Food insecurity and poverty - United Nations: Scottish Government response

Scottish Government position statement in response to a joint letter to the UK from the UN Special Rapporteurs responsible for food and poverty. It outlines Scotland’s human rights approach to the challenges of food insecurity and poverty, including actions taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic



1. This Scottish Government position statement has been produced in response to concerns identified in a joint communication sent to the UK Government by the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on the right to food (Professor Michael Fakhri) and on extreme poverty and human rights (Professor Olivier De Schutter).

2. The communication from the Special Rapporteurs, sent on 5 August 2020, requested a formal response from the UK Government within 60 days. The text of their letter was subsequently made publicly available on the UN website in early October 2020[2]. A copy of the letter can also be found in the Annex to this position statement.

3. Regrettably, as of early February 2021, the UK Government has still not responded to the concerns raised by the two UN Special Rapporteurs.

4. The Scottish Government has therefore taken the decision to independently put on record Scotland's distinctive approach to the human rights concerns, and international obligations, highlighted in the UN letter. This statement outlines the action Scotland is taking to tackle food insecurity and to secure the right to an adequate standard of living. It also sets out our priorities and ambitions for ending hunger by 2030 in line with the Sustainable Development Goals[3].

5. We are clear that a human rights approach to tackling food insecurity requires co-ordinated action to improve household incomes. In this statement we therefore highlight the importance of initiatives which address the financial drivers of food insecurity and the need to take bold measures in order to tackle child poverty.

6. The statement also describes Scottish Government action to ensure that our response to food insecurity is consistent with the principle of human dignity.

7. We recognise the critical importance of autonomy and choice and are promoting access to cash in a crisis, in a conscious move away from an approach based simply on the provision of emergency food aid.

8. We recognise too that the COVID-19 pandemic has had considerable social and economic impacts on households and has created particular challenges in relation to food access. This statement provides details of the measures put in place by the Scottish Government to overcome both physical and financial barriers to accessing food which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

9. The Scottish Government is clear that realising the right to food is about more than simply ensuring financial and physical access to food. Meeting the challenge also requires concerted action to address nutritional and cultural needs, food safety and the overall sustainability and resilience of our food system.

10. There is insufficient space in this position statement to address these vitally important dimensions to the right to food in detail and the focus of this current document is necessarily on the immediate and pressing concerns of food insecurity and poverty identified in the Special Rapporteurs' joint communication. It is nonetheless important to recognise that effective long-term solutions cannot be developed in isolation. The right to food can only be fully guaranteed by addressing the availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality of food in an integrated and systematic manner, and by recognising the indivisible, interdependent and interrelated nature of all human rights.

Devolved and Reserved Responsibilities

11. It is the responsibility of the UK Government, acting on behalf of the UK as a whole, to submit a formal response to the issues raised by the UN Special Rapporteurs[4]. This reflects the role which the UK Government plays in representing the UK as the State Party to relevant international human rights treaties. Under the current constitutional settlement, international relations of this kind are a reserved matter.

12. The Scottish Government is however responsible for devolved matters in Scotland and fulfilled its own obligation, in the Autumn, to provide devolved contributions to a draft UK response. The Scottish Government therefore wishes to make clear that it regrets the delay in responding to the UN Special Rapporteurs.

13. This statement also makes clear that the overall approach taken by the UK Government to the concerns identified in the UN communication diverges significantly from that adopted in Scotland in devolved policy areas.

14. In particular, the UK Government approach, in our view, is founded in a profound misunderstanding of the causes of poverty and of food insecurity. Moreover, it is inconsistent not only with our analysis of the principal policy challenges but with important core values - of fairness, respect and dignity - promoted by the Scottish Government. In our assessment, UK Government policy does not properly prioritise compliance with human rights and is frequently in direct conflict with the principle of human dignity.

15. This statement helps to clarify where these areas of difference exist and puts on record the distinctive approach to protecting, respecting and fulfilling human rights which has been adopted in Scotland.

Context and Background – Human Rights and the United Nations

16. UN Special Rapporteurs are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. Their work is a central element of the United Nations human rights machinery and covers all aspects of human rights: civil, political, economic, social and cultural[5].

17. Special Rapporteurs exercise their mandates in a variety of ways, including by undertaking country visits. They act on individual cases and in relation to concerns of a broader, structural nature by sending communications to States in which they bring alleged violations or abuses to their attention. Annual reports are submitted to the Human Rights Council and to the United Nations General Assembly.

18. In their August 2020 joint communication, Professor Fakhri and Professor De Schutter drew particular attention to:

  • the deepening level of food insecurity among low income households in the UK, in particular for families with children, and the lack of comprehensive measures to ensure their access to adequate food;
  • reports of an alarming increase in food-insecure households with children as a result of COVID-19; and
  • the need to provide for access to adequate food through a more comprehensive social protection scheme.

19. They also noted that:

  • the economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have been particularly severe for low-income households in the United Kingdom;
  • income losses arising from the COVID-19 crisis have significantly contributed to an increase in the number of persons who are food insecure (in large measure because other expenses such as for housing, energy or transport cannot be compressed);
  • almost 1 in 5 persons had cut down meal sizes or skipped meals during the months of April and May 2020, due to not having enough money;
  • levels of food insecurity are almost 250 percent higher than they were prior to the lockdown, with approximately 4.9 million adults and 1.7 million children currently food insecure; but that
  • even before the COVID-19 crisis, food insecurity in the UK was on a rising trend and one of serious concerns facing low-income households.

20. Concerns relating to food insecurity and poverty in the UK have previously been raised by UN committees and UN Special Rapporteurs in the context of United Nations scrutiny of the UK's performance against international human rights standards.

21. In 2016, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concerns about the lack of adequate measures in the UK to address the increasing levels of food insecurity and malnutrition, as well as to reduce the reliance on food banks. The Committee made detailed recommendations in relation to both poverty and the right to food[6].

22. In 2018, the previous UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty (Professor Philip Alston) undertook a visit to the UK (including Scotland) at the conclusion of which he observed that it is:

"patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty. This is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in foodbanks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair [and] unheard of levels of loneliness and isolation."

"The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice. Austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. Resources were available … that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead."[7]

23. The Scottish Government welcomed Professor Alston's subsequent report and conclusions and issued a statement in May 2019[8] in which it welcomed his:

"devastating analysis of the UK Government's austerity measures [and his description of] the policies pursued since 2010 as retrogressive and in clear violation of the country's human rights obligations."

and went on to make clear that:

"The Scottish Government agrees with Professor Alston's assessment that the UK Government must reverse the many policies it has pursued that are increasing poverty and inequality … [It] must take heed of this report and make the radical changes necessary to provide support to people and to actively take action to tackle poverty and inequality in the UK."



Back to top