national food supply, it may well be appropriate to report much more often. That is why I was so glad to have Henry Dimbleby’s interim report in July, which touched on the beginning of the pandemic. The food security report is different and extra to Henry Dimbleby’s work on the national food strategy, but both are useful to all of us who are interested in this sphere, as we take this work forward.

We all know that this is a very difficult time for people across the country. Many households have felt a real financial impact from coronavirus. That is why we, as a Government, have taken steps to ease the burden where we can through targeted support, which includes income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and additional support for renters. We have also injected further spending into the welfare system, and approximately £9 billion of extra support has gone to people’s incomes throughout the pandemic where possible.

During the pandemic we have worked across Government to try to concentrate our effort, as the hon. Gentleman asked, on people struggling to access and afford food. In March we started the shielding scheme and supported the 2.2 million people in England identified by the NHS as particularly vulnerable. Through our wholesaler partners, Brakes and Bidfood, 4.5 million boxes of essential food were delivered to some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has always worked closely with the third sector to identify individuals who might need support to get essential food supplies. We talk regularly to volunteer groups, food bank organisations and other redistribution charities, including FareShare, with which we have worked particularly closely this year. In May it was an early recipient of a large sum of Government money to help it to help the people it provides food to. We remain in regular contact with FareShare and others across civil society to ensure that there is sufficient support for those who need it.

We know the difficulties that some families currently face in accessing food and we continue to take steps to support them. We know that a large number of vulnerable people rely on their friends, family and other community organisations. Where that is not possible, we continue to work with major third sector organisations to refer vulnerable people to a variety of tailored services, including facilitating access to priority supermarket delivery slots. I was pleased that in June we could announce an additional £63 million-worth of food for local authorities in England that could be targeted at the vulnerable—at a local level, local authorities know who is struggling—so that they could access food and other essentials. I had a very useful meeting less than two weeks ago with the Trussell Trust and with the Children’s Society, and they felt that that targeted fund was particularly useful and was reaching those who needed it most. There is still money available in the fund—possibly not in all areas, but in many of the areas where that money has gone. I understand that money is still going out from that fund and that it can continue to do so until the end of this month.

I really appreciate what the Minister is saying. We are on the cusp of seeing mass job losses, which is terrifying. The demand for food security will escalate sharply, so what additional support will be put in place for local authorities? I agree that they know best where the need is. Where will the additional support come from?

I thank the hon. Lady, who I am proud to call a friend, for that intervention. I would very much like to continue to work with her to identify particular areas of need. Work is going on across Government at the moment. The Secretary of State took part in a cross-Government roundtable on food yesterday. Many of us will be in the Chamber later to hear what Members from across the House have to say about access to food. I think we all recognise the scale of the problem. We need to continue to check that our figures are right and that we know what is happening on the ground. It is important that we continue the work that we started this year.

I want to turn to the work being done by Marcus Rashford, who was referenced by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby. I welcome the establishment of the new child food poverty taskforce. The Government will carefully consider its recommendations as we approach the next spending review. I will not talk further about free school meals now because I know that debate will take place in the Chamber this afternoon.

The Welsh Government have announced that they will extend free school meals during school holidays until spring 2021, which will cost £11 million. We do not have the resources, but we are finding them because there is a desperate need for this. Surely it is now time for the UK Government to follow the Welsh Government’s lead and do the same.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I enjoy working with Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, on food security issues—she was a valued member of my taskforce. I am sure that we will discuss that specific issue in the main Chamber this afternoon, but I look forward to having further conversations with Lesley Griffiths and others about what we do as four nations moving forward in this area.

The work that Marcus Rashford is doing to look into the current UK food system links in with the Government’s commitment to develop a food strategy that will support the development of a food system that is sustainable, resilient and affordable, and that we hope in time will support people to live healthy lives, and protect animal health and welfare as well.

In closing, I will further emphasise that the Government are committed to doing everything we can to support the most vulnerable to gain access to food, by having a robust welfare system that provides a safety net where needed, and by having policy interventions in place that can be implemented where needed.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.