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Economic Justice

UK Government is violating the Human Right to Food

Jonathan Butterworth, Director of Just Fair Consortium, explains why the Consortium believes the UK Government is abdicating responsibility by allowing people in the UK to go hungry.

 

“Poverty is the sinking feeling when your small boy finishes his one Weetabix and says: ‘More, Mummy, bread and jam please, Mummy,’ as you’re wondering whether to take the TV or the guitar to the pawnshop first, and how to tell him that there is no bread or jam.”

 

These are the words spoken by Jack Monroe, the anti-poverty campaigner, who has used food banks in the past, at the launch of the Just Fair Consortium in the Houses of Parliament in June 2013.

 

Since then, food bank usage has increased dramatically. The Trussell Trust confirmed last week that 913,138 people received a minimum of three days emergency food from its foodbanks in 2013-14, compared to 346,992 in 2012-13 and up from 26,000 in 2008-09.

 

Responding to this escalation, the Just Fair Consortium published ‘Going Hungry? The Human Right to Food in the UK’, which finds that the UK Government has violated the right to food and is breaching international law. The report findings have been endorsed by a range of Consortium members, including the Trussell Trust, End Hunger Fast, Fareshare, Trade Union Congress, Crisis, Child Poverty Action Group, Unison, Disability Rights UK, Church Action on  Poverty  and  the Refugee Council.

 

What is the ‘Human Right to Food’?

Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social  and  Cultural Rights (ICESCR) recognises the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing. The UK has signed and ratified, and in so doing is legally bound by the  ICESCR, in particular, the human right to adequate food.

 

According to the Just Fair Consortium report, welfare  reforms,  benefit delays and the cost of living crisis have pushed an unprecedented number of people into a state of hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK.

 

Cost of Living Crisis, Welfare Reform and Benefit Delays

The report says that despite higher food expenditure, people have had  to reduce the amount they eat, and consume poorer quality, unhealthy food; from 2007 to 2012, expenditure on food rose by 20 per cent, but the volume of food consumed declined by 7 per cent, as household incomes for poorer families have been put under greater stress whilst prices have increased.

 

Hunger has been fuelled by the inadequacy of social security provision and the processes providing it. Those already on low incomes have become even poorer by the under-occupancy penalty, the abolition of crisis loans and community care grants and the decision to cap increases in benefits to 1 per cent rather than indexing them to inflation.

 

The squeeze on social security has been compounded by payment delays and sanctions which leave some people with no income at all – 31 per cent of those visiting Trussell Trust food banks do so because their benefits have been delayed, and 17 per cent because of changes to their benefits.

 

The effects of this state of food insecurity are widespread and dramatic. Public health experts have warned that the rise of malnutrition in the UK “has all the signs of a public health emergency”, with a 74 per cent increase in the number of malnutrition-related hospital admissions since 2008-09.

 

Call to action

The Just Fair Consortium calls on the Government to draw up a national right to food strategy and action plan, including an assessment of the ‘state of enjoyment’ of this right. Any further deterioration in income levels which undermine people’s ability to access food, shelter and basic services must be avoided. The Government must close the gap between income and food costs, including  the  introduction  of  employment  legislation  to  ensure  the  minimum  wage  is a  ‘living wage ‘ based on actual living costs.

 

Just Fair is asking the Government to take urgent action to reduce benefit delays, review how benefit sanctions and welfare reforms are being implemented and reduce unnecessary hardship, hunger and distress.  This action could include revising, or terminating, the benefit cap, and indexing benefits to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), in order to reverse the growing gap between benefit levels and food costs. As part of its human rights  duties, we are calling on the Government to mobilise all available resources, and make full use of its tax and spending powers, to deal with the national food crisis.