Our government is causing children to go hungry - what will we do?

By Bernadette Meaden
May 20, 2019

I am desperately hoping that two reports published this week will, finally, prick the conscience of the nation.

The first report, published today by Human Rights Watch (HRW), focuses on the number of UK families with children going hungry, a number which is, “rising at an alarming rate and represents a troubling development in the world’s fifth largest economy.”

Unlike our domestic media, HRW has absolutely no hesitation in placing responsibility squarely on the shoulders of governments since 2010. “This rise in hunger has the UK government’s fingerprints all over it”, says HRW researcher, Kartik Raj. And this should not even be a matter for debate. The government has a duty under international human rights law to ensure the right to adequate food.

There is no room here for the obfuscation, lies, spin, and victim blaming which has flowed from government for a decade. Children are not going hungry because their parents can’t budget, or can’t cook. People are not using foodbanks because, hey, it’s free stuff, why wouldn’t they. They do not have a temporary cashflow problem. The reason they are going hungry, says Human Rights Watch, is clear. It is because, “The way the UK government has handled its reduction in welfare spending has left parents unable to feed their children...” The authors of the report do not, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, find foodbanks ‘uplifting’. Whilst the community generosity they represent is to be praised, they are one more indictment of the governments which have created the need for them. “Standing aside and relying on charities to pick up the pieces of its cruel and harmful policies is unacceptable.”

There are three main factors which have brought us to this parlous state, says HRW. First, austerity:  its own analysis of public spending data finds that “between 2010 and 2018 public welfare to assist children and families fell by 44 per cent”.

Secondly, Universal Credit, described as a “particularly harmful” part of “a wide-ranging and draconian restructuring of the country’s welfare system since 2010.”

Third, “the UK government has largely ignored and failed to act on growing evidence of a stark deterioration in the standard of living for the country’s poorest residents”.

The picture of post-2010 UK governments which emerges from this report is that, in the grand scheme of things, poor adults and children going hungry is not something that has really bothered them, and they are reluctant to accept the brutal reality, or any responsibility for it.

With some very honourable exceptions, much of our media has taken little interest in this growing hunger, which should be a national scandal. In some cases the media has simply relayed the government’s spin, or treated the victims as entertainment. ‘Poverty porn’ flourished as a television genre, and one prominent commentator described the film I, Daniel Blake, a moderate and restrained attempt to convey the reality as ‘a povvo safari’.

Of course the majority of the population is not directly affected by these policies, so may think they can afford to ignore them. But no man is an island, and they will not remain unaffected indefinitely. A few days ago, a solicitor from Harlow tweeted: “”Represented a teenager in the police station who had threatened his mum, did the argument start over him going out all the time drinking or drug use, no not at all. Mum on universal credit and the argument started because he was hungry and they had no food. Welcome to Britain 2019”. If that young man goes out to steal so he can eat, do we have any right to condemn him, if we tolerate the policies causing him and his mother to go hungry?

This Human Rights Watch report is truly damning - but it only looks at hunger amongst families with children. It doesn’t look at rising homelessness, or the impact of these policies on single people, couples, disabled people, older people. We will get a fuller picture on Wednesday 22 May when the UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston releases the final report on his 2018 visit to the UK. That will be much more comprehensive, and consequently far more damning.

This is an important moment. Faced with the incontrovertible evidence of what has been inflicted on our least fortunate neighbours, will we pass by on the other side, abandoning them to their fate? Or will we demand that every person’s dignity and human right to food is upheld? What will we do?


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden 





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