It’s time to act on food poverty

Our aim must be to make the UK a Zero Hunger Country, writes Fiona Twycross AM.

The latest figures released by the Trussell Trust showing yet another dramatic rise in the number of people forced to rely on food banks in Britain are both shameful and deeply concerning.

What is most shocking is that the number of people fed by food banks has tripled before the added pressure put on people already struggling to make ends meet by recent welfare changes. All emergency food aid charities contributing to a recent investigation I led for the London Assembly anticipate the welfare cuts and changes, which will affect 2.6 million families in the UK, will further increase demand on their services. My report into food poverty has one simple aim, to make London a Zero Hunger City.

Given that Britain ranks as the seventh richest country in the world, our aim must be to make the UK a Zero Hunger Country. The government must change course and take urgent action for this to happen. To stand by and watch, or deny there is a genuine and growing problem, is not an option.

Children should not go to school hungry, older people should not be admitted to hospital suffering from malnutrition, parents should not have to choose between feeding themselves and feeding their children. Nobody should go hungry. These statements might seem obvious, but in London and across the UK children are going to school hungry, older people are being admitted to hospital suffering from malnutrition, parents are being forced to go hungry so their children can eat.

This is disgraceful and should shock us all out of complacency. What kind of country have we become? How can we go about our daily lives knowing this is happening? How can the government glibly slash benefits and support to children and parents – both in and out of work – without the least bit of shame?

Rather than just bemoaning the state of the country under the current shower of a government, what can we do to make things better? My London Assembly report sets out four initial steps to start tackling this problem within the capital many of which would work for other areas of the UK as well.

First, increase strategic oversight of food poverty. The London Food Board, responsible to the Mayor, should take on strategic responsibility for addressing food poverty with the aim of making London a Zero Hunger City. This responsibility should be included in a revised London Food Strategy that monitors risk factors for food poverty (including welfare changes and low income), facilitate the sharing of good practice and ensure a coordinated approach across the city. The Food Board should publish a paper on possible models for delivering Universal Free Healthy School Meals in London.

Second, make the new Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs) central to delivering a zero hunger city. Food poverty contributes towards health problems like diabetes, malnutrition and obesity that will be priorities for many the new HWBs and they should take strategic responsibility within boroughs over the need to take action on food poverty. HWBs should lead a food poverty action plan and designate a link worker for the multiple organisations responding to food poverty.

We also need to work with schools to reduce child hunger. Schools should identify and address hunger in schools throughout the school day and support families in food poverty. Schools should engage with their local authority’s food poverty link worker, maximise registration and take up of free healthy school meals and use their Pupil Premium money to ensure the availability of free breakfasts and to provide after-school cooking activities.

Finally, get people who need help the help they need. Less than 1 per cent of food bank users are over 65 but increasing numbers of older people are finding it harder to afford food and the level of malnutrition in older people is unacceptably high. Emergency food aid organisations should seek out groups, such as the elderly, that face barriers to accessing their services.

Many food banks now provide advice and support beyond food, for example in relation to welfare, debt and employment. In providing these services, food banks go above and beyond their initial purpose and it is therefore inevitable that this support is not provided by all food banks. Although these services show a welcome recognition of the need to address the long-term needs of clients living in food poverty, food banks cannot and should not be expected to fill what appear to be gaps in state provision.

More needs to be done to get people the help they need, and food aid organisations should liaise with statutory authorities, and vice versa, to ensure people access the support they are entitled to. A key plank is rolling out universal free healthy school meals, as a start we can do this in our primary schools. Southwark, Islington and Newham Councils have already done this, it is possible.

There are solutions to the growing problem of food poverty, food banks should not become a new formal or informal part of our welfare state. We must act to stop people going hungry in the first place.

Fiona Twycross is a Labour Member of the London Assembly.

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.