Britain struggles with food poverty
02:37 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The UK government is violating its obligations to ensure families have enough food to live on, according to a damning new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Monday’s report said austerity-motivated cuts to the country’s welfare system since the Conservative Party took power in 2010 have left thousands of families with children without adequate food. As a result, families have become reliant on aid organizations.

“The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world. It really beggars belief that in this country increasing numbers, year on year, of families are going hungry,” Kartik Raj, HRW’s Western Europe researcher and author of the report, told CNN.

“The government has really shirked its responsibility in terms of protecting the rights of people to food,” Raj continued. “The government has a responsibility to make sure that every single one of its residents enjoys the right to food, that they have an adequate standard of living.”

The report delved into food insecurity in Hull, Cambridgeshire and Oxford, three areas of England with high deprivation levels.

HRW visited the areas to document how welfare changes and cuts to government funding have impacted Britons, conducting 126 interviews with families, volunteers and staff at food banks. The group also examined official government data and statistics.

Dependence on charitable aid has surged in the last 10 years with a 5,146% increase in emergency food packages distributed, the report said, citing statistics from the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest national food bank charity.

One 23-year-old mother from Hull revealed she has skipped meals so her four-year-old daughter can eat, according to a statement from HRW.

“When you’re a single mum there are very few jobs you can do that let you drop your child to school in the morning, then go to work and be back at 2.30 to pick them up. I skip meals, so my daughter can eat,” said the mother who relies on a low-cost community pantry that redistributes surplus food from supermarkets.

HRW outlined three key reasons hunger has skyrocketed in Britain. The group analyzed public spending data and found successive governments since 2010 have cut public welfare funding by 44%, “outstripping cuts in many other areas of government expenditure.”

The report also condemned the overhaul of the welfare system known as Universal Credit – a government program for people on low incomes that replaces many previous benefits and tax credits, combining them into a single payment.

A file photograph of volunteers at London foodbank preparing food parcels in 2017.

Thirdly, the report slammed the UK government’s apparent snub of “growing evidence of a stark deterioration in the standard of living for the country’s poorest residents, including skyrocketing food bank use, and multiple reports from school officials that many more children are arriving at school hungry and unable to concentrate.”

A government spokesperson rejected the report’s findings as “misleading,” in a statement to CNN.

“It’s misleading to present these findings as representative of England as a whole,” the spokesperson for the UK Department for Work and Pensions said. “We’re helping parents to move into work to give families the best opportunity to move out of poverty. 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 ($120 billion) a year on working-age benefits and we’re supporting over 1 million of the country’s most disadvantaged children through free school meals. Meanwhile we’ve confirmed that the benefit freeze will end next year.”

A free hot meal is served by volunteers from Refugee Community Kitchen to people outside Camden Town Underground Station on April 17 in London, England.

UK named Europe’s worst offender

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly attacked the government for neglecting the country’s poorest citizens. In November, he wrote to Prime Minister Theresa May slamming her government’s response to a recently published UN Special Rapporteur’s report into poverty in the UK.

“The UN report should be a wake-up call about the rising levels of poverty and destitution that exist in Britain today – this is a national emergency,” Corbyn wrote, adding that the “government shames our nation by being condemned for its neglect of its poorest citizens.”

“Austerity was a political choice and the UN Special Rapporteur has laid out the consequences of your Government’s policies. These policies have hit disabled people, women and BAME communities particularly hard,” Corbyn continued, using a British term for Black, Asian and minority ethnic people.

In January, the British Medical Journal put out a report that said food insecurity in UK was among the worst in Europe, particularly for children.

A protester stages a food bank demonstration in central London in 2017 in London.

Billy McGranaghan, founder of Dad’s House, an organization assisting single fathers, told CNN of his distress at seeing so many families on the breadline.

“Poverty is everywhere, it’s universal,” McGranaghan said on Friday shortly after dropping off a food parcel to a property in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of capital’s most affluent areas.

“No one understands the poverty in Kensington and Chelsea, especially south of the borough, where it’s all stucco buildings and beautiful houses. But around the corner there’s a housing estate where families are on Universal Credit and they don’t have anything.”

His voice broke as he recalled going into homes and talking to parents who are struggling to get by.

“When you see the poverty with the children, they haven’t (got) enough, it gets to you,” he said with tears in his eyes.

HRW acknowledged that some steps had been taken by the government to alleviate the impact of its welfare policy changes but said more needed to be done.

It suggested fully revoking the two-child limit on some welfare payments, preventing delays in accessing Universal Credit payments, ensuring that payments keep up with inflation rates and incorporating the rising cost of food.

It also called on the government to come up with a strategy for combating the hunger crisis, “including a legal requirement to measure food insecurity and to report the results to parliament.”

Raj said: “This rise in hunger has the UK government’s fingerprints all over it.

“Standing aside and relying on charities to pick up the pieces of its cruel and harmful policies is unacceptable. The UK government needs to take urgent and concerted action to ensure that its poorest residents aren’t forced to go hungry.”