Why the government should resist the “minister for X” instinct – even on hunger

MPs are calling for a minister for hunger to tackle food insecurity – but we need changes in policy, not another politician on the Whitehall payroll.

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The government should appoint a minister for hunger, according to MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee. The call comes as one in five children under 15 have been found to live in a food insecure household, which means without reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. And the problem is growing.

“Limited access to food… due to lack of money or other resources” is “significant and growing”, according to the MPs’ report into hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK, claiming Britain suffers some of the highest levels of food insecurity across Europe ­– and is the worst in Europe for the proportion of children under 15 living in severely food insecure homes.

The conclusion? Let’s have an individual minister tasked with fixing this.

The arguments are compelling. Mary Creagh, a Labour MP and the Committee’s chair is concerned about accountability. You can feel her frustration during the Committee hearing, grilling ministers about why they don’t have a joined-up strategy to address hunger in this country. “Zero hunger” is one of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs) that Britain is signed up to implement. But only the Department for International Development mentions hunger in the official plans that each department has to write up for achieving these goals.

“Which Department is responsible for ending food insecurity?” Creagh asked Cabinet Office minister for implementation Oliver Dowden last October. The answer was that it “cuts across a number of Departments” but all Departments are responsible for the SDGs.

Creagh persisted: “Who is accountable? If everyone is responsible, who is accountable?” “The whole of government”, came the reply. “Why are they not lead Ministers?” Creagh boggled. “You are not prepared to make a Minister, a single Minister—not four Ministers, not five Ministers; one Minister—accountable”.

Etc.

Creagh argues that, “taking urgent action at home to tackle hunger and malnutrition” can “only be addressed by setting clear UK-wide targets and by appointing a minister for hunger to deliver them”.

The Committee’s headline recommendation is that this appointment should “ensure cross-departmental action”.

Poverty charities like the food bank network the Trussell Trust are on board. Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, commented: “We fully support the Committee’s call for a minister for hunger and a measurement of food insecurity… To end hunger, we need to understand the true scale of the challenge, and work across government to ensure everyone is anchored from being swept into poverty.”

The Women’s Institute, 77 per cent of whose members donate to food banks, is also backing the plan: “As a first step, the NFWI [National Federation of Women’s Institutes] would like the government to start measuring the scale of the problem, as well as appoint a dedicated food insecurity minister to address the issue root and branch,” said vice chair Ann Jones.

Measuring and monitoring the problem properly by engaging with civil society is crucial. But I’m suspicious of the use of bespoke ministers for societal problems created by the same government who would be appointing the role. It’s a little like marking your own homework.

After all, there’s a minister for women and equalities – and women are still disproportionately hit by austerity, with single mothers being the some of the biggest losers from Universal Credit. This is a result of government welfare policy.

There’s a minister for mental health – but even with the ring-fenced funding for mental health announced this week, we are still dangerously far off the “parity of esteem” promised for the NHS’ treatment of mental and physical health – with a 20,000-vacancy hole in the mental health sector workforce. This is a result of austerity – both the lack of local government funding or a new funding structure for social care, and years of inadequate healthcare spending.

There’s a minister for loneliness – as loneliness is now described as an “epidemic”, with 200,000 old people having not spoken to a friend or relative in over a month and 10 per cent of people aged 16-24 “always or often” lonely. This is partly a result of vanishing community hubs, like youth services (600 youth clubs have closed since 2010) and libraries (more than 478 have closed since 2010), cut by successive Conservative governments.

By making a minister for hunger, you’re unlikely to stop people going hungry, and more likely just giving the government a rhetorical leg-up whenever it’s questioned on food insecurity: We’re doing everything to tackle it, we appointed the UK’s first ever minister for hunger! It is also an excuse for ministers who should be dealing with this problem to palm it off on their colleague with the more relevant job title.

The last thing people without secure food access need is another excuse for their government to pay lip service to helping them.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.