Opinion

Tories won't let the UN investigate rise of food banks in UK. Labour must welcome them

The UN's right to food investigator has been told it is 'not feasible' to visit the UK to investigate food poverty this year. Labour must welcome him to end the reliance on food banks

Philip Alston UN investigates poverty, food poverty and food banks

UN special rapporteur for extreme poverty Philip Alston on a visit to the UK in 2018. Image: UN

With more than 2,500 across the United Kingdom, food banks have become a key lifeline and support for many – but also a key indicator that many people don’t have enough to live on, and that our rights are not currently protected.

Back in 2013, food banks had started springing up in cities, towns and villages across the country when the then-United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, visited the UK to give a talk on food poverty and this growing phenomenon of ‘food banks’. De Schutter warned us then that the concept of food banks was already widespread across wealthy countries like the US and Canada, and that we should resist them at all costs “becoming a fundamental feature of our social protection system” in the UK. In 2024 we can see that we have completely failed in this.

In 2011/2012, Trussell Trust foodbanks fed 128,697 people. Moving forward over a decade to 2023/2024, the Trussell Trust gave out more than 3.1 million emergency food parcels to hungry people. Hunger has soared and been one of the defining features of the cruel austerity experiment inflicted on the British people. It will be a defining legacy of Tory rule. Food is a fundamental human right, something recognised in international law, which the UK has ratified. However, millions of people rely on parcels of tinned goods, bread, and pasta just so they can put a meal on their table each day. We have children arriving hungry to school, attending breakfast clubs so they can learn with at least something in their belly. We have parents skipping evening meals in the winter so their children can go to sleep warm and fed.

The fact that people are going hungry in a country as rich as the United Kingdom shows just how unbalanced our economy is, and how little our everyday human rights are protected.

This is why over a decade after a previous UN rapporteur addressed the UK, the current UN special rapporteur on the right to food, professor Micheal Fakhri, has put in a request to conduct an official visit. His remit covers hundreds of countries, and he conducts only two visits per year, however he felt it necessary that he come to the UK to report on the situation here.

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This request was submitted in August 2022, more than 21 months ago. Despite the UK claiming to have a standing invitation to all UN experts they have repeatedly failed to provide dates for a visit and recently stated in a letter that it would not be feasible to invite him this year. This ends the possibility of it taking place during the current parliament and makes a mockery of the premise of a ‘standing invitation’.

In response to this, we at Just Fair coordinated a letter, signed by more than 85 civil society organisations, charities, and activist groups across the UK, calling on the UK to cease evading the scrutiny of the UN and facilitate a visit immediately.

The current UK government’s insistence on dodging accountability is shameful but not unsurprising. It also fits with the other attitudes that have characterised the recent incarnations of the Conservative Party, notably the disdain for international mechanisms, laws, and influence. Tory leaders have taken turns to stand at the dispatch box and rail against the meddling international community.

Given that time is now short before a general election is called, the request for an official visit will now fall to the next UK government, a government which is likely to be led by, or heavily involve, the Labour Party.

The question then stands as to what exactly will the Labour Party do differently? Labour’s position as a proudly internationalist party and their proposed deep respect for international mechanisms means that immediately facilitating the UN’s visit should be a guarantee.

The next opportunity for a different approach will come when following a visit, the special rapporteur will publish his findings. Although Labour will of course have some ground to point out that they have inherited a broken system, the report will also outline constructive ways to remedy the situation, and what an enshrined right to food could look like in the UK.

That is where the real test will be, what steps a nascent Labour government will be willing to take to deliver the change the UK so desperately needs, to begin dismantling the conditions that lead to us having food banks in the first place.

The last time the UN conducted an official visit to the UK to analyse poverty levels, in 2018, the UK government refused to engage with the report calling it a “barely believable documentation of Britain”, and stating they would lodge a formal complaint to the UN.

The next UK government will have a historic opportunity to take a different approach. It will have an opportunity to welcome the scrutiny and heed the expert advice. It will have a chance to use its mandate to address the ways in which the social fabric of the country has been so distorted over the past 14 years.

The country is crying out for new policies to re-set the scales. We need better human rights protections, something to act as a solid and lasting shield against poverty and destitution. We need a government that is willing to guarantee our human rights and end the pervasive pain of hunger once and for all.

Alex Firth is advocacy and communications officer with Just Fair.

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