Why End UK Hunger?

In this excerpt from our new report Why End UK Hunger?, Dr Hannah Lambie-Mumford, Kartik Raj and Pete Ritchie say that the UK must live up to its commitment on the right to food.

The right to food is one of our most basic human rights, which everyone in the UK should be able to exercise. The right to food was set out in the United Nation’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which the UK government ratified in 1976, meaning that the UK is obliged to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food.

In practice, this means:

  • the state must respect existing access to adequate food and not take action which would prevent this access;
  • it must protect the right by making sure that other enterprises or individuals do not deprive people of access to food;
  • and should fulfil the right by facilitating peoples access to food and food security and, when necessary, provide the right directly.

The public policy implications of this are far-reaching. The obligation to progressively realise the right to food for all extends across policy spheres, with implications for social security, trade and labour laws, planning and development, health, nutrition and beyond. Emphasis is on states as they are party to the ICESCR, but human rights approaches do highlight the role played by all actors in a society, including individuals, families, communities, non-governmental organisations, civil society and the business sector.

The right to food is achieved when “every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement”. Achieving food security for all is therefore a prerequisite for the realisation of the human right and the approach sets out the rights and responsibilities, legal and institutional frameworks required to achieve it. Specifically, a right to food approach suggests states take several key steps to ensure tangible progress is made towards the realisation of the right to food – which have so far been lacking in the UK. This includes undertaking a right to food consultation in order to articulate the right to food in the UK context, developing framework laws (setting out legal provisions and obligations and well as targets, timelines and accountability processes), and establishing an institutional framework for the monitoring and assessment of progress.

Importantly, however, a human rights approach situates food as one critical element in the broader right to an adequate standard of living, as enshrined in article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This reminds us of the interconnectedness of different rights and the importance of a focus upon systematic public policies, entitlements and guarantees surrounding the range of elements necessary to achieve an adequate standard of living. It is important, then, for the right to food to be understood in relation to other social and economic rights including the right to housing, the right to social security and medical care, the rights of a child and women’s rights. Keeping in mind the role of food in the right to an adequate standard of living can help avoid creating right to food silos where food is interpreted as the principle problem and solution.

Prospects for the right to food in the UK

The rise of food charity in the UK in recent years at first sight indicates that the prospects for the progressive realisation of the right to food may not be bright. The lack of legal and institutional frameworks through which the right can be realised persists. Welfare reforms, which have reduced social security entitlements and increased conditionality, are particularly problematic with respect to the UK state’s obligations to protect and fulfil the right to food. The rise of food charity indicates that in the UK today food banks and other charitable providers are in practice assuming an increasingly significant role in the fulfilment of the right to food. This is extremely problematic from a human rights perspective.

Yet, there have been some recent moves which suggests that a human rights-based approach could be gaining some support across different political and policy spaces. The Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have both adopted right to food commitments as they head into the next election. The Scottish Government has also been consulting on the place of the right to food in future food-related legislation. There is also a growing civil society movement calling for the human right to food to be recognised and realised which includes Sustain, Nourish Scotland, Just Fair and Human Rights Watch. Crucially, as things move forward it will be important to keep in mind the interdependency of different rights and the place of the right to food within the broader right to an adequate standard of living. Systematic public policies, including social security, which are based on entitlements, will be critical to protect people from the harshest effects of poverty, such as hunger, and facilitate full and equal participation in society, including through socially acceptable food experiences.

Dr Hannah Lambie-Mumford, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sheffield


From ‘ending hunger’ towards a ‘right to food’

The right to food is not aspirational. It isn’t a concept that only applies when discussing development aid outside the UK. It is a part of the UK’s duties under international law and should apply at home too.

The right to food exists as a protection that applies to all people as part of the right to an “adequate standard of living” guaranteed by the foundational UN treaty on social and economic rights. It also exists on its own in specific UN treaties – each one signed by the UK government – which specifically protect the right to food or nutrition of children, people with disabilities, and pregnant and breastfeeding women. Despite UK governments having ratified these treaties, adequate protection of the right to food does not yet exist in UK domestic law.

Families across the UK are going hungry, as Human Rights Watch has documented, in the context of severe cuts to governmental spending on social welfare. It is high time to talk about food insecurity and poverty in human rights terms.

So why the reticence until now about using rights language to take on this issue?

The hesitation in recent years to frame arguments in “rights” terms, focusing instead on “social justice”, may be result of a fear of a backlash, because of the way some of the UK’s press has portrayed human rights in the most cynical and polarising terms.

Human Rights Watch-commissioned focus group research with people in the UK shows, however, that when presented with a list of human rights, they feel strongly about their right to a decent standard of living, but were largely unaware that it was a human right.

Local food aid and welfare advice providers should be empowered to talk clearly with their service users about why insisting on absolute basics, like having enough food, that we all need for a dignified life is a human rights issue, so in time those receiving such support have the tools to assert themselves as rights-holders.

Legislators need to be courageous and make the right to food enforceable in UK law. This would mean that the government would be bound by its own laws to ensure every person has adequate food, and if it were to fail in this duty, victims of violations would be able to hold government to account. This change in culture towards a society in which citizens can demand this basic right from the state is long overdue.

And in these turbulent times, when marginalised people may feel disenfranchised from politics and ignored by those in power, remembering that the need to eat is something we all have in common can serve as an important anchor for a society that cares about its most vulnerable members.

Kartik Raj, Human Rights Watch


The right to food – a perspective from Scotland

Measurement of food insecurity in Scotland (using three questions from the Food Insecurity Experience Scale) has been measured for the last two years as part of the Scottish Health Survey. It shows how entrenched the problem has become, with 13% of lone-parent households and 12% of single-adult households reporting having run out of food in the last 12 months.

The Scottish Food Coalition – a group of more than 30 civil society organisations, faith groups and trade unions – has been calling since 2016 for the right to food to be brought into Scots law. This of course goes wider than simply tackling food insecurity, requiring government to take a cross-cutting approach to ensure that everyone can afford to put adequate healthy sustainable and culturally acceptable food on the table.

The First Minster’s Advisory Group recommended in December 2018 the full incorporation of economic, social and cultural rights in the next Scottish Parliament. However, there is a sound argument for incorporating the right to food in this Parliament through the Good Food Nation bill which will be introduced in 2020. This is supported by the Scottish Human Rights Commission’s response to the consultation on the Good Food Nation bill earlier this year:

“The Commission believes there are strong legal and policy drivers for the incorporation of the right to food in Scots law. As well as being a driver for improved outcomes for people, providing access to justice as required, the incorporation of the right to food through this legislation will be a driver for the implementation and progressive realisation of other rights, such as the right to social security or right to health. A right to food framework will assist in providing the needed cohesion across multiple policy areas from health, education, social security, agriculture. Ultimately, it would act as a catalyst and driver of change towards a stronger human rights culture in Scotland.”

Pete Ritchie is Director of Nourish Scotland