Government cuts to social security benefits, for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society, breach international human rights laws by leaving children without enough food to eat, according to a leading human rights watchdog.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says policies like the benefit cap, the freeze to working age benefits, and the failed introduction of Universal Credit, together with other austerity measures introduced over the last decade, have left families without enough money and unable to afford an adequate and healthy diet.
In a summary to its new report titled ‘Nothing Left In The Cupboard’, HRW warns: “Tens of thousands of families in the United Kingdom every year do not have enough food to live on and are turning to sources of non-state charitable aid.
“This new phenomenon of growing hunger for some of the least well-off people in the country, has emerged alongside a wide-ranging and draconian restructuring of the country’s welfare system since 2010.
“With reductions in welfare support year on year, the number of people, including families with children, going hungry is rising at an alarming rate and represents a troubling development in the world’s fifth largest economy.”
It continues: “The right to food is a fundamental human right contained in several international treaties to which the UK has long been committed.
“This right, however, remains unrealized for the increasing number of people, many of whom are families with children, living on the breadline.”
The report warns that charities like food banks have been left to fill in the gaps left in the UK’s failing social security ‘safety net’, after years of politically motivated cuts – many of which have been shown to be crude and ineffective.
The UK’s largest national food bank charity, the Trussell Trust, provided a record 1.6 million food parcels to families in need between April 2018 and March 2019, a 19% increase on the previous year. More than half of these went to children.
Emma Revie, Chief Executive of the Trussell Trust network of food banks, told HRW: “Food banks have tried to stem the tide, but no charity can replace the dignity of people having enough money to afford a decent standard of living.
“The failure to tackle the structural problems at both a national and local level has left people with nowhere else to turn. We have the power to tackle these structural problems as a nation.”
Emma Middleton, a welfare adviser with 15 years of experience, described the impact of benefit cuts on low-income households.
“In the first few years food poverty was not an issue.… You never saw families like that”, she said.
“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.”
HRW says the UK Government has ignored numerous warnings about the impact of its policies, and in spite of growing evidence these policies are exacerbating poverty.
“It is only recently, after almost a decade of implementing these measures, that it began to acknowledge these problems, including for the first time, in February 2019, admitting a possible link between the rollout of Universal Credit and increased food bank use.”
The report calls on the UK Government to “quickly pass proposed legislation to measure household food insecurity”, and “also establish clear responsibility and coordination on a national anti-hunger strategy between the various government departments”.
It adds: “The government will have to re-evaluate the harsh caps, freezes and limits on benefits that have hurt the poorest residents of the UK.
“Otherwise more people will find that they fall below the line from “just about managing” to having to rely on emergency food aid to meet their basic needs.”
Responding to the report, a Government spokeswoman said: “It’s misleading to present these findings as representative of England as a whole.
“We’re helping parents to move into work to give families the best opportunity to move out of poverty.
“And it’s working – employment is at a record high and children growing up in working households are five times less likely to be in relative poverty.
“We spend £95 billion a year on working-age benefits and we’re supporting over one million of the country’s most disadvantaged children through free school meals.
“Meanwhile we’ve confirmed that the benefit freeze will end next year.”