Two reports too many: it’s time for the right to food

This week, two milestone reports were released on poverty in the UK.  

The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, released his final report following a fact-finding mission to the UK last autumn. Alston details how increasing poverty and an undermined welfare system meant that for many of those he met during his mission the UK, a single unpredictable event can lead to destitution.

His account of the many factors from cost of public transport to low wages which affect people’s ability to afford adequate food, demonstrates the need for the right to food to be taken seriously.

The Human Rights Watch report, ‘Nothing left in the cupboards: Austerity, Welfare Cuts and the Right to Food in the UK’ released this Monday echoes Alston’s findings. The report reveals a surge in families with children needing to rely on food aid provided by charities, exacerbated by erosion of the social security system and failure of the UK government to address increasing levels of poverty.

The report calls for the rising crisis of food poverty to be framed in the language of human rights, in particular as a failure to realise the right to food, which ‘has so far played little role in UK domestic policies.’ It highlights a significant accountability gap as the right to food is not incorporated into UK law, and so those denied their human right to food cannot access a legal remedy. Kartik Raj, the author, commented that ‘everybody has a right to food and a right to be free from hunger, and those are promises that have long gone unrealised in the UK’.[1]

Human Rights Watch recommends that the UK government officially recognises the right to food as a basic human rights, and ensures an effective remedy for violations of the right. This can be achieved by incorporating the right to food into domestic law.. 

An opportunity for the Scottish government to take the lead

These two reports are shaming.  The UK government has pursued policies which have led directly to the rise in destitution and the need for food banks. They also highlight the opportunity for the Scottish government to take the lead by incorporating the right to food in Scottish law. 

Philip Alston applauds the efforts of the Scottish government to protect people from the worst impacts of austerity, in particular its efforts to tackle child poverty. But he also highlights that an accountability gap remains, where there is no recourse for redress for economic social and cultural rights. The recommendations from by the First Minister’s Advisory Group for human rights protection in Scotland, and the commitment by the Scottish government to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are crucial steps towards strengthening human rights in Scotland.

Realisation of the right to food, however, not only requires the government to put measures in place to tackle food insecurity: it underpins a fairer, healthier and more sustainable food system.

The forthcoming Good Food Nation bill is an opportunity to enshrine the right to food in Scots law and guarantee that our citizens can always afford nutritious food.

Blog post by Sofie Quist. Sofie is an LLM student completing her masters in human rights as part of Nourish’s Right to Food project.

[1]Live facebook discussion with Kartik Raj and Philip Alston on 22 May 2019: