Children in England's right to food 'violated by UK government failures'

By agency reporter
May 29, 2020

Schools and charities in England have had to distribute food directly to children from poor families since the authorities closed schools to slow the spread of COVID-19 after a government-commissioned voucher system became plagued with problems, Human Rights Watch says. The United Kingdom government’s failure to ensure that all children have access to adequate food during school closures violates their right to food.

“The government’s failure to properly ensure all pupils had sufficient food as soon as it closed schools means children have been going hungry”, said Kartik Raj, western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “The government should scrap its reliance on the flawed voucher system it has used to replace school meals in England and instead follow good practices being developed in other parts of the UK.”

In the rush to close schools in mid-March 2020, the Department for Education announced that it planned to set up an electronic voucher system so that families of children in England who normally receive free school meals could buy food at selected supermarket chains. But the programme did not start until March 31, almost two weeks later, and is deeply flawed.

Rollout problems have left schools and families in England unable to access the electronic system. Some families have waited for weeks to receive vouchers, and some were unable to use them in supermarkets once they arrived. Food bank use and reliance on emergency food parcels have increased UK-wide during this time. But education authorities in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have pioneered more effective alternatives than in England.

Teachers in poor or disadvantaged areas had expressed fears early on about children’s access to adequate nutritious food. “When news broke that schools were closing, my first concern was food – learning came second”, said Katie Barry, head teacher at St. George’s Church of England Community Primary School in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. “It feels awful to say that, but we knew not having food would be the biggest issue for families.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed food aid charities, teachers, catering professionals, and children’s rights specialists in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and analysed data published by child food security specialists and food aid providers. The data and research strongly suggest that the government’s voucher system and other ad hoc initiatives, particularly in England, are not meeting the needs of children from low-income families or upholding their right to food and nutrition. Children across the country are being left without essential meals, despite the best efforts of schools, local authorities, and charities to plug the gap.

The Department for Education’s guidance to schools in England accompanying the voucher plan leaves unclear whether schools can be fully reimbursed for costs they may incur ensuring children have sufficient food outside of the electronic voucher programme, such as food for parcels or vouchers purchased from local supermarkets. The lack of clarity effectively gives school managers incentives to use the government’s faulty electronic voucher system, even though they do not work for many families, especially those whose digital literacy, access to computers, or knowledge of English is limited.

Devolved education authorities in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland instead have opted for cash transfers, food parcels, and other systems that have provided poor families with food more quickly, effectively, and in a more dignified manner than the national government’s voucher system. In the UK, where most people have access to a bank or basic card-based account, supermarket food vouchers should only be used as a last resort and for very short periods until better alternatives for families are in place, Human Rights Watch said. Poor implementation of supermarket voucher programmes can leave people without food, exacerbating the problem the vouchers are intended to solve. Even when they do work, vouchers can impose a burden on claimants and carry the risk of stigma and humiliation. Direct cash transfers and other systems better respect families’ dignity and ability to choose adequate food for their children and better protects their right to an adequate standard of living.

Schools, children’s centres, and local government caterers have used several innovative solutions to try to ensure that children do not go hungry, ranging from hot meal deliveries to lunch bags for collection, and food parcels. But these emergency efforts, developed while waiting for the vouchers or in the face of the malfunctioning system, are not sustainable solutions to a food crisis caused by ineffective central government planning.

On 26 May, a representative for the UK Department for Education told Human Rights Watch that “no system of this magnitude to provide free school meals has been implemented in such a short period of time before” and that authorities and the voucher company had worked hard to reduce waiting times and improve the voucher ordering process.

There has been unprecedented demand on the country’s two major food bank networks, which report an alarming rise in the need for food parcels for families with children. Food Foundation research estimated that by 14April, food insecurity across the UK had quadrupled during the COVID-19 lockdown. The research suggested that families with children eligible for free school meals were more likely to not have enough food during the lockdown period. The Food Foundation published a further survey on 4 May that estimated that 200,000 children had to skip meals by the end of April, and that 31 per cent of children entitled to free school meals did not have adequate alternatives.

The Department for Education should urgently address flaws in its supermarket voucher scheme in England while transitioning toward a cash transfer system that offers families and children greater dignity, says HRW. The department should also address concerns from English schools that all reasonable expenses they incur to replace free school meals will be reimbursed by the state.

The authorities in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland should follow Wales’ lead and ensure that food is provided for children through the upcoming summer holidays, and replicate this during future planned and unplanned school closures. Authorities across the UK should consider transitioning toward a cash transfer system, following Northern Ireland’s example, offering vouchers only as a last resort.

Authorities across the UK should also share good practices in guaranteeing children’s right to food during school closures, to ensure greater protection in the event of any such crisis. Finally, the central government should abandon existing policy that can exclude children from free school meals based on their or their parents’ immigration status.

Some schools in England may reopen for limited classes in June. Schools have remained partially open to children of key workers and children considered 'in need' during the COVID-19 crisis, although official data show that only a small proportion of these children have actually attended.

“The shocking levels of childhood hunger exposed by the COVID-19 crisis should prompt swift action by authorities across the UK to ensure that every child in the country has enough to eat every day, whether schools are open or not”, Raj said.

The right to food is enshrined in international human rights law treaties that the UK has signed and is generally understood as part of the right to an adequate standard of living and linked to the right to health. The right to food is contained in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the latter signed by the UK in 1968 and ratified in 1976. Measures to ensure adequate, nutritious food form part of the right to health of all children as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by the UK in 1990 and ratified in 1991. Guidance from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, published in 2013, clarifies what states should do.

However, because the rights to food, an adequate standard of living, and health – like most other socioeconomic rights – have not yet been incorporated into UK domestic law, children who face violations of these basic rights as a result of governmental policy decisions currently have no legal avenue to hold the government to account on the basis of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Human Rights Watch has said that the right to food should be incorporated in domestic law, as part of its research documenting the growth of food poverty in the UK in the context of social security cuts and when the issue for crisis food supply for the country’s poorest residents arose during the Brexit process.

* Human Rights Watch https://www.hrw.org/

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