The UK must tackle rising poverty, the UN human rights council has said in a report that includes demands from less well-off countries for the British government to act.
Amid worsening financial prospects for millions, the member states of the UN body also demanded action on housing to prevent homelessness, better food security for young children, and equal rights for people with disabilities.
After a four-yearly review, the UN body issued 302 recommendations in a written document on Monday. While some of the demands came from countries such as North Korea, Russia and Belarus, which are likely to be easily dismissed by ministers, others demanding change included New Zealand, Switzerland and Canada.
The report came as new figures showed that 4 million children in households on universal credit face big cuts in income if benefits are not increased in line with inflation in Thursday’s autumn budget, and that the proportion of consumers who cannot afford to eat a healthy, balanced diet rose to 36% last month.
Dozens of organisations in the UK, from Oxfam to the healthcare trade union Unison, said the UK was “failing to meet its international legal obligations”.
More than 80 groups have written to the Ministry of Justice, urging it to heed the UN body’s demands and scrap plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a bill of rights which has been dubbed a “rights removal bill” by critics.
Signatories include Human Rights Watch and Just Fair, which campaigns for economic, social and cultural rights that it describes as “the rights of everyday life”.
Earlier this month the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty, Olivier de Schutter, told Rishi Sunak that unleashing a new wave of austerity could violate the UK’s international human rights obligations and increase hunger and malnutrition.
This week’s calls for action from the UN human rights council included Romania urging the UK government to “implement an emergency poverty strategy that addresses the impact of rising costs on child poverty targets and on access to affordable, accessible and culturally appropriate social housing”. Brazil said the UK must “improve food security, in particular for young children, adolescents and persons with disabilities”.
Switzerland warned about the legality of the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda and New Zealand said the UK government must put forward “policies and practices to eliminate discrimination against minorities”.
On Tuesday, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said a third of consumers surveyed in October by the Food Standards Agency had eaten products past their use-by date because they could not afford to buy more food, and a quarter ate cold food because they could not afford to cook.
The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) calculated that working couples on universal credit with two children would be £752 worse off in 2023-24 if benefits were raised in line with wages (5.4%) rather than inflation (10.2%) in Thursday’s budget. Working lone parents with two children would be £654 worse off.
CPAG’s chief executive, Alison Garnham, said “Children are going hungry because family budgets are at snapping point. This problem has been long in the making and in the current crisis another real-terms cut is indefensible.”
A government spokesperson said: “Our priority will always be to support the most vulnerable and we recognise that people are struggling with rising prices which is why we are protecting millions of those most in need with at least £1,200 of direct payments, and providing all households with £400 towards energy costs.
“This government has expanded access to free school meals more than any other in recent decades, with 1.9 million pupils currently receiving a nutritious free school meal through the benefits-related criteria, and vulnerable families in England are being supported by the government’s household support fund worth over £1bn to help pay for essentials. Additionally, we’re investing £2bn over three years so we can end rough sleeping and prevent homelessness.