By Imogen Richmond-Bishop
There is much talk about what will happen post-Brexit to our food system. Who will grow our food? Who will ensure it is safe to eat? And who will be able to afford it?
Unfortunately we already live in a country where millions are suffering from household food insecurity, and 1 in 4 parents have been forced to skip meals.
Brexit creates a number of serious risks to household food security, which will disproportionately affect women. Some of these risks are illustrated in the recent Government technical papers on a ‘no deal’ Brexit. These papers show how ’no deal’ would be an ‘unacceptable and damaging outcome for British farmers, food businesses, consumers and the environment.’ and it is of utmost urgency that the Government works to mitigate all risks posed by Brexit to our food security.
Poverty and food poverty are gendered issues. In the UK there are currently 700,000 more women than men in poverty.
The Government does not measure household food insecurity nationally but reports and figures from civil society, such as Sustain, shed light on the extent of the problem for women.
While initiatives such as Healthy Start vouchers help mitigate the risk of families with young children suffering from food insecurity, recent polling by the Young Women’s Trust found that nearly half of mothers under the age of 25 skipped meals in order to feed their children .
Furthermore, the recent CPAG report on the cost of a child showed that families on benefits now have to live without 40% of the budget that they need for a social accepted minimum standard of living. Lone parents, of which an estimated 90% are women, were some of the families that faced the highest gap between income and adequate living standards.
The UK Government urgently needs to restore the link between welfare payments and the cost of living to make sure that social benefits guarantee an adequate standard of living
The predicted rise in food prices post-Brexit, linked in part to the value of the pound falling and the loss of non UK EU nationals who work in the agricultural sector, combined with an economic downturn means that those who are already barely managing will be pushed into even more difficulty. Let’s not forget as well that approximately 41% of our food either comes from the EU or through trade deals done through the EU, in the event of a no-deal Brexit and the subsequent severe disruptions to our trading system it is unclear how will we make up the shortfall.
Additionally, if food prices go up, people are likely to be forced into buying poorer quality cheaper food, leading to a rise in negative health outcomes.
It won’t be a surprise to most that women are disproportionately represented in the bottom of the labour market. Whilst there has been some progress on reducing the gender pay gap, women are still paid £1.32 less per hour than men. And women are over-represented in low paid service sectors such as food retail and catering: women currently represent 57% of the workforce in food retail.
As has been seen time and again women are at most risk of losing their employment in a recession, and economists are suggesting that there will be an economic downturn post-Brexit,
There have been a number of legislative and policy initiatives that aim to promote gender equality and to protect women from discrimination in the workplace. But with a great deal of UK equality law deriving from the EU legal framework, Brexit poses a real risk to these hard earned gains.
Research shows that women and people on low incomes have already borne the brunt of the cost of austerity. A cumulative impact assessment by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that women are disproportionately affected by recent tax and welfare reforms, losing on average £400 per year compared to a £30 loss by men. Universal credit, the flagship welfare reform, has been found to be discriminatory by design for women. Universal credit urgently needs to be reviewed both to ensure that payments are sufficient so as to ensure that people can maintain an adequate standard of living and also so that it is no longer discriminatory towards women.
Against the backdrop of unprecedented local authority budget cuts, changes to free school meals which mean that a million children will no longer be eligible, and a benefits freeze that is set to push more people into poverty than any other policy, any Brexit-related increase in poverty will spark an increase in demand for state assistance, be it for emergency financial assistance, free school meals, or welfare.
One step the Government should take now is to create the role of dedicated minister for household food security to coordinate policy and legislative action.
The Government needs to continue to advance women’s equality in the workplace and ensure there is no regression on equality and employment rights through legislative changes.
They should also ensure that all future trade deals have no regressive impact on food standards in the UK, and on farmers both in the UK and abroad. There is clear public support for the government to take seriously our social and economic rights, such as our right to food or our right to social security.
The upcoming visit of Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, is a welcome opportunity for debate and positive action by the Government to protect its citizens from the negative effects of Brexit on women’s rights and on household food security.
This blog first appeared on the Equality Diversity Forum website as part of their Gendering Brexit blog series. If you would like to contribute to the series, you can get in touch with them at [email protected]