“Hunger is a political choice”: Ian Byrne MP on campaigning for the right to food

Elliot Chappell
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

“I wake up at night, fearful about what’s going to happen to 55,000 people in my constituency and across the country,” Ian Byrne tells me. The Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby launched the right to food campaign almost two years ago and warns me that, even before the cost-of-living crisis properly hits, many families are in an “untenable” predicament. 12 million cannot afford to put a meal on the table, and 4.5 million children are going to school hungry. A third in Liverpool are living in food insecurity, he tells me. The picture Byrne paints is a dark one, and one he is worried is set to get worse – “brutal”, as he puts it.

Byrne launched the campaign in November 2020 with the Fans Supporting Foodbanks national network. In March 2021, the campaign made five ‘asks’ in its submission to the National Food Strategy, a review set up to address the “worst cracks” in the British food system. The campaign called for: 1) universal free school meals; 2) community kitchens; 3) reasonable levels of benefits and minimum wage payments with transparency on how much of that has been apportioned for buying food; 4) a duty on the government to ensure food security; and 5) oversight and enforcement of that duty with a new independent regulatory body.

Byrne highlights two elements in particular as we chat: free school means and welfare. The first will have a “huge impact”, and any benefit paid to people simply must “guarantee the recipient the ability to survive”. While the second ask seems like the bare minimum any government should do, it simply isn’t the reality for many, many people. Ministers were warned before they slashed the Universal Credit payment by £20 a week that the move would plunge 840,000 more people into poverty, including 300,000 children – and yet they pressed ahead regardless. And while things are bad now they are set to get even worse, Byrne warns: “The situation that we find ourselves in as the UK is unparalleled for a long, long time, and the cost of living crisis is going to be terrifying for millions and millions of people.”

The next step for the campaign is an open letter to Rishi Sunak, Byrne tells me, to be sent to the Chancellor just ahead of the spring statement on March 23rd. He outlines what the letter will say: “Where we are now, the situation millions are finding themselves in – you’ve got to do something radical. You cannot be tinkering around the edges.” Every local authority that has declared themselves a right to food area has been asked to back that call. It’s about forcing Sunak to use the same “levers” as he pulled during the pandemic.

But Byrne tells me that, despite his efforts to build cross-party support and foster a sense of urgency, the calls being made by right to food activists are simply “falling on deaf ears”. That this is an “apolitical” campaign is important to Byrne. He says this is not about “Labour on Tories” and is keen to emphasise that point to the government. “I went to a meeting with the minister the other month, and I said I’m not here on a sectarian mission, I’m here on a humanitarian mission – to tell you what’s happening in communities like mine across the country and for yous,” Byrne explains. As to why ministers do not seem to be responding to the lived realities of so many, the Labour MP has a simple explanation: “Either they don’t care or they’re that far up their own arses in their ivory bubble of Westminster.”

He pinpoints some of the major problems stopping government from tackling hunger: “The complete lack of accountability from government, the lack of empathy, the lack of any sort of strategy, and everything they do at the moment is tinkering around the edges.” Departments are “passing the hunger ball” around, he says, with nobody taking responsibility or control. He recently asked Boris Johnson about the UN sustainable development goal to eradicate hunger by 2030, but says the Prime Minister “didn’t even know he’d signed up to the agreement”.

While there is plenty to be said for blaming incompetence rather than ideology here, Byrne is adamant that politics cannot be taken out of this issue. 40 years of capitalist, post-Margaret Thatcher thinking has created the “perfect storm”, he says. The explosion of food banks is “directly connected” to the “collapse of our welfare system”, but it has equally been prompted by 40 years of economic drivers that now mean work doesn’t pay. “Hunger is a political choice, and they are choosing hunger over the alleviation of hunger to millions of people,” he says. “When the Chancellor – at a sweep of a pen without a murmur of discontent – writes off £4.3bn of bad Covid loans and there’s not any kick back from anybody, but as soon as you ask for their intervention to stop people from starving or freezing to death in their homes, you know – it’s like the worst thing.”

I ask what support Labour is giving the campaign. “I’ve had some very excellent conversation with their MPs,” he says. He also explains he has spoken to the shadow DEFRA team and shadow minister Daniel Zeichner. “But at the moment I haven’t spoke to Rachel Reeves about it yet.” He points out that a commitment to introducing a legal right to food was in the last Labour manifesto and a conference motion has been passed on it since. But other policies from the 2019 manifesto have been set aside and Keir Starmer recently gave a speech distancing himself from it. Byrne seems unconcerned. “The noise, the clamour – rightly so – of what we’re going to see in our communities means that it’s gonna have to be within the manifesto,” he says. “I’m confident that it’ll be in there.”

I do not doubt the public outcry will be loud and cannot help but think about the “brutal” times to come. Anyone involved in their community or in local government – or anyone who has simply walked past a food bank recently – cannot fail to notice the dire predicament facing many people. The urgency is palpable, as Byrne tells me: “We need to keep our people afloat. We need to put massive political pressure on the government to look at what’s actually happening in our communities – and they need to act with the same urgency that they acted with Covid.”

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