Written evidence submitted by Professor Fiona de Londras and Daniella Lock
COVID-19 Review Observatory, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham
1. The free school meals voucher scheme is a crucial component of the Government’s response to high levels of child poverty in the UK during the pandemic
1.1 The Government is statutorily required to provide school meals to children if their parent is in receipt of specified income-related benefits under the Education Act 1996, as amended by the Child Poverty Act 2010. The Child Poverty Act 2010 was introduced as a means of responding to what was seen as intolerable levels of poverty faced by children across the UK. The original Act created a statutory basis for a commitment on the part of the UK Government in 1999 to ‘eradicate’ child poverty by 2020, which was removed by the UK Government in 2016.
1.2 During the ten years since the Child Poverty Act 2010 was passed, child poverty has remained at high levels. On visiting the UK, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights referred to the ‘great misery’ he witnessed having been inflicted on ‘millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping’. Prior to the pandemic, over 4.2 million—or almost 30% of all—children were living in ‘relative poverty’ in the UK. This includes 2.4 million children whom the Social Metrics Commissions describes as existing in ‘persistent poverty’, which refers to poverty experienced for at least two of the three years previous to the data being collected. Such numbers will have increased as a result of the pandemic. The Legatum Institute has calculated that almost 700,000 people in the UK, including 120,000 children, have been plunged into poverty during the COVID-19-related economic crisis.
1.3. In January 2020, there were 1.44 million eligible children for free school meals in England. The provision of free school meals is particularly important in light of observations made by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights that children in the UK have in recent years been ‘showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools are collecting food and sending it home because teachers know their students will otherwise go hungry’. We note that the number of children in need of free school meals is likely to have substantially risen in light of the children experiencing poverty as a result of the COVID-19 economic crisis noted above. This is supported by the data gathered by the Food Foundation on food insecurity levels during the UK Covid-19 lockdown. The data shows that, among households with children, the prevalence of food insecurity has increased from 5.7% to 11.0%. Five weeks into the first nationwide lockdown this left over 1.5 million people in households with children unable to access food for economic reasons.
1.4 We also note that the provision of free school meals by the UK Government is a crucial mechanism for confronting child poverty during the pandemic, as other state systems currently responding to child poverty have been stripped back in recent years. Between 2010 and 2019, 1,300 children’s centres, which can provide relief and support for families experiencing poverty, were shut. Moreover, councils across the UK experienced a 23% cut in government funding for children’s services between 2010 and 2017-18 (over £2bn equivalent). Children’s charity Barnardos has described such services as existing in the ‘midst of a financial crisis’ and states that, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘sustainability of these services risks becoming ever more perilous’. Providing access to free school meals has therefore served as a vital source of support to children in poverty under the pandemic. We note that by bringing in a temporary extension of free school meal eligibility to children of groups who current have no recourse to public funds, the UK Government has effectively acknowledged the perilous situation that many children find themselves in.
2. Supporting children in poverty through providing free school meals vouchers during the pandemic is essential for protecting their human rights
2.1. Providing access to free school meals to children in poverty during the pandemic is essential for protecting their human rights as protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The UK is a party to all three of these conventions. Children’s rights include the right to the ‘enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health’. This right imposes a requirement on states to ‘combat disease and malnutrition, including within the framework of primary health care, through, among other things, the application of readily available technology and through the provision of adequate nutritious foods and clean drinking-water’.
2.2. Children’s human rights are also protected under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This includes a rights to ‘respect for private and family life’ under Article 8 of the ECHR. We note that in relation to this right, Lord Wilson, a UK Supreme Court judge made the following statement last year:
‘it cannot seriously be disputed that the values underlying the right of … respect for … family life include those of a home life underpinned by a degree of stability, practical as well as emotional, and thus by financial resources adequate to meet basic needs, in particular for accommodation, warmth, food and clothing’
This statement reflects the view that the protection of children’s ECHR rights—and by extension of rights under the Human Rights Act 1998—requires the state to provide them with access to food, where their family or carers are not equipped with the adequate financial resources to meet their basic needs.
2.3. We further note that children have rights to non-discrimination under Article 14 of the ECHR, which, in conjunction with Article 8, has salience in respect of children from BAME groups. Children from BAME groups are more likely to be in poverty and therefore are generally more likely to be more in need of free school meals. 46% of BAME children were in poverty just before the pandemic, compared with 26 per cent of children in White British families. Moreover, we know that individuals from BAME groups have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, particularly in the form of experiencing a higher risk of infection, more severe symptoms, and significantly higher rates of death than in non-BAME groups. Such effects may have significantly compounded what was already a greater need for access to free school meals for BAME children so that protecting children’s rights to non-discrimination required the Government to take into account the uneven distribution of COVID-19 related impacts, including child poverty and hunger, when designing and handling its voucher scheme.
3. The Committee should seek evidence on the impact of the Government’s handling of the free school meals vouchers during the pandemic on children’s human rights
3.1 In light of the above, we urge the Committee to integrate a human rights analysis into its inquiry on the Government’s handling of the free school meals voucher scheme during the pandemic. As we have emphasised in the preceding analysis, the manner in which this scheme has been handled could have direct implications for the human rights of millions of children in the UK. A human rights analysis therefore has a fundamental place in any inquiry considering the scheme.
3.2 We stress that questions of rights-related impacts are not limited to the Joint Committee on Human Rights or other dedicated human rights fora. Rather, they are relevant to the work of all of government and, thus, to all parliamentary entities engaged in ensuring accountability for, effectiveness of, and legitimacy of Government action, including its responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Reviews and inquiries that fail to take rights-implications into account risk missing an important part of the analysis of the in/effectiveness of pandemic responses. We thus urge the Committee to integrate human rights analysis into its inquiry and, in particular, to consider
(i) The impact of the free school meals voucher scheme on the human rights of children in the UK;
(ii) The extent to which children experiencing poverty had access to free school meals in the relevant time period;
(iii) The extent to which the particular vulnerabilities of children, including potentially exacerbated vulnerability of children from BAME groups, experienced as a direct result of the pandemic were integrated into the Government’s handling of the free school meals voucher scheme;
(iv) The extent to which the human rights of children in the UK informed the Government’s handling of the free school meals voucher scheme;
(v) How a rights-based approach to the design, funding, and the distribution of school vouchers and other hunger- and poverty-mitigation supports might enhance preparedness for future pandemic or similar events;
(vi) How future policies concerning access to free school meals might be shaped to ensure the protection of children’s rights in the long term.
3.3 We respectfully submit that the Committee ought to include experts in human rights protection in considering the Government’s handling of the free school meals voucher scheme as part of integrating a human rights analysis into their inquiry.
Fiona de Londras is Professor of Global Legal Studies at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Daniella Lock is Research Fellow at the COVID-19 Review Observatory, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham. Email: D.Lock.email@example.com
The COVID-19 Review Observatory is a UKRI-funded research initiative located at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham. It tracks, assesses, and engages with parliamentary reviews of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic with a view to ensuring effective consideration of rights protection, and to enhancing accountability and legitimacy by supporting parliamentary review. A key part of its work is participating in such reviews by, for example, submitting to committee inquiries.
 Education Act 1996, section 512ZB.
 Child Poverty Act 2010, section 26.
 See Child Poverty Act 2010, Part One of Act as originally enacted.
 See the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, section 7.
 See United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human (16 November 2018) (https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Poverty/EOM_GB_16Nov2018.pdf).
 Relative poverty exists where households receives less than sixty percent less than the median income.
 Department for Work and Pensions, Households Below Average Income, An analysis of the UK income distribution: 1994/95-2018/19 (25 March 2020), page 8 (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/875261/households-below-average-income-1994-1995-2018-2019.pdf ).
 Social Metrics Commission, Measuring Poverty 2020: A report of the Social Metrics Commission (July 2020), page 27 (https://socialmetricscommission.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Measuring-Poverty-2020-Web.pdf).
 The Legatum Institute, Briefing: Poverty during the Covid-19 Crisis (November 2020), page 3 (https://li.com/reports/poverty-during-the-covid-19-crisis/).
 National Audit Office, Investigation into the free school meals voucher scheme (2 December 2020) HC 1036, para 1 (https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Investigation-into-the-free-school-meals-voucher-scheme-Summary.pdf).
 Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (23 April 2019) A/HRC/41/39 Add. 1, para 21 (https://undocs.org/A/HRC/41/39/Add.1).
 The Food Foundation, FOOD FOUNDATION POLLING: third survey – five weeks into lockdown (May 2020), page 6 (https://foodfoundation.org.uk/vulnerable_groups/food-foundation-polling-third-survey-five-weeks-into-lockdown/).
 Notably this figure does not include food insecurity resulting from shortages in supermarkets.
 Ibid, page 5.
 Department for Education, Number of children’s centres, 2003 – 2019 (November 2019), page 3 (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/844752/Number_of_Children_s_Centres_2003_to_2019_Nov2019.pdf).
 Barnardos et al, Under Pressure: Children’s and young people’s services 2010 to 2018/2019: a summary (May 2020), page 2 (https://www.barnardos.org.uk/sites/default/files/2020-05/Summay%20of%20the%20analysis%20and%20deep%20dive%20reports%20-%20May%202020.pdf ).
 Ibid, page 1.
 See Department for Education, Guidance: Coronavirus (COVID-19): temporary extension of free school meals eligibility to NRPF groups (last updated 16 November 2020) (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance/guidance-for-the-temporary-extension-of-free-school-meals-eligibility-to-nrpf-groups).
 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 24.
 Ibid, Article 24 (2) (c)/
 R (on the application of DA and others) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions  UKSC 21  per Lord Wilson.
 Dr Kirsteen Shields concurs with Lord Wilson in this regard that the Government may well have legal obligations deriving from the ECHR to provide children with access to food under the pandemic in order to protect their rights under the ECHR See Dr Kirsteen Shields, ‘Free School Meals and Government Responsibility’ UK Human Rights Blog (22 October 2020) (https://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2020/10/22/free-school-meals-and-governmental-responsibility-dr-kirsteen-shields/).
 See the Child Poverty Action Group calculations from Department for Work and Pensions, Households Below Average Income, An analysis of the UK income distribution: 1994/95-2018/19: Child Poverty Action Group, Child Poverty Facts and Figures (Updated July 2020) (https://cpag.org.uk/child-poverty/child-poverty-facts-and-figures).
 See Public Health England, Beyond the data: Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups (June 2020), page 1 (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/892376/COVID_stakeholder_engagement_synthesis_beyond_the_data.pdf).