Born in Hammersmith, he is the second son of veteran Labour MP Tony Benn and educationalist Caroline Benn. He studied Russian and East European Studies at the University of Sussex and went on to work as a policy researcher for two trade unions, ASTMS and MSF. After joining the Labour Party, Benn was elected as a councillor on Ealing Borough Council on which he served for several years, rising to the rank of deputy leader, and was also the unsuccessful Labour parliamentary candidate for the Ealing North constituency twice. After the 1997 general election, Benn was appointed as a special adviser to David Blunkett before winning a by-election in Leeds Central in 1999.
Benn became a junior minister in the Department for International Development in 2001, being re-shuffled to the Home Office in 2002, and returning to International Development in 2003. Later in 2003, he was appointed as the Secretary of State for International Development, where he was responsible for the reconstruction efforts in Iraq, the UK's response to various natural disasters around the world, and also seeking a solution to the War in Darfur, among other responsibilities. In 2007, Benn was a candidate for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. In 2007, Benn was appointed as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, serving until 2010. One of his main focuses in this role was combating bovine tuberculosis.
Since Labour's defeat at the 2010 general election, Benn has served on the front bench in four separate shadow cabinets, those of Harriet Harman, Ed Miliband, Harman's second shadow cabinet, and Jeremy Corbyn. Immediately following the Labour Party leadership election in 2010, he continued as Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but was appointed as Shadow Leader of the House of Commons later in the year, serving until a reshuffle in 2011. He was then appointed as Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, serving until the 2015 general election. After Douglas Alexander failed to win re-election, Benn was appointed as Shadow Foreign Secretary, maintaining this role after Corbyn's election as leader. He was dismissed from this position by Corbyn on 26 June 2016, precipitating a number of shadow cabinet resignations.
Born in Hammersmith, London, he is the second son of former Labour Cabinet Minister Tony Benn and American-born educationalist Caroline Benn (née DeCamp). Benn is a fourth-generation MP – his father, his paternal grandfather Lord Stansgate, and his great-grandfathers Sir John Benn and Daniel Holmes were all Members of Parliament, mostly with factions of the Liberal Party.
Benn attended Norland Place School, Westminster Under School, Holland Park School and the University of Sussex where he graduated in Russian and East European Studies. Benn has an older brother, Stephen, a younger sister Melissa and younger brother, Joshua. Reflecting on his upbringing, he said: "I grew up in a household where we talked about the state of the world over breakfast, when we ate at night, and all points in between."
After graduation, Benn became a research officer with the ASTMS and later became Head of Policy for Manufacturing Science and Finance. He reportedly applied for head of Labour Party research under the leadership of John Smith, but was unsuccessful.
In 1980, he was seconded to the Labour Party to act as a joint secretary to the finance panel of the Labour Party Commission of Inquiry. In 1979, he was elected to Ealing Borough Council where he served as deputy leader from 1986–90.
He was the Labour Party candidate for Ealing North at the 1983 and 1987 general elections. On both occasions he was defeated by the Conservative candidate Harry Greenway. Reflecting on the defeat at the 1983 general election, Benn said: "That was a formative experience for me because we went out on the doorstep and we didn't win the public's confidence. It made me very uncomfortable. Personally, that left a mark on me."
At the 1997 general election, Benn was on the shortlist for the seat of Pontefract and Castleford, but eventually lost to Yvette Cooper. Following the 1997 general election, Benn served as a special adviser to David Blunkett, then the Secretary of State for Education and Employment.
In 1999, Benn was selected as the Labour candidate for the Leeds Central by-election, 1999 following the death of Derek Fatchett. During the by-election campaign, he described himself as "a Benn, but not a Bennite". Benn won the by-election on 10 June 1999 by just over 2,000 votes, following a turnout of 19%, the smallest turnout at a by-election since World War II. Regarding the turnout, he said: "The turnout is very disappointing and in a democracy this is a concern for all of us."
He made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday 23 June 1999. He was re-elected as MP for Leeds Central at the 2001, 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2017 general elections. He shares premises for his constituency office with Richard Corbett, a Labour Member of the European Parliament.
Following the 2001 general election, Benn was appointed as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for International Development. In 2002, he was reshuffled to become the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Prisons and Probation in the Home Office, serving as a deputy to Lord Falconer as Minister of State (Criminal Justice). At the Home Office, he led a task force investigating internet paedophilia, which subsequently recommended the introduction of the new offence of 'grooming'. In January 2003, he had responsibility for introducing the Sexual Offences Bill in the House of Commons.
In May 2003, he was moved from the Home Office back to the Department for International Development, where he served as Minister of State. He also acted as the Department's Commons spokesperson, as then-Secretary of State for International Development, Baroness Amos, was a member of the House of Lords.
In 2003, Benn was promoted to the cabinet from his position as Minister of State to become Secretary of State for International Development, after Baroness Amos was appointed as Leader of the House of Lords. When he informed his family, his father Tony said that "The house rocked with delight." Following his first Department for International Development (DfID) question time, Benn was criticised by Liberal Democrat international development spokesperson Tom Brake over his comments about opening Iraq up to foreign investors.
The Guardian noted that one of Benn's main challenges as Secretary of State for International Development would be the "fraught reconstruction of Iraq". In February 2004, Benn said that restoring security in Iraq would be "absolutely fundamental" to a reconstruction effort.
Benn oversaw the DfID response to the 2003 Bam earthquake, which included "helping to coordinate efforts on the ground, liaise with other international relief organisations and work with the Iranian government to ensure that the right equipment gets to where it is needed as quickly as possible." He subsequently oversaw the UK's response to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the 2005 Nias–Simeulue earthquake, which he responded to "with skill".
In July 2004, Benn set out five stages to end the War in Darfur that had begun in February 2003. The stages were: "to get help to the people in the camps and elsewhere", "to get more people and more capacity on the ground to deliver this aid", "security – urgently", getting the "government of Sudan ... to disarm the militias and provide security to the people" and "Finally, this crisis needs a political solution". On 13 June 2005, he committed an additional £19,000,000 to the African Union security mission in Darfur, bringing the total UK contribution to £32,000,000. Benn led the UK negotiating team at the 2006 Darfur peace negotiations.
Benn was also a critic of the United Nations at times. In December 2004, he called for reform of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNHCA), and also said that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was "supposed to coordinate but does not have the power of resources to do the job properly". Benn has also been credited with helping to found the Central Emergency Response Fund.
Benn played an important role in increasing the UK's foreign aid budget and securing debt relief for the poorest countries at the 31st G8 summit.
In 2007, the New Statesman noted that "Benn's work at DfID ... has often been at odds with the Bush administration". In particular, an example was Benn's opposition to the United States policy of increasing abstinence when it came to fighting AIDS in Africa, whereas Benn took a "harm reduction" approach. He was also dismissive of US policy, saying: "Abstinence-only programmes are fine if you want to abstain, but not everybody does."
In late October 2006, Benn announced that he would be standing in the 2007 Labour Party Deputy Leadership election. One of his earliest backers was Dennis Skinner, and it was also announced that Ian McCartney would play an important role in his campaign. On 6 December, an open letter was published in The Guardian signed by six Labour parliamentarians that said Benn's election as Deputy Leader could rebuild a "coalition of trust" in the Labour Party.
In 2007, Benn was the bookmakers' favourite for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. Early polls in the deputy leadership contest showed him to be the grassroots' favourite – in a YouGov poll of party members, Benn was top with 27%, followed by Education Secretary Alan Johnson with 18%, Environment Secretary David Miliband with 17%, Justice Minister Harriet Harman with 10%, and Labour Party Chair Hazel Blears with 7%. The contest was launched on 14 May 2007 after the resignation of incumbent deputy leader John Prescott, Benn had some difficulties securing the necessary 45 nominations required to get on the ballot paper but he acquired the support needed to join five other candidates—Hazel Blears, Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson, Peter Hain and backbencher Jon Cruddas. Supporting nominations from constituency Labour Parties showed Hilary Benn obtaining 25%, Jon Cruddas 22%, Harriet Harman 19%, Alan Johnson 14%, Hazel Blears 12% and Peter Hain 8% of the constituency parties that voted. The contest closed on Sunday 24 June 2007 with Harriet Harman winning. Benn was eliminated in the 3rd round of voting having reached 22.33% of the votes. Harriet Harman was elected in the 5th round with 50.43% of the vote.
In 2007, Benn was appointed as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, following the election of Gordon Brown as Party Leader, and the promotion of David Miliband to Foreign Secretary. As Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it was his responsibility to respond to the threat to cattle from Mycobacterium bovis, colloquially referred to as bovine tuberculosis (TB). The recommended option from the Chief Scientific Advisor until 2007, Sir David King, was a badger cull. In April 2010, a badger cull was announced in Wales, after the high court in Cardiff rejected a legal challenge from The Badger Trust.
During the parliamentary expenses scandal, Benn was picked out by several national newspapers as one of only three senior members of the Labour Party to have presented expenses beyond reproach. "When all Westminster MPs' total expenditures are ranked, Benn's bill is the fifteenth least expensive for the taxpayer," said The Guardian.
Benn served as Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2010 during Harriet Harman's interim leadership of the Labour Party. In the Shadow Cabinet of Ed Miliband, announced on 8 October 2010, he was appointed Shadow Leader of the House of Commons. When Miliband reshuffled his cabinet on 7 October 2011, he was named Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
After the 2015 UK general election, in the Second Shadow Cabinet of Harriet Harman, Benn was named Shadow Foreign Secretary, after the previous person, Douglas Alexander, lost his seat to Mhairi Black of the SNP. On 17 June, Benn deputised for Harriet Harman at Prime Minister's Questions, when David Cameron was overseas in Europe, and Benn was Harman's unofficial deputy. One of the questions he asked challenged George Osborne, who was deputising for Cameron, over whether HMS Bulwark was under active review as revealed in a report by The Guardian. Writing for the New Statesman, George Eaton commended Benn's performance, saying: "Benn smartly denied the Chancellor the chance to deploy his favourite attack lines by devoting his six questions to national security and the Mediterranean refugee crisis, rather than the economy."
In September 2015, both leadership and deputy leadership elections took place in the Labour Party. Benn supported Caroline Flint in the deputy leadership election, and Andy Burnham in the leadership election. Following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party in September, Benn retained the role of Shadow Foreign Secretary in Corbyn's shadow cabinet, and stressed that Labour would campaign to remain in the EU "under all circumstances". This was later affirmed by a joint statement released by both Benn and Corbyn, which said that "Labour will be campaigning in the referendum for the UK to stay in the European Union."
On 20 September, Benn signalled that Labour could back Prime Minister David Cameron's plans for airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria: "What we've said consistently is that the government, if it has got a proposal, should bring that to the House of Commons. In relation to airstrikes, we shall look at the objectives. At the moment we don't know what the proposal is ... We will judge that against the objective, the legal base ..." In November 2015, after the Paris attacks that had occurred a few days earlier, Benn initially agreed with Corbyn's position rejecting the proposal for Britain to launch airstrikes against ISIL in Syria and any intervention. However, Benn subsequently supported plans laid out by the Prime Minister, and said he would not resign over his disagreement with Corbyn because he was "doing [his] job as the Shadow Foreign Secretary". Benn had voted in favour of the Iraq War in 2003 and the 2011 military intervention in Libya, but voted against military intervention against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2013.
On 2 December 2015, Benn made the closing speech for the official opposition in the House of Commons debate on airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. The speech opposed the position espoused by Corbyn against the government's motion. The speech was applauded by MPs on both sides of the house, a gesture not usually permitted in the Commons. Along with a minority of shadow cabinet colleagues, he voted for airstrikes in Syria and the motion passed by a higher-than-expected majority of 174 votes. Benn's speech was described as "one of the truly great speeches in Commons history". Speaking to the BBC the following day, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell compared Benn's speech to that given by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003 ahead of the Iraq War. McDonnell described it as an "excellent" piece of oratory, but added: "The greatest oratory can lead us to the greatest mistakes." According to Labour MP Jamie Reed, following his speech, in the eyes of Corbyn, Benn became "at best a rebel, at worst a traitor."
In January 2016, Benn criticised British involvement in Saudi Arabian-led military intervention in Yemen after a leaked UN report concluded there had been "widespread and systematic" attacks on civilian targets in violation of international humanitarian law.
On 25 June 2016, The Observer revealed that Benn "called fellow MPs over the weekend to suggest that he will ask Corbyn to stand down if there is significant support for a move against the leader. He has also asked shadow cabinet colleagues to join him in resigning if the Labour leader ignores that request." During a phone call in the early hours of 26 June, Benn told Corbyn that Labour MPs and shadow cabinet members had "no confidence in our ability to win the election" under his leadership. Corbyn then dismissed Benn from his position as Shadow Foreign Secretary. In a statement issued at 03:30, Benn said: "It has now become clear that there is widespread concern among Labour MPs and in the shadow cabinet about Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of our party. In particular, there is no confidence in our ability to win the next election, which may come much sooner than expected, if Jeremy continues as leader." Later in the morning, Heidi Alexander, the Shadow Secretary of State for Health, also resigned. Throughout the day, a further eight members of the shadow cabinet resigned.
In September 2016, Benn announced his intention to stand for chairman of the new Exiting the European Union Select Committee, a House of Commons select committee. He stated that his intention was to "get the best deal for the British people". His bid was supported by former Labour leader Ed Miliband, as well as other senior Labour Party figures including Angela Eagle, Dan Jarvis, and Andy Burnham. His opponent in the bid was Kate Hoey, a fellow Labour MP and a Leave vote supporter. The result, announced on 19 October, was 330 votes to Benn, and 209 to Hoey, so Benn became the new chairman.
Benn supports the maintenance of a nuclear deterrent in the UK.
In 1973, whilst at university, Benn married fellow student Rosalind Caroline Retey. She died of cancer aged 26 in 1979. Benn subsequently married Sally Christina Clark in 1982. He has four children.
Like his father, who died in March 2014, he is a teetotaller and vegetarian.
Benn was shortlisted for the Grassroot Diplomat Initiative Award in 2015 for his work on increasing aid at DfID, and remains in the directory of the Grassroot Diplomat Who's Who publication.