Putting food on the table: the human right to eat in the fifth richest country in the world

On World Social Justice Day, Elliot Marcus, law graduate and human rights advocate, explains why the Government must uphold the right to food

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As a society, we believe in justice and compassion. That, as we grow up, we should have the same chance to get on and succeed in life – whether we’re from the Cheshire countryside, or the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent.

For most of us, this starts with having enough to eat, proper clothing, and a safe place to call home. But what happens when we can’t put enough food on the table? Who can – and should – step in to help?


Food poverty exists in Britain.

Here in Britain, one in five children suffer from what UNICEF call ‘food insecurity.’ This means that their families lack secure access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. More than eight million British adults struggle to get enough to eat, and almost five million of us have gone whole days without eating.

These are quite shocking figures. But the most surprising thing about them is the indifference that they have inspired in our government’s welfare policy. Despite our uncertain access to the most basic resources we need to survive, the government today are taking support away, rather than giving more out. Last year it was confirmed that working age benefits would stay frozen until 2020. It is estimated that this will reduce the overall welfare budget by about £13bn in real terms, just at the time when our country needs it the most.


We have a human right to food.

But in the last few years, more and more members of the legal community have started to question the legality of these cuts. While a democratically elected government can and should enact the laws that they please, once these policies start to impact people’s ability to access adequate and healthy food for themselves and their families, this becomes an issue of rights more than policy.

Under international law, the government have an obligation to put in place the infrastructure to provide food for those who cannot provide it for themselves and if the policies of this current government are failing to do this, then they are affecting our ability to enjoy our human right to food.


What is the human right to food?

In 1976, Britain ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).  This means that our Government legally recognises “the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger” (Article 11).

This also means that our Government must act to secure the human right that:

“Whenever individuals or groups are unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to food by the means at their disposal, States have the obligation to fulfil (provide) it, for example by providing food assistance or ensuring social safety nets for the most deprived.”

Jonathan Butterworth, an advisor to the British Institute of Human Rights, explains this commitment in incredibly plain terms. He says that “the Government is legally required by the ICESCR to secure the human right to adequate food for everyone in the UK”.

But the government are failing to do this. Cuts in welfare allowances and the lengthy waiting times associated with Universal Credit have all but stripped our country of its ‘social safety net’. While the government would have you believe that this is an issue of policy and economics, it is also an issue of the law. The government have made these obligations, and they are legally bound to fulfil them.


The recession

The government’s justification, though, is the trade deficit. They say that the country’s finances are so dire that there are no other options but to cut back on welfare and that the rise in food insecurity is an unfortunate side-effect of our budget deficit. But even when our country needs to tighten its belt, our human right to food must still legally be met. As Professor Geraldine van Bueren says

“Where a State faces severe resource constraints caused by a process of economic adjustment or recession, measures should be undertaken to ensure that the right to adequate food is especially fulfilled for vulnerable population groups and individuals.”

In Britain today though, statistics show that it is organisations like The Trussell Trust that have stepped in to help these vulnerable individuals. But while food banks are doing a fantastic job, they should not be the ones plugging the holes left by the welfare state. To solve hunger, the government are required to recognise and adhere to their responsibilities under international law.


The Government needs to act.

Our human right to food means that the Government needs to act. Right now, there are millions of people in this country who do not enjoy their human right to food, as described by the UN and ratified by the UK.

This is more than an issue of policy. It’s an issue of human rights and human decency. As a society, we have a moral responsibility to make sure that everyone has enough to eat. And as a signatory to ICESCR, our Government has a legal one.