AN international human rights watchdog has accused the UK Government of implementing welfare policies that are denying thousands of families with children enough to eat.
Over the past decade, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), Government cuts to welfare benefits have left tens of thousands of poor families in England without enough food. This is a “clear breach” of its “duty to ensure adequate food”, the organisation said.
Nothing Left in the Cupboards: Austerity, Welfare Cuts, and the Right to Food in the UK examines how cuts to the welfare system, implemented since 2010 as part of the Government’s austerity agenda has hit some of the poorest families in the country.
The situation is exacerbated by the introduction of Universal Credit and other changes, HRW says. This has left many families with children in England going hungry and dependent on food aid from charities. Furthermore, many of these families are single parent households led by women.
“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, HRW’s Western Europe researcher. “The UK Government should ensure everyone’s right to food rather than expecting charities to step in and fill the gap.”
HRW said it found three factors that have driven the “surge in hunger”:
- Successive governments since 2010 have slashed welfare spending in the name of austerity, with support to families and children disproportionately hit. Between 2010 and 2018 public welfare to assist children and families fell by 44%, HRW says. 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
- The roll-out of Universal Credit has exacerbated the hunger crisis by delaying access to initial payments, leaving welfare recipients often waiting weeks without receiving funds. The programme also has a “punitive system of imposing sanctions” – withholding payments from claimants – who fail to meet strict targets to prove that they have or are seeking work. These are often “impossible for people, especially single parents, to meet”
- 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 foodbank use, and multiple reports from school officials that many more children are arriving at school hungry and unable to concentrate
“This rise in hunger has the UK Government’s fingerprints all over it,” Raj added. “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.”
This isn’t the first time the Government has come in for stern criticism of its welfare policies. Last year, UN special rapporteur Philip Alston published a damning report on extreme poverty in the UK, which child poverty campaigners called a “wake up call”.
Meanwhile, over the years a host of charities, thinktanks, campaigns, and parliamentary committees have generated shelf-loads of reports examining the shortcomings and impact of the Government’s welfare reforms.
Last month, the Trussell Trust, which operates a network of foodbanks across the country, revealed that April 2018 to March 2019 had been the busiest year for its networks since the charity opened. In that time, its foodbanks provided 1.6 million three-day emergency food parcels to desperate people. More than half a million of the recipients were children. This was an 18.8% increase on the previous year, it said. Over the last five years, demand has soared by 73%. Welfare changes are cited as one of the main factors driving this rise.
“What we are seeing year-upon-year is more and more people struggling to eat because they simply cannot afford food. This is not right,” said Emma Revie, the Trussell Trust’s chief executive.
“Enough is enough. We know this situation can be fixed – that’s why we’re campaigning to create a future where no one needs a food bank. Our benefits system is supposed to protect us all from being swept into poverty. Universal Credit should be part of the solution but currently the five-week wait is leaving many without enough money to cover the basics. As a priority, we’re urging the Government to end the wait for Universal Credit to ease the pressure on thousands of households.
“Ultimately, it’s unacceptable that anyone should have to use a food bank in the first place. No charity can replace the dignity of having financial security. That’s why in the long-term, we’re urging the Government to ensure benefit payments reflect the true cost of living and work is secure, paying the real Living Wage, to help ensure we are all anchored from poverty.”
The Human Rights Watch report, then, pretty much follows the same theme, albeit for an international audience. The organisation’s report focused on three areas in England with high deprivation levels. These were in Hull, Cambridgeshire and Oxford.
Researchers carried out 126 interviews with families affected by food poverty, volunteers and staff in foodbanks and pantries, along with community centre and school staff. They also analysed official data and statistics and reviewed information from central and local government.
HRW said it acknowledges that the Government has recently taken some steps to “cushion the blow” of some of its hardest hitting policies. It has, for instance, 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, HRW adds, the Government is 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 organisation says 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.
“The UK Government has a duty under international human rights law to ensure the right to adequate food,” the organisation says. “That means making sure people can afford food, and providing food via assistance programmes 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.”