12 September 2019, Jane Middleton, founder of the Labour Hunger Campaign
Written evidence submitted by the Labour Hunger Campaign to the House of Lords Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment: Call for Evidence on the links between inequality, public health and food sustainability
This submission focuses on food insecurity: specifically on the need to tackle its underlying causes and on respecting, facilitating and fulfilling the right to food. Establishing a rights-based approach to food is an essential first step in building a healthy, sustainable food culture from which no one is excluded. The submission ends with a short list of measures advocated by the Labour Hunger Campaign to eradicate household food insecurity in the UK.
What are the key causes of food insecurity in the UK? Can you outline any significant trends in food insecurity in the UK? To what extent (and why) have these challenges persisted over a number of years?
(1) Food insecurity in the UK has not resulted from a shortage of food; it is income related. Long-term, the rising cost of food and utilities since 2003 has gradually eliminated the ‘buffer’ income of many families, leaving them vulnerable to crises when faced with unexpected expenses. After 2010, this was exacerbated when the degree of support families and individuals could expect from the state was greatly reduced: welfare changes and austerity measures, including the freeze on benefits, the benefit cap, the two-child limit, the bedroom tax and Universal Credit, have shredded the welfare safety net. The link between need and provision no longer exists. People claiming benefits are not given enough to meet their most basic requirements, leading the Archbishop of Westminster to comment in 2015, ‘A social safety net that fails to protect essentials such as food and shelter for those who cannot work is not worthy of being regarded as a safety net at all.’ This withdrawal of the welfare safety net has contributed to an unprecedented rise in food insecurity and the establishment of food banks in every community: the largest food bank network, the Trussell Trust, gave out 1.6 million three-day emergency food parcels from April 2018 to March 2019; in 2009 the figure was 40,000. There are no statistics available for the many non-Trussell Trust food banks (roughly a third of all UK food banks) but the Independent Food Aid Network has done valuable work mapping their existence.
(2) The government has not been monitoring household food insecurity, although in February 2019 it finally agreed to do so via its annual Food and Resources Survey – it is essential that this is followed by action to reduce it. To date, the only regular statistics on the extent and causes of household food insecurity have come from the Trussell Trust. These include the number of emergency food parcels given out, the proportion that goes to children, and the reasons for referral. Consistently the biggest reasons for referral since 2010 have been benefits related (benefit delays, changes, sanctions), staying constant at around 42–47 per cent. Recently, low income has been an increasing factor; this can be income from benefits or from work.
(3) The rise in in-work poverty, leading to food insecurity, is one of the most worrying trends of recent years. One in six people referred to a Trussell Trust food bank is in work, despite the oft-repeated government line that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’. Employment has risen since 2010, but the statistics mask a substantial increase in low-paid part-time, temporary and self-employed work – with self-employment frequently indicating not an entrepreneurial revolution but low productivity and low income. The increased minimum wage, known as the ‘National Living Wage’, has not been sufficient to mitigate against poverty: it does not enable families with children to achieve a minimum living standard even if both parents are working and in receipt of Universal Credit; single parents and those working part time are even worse off. Income has not kept up with inflation and housing costs have increased significantly.
(4) Food banks have become a shorthand for describing food insecurity but they are an inadequate means of monitoring it, since food bank use represents only the tip of the iceberg. United Nations data from 2016 indicated that 8.4 million people in the UK were living in households with insufficient food. There are strong signs that, as the Scottish Welfare Reform Committee put it, ‘beyond the current users of food banks there may be many more hovering on the edge of needing food aid’. ‘Hidden hunger’ has been charted by researchers: it includes adults regularly missing meals and children going to school hungry. Of particular concern is the number of families on free school meals who cannot afford to feed their children during the school holidays.
(5) Food insecurity has always existed in the UK but what is notable since 2010 is the significant increase in people experiencing the severe end of the spectrum: i.e. they have insufficient food, rather than insufficiently nutritious food. Both these aspects need to be addressed but the urgent nature of hunger, resulting from very low or no income, is a particular priority – one that could be relieved almost overnight by reversing the changes to the welfare system and restoring the link between need and provision.
(6) Food insecurity is not confined to specific areas of deprivation in the UK. Since 2010 food banks have become just as prevalent in supposedly affluent areas, such as Bath, Oxford and Chichester. The rise in need in these areas, as elsewhere, has mirrored the trends noted by the Trussell Trust. This is particularly apparent in connection with Universal Credit: in areas where Universal Credit has been introduced, the Trussell Trust has seen food bank use increase fourfold – by 52 per cent, compared with 13 per cent elsewhere. This is directly related to specific features of Universal Credit such as the five-week wait for a payment (reduced from six weeks); the system of advance payments (actually loans) to cover this, which plunge claimants into debt; and the deduction at source of not only of the advance payments but of historic debt and rent arrears. Sanction rates are also higher under Universal Credit than under legacy benefits; these can leave claimants with no income for a substantial period.
(7) At local level, food insecurity has been exacerbated by the abolition of the Social Fund and its replacement with Welfare Assistance Schemes. Intended to ‘provide the flexibility and framework to respond to those in greatest need according to local circumstances’, in reality these schemes have ended up relying on food banks, as councils attempt to cope with both a reduction in funding and a rise in demand caused by the fallout from welfare reform. The likely impact on food insecurity was clear from the start, with the Child Poverty Action Group noting in 2012 that ‘the capacity of local food banks will need to be investigated, particularly if referrals and/or signposting is offered to those refused or denied access to the local scheme’. A 2017 Trussell Trust report was concerned to find that only 4 per cent of local councils did not refer claimants to food banks. As links grow between local authorities and food banks, food banks are becoming reluctantly co-opted into the welfare system – something the Trussell Trust has made very clear it wants to resist.
What role can local authorities play in promoting healthy eating in their local populations, especially among children and young people, and those on lower incomes? How effectively are local authorities able to fulfil their responsibilities to improve the health of people living in their areas? Are you aware of any existing local authority or education initiatives that have been particularly successful (for example, schemes around holiday hunger, providing information on healthy eating, or supporting access to sport and exercise)?
(8) Currently, the ability of local authorities to fulfil their responsibilities to improve the health of local people is severely hampered by the cuts to their funding. Nevertheless, some are managing to rise at least partially to the challenge of reducing food insecurity, particularly for children. The charity set up by the APPG on Hunger, Feeding Britain, has introduced pilot projects in some areas to support this, which involve working with local businesses, charities and other organisations. A more sustainable approach, which respects the right to food by eschewing solutions based on charity, is that of Hammersmith and Fulham council: it is piloting a scheme for free lunches in secondary schools – to be funded by money paid to the council by property developers as a condition of granting planning permission. It is vital that local councils explore options such as these to relieve food insecurity, rather than leaning heavily on local charities.
(9) Please see also the valuable work of Sustain on the role local authorities can play in combatting food insecurity and building a healthy, sustainable local food culture: https://www.sustainweb.org/foodpoverty/measures/.
What can be learnt from food banks and other charitable responses to hunger? What role should they play?
(10) Food banks and other charitable responses to hunger should play no role in tackling food insecurity: no matter how compassionate, charity in an affluent society is humiliating for its recipients and can, at best, only ever provide a sticking plaster for the problem. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which the UK is a signatory, states unambiguously that it is the responsibility of government to ‘respect, protect and fulfil’ the right to food. The assault on the welfare safety net in the UK has put the government in breach of its obligations in this respect – as noted by the Just Fair Consortium. Olivier de Schutter, former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, made it clear that food banks ‘should not be seen as a substitute for the robust social safety nets to which each individual has a right’.
(11) Charitable institutions have traditionally complemented the work of the state in the UK – with community food initiatives, for example, that help prevent isolation and loneliness. What they cannot and should not do is replace the state. Food banks and other charities can temporarily relieve hunger with a food parcel or a hot meal but they are unable to address the structural causes of food insecurity and offer a route out of poverty. It is for this reason that food waste should not be seen as a solution to food insecurity. Food insecurity is not a supply issue; it is a symptom of poverty. To build a more sustainable food culture, there must be a concerted attempt to reduce food waste, but this cannot be done by repurposing it to feed people on low incomes; it must be reduced at source.
(12) The first thing any food bank volunteer learns is that no one who comes to a food bank wants to be there. When people walk in with their referral voucher, they feel shame and embarrassment. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report commented on this: ‘Almost universally, our interviewees were explicit about how demeaning they found it to have to seek help with basic material needs like food, clothes and toiletries from charitable organisations, despite the kindness and respect with which they reported being treated by the staff and volunteers.’
(13) In order to build a society where people can live with dignity and security, therefore, we need to ensure that no one has to rely on charity in order to feed themselves and their families.
(14) In the absence of any government investigation into food insecurity, food banks have provided some useful insights. First, they have sketched a picture, albeit incomplete, of the extent and nature of food insecurity in the UK, with Trussell Trust figures giving a clear indication of the groups that are most vulnerable to it, such as the disabled, single parents and those with mental health conditions. Secondly, food banks – so visible in every town – have become the means of telling the story of food poverty in the UK. As such, they have raised public awareness of the need for government to take action on the issue. A 2015 survey on public perceptions of food banks found that 74 per cent thought it ‘important’ or ‘extremely important’ that government tackle the problem within a year, with the same number believing that the presence of food banks indicated something ‘fundamentally wrong with society’.
Has sufficient research been conducted to provide a robust analysis of the links between poverty, food insecurity, health inequalities and the sustainability of food production? How well is existing research on the impact of existing food policy used to inform decision making?
(15) Since 2010 there has been a considerable amount of academic research into the issues raised in this question, including from the University of Oxford, the Sheffield Political Economy Institute, the Food Foundation, Human Rights Watch and the Child Poverty Action Group. The APPG on Hunger also produced an extensive report in 2014. All the research points in the same direction: that food insecurity is a result of poverty; that one of the main drivers is the welfare reforms since 2010, plus low income and rising housing and utilities costs; that poverty increases health inequalities; that building a more sustainable food culture requires a rights-based approach in order to ensure that good food is affordable and accessible to all.
(16) What has been lacking is any willingness on the part of government to heed these findings or to conduct its own research. This has been exacerbated by the fact that there is no clear accountability for household food insecurity: policy, such as it is, is split between a number of departments, including the DWP, Defra, Health and Education. A cross-departmental approach is needed in order to develop a strategy to combat food insecurity – drawing on the existing research and including detailed monitoring of the extent of food insecurity in the UK in order to set targets for its elimination.
Are there any additional changes at a national policy level that would help to ensure efforts to improve food insecurity and poor diet, and its impact on public health and the environment, are effectively coordinated, implemented and monitored?
(17) A cross-departmental approach is required, as outlined above. The Labour Hunger Campaign recommends that government implement the following measures in order to eliminate household food insecurity in the UK.
1. Axe the current five-week wait for Universal Credit and pause the roll-out.
2. Lift the freeze on benefits, uprating them in line with the cost of living.
3. Restore the link between need and provision in the welfare system, by abolishing the benefit cap and the two-child limit.
4. Abolish sanctions on sick or disabled people, people in work, and all sanctions on the unemployed except those related to traditional insurance conditions (such as leaving a job voluntarily without good reason, or refusing to accept a suitable job).
5. Appoint a Minister for Household Food Security to coordinate the policy response to food poverty across government departments. The Minister must ensure that government fulfils the Right to Food enshrined in the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
6. Set a target to eliminate completely the need for food banks.
7. Introduce free school meals for all primary-school children.
8. Increase the free school meals allowance for secondary schools to a minimum of £4 per day, and allow it to be used at any time of day and carried over between days.
9. Give local councils a statutory duty to provide wraparound holiday care for primary school children that includes meals, and provide ringfenced funding for this – as outlined in Frank Field’s draft School Holidays (Meals and Activities) Bill.
10. Launch a campaign to remove the stigma around claiming benefits, including free school meals. This will include the promotion of a positive vision of the welfare state, one that points out that we all benefit from state support, be it parental leave, healthcare, pensions or education.
11.Enshrine a definition of household food insecurity in law and set government targets to eliminate it. The definition will encompass not just the inability to afford food but the inability to afford, or have access to, a healthy diet.
12. Ensure that the welfare state functions as the frontline against destitution once more by giving the DWP a statutory responsibility to prevent destitution, including a duty to seek out those at risk and provide appropriate support. Any elements of conditionality that are retained in the welfare system must never again be allowed to leave people without the means to support themselves.
13. Raise the minimum wage to a Living Wage, in consultation with the Living Wage Foundation.
 ‘Archbishop Vincent Nichols, ‘Catholics must not “shy from adding our voice to public debate” on poverty’, The Catholic Church in England and Wales, http://catholicnews.org.uk/Home/Featured/Features-2013/April-June-2013/The-Catholic-Response-to-the-Poverty-Crisis/Child-Poverty
 The Trussell Trust, Latest Stats, https://www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/latest-stats/
 Trussell Trust press release, ‘UK children face hunger at home’, 6 December 2010, https://www.trusselltrust.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2015/06/PRESS-RELEASE-Children-going-hungry-in-own-homes.pdf
 Independent Food Aid Network, http://www.foodaidnetwork.org.uk
 Abigail McKnight, ‘The Coalition’s record on employment: policy, spending and outcomes 2010–15’, January 2015, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion and the London School of Economics, http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/spcc/SWP15.pdf
 Moussa Haddad, Jane Perry and Mia Hadfield Spoor, ‘Emergency use only: update 2017: change is possible’, Child Poverty Action Group and The Trussell Trust, 2017, https://www.trusselltrust.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017/12/EUOII.pdf
 Anne Taylor and Rachel Loopstra, ‘Too Poor to Eat: Food Insecurity in the UK’, Food Foundation Ltd, May 2016, https://foodfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/FoodInsecurityBriefing-May-2016-FINAL.pdf
 Scottish Parliament, Second Report, 2014 (Session 4), ‘Food banks and welfare reform’, SP Paper 537, http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/CurrentCommittees/77641.aspx
 ‘Universal Credit and Food Banks’, The Trussell Trust, April 2017, https://www.trusselltrust.org/what-we-do/research-advocacy/universal-credit-and-foodbank-use/
 Iain Duncan Smith, quoted in, Steven Kennedy, House of Commons Library, ‘Localisation of the Social Fund’, Standard Briefing Note SN06413, 16 November 2012, http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN06413#fullreport
 ‘The Social Fund at a local level: notes for and from practitioners’, August 2012, Child Poverty Action Group, http://www.cpag.org.uk/sites/default/files/CPAG-practice-note-social-fund-0812.pdf
 Mia Hadfield-Spoor, Garry Lemon, Abby Jitendra and Emma Thorogood, ‘A Local Jigsaw: a study into local welfare assistance schemes and foodbanks’, The Trussell Trust, July 2017, https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/trusselltrust-documents/A-Local-Jigsaw-Final.pdf
 Feeding Britain, ‘Holiday food and fun programmes’, https://feedingbritain.org/what-we-do/flagship-projects/test-flagship-project/
 Diane Taylor, ‘London council launches free school meals pilot scheme’, Guardian, 5 June 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/jun/05/london-council-launches-free-school-meals-pilot-scheme
 Just Fair, ‘Going Hungry? The Human Right to Food in the UK’, April 2014, http://justfair.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Going-Hungry-The-Human-Right-to-Food-in-the-UK.pdf
 Olivier de Schutter, ‘Food banks can only plug the holes in social safety nets’, Guardian, 27 February 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/feb/27/food-banks-social-safety-nets
 Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Glen Bramley, Filip Sosenko, Janice Blenkinsopp, Sarah Johnsen, Mandy Littlewood, Gina Netto and Beth Watts, ‘Destitution in the UK’, 27 April 2016, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/destitution-uk
 Bethany Farr, ‘Public perceptions of UK foodbanks’, 10 December 2015, https://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/blog/2015/12/public-perceptions-of-uk-foodbanks
 Forsey, Andrew, ‘An evidence review for the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into hunger in the United Kingdom’, The Children’s Society, 8 December 2014, https://www.feedingbritain.org/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=5ee29278-e391-4e11-92fc-0370f310e3c5
 Labour Hunger Campaign, Charter on Hunger, https://labourhunger.wordpress.com/charter-on-hunger