“For legally enforceable food rights in the UK”

We reproduce Shami Chakrabarti’s recent speech to the House of Lords on the Right to Food

My Lords, far from being the leveller that some once naively suggested, the pandemic has been a magnifier of every inequality and injustice. So I am grateful to my noble friend the Baroness Lister of Burtersett for convening this debate when so many of us seek a 1945-style new settlement after the hardships of the last year. These many sacrifices – including the ultimate one – have not been distributed with an even hand.

It is now over two years since the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty published his damning report on the state of our nations. Professor Alston described the removal of our social safety net with the “systematic immiseration” of so many as the “tragic consequences.” This has only worsened as a result of Covid-19, despite the UK being one of the wealthiest places in the world.

Millions of parents (including many in work), will skip at least one meal today in order to feed their children.

So I will use the remainder of my time to call for legally enforceable food rights in the UK with corresponding duties and powers for national, regional and local government. If charity alone were considered a sufficient guarantee for basic human needs in the UK, previous generations would not have legislated for universal state schooling or our National Health Service after the horrors and privations of World War II.

Here are some modest initial ingredients of a Right to Food:

  • Every child in compulsory education should be provided with a nutritious, free school breakfast and lunch. If we accept the universal and compulsory requirement that all children under 16 be in school, why break from that principle of care in relation to their meals during the day? Universality avoids the bureaucracy and stigma of means-testing school age children.
  • If school kitchens are to be engines of better nutrition for our children during the day, why should they not be employed as community kitchens at other times for dining clubs, meals on wheels and cookery clubs so as to fight loneliness and isolation, alongside food poverty and obesity?
  • To tackle the invidious choice that too many have to make between food, fuel and other essentials, the Secretary of State should be under a duty when setting minimum and living wages and any social security benefit (on which people are expected to live), to state how much has been notionally apportioned for food. This transparency will aid public and parliamentary scrutiny and ultimately legal accountability.
  • There should be a duty on the Secretary of State (and devolved administrations) to ensure food security, and to take this into account when setting competition, planning, transport, local government and all other policy – and powers to issue compulsory directions in the context of anticipated food emergencies or deserts in either standards or supply.
  • There should be independent enforcement of these rights and duties.

My Lords, we are by definition privileged people. We owe it to our fellow citizens to abolish hunger in these islands for good.

Shami’s speech on video

Image: Official portrait of Baroness Chakrabarti, Source: https://api.parliament.uk/Live/photo/jjCKoH6R.jpeg?crop=MCU_3:4&quality=80&download=true, Author: Chris McAndrew,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

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