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Whether it’s getting life-saving equipment to frontline workers or food to hungry kids in poorer families, government’s failure to learn from its repeated contracting mistakes, over and over, large and small, is costing this nation too dear.” says Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

Why are people going hungry? According to international human rights standards, food must be available in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy dietary needs, with nutrients for physical and mental growth, free from adverse substances and culturally acceptable. Still, we are seeing evidence of inadequate food provision to families with low or no-income.

Even in times of crisis, the UK Government has a duty to ensure physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement. And accessibility of food must be sustainable and not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights, such as the right to education or health.

What does private procurement of food provision mean for the UK Government’s legal obligation to realise the right to food?

The main human rights instrument which recognises the right to access food is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This international agreement imposes a number of general obligations on the UK Government to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food. This means that the UK Government should:

  • not directly or indirectly interfere with the right to food
  • prevent third parties (eg. companies) from interfering with the right to food
  • take steps to ensure everyone enjoys their right to food

Has the UK Government breached its duty to prevent corporate interference with the right to food?

Human rights experts have raised concerns over the corporate provision of public services; the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) recognise that corporate activities can harm basic economic and social rights, and increase socio-economic segregation.

While the privatisation of food provision is not prohibited by international human rights law, strict regulation is required.

In particular, where the UK Government procures contracts to companies to provide public services such as free school meals, this must not interfere with people’s right to access to sufficient food. For example, under international law, the UK Government must not prioritise the interests of business entities over the right to food without adequate justification, or pursue policies that negatively affect the right to food.

Last year, the UK Government’s food box scheme was supposed to be a lifeline, but the contract to Bidfood and Brakes – worth £208 million without tender – resulted in meal distribution which failed to meet right to food standards. More recently, the UK Government contracted catering company Chartwells for free school meals provision – the food parcels were “woefully inadequate”.

Today, the Public Accounts Committee published its damning report which states that the Department for Education (DfE) and its contractor, Edenred UK Group Limited, extended a free school meals contract twice, increasing its value fivefold, from £78 million to £425 million, and failed to take opportunities and secure better value for money for the taxpayer. The DfE was “surprisingly unconcerned” on whether the corporate free school meals contractor was “profiting at taxpayers’ expense”.

While companies are rightly apologising for sub-standard food provision, it is somewhat concerning that the UK Government is apparently contravening its international legal duty to ensure enjoyment of the right to food. There must be full investigation into and prevention of business harms to the right to food, and a strengthening of accountability and responsibility for the harms caused.

Are there legal limitations to regulating the corporate provision of food?

The privatisation of food parcels raises bigger questions around the regulation of corporate harms to economic, social and cultural rights. These rights are inadequately protected in domestic law, which leads to a lack of responsibility and accountability.

Something is going wrong and we need to fix it, quickly” says Marcus Rashford, Footballer and Campaigner.

Transparency and scrutiny around corporate activities requires regulatory mechanisms capable of pre-empting and preventing human rights harms. In the UK no legally binding obligation is imposed on corporate entities to respect or fulfil economic, social and cultural rights. At the very least, the UK Government must strengthen non-binding measures which require corporate entities to exercise human rights due diligence to identify and mitigate risks of human rights violations.

That said, the UK Government cannot abdicate or transfer its human rights obligations to corporate entities. It must develop a long-term exit strategy to end food insecurity, and move beyond its “food parcel first” approach. This includes the formulation and implementation of a national strategy, and incorporation of the right to food in domestic law. An overarching legal framework provides an institutional mechanism which will guarantee improved accountability of central and local governments, and access to procedural and substantive justice for people who are facing hunger or malnutrition.

It’s time for the UK Government to take responsibility for its legal commitments, and prevent corporate interference with our human rights.

by Misha Nayak-Oliver, Just Fair’s Campaigns and Advocacy Lead.

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