Does the UK need a Minister for Hunger? MPs slam government 'failure' on SDG2

Michael Holder
clock • 6 min read
The government has been criticised for 'turning a blind eye' to hunger in Britain | Credit: Howard Lake
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The government has been criticised for 'turning a blind eye' to hunger in Britain | Credit: Howard Lake

MPs claim there is a 'doughnut shaped hole' in government work on SDG2 to tackle hunger and food security

The UK has among the worst levels of hunger and food insecurity in Europe, and the government is failing to get a grip on what is now a growing domestic problem, particularly among children, a group of MPs will today warn.

Poor oversight has meant the issue has "fallen between the cracks" in government, and an overhaul is therefore needed to ensure all Whitehall departments prioritise action on hunger, according to a new report by Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

Mary Creagh, chair of the EAC, called the rising prevalence of hunger a "scandal which cannot be allowed to continue" in Britain, where she said nearly one in five children under 15 are now living in food insecure homes.

"Many of us are still recovering from Christmas excess but the sad fact is that more children are growing up in homes where parents don't have enough money to put food on the table," said Creagh. "The combination of high living costs, stagnating wages and often, the rollout of Universal Credit and the wider benefits system, means that levels of hunger in Britain are some of the highest across Europe."

The report calls for a new government 'Minister for Hunger' to "ensure cross-departmental understanding and action on this important issue", and lead efforts to make every government department embed the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their long-term plans.

SDG2 sets a global target to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030, and also to ensure sustainable food production, double agricultural productivity, increase investment in rural infrastructure, and deliver proper functioning of commodity markets.

But the EAC report points to a "doughnut-shaped hole" in the UK government's work on SDG2, arguing that it is failing to address the issue within Britain itself, despite a headline commitment from Ministers to 'work tirelessly for the full implementation' of the SDGs both domestically and overseas.

As such the report argues the government should undertake an SDG impact assessment as part of a cost-benefit analysis to help it better communicate the economic benefits of combatting hunger. High profile events such as the Queen's Speech and the annual Budget should also be used to address the problem, the EAC argues.

"Instead of seeing hunger as an issue abroad, the government's New Year resolution should be one of taking urgent action at home to tackle hunger and malnutrition," added Creagh. "This can only be addressed by setting clear UK-wide targets and by appointing a Minister for Hunger to deliver them."

In its inquiry last year, the Committee found food insecurity - defined as being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of food - is a significant and growing issue in the UK, with levels among the worse, if not the outright worst, in Europe.

Moreover, it said the issue was particularly prominent among children, with 19 per cent of under 15s living with an adult who is moderately or severely food insecure, of whom half are severely food insecure. Those particularly vulnerable to hunger include the unemployed, those on the lowest incomes, families with children, single parents, and people with disabilities or illnesses.

The findings chime with growing reports of people facing hunger in the UK, where some headteachers are reportedly seeing malnourished pupils coming into school. The UN's rapporteur on poverty and human rights was also heavily critical of government policies after a high profile visit to Britain late last year.

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Today's EAC report is similarly damning in its assessment of the UK's track record, arguing the government "is turning a blind eye" to food security problems in the UK as it "continues to see hunger and food insecurity as overseas issues". It also raises wider concerns about the lack of government progress towards all 17 of the UN SDGs, which cover a raft of issues including health outcomes, climate action, sustainable consumption, and biodiversity protection.

Not for the first time, MPs suggests Whitehall governance is at the root of the problem, pointing out that the Department for International Development (DFID) is the only department which addresses hunger in its long-term strategy, leaving "significant gaps" in domestic accountability.

Today's study follows a previous EAC report in 2017, which also offered a withering analysis of UK progress on the SDGs, arguing the government had "no strategy or vision" for delivering the goals domestically.

Last summer each department in Whitehall published its own Single Departmental Plan (SDP) setting out priorities, objectives, progress, performance, and money allocation. But while a number make reference to individual SDGs, none covered SDG2 on hunger, according to the EAC, which said the SDPs were in any case "wholly inadequate" as a means of delivering the goals in the UK.

Therefore, a government Minister is needed to take the lead, ensure accountability and work with civil society to explore the scale, root causes and impact of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in the UK, the MPs argue. A framework for better measurement of hunger and food insecurity levels in the UK and the impact of government welfare policies, should then be drawn up with the help of the Office for National Statistics in order to assess progress.

Moreover, each government department should have clear targets set in line with the SDGs in their Plans, which should consider hunger in parallel with issues such as obesity, for which the government has an existing, separate strategy, the report recommends.

Emma Revie, chief executive of UK charity the Trussell Trust, which campaigns against hunger and runs a network of over 420 foodbanks, said she fully supported the EAC's calls for a new Minister for Hunger and better measurement of food insecurity levels in Britain.

"A failure to address the root causes of poverty has led to soaring need for food banks, with more than 1.3 million food parcels provided to people by our network last year," she said. "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."

A statement from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) made no mention of the SDGs, and did not respond to any of the EAC report's specific recommendations.

However, it pointed to statistics showing one million people in the UK had been lifted out of poverty since 2010, including 300,000 children. It also said it was providing free school meals and Healthy Start Vouchers, in addition to its £90bn a year spend on working-age welfare.

"Household incomes have never been higher and the number of children living in workless households is at a record low, but we know there's more to do ensure that every family has access to nutritious, healthy food," the statement said.

It is not the first time the government has faced criticism over its progress towards the SDGs, amid fears Whitehall lacks leadership and accountability on a number of the issues covered by the wide-ranging goals.

Some businesses and food retailers - Tesco, for example, and Dutch food supplier DSM - have been exploring how to support SDG2, having recognised that the goals can be integrated with existing sustainable agriculture, food waste reduction, and healthy eating strategies. A growing number of businesses have also acknowledged that where there is poverty or food insecurity, there are also fewer customers and fewer healthy, happy employees to work with.

But with fears over food shortages in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit that could also squeeze UK jobs and wages, it appears government efforts to combat hunger - not to mention the wider SDG agenda and its 17 goals - are in urgent need of greater leadership.

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