The UK currently lacks a legal mechanism for enforcing the right to food. British MPs and activists are fighting for this basic right to be enshrined into law - making the government legally responsible to help anyone who is going hungry.
The ambition for a Right to Food builds upon the tireless work of many activists who have been fighting for this legally enforceable right for several years. Our own campaign was born on the streets of Liverpool with football fans coming together to tackle food insecurity, challenge austerity and defend their community. Ian Byrne MP and Dave Kelly, both campaigners at the time, formed Fans Supporting Foodbanks (FSF); with football fans from Liverpool and Everton FCs collecting food at football games to support local food banks initially. They have grown a national grassroots network establishing links across the country with Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Leeds and London. For the past six years they have been distributing food across the cities in response to the ever-growing crisis of hunger which has intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Right to Food Campaign recognises that food banks are a sticking plaster over a gaping wound and that systemic intervention is required to tackle it. We seek Government accountability and for access to food to be a legal right for all. The 10 million people currently living in food poverty in the UK must be at the heart of any National Food Strategy and the priority of the first independent review of our food system for 75 years. To that end, FSF started a petition on 10 December (International Human Rights Day) 2020.
The campaign was brought to Parliament by Ian Byrne MP (West Derby) with an early day motion supported by 59 MPs. On 20 January 2021, Liverpool declared itself the first “Right to Food City” in the UK. The City Council called for a Right to Food to be incorporated into the National Food Strategy. In a matter of days, it received endorsements from across the city including Liverpool and Everton FCs, faith leaders, businesses, charities and members of the public. This has subsequently resonated with communities across the UK, gaining the support of Trade Unions and with the list of Right to Food cities and towns now including: Liverpool, Manchester, Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Tameside, Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Trafford, Wigan), Liverpool Combined Authority (Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens, Wirral), Rotherham, Brighton and Hove, Haringey, Newcastle, Portsmouth.
The Case for Enforceable Food Rights in the UK
It is now nearly two years since the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty issued his powerful report on the UK, describing the removal of our social safety net with the “systematic immiseration” of so many as the “tragic consequences”. This crisis of food poverty in one of the wealthiest places on the planet means that millions of people will skip at least one meal today so as to ensure that their children are fed. The time for sticking plasters - such as reliance on thousands of food bank and pantry volunteers and donors - is over, as we seek to shape a post-Covid future for our society so that all our people might live with the opportunity of health, happiness and dignity.
Child poverty in particular, has not improved for decades, with one in three children (three to four million), living below the poverty line and missing out on normal activities such as having a birthday party, new stationary for their studies or participating in school trips. Before the pandemic, 70 per cent of these youngsters had at least one parent in work. As the effects of the virus and attempts to control it have hit the poorest hardest in terms of jobs and income, the picture is likely to be even worse now.
In recognition of the impact on children, 1250 UK healthcare professionals have signed a statement from Dr Ian Sinha, Consultant Respiratory Paediatrician at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and Professor in Child Health, to call out the unacceptable crisis of food poverty and supporting the enshrining of the right to food into UK law. Food poverty leads to health and life expectancy inequality, malnutrition, obesity and a host of other related problems, including even long term epigenetic changes. It will affect children’s educational attainment and life chances. Less measurable but no less important, is the effect on individual human dignity and social cohesion over time in our polarised nations of food banks next to investment banks. The last year has demonstrated that in the face of new threats and challenges, society is only as resilient as its most vulnerable and its mechanisms for caring for everyone.
If reliance on charity alone were considered a sufficient guarantee for basic human needs in the UK, previous generations would not have legislated for universal state schooling and the National Health Service after the horrors and sacrifices of World War II. Whilst the UK is signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, domestic legislation is required to make such rights real and enforceable so as to prevent the reoccurrence of situations such as:
- The initial refusal of Government to provide children with free school meal vouchers during the holidays.
- Clinically vulnerable and shielding adults not being guaranteed food parcels during lockdown.
- Proposals to cut Universal Credit to levels that would demonstrably force even greater resort to food bank usage.
Food needs to be practically in reach for everyone by way of wage and benefits levels, pricing, direct provision, or a combination of all three. Earlier discussion explains that this is currently far from the case.
This food must be sufficient in quantity, safety and nutritional content. We need little more than some of the images of state funded food parcels sent to children earlier in the pandemic by private contractors to understand that legal duties are required.
The experience of the pandemic and Brexit suggest that in the face of other challenges such as climate emergency, there is a need for legal duties and powers for Government in relation to securing food security for all the people of the UK. This relates to production, supply and distribution. There are too many “food deserts” in which people lack reasonable access to outlets stocking reasonably priced nutritional food. Over the last year we have seen shortages and panic buying. Supermarket delivery slot allocation has been chaotic and insufficient to ensure that all shielding and self-isolating people obtained priority and guaranteed provision.
Proposed Ingredients of a Right to Food
In caring, confident and aspirational countries, a right to food should not just be a safety net but a rope ladder to ever-higher standards of provision. We propose the following as an extremely modest and deliverable beginning:
1. UNIVERSAL FREE SCHOOL MEALS
Every child in compulsory education should be provided with a nutritious, free school breakfast and lunch. This will be a legal duty upon the Secretary of State and devolved governments which in turn must be executed by the providers of state school education. There will be those who say that we “cannot afford to do this”. We say “how can we afford not to?” If we accept the universal and compulsory requirement that all children up to the age of 16 be in school, why do we break from that principle of universal care, nurturing and protection in relation to their meals during the school day? We would think it absurd that children not be provided with adequate shelter, heating, drinking water and sanitary provision whilst in school. Why take a different approach to the equally essential elements of learning materials and food? The evidence of better concentration, behaviour and learning when properly nourished is irrefutable. Breakfast clubs already operate with considerable success in various places. Universal provision matches the ethos and aspiration of our education system. It further avoids the bureaucracy and stigma of means-testing our school-age children.
2. COMMUNITY KITCHENS
A great deal of wasted resource and potential stems from the segmented and outsourced nature of so many public services. If school kitchens become an engine of better nutrition for our kids during the day, why should they not be equally well-utilised during evenings, weekends and school holidays? There should be a legal framework of duties, shared by national, and local government as well as state-funded schools themselves, to provide “community kitchens”; providing dining clubs and “meals-on-wheels” for the elderly and vulnerable, school holiday meals for those most in need and cookery clubs and lessons for the wider community. This policy might be as powerful a tool in tackling loneliness and social isolation as in tackling food poverty and obesity in our nations.
3. REASONABLE PORTIONS IN BENEFITS AND WAGES
To tackle the invidious choice that too many people have to make between food, fuel and other essentials every day, the Secretary of State should be under a duty when setting minimum and living wages and any relevant social security benefit (on which people are expected to live), to state how much of the prescribed sum has been notionally calculated for food. This transparent figure can then be subject to public scrutiny, parliamentary debate and ultimately review in the courts (on the application of a relevant regulator or other interested party).
4. ENSURED FOOD SECURITY
There should be a duty on the Secretary of State (and devolved administrations) to ensure food security for our nations and to take this duty into account when setting competition, planning, transport, local government and all other policy. There should be corresponding powers to issue compulsory directions to private parties in the context of anticipated local, regional or national “food emergencies” relating either to food standards or supply.
5. INDEPENDENT ENFORCEMENT
The various new rights and duties outlined above will only be meaningful if accompanied by sufficient oversight and enforcement powers granted to a new independent regulatory body. This could take the form of an enhanced and additionally resourced combined Food Standards and Security Agency. However, the precise agency or agencies is less important than independence, powers and duties, adequate resourcing and the ultimate ability to seek final recourse through the courts. The history of the post-war period (not least since the decimation of civil legal aid), teaches us that rights without enforcement powers and resources can be very hollow indeed. Further, this expert independent regulator will be better positioned than individual citizens, civil society campaigns or even the courts by themselves, to lead the discourse around holding all future governments and other relevant actors to account in the discharge of their duties around essential food rights for all the people of the UK.
IAN BYRNE MP
Dr IAN SINHA
FANS SUPPORTING FOODBANKS
FOR THE RIGHT TO FOOD CAMPAIGN
UK: what happened to the right to food? by Benjamin Selwyn, Le Monde Diplomatique, 20 October 2021
Sign the petition: Make access to food a legal right - no one in the UK should go hungry