Damning report accuses Government of failing to ensure families' right to food

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The Government is breaching its human rights duty to ensure adequate food for families, a new report warns.


Volunteers at the Wisbech food bank, Cambridgeshire make up an emergency parcel suitable for a large family. Sometimes they offer families with children an extra £5 voucher for a local butcher or greengrocers. PHOTO Kartik Raj/Human Rights Watch

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 universal credit and other changes to the benefits system, have left many families with children unable to afford food and turning to charities for help. Many of these families are single parent households led by women, it finds.

The report by Human Rights Watch concludes that that the Government is failing to meet its duty under human rights law to ensure the right to adequate food.  

According to the non-profit organisation (NGO), the right to food is understood to be an ‘integral part of the right to an adequate standard of living’. However, it says this right has so far played ‘little role’ in UK policies.

It goes on to blame the rise in reliance on food aid over the last decade on the former and current governments’ focus on achieving savings by reducing the welfare budget, which has been ‘disastrous’ for poor families’ living standards and their access to adequate food.

The NGO points to three policies that have had a particular detrimental impact as the caps on benefits, freezing the rate at which benefits increase, and limiting child tax credits to just two children. It says that the transition to universal credit has also been ‘harmful’.

The report, which includes interviews with families living in areas of high deprivation in Hull, Cambridgeshire and Oxford who are affected by food poverty, comes ahead of the release of the final report on the UK by Philip Alston, the United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty, on Wednesday.

Family accounts of food poverty

Joanne, a 47-year-old single mother of four, was interviewed at Wishbech Food Bank in Cambridgeshire by Human Rights Watch. She said, ‘The only time I come [to the food bank] is if my benefits have been stopped or cut. I had a sanction once, so they stopped the payment completely. I’ve had cuts to my benefits.

‘At least the children get a hot meal at school. But they break up for half-term on Friday. And until my money gets sorted, it’s going to be a long few days. As a parent you really feel like you’ve let your kids down.  I’ll have to gather my pennies together for a loaf of bread and 50p of butter, so they have some toast.’

Another mother from Hull who has a four-year-old daughter and was unable to find employment to fit around school times, said, ‘Often, I have nothing left at the end of the week. 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 to pick them up. I skip meals, so my daughter can eat.’

Human Rights Watch also interviewed volunteers and staff at food aid projects and professionals working in education and family support.

Emma Middleton, a welfare advisor with 15 years' experience in Hull told the organisation, ‘In the first few years food poverty was not an issue. What we see now is a constant stream of food poverty. Benefits haven’t kept up with inflation, and you can’t survive on welfare. A few years ago, we used to be able to help people with an answer, direct them somewhere for help, but increasingly there’s not much we can do. The safety nets to which we used to direct them, which they may not have known about, aren’t there anymore.’


Human Rights Watch puts forward the following 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 UK goes hungry. It should ensure an effective remedy for those whose right to food has been violated by state action or inaction.
  • The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should take immediate steps to abolish the two-child limit on benefits and universal credit.
  • The DWP should consider revising the current system in which universal credit payments are made in arrears.
  • The Treasury should adopt policies to ensure the relevant welfare benefits are not ‘eroded’ by inflation and rising living costs.
  • The Government should establish a cross-departmental working group to review the human rights and policy implications of escalating levels of food poverty to take responsibility for developing a nationwide anti-hunger strategy.


Author of the report, Kartik Raj-western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, ‘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.

‘The UK government should ensure everyone’s right to food rather than expecting charities to step in and fill the gap.

‘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.’

 A Government response has been requested.

  • Human Rights Watch's report is available here
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