Government cuts to welfare over the past decade have resulted in tens of thousands of poor families in England left without enough food to eat, a clear breach of the government’s duty to ensure adequate food, Human Rights Watch said in a report released this week.
The 115-page report, “Nothing Left in the Cupboards: Austerity, Welfare Cuts, and the Right to Food in the UK,” examines how deep, austerity-motivated cuts to the welfare system, exacerbated by the introduction of the Universal Credit system and other changes, have left many families with children in England going hungry and dependent on food aid from charities. Many of these families are single parent households led by women. Human Rights Watch found that the UK government is failing to meet its duty under human rights law to ensure the right to adequate food.
“The way the UK government has handled its reduction in welfare spending has left parents unable to feed their children in the fifth-largest economy in the world,” said Kartik Raj, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The UK government should ensure everyone’s right to food rather than expecting charities to step in and fill the gap.”
Human Rights Watch focused on three areas in England with high deprivation levels in Hull, Cambridgeshire and Oxford. Human Rights Watch conducted 126 interviews, including with families affected by food poverty, volunteers, and staff in food banks and pantries, and community centre and school staff; analyzed official data and statistics; and reviewed information from the UK government and local authorities.
“Often, I have nothing left at the end of the week,” said a 23-year-old mother from Hull with a 4-year-old daughter who was unable to find employment that fit with her daughter’s school schedule, and relied on a low-cost community pantry which redistributes surplus food from supermarkets. “When you’re a single mum there are very few jobs you can do that let you drop your child to school in the morning, then go to work and be back at 2.30 to pick them up. I skip meals, so my daughter can eat.”
Human Rights Watch found three factors that have driven the surge in hunger in England.
First, successive governments since 2010 have slashed welfare spending in the name of austerity, with support to families and children disproportionately hit. A Human Rights Watch analysis of public spending data shows that between 2010 and 2018 public welfare to assist children and families fell by 44 percent, far outstripping cuts in many other areas of government expenditure. Moreover, the government has capped benefits for families, introduced an arbitrary and discriminatory two-child limit, and for the past four years has frozen annual increases to welfare payments despite rising food prices and inflation.
Second, the government is rolling out a major change to the welfare system, known as Universal Credit, that has exacerbated the hunger crisis by delaying access to initial payments, leaving welfare recipients often waiting weeks without receiving funds. The program also has a punitive system of imposing “sanctions” – withholding payments from welfare recipients – who fail to meet strict targets to prove that they have or are seeking work that are often impossible for people, especially single parents, to meet.
Third, the UK government has largely ignored and failed to act on growing evidence of a stark deterioration in the standard of living for the country’s poorest residents, including skyrocketing food bank use, and multiple reports from school officials that many more children are arriving at school hungry and unable to concentrate. In one group meeting with seven young mothers claiming benefits, four said they were afraid that if they admitted going hungry and openly asked for food aid they could be considered unable to support their children and might lose custody.
The government has recently taken some steps to cushion the blow of some of its hardest hitting policies. It has removed the two-child limit on welfare payments for children born before April 2017, although it remains in place for families with third children born since then. It has belatedly agreed to begin measuring food insecurity nationwide. And it is providing limited funding for breakfasts and school meals outside the school year in some deprived areas
But it has yet to fully acknowledge its own responsibility, and the direct impact of many of its policies, for the hunger crisis or to take adequate steps to address it. In particular, the UK government has done little to address the significant structural problems with welfare policy that leave families unable to put food on the table, Human Rights Watch found.
The UK government’s failure to adequately address the growing hunger problem affecting the poorest parts of the population is a result of concrete policy choices to scale back the welfare state, Human Rights Watch said. The UK government has a duty under international human rights law to ensure the right to adequate food. That means making sure people can afford food, and providing food via assistance programs or a safety net if people are unable to properly feed themselves. By failing to do this, the government is violating the rights of people in the UK who are going hungry.
Successive UK governments though have failed to treat the right to food as equivalent to other human rights, in particular giving people whose right to food has been violated an effective remedy against the government. The UK government should recognize the right to food in domestic law, Human Rights Watch said. It should fully repeal the two-child limit, end delays in accessing payments under Universal Credit, and ensure that benefit payments keep pace with inflation, including the rising cost of food. The UK government should also develop an anti-hunger strategy, including a legal requirement to measure food insecurity and to report the results to parliament.
“This rise in hunger has the UK government’s fingerprints all over it,” Raj said. “Standing aside and relying on charities to pick up the pieces of its cruel and harmful policies is unacceptable. The UK government needs to take urgent and concerted action to ensure that its poorest residents aren’t forced to go hungry.”