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Food for thought

26 May 2023 5 minute read
Huw Irranca-Davies. Picture by Senedd Cymru.

Huw Irranca-Davies, MS for Ogmore

The call goes out: “What do we want? A Food Bill! When do we want it?

When we’ve decided what it’s for, and what we can do now without having to wait for a new law”.

Okay so the end-bit is not as catchy as “We want a Food Bill Now!” but it’s where we got to yesterday after Peter Fox’s Food Bill proposal ended it’s run in the Senedd.

Parts of his proposals had warm support across the Siambr, but ultimately it was voted down.

That rejection is always hard to take, as people pin their hopes on a law to solve all problems.

There were lots of good reasons why it didn’t proceed, and it’s noticeable that not one of the big three committees which reported on it could throw their full collective weight behind it for a variety of reasons.

In my own personal comments (not as a chair) I pointed out that the bill was not a “classic” niche Backbench Bill but actually had the scale and scope of a full-blown government bill with all the complications and resourcing implications of that, but it also (amongst other issues) carried financial uncertainties and some doubts over delivering the desired outcomes – these matters had been highlighted in detailed committee scrutiny.

The ambition to transform the way we do food policy was entirely laudable though. We do need to do this, and urgently. The question is whether the proposed legislation would deliver it or distract from that aim.

Peter and the big coalition of interests behind the food bill proposal shouldn’t be disheartened. There is a real head of steam which has now gathered behind a properly joined up food policy which is cross-government (all levels) and cross-sectoral and society, and which delivers multiple over-lapping benefits tackling some of the greatest challenges facing society, the economy and the natural environment.

Starting point

But the starting point should never be to ask can we create one all-encompassing law to change the world of food policy. There’s a more a fundamental question first: what can we do right now, without waiting for a law.

So let’s dive deeper into this, with some of the questions which I and others put to the Minister in the debate yesterday.

Instead of a law to set up a new Food Commission with uncertainty over costs and overlapping responsibilities and bureaucracy, is the newly appointed Future Generations Commissioner open to re-focussing on food policy and outcomes as part of his developing brief?

He is currently doing a refresh on priorities. Now’s the time to make the case.

The Minister announced in the debate – in an explicit acknowledgment of the need for more joined-up work across government – that the First Minister will chair a cross-Government forum on food policy.

What will be the details of this? How powerful will it be (though the FM Chairing it gives weight undoubtedly to this)? What transparency will there be, and which committee/s will scrutinise the forum’s work and outcomes? How will we measure results?

Some of the answers may lie in the Minister’s new commitment to publish and update periodically a cross-portfolio document for stakeholders that would “summarise our wide range of food policies and how they join up across policy areas and the well-being goals.” Senedd committees will want to get their teeth (no pun intended) into cross-government food policy and delivery.

Cross-party group

Which brings me to the next question. Is there now the need for a powerful new cross-party group on food which is not simply a meeting place for views and ideas on food policy, but a CPG which has two very specific aims: firstly constructive challenge for government to act now on what they should be delivering without the need for legislation, and holding government to account on showing rapid results; secondly, to bring scope out and build the case to government for necessary new legislation on food.

I do believe there is a need for law and/or regulation on Food. We missed an opportunity on procurement law recently, where we should have gone further by insisting – like other countries – that fresh and local produce is prioritised in our schools and hospital and right across all public sector settings; we need to explore whether the right to food and the principles of food justice can be embedded in law (a Cooperative Party ask, by the way); there will be other matters which will also require statutory underpinning, I am sure.

Heaven knows food policy is one of the pressing issues of today and this generation.

It will define whether we are successful in tackling the rising health challenges including obesity and diabetes, restore nature and biodiversity  through the way we produce food, bring resilience to farmers and food producers and communities by shortening food miles and creating local food networks, improving diets, boosting local economies, building pride and understanding of local food and food cultures, and so much more.

The Food Bill has produced some much-needed momentum and political focus, has rapidly built a useful “coalition of the willing” on food policy with diverse and expert input, and has won an acknowledgement in government that more needs to be done across government and wider society.

So my final question after the Senedd debate and vote this week is simply this: was that it?

Or do we seize the opportunity, work with this coalition to transform food policy in Wales starting right now – and also to shape and advocate for new laws where needed? I truly hope it’s the latter. I and others will be keen to play our part.

Huw Irranca-Davies is the Labour and Cooperative MS for Ogmore

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David Smith
1 year ago

I was a member of the Food Standard Agency (Wales) Food Advisory Committee when the Western Mail published my article over 20 years ago calling for a Food Policy Council in Wales, which surprisingly was not well received. I still believe this could be an important first step with the Toronto Food Policy Council being an iconic model requiring serious attention  Significant changes are required at the UK level to support Public Health Nutrition in Wales. The UK Labour are now consulting on their next General Election manifesto. Food Policy proposals appear weak and refer to supporting farmers, environmental… Read more »

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