The need for practical action to end food insecurity and tackle poverty has never been greater.
That message has been highlighted in a strongly worded letter sent jointly to the UK Government by two United Nations Special Rapporteurs.
The letter, which has been made public by the UN, is from the special rapporteurs responsible, respectively, for the right to food and for human rights and extreme poverty. It presents a stark picture of deepening food insecurity, poverty and injustice in the UK.
Professor Michael Fakhri and Professor Olivier De Schutter are eminent and hugely experienced international experts. Their human rights analysis of the severe economic and social impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on low-income families is as necessary as it is timely and telling.
The evidence has long been clear that food insecurity is driven primarily by lack of income. Low pay, insecure work, and inadequate and unreliable social security provision mean that people can often be unable to put food on the table. Many have to resort to food banks for help. That is unacceptable in a country as prosperous as Scotland.
Researchers, food charities and independent experts have all highlighted the damaging impacts of UK Government welfare cuts and austerity in creating and worsening food insecurity.
The Scottish Government has also repeatedly raised concerns directly with UK Ministers. Universal Credit and other UK Government policies have caused financial hardship for thousands of families and individuals. Increasing numbers of people across Scottish society have been forced to seek emergency food aid in recent years. Meanwhile the two-child limit has further impoverished families and contributed to a rise in child poverty.
I am therefore pleased that Professor Fakhri and Professor De Schutter have exercised their mandates as UN Special Rapporteurs in order to draw further attention to the alarming increase in food-insecure households in the UK and to underline the need for concerted action to ensure every member of our society has access to adequate food.
In Scotland we have adopted a human rights approach to tackling poverty and food insecurity.
We are taking bold steps to address child poverty, including the introduction of the new Scottish Child Payment. The new Scottish Child Payment is in addition to the range of support already offered to households with younger children through Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods. Together, this package of benefits provides around £5,000 of support by the time a child turns six.
But I am acutely conscious of the additional and unforeseen impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. These have exacerbated the social and economic dislocation already caused by a decade of austerity and welfare reforms imposed by the UK Government.
The crisis gives us further reason to challenge traditional assumptions and ways of working. Change for the better is happening in Scotland, and we can do so much more. The Scottish Government wants to build on our existing progress and to create a fairer, more equal Scotland in a way that meets the challenges of a post-pandemic world.
There is no question that big challenges lie ahead. Alongside welfare cuts, the wider economic uncertainties caused by the pandemic and by EU Exit mean that many more households in Scotland may struggle to afford the basics. Demand for help from food banks is predicted to rise significantly.
If Scotland is serious about tackling food insecurity, we have to confront the reasons why people are forced to turn to food banks.
The UK Government needs to recognise that endemic poverty is neither accidental nor inevitable. Social security is a fundamental and inalienable human right. The safety net which it provides has never been more important. Nor has it ever been more scandalous and unnecessary that so many adults and children in our society are continuing to go hungry.
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