By Rosie Sourbut, Labour Hunger activist, anti-austerity campaigner and Labour parliamentary candidate for Oxford West & Abingdon
As we prepare for the election on 12 December, we are excited here at the Labour Hunger Campaign about the progress Labour has made on food poverty policy – and optimistic that we can achieve even greater progress. Food poverty is a national emergency, with the Trussell Trust reporting its steepest ever increase in food bank use and 200,000 hospital bed days each year taken up as a result of malnutrition. This is unacceptable in a society as wealthy as ours. It is directly related to the Tories’ brutal agenda of reduced social security, benefit delays and sanctions, and privatised, inaccurate benefits assessments. This election must be about ending hunger.
Since the Labour Hunger Campaign was created, Labour has announced several policies in line with our goals. It will end the five-week wait (in practice often much longer) for Universal Credit; reform the monthly payment system that sets vulnerable people up to fail; and abolish the harsh sanctions regime. The benefit cap, the freeze on benefits, the two-child limit, the bedroom tax – all will be gone under a Labour government. Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman’s conference speech in September set out an agenda to halve food bank use within a year of taking office and end the need for food banks completely within three years – in marked contrast to the likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who have called food banks ‘fantastic’ and ‘uplifting’. A future where food banks are no longer needed is something we must all campaign for in the run-up to this election.
Hayman also announced that Labour would embed the right to food in law, underpinned by a national food strategy. We welcome this acknowledgement that the state, not charity, is responsible for enabling access to a nutritious, sustainable diet. Tackling food poverty is not just about ensuring that people are fed; it is about ensuring they are fed with dignity. People who are forced to turn to food banks often feel shame, even to the point where they cannot bring themselves to go there. This is why Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to make a radical shift from a system that ‘punishes and polices’ people to one that treats them with ‘dignity and respect’ is so significant. To underline this, Labour will rename the Department for Work and Pensions the Department for Social Security.
This reform must mark the start of a major cultural change. We need to create a positive vision of the welfare state – one that recognises that we all benefit from a fair and compassionate welfare system and that without it we cannot flourish as individuals nor as a society. Changing the language of the welfare system, as Labour is starting to do, is an important first step. Labour should now have the courage to build on that by publicly challenging the demonisation of benefits claimants and working to demolish the toxic scroungers-versus-strivers narrative beloved of the Tories.
Furthermore, Labour must pledge that the new Department for Social Security will be given a statutory duty to seek out and prevent destitution so that nobody is ever again left without the means to support themselves. Far from being a radical proposal, this was included in the National Assistance Act 1948, before being dismantled by legislation from the Thatcher governments and the Coalition government. If we want a better, fairer society we must, as Jeremy Corbyn has said, start from the principle that no one should be destitute.
Food poverty in the UK is not inevitable. It is not about a shortage of food. It is not the result of food waste. It is the consequence of a social security system that fails to provide people with the means to support themselves. There has been a national outcry at the existence of food banks in this country, but no government action. Labour has the policies in place; now it must put ending hunger at the heart of the election campaign.