The government has violated the human rights of tens of thousands of poverty-stricken families by allowing them to go hungry, a damning report from Human Rights Watch has claimed.
Through a programme of swingeing austerity-era cuts and the introduction of Universal Credit, ministers have failed in their duty to ensure citizens have enough to eat, the organisation said, warning of a “surge in hunger”.
In 2018/19, foodbank network the Trussell Trust handed out 1.6 million emergency food packages – a 19% increase on the previous year. More than half a million of the packages went to children.
“This rise in hunger has the UK government’s fingerprints all over it,” said Kartik Raj, a Human Rights Watch researcher. “Standing aside and relying on charities to pick up the pieces of its cruel and harmful policies is unacceptable.”
The report represents the first time an international human rights group has studied the issue of food poverty in the UK.
Researchers interviewed 126 people – including families affected by food poverty, foodbank staff and teachers – and analysed official data and statistics, focusing on the areas of Hull, Cambridgeshire and Oxford.
The study named austerity as one of the driving forces behind rising food poverty in England, with the analysis revealing a 44% drop in public welfare spending on children and families between 2010 and 2018.
Meanwhile, families have been hit by the benefits cap and the introduction of the two-child limit, the organisation said.
“The way the UK government has handled its reduction in welfare spending has left parents unable to feed their children in the fifth-largest economy in the world,” Raj added.
A number of young mums interviewed for the report said they were unable to admit to authorities they were going hungry over fears their children could be taken from them.
The report named Universal Credit as another major factor in rising hunger, condemning delays in payments and the sanction system, while also accusing the government of “largely ignoring” skyrocketing foodbank use.
While it has recently softened the rules around the two-child limit and has started to provide limited funding for school meals outside of term time in deprived areas, the government must do much more to address growing hunger, Human Rights Watch said.
The organisation has called for an anti-hunger strategy, as well as an end to delays in accessing Universal Credit payments.
“The UK government needs to take urgent and concerted action to ensure that its poorest residents aren’t forced to go hungry,” Raj said.
But a government spokesperson said it was “misleading” to prevent the findings of the study 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,” they said.
“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.”