The decision to prorogue parliament is controversial (and potentially illegal) for many reasons. Chief among them, quite rightly, is Brexit. Like so many others across the country, I have shifted between bewilderment and outright anger that this government in name only thinks that locking MPs out of parliament at this time of national crisis is the right thing to do. And let’s not forget, the decision to prorogue came before the Benn Bill.
Thank goodness for the courageous leadership in the Commons in recent weeks – without it we could have been prorogued and counting down to no deal. Now we have the assurance that we will need to request an extension before we get to that stage… legally, at least. But away from Brexit, there are many other issues plaguing our country, predominately because of austerity.
One issue that has been quietly growing in my community, which I’ve seen through heart-wrenching constituency surgeries, from concerned teachers to worried local heath care professionals, is food poverty. And I know Batley and Spen is not alone in this.
We are well versed in the horrifying statistics about food bank usage. The largest food bank charity, Trussell Trust, revealed that 1.6 million food parcels were distributed by their network of food banks between April 2018 and March 2019, a 19% increase on the previous year. Half a million of these parcels were distributed to children. 33% of food bank users needed support because their income doesn’t cover their essential costs.
Those figures do not include other networks of food banks or independent ones, such as Batley Foodbank that provides for my constituency. With no national backing, just sheer determination and hard work by a host of excellent volunteers, they consistently provide 150 food parcels every single week.
Last year, researchers from the University of Bristol estimated that 8.4 million people in our country were living with insufficient food. The research also revealed over one million people live in ‘food desserts’ unable to access affordable fresh food, raising questions about the long-term sustainability of our food system. And yet no action has been taken by government, despite repeated warnings of food shortages in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
While I am incredibly grateful for the support and generosity of charities, it should not be required. To be able to feed yourself and your family is not some sort of privilege. Access to enough food to keep hunger away should be a basic right.
Which led me to thinking about a fair solution to this growing problem. In other words, is there a Labour solution? And my conclusion was, let’s put a ‘Right to Food Bill’ on parliament’s agenda. The best and often only way to do this as a member of the opposition is through a Ten-Minute Rule Bill, which is exactly what I planned to do.
The bill builds on the great work of my colleague Emma Lewell-Buck, whose campaigning persuaded the government to – at least in part – implement a wide-ranging food insecurity survey. This data cannot sit on a shelf somewhere when my constituents are going hungry.
I want parliament to pass a law that says every person in our country should have the physical and economic right to access high-quality food. From there, the legal and societal changes can be made, and every decision that is made – from council chambers to the House of Commons – would need to consider how that decision would impact this new right.
But we no longer have this opportunity due to prorogation. The decision to suspend parliament was dishonest and reckless. When I think of all those people in my surgeries who have to suffer the injustice of hunger in this day and age, I cannot help but feel it was also vandalism.
Boris Johnson and his cronies may have locked the doors to parliament and in so doing blocked scrutiny, but whether it’s on Brexit or the scourge of hunger, he can’t hide for long. When back in parliament, I’ll be taking steps to get this bill back on the agenda – ideally under a Labour government, after we’ve kicked the Tories out through a general election.