(London) – If the United Kingdom leaves the European Union without a withdrawal agreement, it will seriously threaten people’s ability to access and receive adequate food, including families with children, Human Rights Watch said today. While intense negotiations between the UK and the rest of the EU are ongoing, if no agreement is reached or extension agreed upon by October 31, 2019, the UK will leave the EU without a deal.
Human Rights Watch interviews with front-line food aid providers across England show they may struggle to cope with the expected increase in demand for emergency food aid in the event of a “no-deal Brexit,” when food prices and supplies may suddenly fluctuate. The government has failed to take responsibility for the issue or to put in place adequate plans to mitigate the impact on the most vulnerable people in society.
“No-deal Brexit could leave families going hungry and the charities that help them – particularly small, independent community organizations – pushed to the limit,” said Kartik Raj, Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The UK government knows full well that food prices will rise and food supplies could suffer. But instead of preparing to help families and let them know what’s on offer, it’s turning its back on them.”
On September 11, the UK government published a summary that parliament had demanded to reveal its working assumptions in case of no-deal Brexit. The document stated that disruption to the supply of fresh food and components of food processing – key ingredients, chemicals, and packaging – arising from a no-deal Brexit will affect the availability and choice of food in the UK and drive prices up, with a disproportionate effect on low-income groups.
Increasing numbers of people living on low incomes in the UK rely on emergency food aid. Human Rights Watch research shows that more and more families with children, in particular single-parent households led by women, depend on emergency food assistance. This follows significant cuts to government spending on social support for families and tightening welfare rules, particularly under the flagship Universal Credit program.
Staff and volunteers at independent food banks interviewed by Human Rights Watch in October expressed concern that rising food prices in the event of a no-deal Brexit could directly affect people who rely on their help. Those on low, fixed incomes, including welfare recipients, pensioners, and asylum seekers, would be badly affected because they will neither be able to cope with increased food prices nor stockpile in advance. “Food banks cannot pick up the pieces … of a no-deal Brexit,” said a representative of Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank network.
Food banks that use cash donations or reserves to buy food to supplement their stock or to ensure that they provide additional food items of nutritional value beyond what they receive in donations (e.g. UHT milk, fruit juice, fresh fruit, and vegetables) said that they are preparing to spend extra money. They have concerns about increased demand arising from general supply disruption, but also fear that higher prices will lead to a decrease in food donations from the general public. Many food banks, particularly small, independent ones, operate on very tight budgets and rely heavily, and sometimes exclusively, on donations to feed people.
Fareshare, the surplus food redistribution charity, has warned publicly that a no-deal Brexit will affect charities feeding the poor. It estimates that if the approximately 9,000 groups nationwide that provide cooked food to vulnerable people had to buy food rather than receive redistributed surplus, it would cost about £5 million per month.
Domestic anti-poverty organizations, welfare policy research organizations, academics, and representatives of the regional government in Scotland have warned since the start of 2019 of the impact of a no-deal Brexit on poor people, and the need for active steps by government to mitigate it.
Professionals working in public sector catering have also warned of the impact of a no-deal Brexit on their ability to deliver nutritionally sound food to schools, hospitals, and social care providers, notably because of tariff-related price rises and supply disruption. This could affect people’s right to health and an adequate standard of living.
Despite repeated warnings about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on hunger, and its duty under human rights law to ensure the right to adequate food, the UK government has failed to take responsibility for the issue.
On August 27, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) refused to disclose information sought by the parliamentarian Caroline Lucas MP under the Freedom of Information Act about food supplies and prices in the event of a no-deal Brexit. In July, a DEFRA minister, Zac Goldsmith MP, told Lucas that the food industry, not DEFRA, is responsible for supplying food to the population in an emergency, although it acknowledged that local authorities have duties to provide food to schools and in care settings.
The Department of Health and Social Care has issued technical notices to hospitals and social care providers requiring them to enact contingency plans to ensure food and catering supplies. The Department for Education (DfE) has issued similar technical notices to schools and school caterers.
In March, the then-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd MP, alluded in Parliament to possible plans to set up a hardship fund to address food price increases arising from Brexit, but refused to provide further details. It is unclear whether this fund has been established. The Scottish government, meanwhile, has set up a £7 million “poverty mitigation fund” in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Human Rights Watch wrote to three UK government departments to ask for clarification and received responses from two of them.
The UK government should urgently establish which government department has ultimate responsibility for ensuring continuity of food supply and ensure minimized disruption to food provision where it has a specific duty, for example for schools and social care. It should also set up a hardship fund to help people unable to afford and access adequate food, regardless of their immigration status, and work with local authorities to ensure the fund is available and accessible to all who need it. It should publish this information clearly to reduce uncertainty.
“It’s deeply reckless for the UK government to pursue policy decisions that it knows could leave vulnerable people without food, and then fail to take responsibility to prevent that hunger,” Raj said. “By the government’s own admission, a no-deal Brexit is likely to inflict the most damage on the people who are least able to withstand the economic shock.”
For additional details of the research, please see below.
Human Rights Watch interviewed representatives of the UK’s two main national networks of food banks, the Trussell Trust and the Independent Food Aid Network. Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth telephone interviews with six independent food banks, one each in Cumbria, Greater London, Merseyside, and Northamptonshire, and two in West Midlands, and followed up with site visits to three of these. Human Rights Watch also sought comment from three private companies which provide food or catering to the public sector (in schools, hospitals, and social care), two associations of public sector caterers, and three professional associations representing schoolteachers. Human Rights Watch contacted DEFRA, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and the DfE for comment and had received replies from DEFRA and DfE.
All interviews were conducted in October. Human Rights Watch informed interviewees of the purpose of the interview and its voluntary nature, and they verbally consented to be interviewed for this publication. Where practicable, Human Rights Watch shared the text in draft form with interviewees cited prior to publication.
The Right to Food in Human Rights Law
The right to an adequate standard of living and the right to food are both enshrined in international human rights law treaties that UK governments have signed. They are 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. International human rights law also has specific additional protections for children, women and girls who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and people with disabilities, so that they can realize their right to food and nutrition either as part of their right to health or their right to an adequate standard of living. However, the rights to food and to an adequate standard of living – like most other socioeconomic rights – have not been incorporated into UK domestic law. This gives people who face violations of these basic rights as a result of government policy decisions few avenues for holding the government to account.
The UK parliament should incorporate the right to food in UK law so that the government is required to ensure that everyone has access to adequate food and that those whose rights are violated have an effective means to seek a remedy from the authorities.
Front-Line Evidence from Food Banks
Sumi Rabindrakumar is head of policy and research at Trussell Trust, the country’s main food bank network, which gave out 1.6 million emergency 3-day food parcels from 2018 to 2019. She said:
We know people are already struggling – the forecasts show any form of Brexit risks increasing the cost of food and essentials, and therefore increasing the need for food banks. The responsibility to prevent more people being pulled into poverty lies with our government. Food banks cannot and should not pick up the pieces of a no-deal Brexit. To prevent people from being pushed into poverty as Brexit unfolds, our government must ensure additional protections such as a dedicated hardship fund are in place and that our benefits system is able to protect people who need its help.
Jen Coleman, office manager of the Black Country Food Bank, a Christian faith-based regional network with 1 warehouse and 23 distribution centers across the West Midlands, said:
Last September we ran out of all food and all money for food. We had nothing left in the warehouse to send to centers. It was the worst we’ve seen. It was critical. The local communities we serve are at their lowest ebb here with the rollout of Universal Credit. Demand this year is already 35 percent more than it was last year.… It’s dire already anyway for people needing food banks. If no-deal Brexit does happen it will potentially become a national problem.
Martin Fuller is a driver and storesperson at MICAH Liverpool, a charity supported jointly by the city’s Anglican and Catholic cathedrals, which runs two food banks distributions a week and a weekly community market selling highly discounted food. He said:
We have £300 per week to cover our costs including buying extra food to make sure the shelves are stocked and to pay for fuel for the van. We have weeks where the money we have hasn’t gone far enough. There are days when we have no stock left in the storeroom. If prices go up or donations run dry, we’re up a creek without a paddle, and we can’t give food to people in need. The worst-case scenario would be we have to turn people away and say we don’t have food. We’ve got permission from our board to spend a bit more each week for the coming weeks [£2,000 across four weeks] to stock up as much as possible on quantities of staple food to get through the month. We hope that will be enough to cater for the next weeks after October 31, to see us through to November.
Robin Burgess is chief executive of the HOPE Centre in Northampton, an anti-poverty and homelessness charity that runs a day centre providing cooked food, catering, and cookery training and a “social supermarket” scheme offering highly discounted food to 250 members each week. He said:
Any increase in food prices will affect our service users in two ways. Firstly, despite the high volume and quality of food that we supply, there is a continuing need for some of our customers to buy additional food in normal shops; in particular they often need to buy protein which isn’t something we always have available, and this could cost them more. Secondly if there are shortages or unavailability of items in the shops, our donors will be affected, and so we’re really concerned that the level of donations needed for us to keep going will decrease. We’re particularly worried that if prices go up in November, then Christmas donations [one of two main cyclical donation periods, along with “Harvest” in the autumn] will be directly affected by a no-deal Brexit.
Rajesh Makwana is director of Sufra, a community organization in Brent (northwest London) which runs a twice-weekly food bank among other food, welfare, community cohesion, and refugee support services. He said:
Guests visiting Sufra’s food bank are experiencing severe crisis. Seventy percent of our guests only come twice a year or less when their situation deteriorates and they’re living on the breadline. Our monthly spending on essential food and basic toiletries has increased dramatically in recent years because we just don’t receive the level of donations we need to meet weekly demand. If a no-deal Brexit has even a fraction of the impact on food prices the government’s own assessment says it might, it will have a significant impact on food banks.
Last year, we distributed food aid to the equivalent of 9,542 recipients. We currently process 25 to 35 vouchers per food bank session [each guest is referred to Sufra with a single voucher that covers all members of their family]. Even if we had just three to five more vouchers per session as a lowest estimate, once you multiply this across our sessions it will be extremely difficult to meet the increased level of need. We’ve concluded that demand for the food bank will go up even if the impact of no-deal Brexit is modest.
Impact on Food for Schools, Social Care, and Hospitals
In addition to food banks, many people across the UK, some of whom are vulnerable, depend on catered meals provided by the public sector. They include school children, including children from low-income families who receive free school meals, people receiving social care, and people in hospitals. Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious human rights concerns about the access to social care for older people in England.
Individual directors of public sector catering companies have spoken publicly to raise concerns about food price increases and the impact of supply disruption on their ability to provide services. They have also flagged a DfE no-deal “technical notice,” which seemed to suggest that schools could be “flexible” with nutritional standards in the event of shortages, although the education secretary has since confirmed that school food standards will not change. The DfE has written to Human Rights Watch to say that school food standards will not change after the UK leaves the EU, and disputes any suggestion that schools will no longer have to adhere to nutrition standards. Most of the companies or professional associations Human Rights Watch contacted declined to comment.
Andy Jones, chair of the public sector catering group PSC100, comprised of caterers supplying schools, hospitals, social care providers, prisons, and universities, said:
“Whatever happens we expect prices to go up. How much will depend on the tariffs. We expect price increases for our raw materials. We may well have shortages because the British growing season has ended and we rely on European imported food now. We’ll have to change our menus accordingly unless government makes up the shortfall that we incur from the price rises.
We may have to change the nutritional standards, and this will have an effect on people in social care, people in hospitals, and school children. Public sector caterers provide about a million meals a day. We know some school children rely on a hot meal at school as their main meal of the day. So, no-deal could be impacting on the most vulnerable. I should be clear, we’re confident we’ll be able to give them a meal, but it won’t be nutritionally balanced if we have problems with supply and prices, particularly of fresh fruit and vegetables.”