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Austerity, welfare cuts and the right to food

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Human Rights Watch, report, food poverty, austerity, welfare cuts, government policy, hunger in the UK, The UK provides no legal remedy for those who are denied the right to food.

A report Human Rights Watch released recently has examined how the shocking rise in food poverty and the government’s failure to ensure that England’s poorest families and children do not go hungry has intersected with a far-reaching restructuring of how the welfare system works, and austerity-motivated reductions in government expenditure on the welfare budget for children and families.

The analysis in this report, Nothing Left in the Cupboards: Austerity, Welfare Cuts, and the Right to Food in the UK, is limited to cases in England, although the UK government’s international responsibility for ensuring human rights treaty compliance extends the whole of the UK.

This report is Human Rights Watch’s first project explicitly focused on obstacles to ensuring the right to food, as part of the right to an adequate standard of living, in the context of a welfare system in a rich democracy with a relatively well functioning rule of law system.

The right to food, understood as an integral part of the right to an adequate standard of living, the report points out, exists in international treaties to which the UK is a state party, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

It is also set out in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) 1996 Rome Declaration – a document the UK helped pioneer – and subsequent voluntary FAO guidelines.

And yet, the right to food, as a human right, has so far played little role in UK domestic policies.

It is not part of the UK’s domestic Human Rights Act.

And the UK has not incorporated the ICESCR into domestic law and provides no legal remedy for those who are denied the right to food.

In public debates, the term “human rights” is rarely mentioned when discussing people’s reliance on sources of assistance for food such as food banks, community pantries, pilot projects for children in deprived areas, and low-cost redistribution schemes.

The report makes several recommendations:

The government should announce publicly that it accepts the right to food as a basic human right, and part of the human right to an adequate standard of living, and accept its duty to ensure that no one in the United Kingdom goes hungry.

The government should ensure an effective remedy (including legal protection) for those whose right to food has been violated by state action or inaction, so that they can effectively challenge government policy and laws to ensure that everyone has access to adequate food, and that those who do not receive compensation;

The Department for Work and Pensions should take immediate steps to abolish the discriminatory two-child limit policy, both as it applies to “legacy” benefits and as it will apply to future Universal Credit claimants in households with more than two children, and in the interim disapply it to ensure that it no longer affects any child whether or not they were born before April 2017.

The Department for Work and Pensions should also consider revising the current system in which Universal Credit payments are made in arrears, to either:

Make Universal Credit payments in advance, with no penalty for, or recovery of, overpayment from the first payment; or

Offer a one-off, non-recoverable, grant-like payment to cover the period between entering the Universal Credit system and receiving the first payment, and thereafter continue to pay benefits in arrears.

This grant should include a cash component, and could also include vouchers redeemable at food retail outlets (supermarkets and convenience stores, rather than food banks).

The Treasury should adopt policies to ensure that relevant welfare benefits are not eroded by inflation and rising living costs (including the cost of food) and thus reducing assistance to beneficiaries.

The government and MPs should support draft legislation seeking to develop a statutory requirement to measure and monitor food insecurity, with periodic reporting to parliament.

The government should establish a cross-departmental working group under the supervision of the Cabinet Office comprised of senior representatives of all relevant departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Department for Education, Department for Health, HM Revenue and Customs, and the Treasury, at  the very least, to review the human rights and policy implications of escalating levels of food poverty, to ensure better coordination between ministries and government agencies, and to take responsibility for developing a nationwide anti-hunger strategy.

The government should also establish a cumulative human rights impact assessment of post 2010 tax and welfare restructuring, which is independent of government, with particular attention to impact on people with specific additional protections under domestic anti-discrimination laws and those arising from international human rights treaty obligations.

And the Department for Work and Pensions should use the opportunity of the current pause in rollout of Universal Credit to review structural failures rather than focusing primarily or solely on delivery and implementation problems.

The Department for Work and Pensions should also review the rollout of Universal Credit, with particular attention to areas with documented increase in food bank usage, including examining the possibility of allowing Universal Credit recipients who are pregnant women or families with dependent children to request a return to prior “legacy” welfare benefit arrangements for a fixed period until the rollout schedule is finalised.

And it should consider removing the benefit cap, or increase it so it maintains parity with 2010 levels in real terms, and introduce an explicit prohibition on applying benefit sanctions to pregnant women claimants or claimants with young dependent children.

The right to food is a fundamental human right contained in several international treaties to which the UK has long been committed.

That this right remains unrealised for the increasing number of people, many of whom are families with children, living on the breadline is shocking and needs to be addressed.

To read the full report, click here.

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