21st century Britain needs a ‘Minister for Hunger’, with more than two million people – including one in five children – now undernourished and welfare ’reform’ largely to blame, a damning Commons committee report reveals.
The report from the Commons environmental audit committee has been released just weeks after Tory MPs were criticised for using Christmas constituency food bank drives as photo opportunities.
Benefit delays and sanctions related to Universal Credit are highlighted by the committee as key drivers of hunger, alongside cuts to social care – with food bank use cited as increasing by 52% in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out for longer than 12 months, its report says.
Junior Work and Pensions minister Justin Tomlinson comes in for withering criticism over his “misguided and ill-judged” optimism in defending Universal Credit – a defence cited as an example of the government’s ‘blind eye’ to reality.
The environmental audit committee heard evidence that more than two million people in the UK were food insecure – meaning they struggle to eat regularly and healthily – with an estimated 19% of all under-15s living with moderately or severely food insecure adults.
That, the committee said, demonstrated the need for a ‘Minister for Hunger’.
Instead, the report accuses government of “turning a blind eye” to hunger in the face of evidence ranking the UK among Europe’s worst for food insecurity.
“Despite the need for joined-up cross-government action, hunger and food insecurity has fallen between the cracks in government plans,” the report says.
That near two million undernourished includes up to a third of people admitted to hospital, up to 42% admitted to care homes and a fifth of those received into mental health units, the committee said.
Ironically, as the report references, the UK is a signatory to the UN Sustainable Development Goals agenda – adopted in 2015 – with its aim of ending hunger and ensuring access to safe and nutritious food.
Where the agenda applies to developed and developing countries alike, the committee accuses government of failing to meet its international commitments.
The report secured support from the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (WI), which surveyed more than 4,000 women’s institute volunteers to see more than two-thirds had donated to food banks and community food aid projects in the past month.
Ann Jones, vice-chair of the NFWI and chair of its public affairs committee, said food poverty is a “very real” issue.
“We have found from our survey that WI members are taking the initiative and donating to food banks and other organisations in their communities,” she said.
“Whilst it is heartening to see the public stepping in like this, this is really just a sticking plaster, and there is only so much that can be expected from civil society.”
Child Poverty Action Group chief executive Alison Garnham said: “We already have a minister responsible for our social security system which, on any basic understanding of its role, is meant to prevent poverty, destitution and hunger in this country.
“That we should need reminding of the UN’s sustainable development goals in such a rich country is a scandalous development.”
Anna Taylor, executive director of the Food Foundation thinktank, said: “The (report) is right to state the urgency of a comprehensive national response to household food insecurity in the UK.
“We need an approach that considers the shared causes and consequences of food insecurity, hunger, malnutrition and obesity.”