This article was authored by Matthew Turner, Chair of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights, and originally published in The Morning Star on 24th September 2019.
Britain is the fifth-largest economy in the world. We are a world leader in financial and legal services, with the City of London acting as an epicentre of global finance.
We still produce high-quality cars, aircraft, machinery and even steel. Students travel from across the globe to study at our prestigious universities, and millions of tourists come every year to learn about our history. Money is constantly flowing into Britain, and much of it makes its way into the Treasury coffers.
And yet at the same time, in this same country, there are tens of thousands of families who do not have enough food to live.
Nothing illustrates this more than the horrifying increase in foodbank use over the last decade. In 2008 the Trussell Trust, Britain’s largest foodbank charity, handed out 26,000 parcels of food.
In 2018, it was 1.33 million. That is an increase of over 5,000 per cent. This bears repeating: foodbank use has increased by 5,000 per cent in 10 years.
Worse still, this reliance on food aid increases by over 20 per cent during the school holidays. It is estimated that during this past summer up to one million children in Britain may have suffered from “holiday hunger.”
And the stories behind the statistics are heart-breaking. Single mothers regularly skip meals so their children can eat, scraping together pennies for a loaf of bread and pack of butter to make buttered toast. Often at the expense of toilet paper or tampons.
Children are tired and hungry at school, and during the holidays — without free school lunches — may go for weeks without a proper meal. And many foodbanks now have people queuing to receive parcels.
Queues. At foodbanks. In the fifth-richest country in the world.
The situation is so bad that when UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Professor Philip Alston visited Britain in 2018 he described child poverty in this country as “not just a disgrace but a social calamity and an economic disaster.”
Yet the government, in a stunning and sickening act of denial, responded that his report was “barely believable.”
What has caused this epidemic? The answer is plain and simple: austerity. When the Lib Dem-Tory coalition government came into power, it cut welfare spending on families and children by nearly 50 per cent, more than any other cuts as a percentage of their budget.
The cumulative impact of benefit freezes, tax credit reductions and caps to welfare benefits has been to condemn thousands of families to Victorian-style poverty.
These were political choices, not economic necessities. The government took a knife to the whole of the public sector, but nowhere was this done more gleefully than the Department of Work and Pensions.
In the years leading up to the 2010 general election, prominent right-wing newspapers waged a vicious and sustained campaign against welfare recipients, painting them all as undeserving, feckless “benefits scroungers.”
So, it was no surprise that cuts to welfare spending were disproportionately large compared with other areas, such as schools or defence.
But nearly a decade later, now that the effects of austerity have become so painfully clear, the lies that were peddled are laid bare.
Instead of caricatures of scroungers, spongers and chavs, there are just small, hungry children.
But aside from their unflinching cruelty, these welfare cuts were bad economics.
When children struggle to concentrate at school, they are less likely to get good grades and secure decent jobs.
When parents are exhausted at work, they will be less efficient workers and more likely to make mistakes. And when families cannot afford to buy groceries at the supermarket or high street, they are not generating the demand that fuels our economy.
So what is the solution? In May of this year, Human Rights Watch published a hard-hitting report entitled “Nothing Left in the Cupboards” which documented the effects of austerity on the right to food in Britain.
It concluded by calling on the government to treat the right to food as a legally enforceable human right. This would be a bold and effective long-term solution to the hunger epidemic.
But the current government will never do such a thing. The Conservative Party dislikes human rights almost as much as it dislikes social welfare.
Recent manifestos have pledged to repeal the Human Rights Act — which includes rights as basic as the right to a fair trial — so it is hardly likely to introduce a brand-new right to food. The only way to protect vulnerable children and families in the country is with a Labour government.
The Labour Campaign for Human Rights has a bold plan to guarantee the right to food and other social rights.
We have recently launched our Campaign for Social Rights, where we are urging the next Labour government to introduce a Social Rights Act that will enshrine all of our internationally recognised economic, social and cultural rights into law.
This includes the right to food, as well as rights to education, health, housing and work. We believe the right to food is just as important as the right to a fair trial.
Professor Alston concluded in his report that “austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so.”
Labour undoubtedly has the political will to restore critical funding for children and families, but it should go further. By enshrining our social rights into law, Labour can ensure that never again will children go hungry because of a lack of political will.
With a legally enforceable human right to food, there will always be food in the cupboards.