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Opinion: Judith Robertson

20 May 19

The Scottish Government’s planned Good Food Nation legislation should incorporate the right to food in law, with targets, guidelines, and duties on central and local public bodies

by Judith Robertson

Food is vital to each and every one of us, and to our society as a whole. The human right to food is recognised and defined in international human rights law, as are corresponding obligations on governments to ensure that food is accessible, adequate and available to everyone. 

In our recent submission to the Scottish Government’s consultation on a Good Food Nation Bill (find it at www.scottishhumanrights.com/policy-publications), the Commission called for the right to food to be incorporated directly into Scotland’s domestic legal system through a new national framework law. We believe this would give more practical effect to the right to food in people’s lives, and open up the potential for legal redress where law and policy fails them. 

At present, the Scottish Government proposes that legislation to establish the Good Food Nation framework will “have regard to the international human rights framework, in line with Scotland’s well-established human rights obligations”. However the proposals fall short of fully incorporating the right to food in law, as has previously been called for by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights and, nationally, the Independent Short Life Working Group on Food Poverty in 2016.

Incorporating the right to food in law would be consistent not only with international law and best practice, but also with the recommendations of the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership, reporting in December 2018. These recommendations called for, amongst other things, a new Act of the Scottish Parliament to enshrine economic, social, cultural and environmental rights that are currently not protected by the Human Rights Act 1998 and European Convention on Human Rights. Such an approach would also be entirely consistent with the First Minister’s recent commitment to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law by the end of this parliamentary term. 

Our report sets out the challenges to the affordability, accessibility and adequacy of food for people across Scotland. Significant numbers of people in Scotland are facing daily barriers to accessing their right to food. Household food insecurity is unacceptably high. Children are experiencing food insecurity, with parents and carers too often relying on emergency food banks and going hungry during school holidays. None of Scotland’s dietary goals are being met, and health inequalities are stark. These challenges are only increasing because of rising economic insecurity, the continued impact of austerity-driven reductions in social security, climate change, and the way that food is produced, distributed and marketed. 

A national framework law on the right to food would translate the international right to food into concrete targets, guidelines, powers and policies when it comes to food availability and accessibility. A framework law would cover the whole spectrum of cross-sectoral issues related to food, and facilitate a more cohesive, co-ordinated approach to issues like food insecurity. People’s right to food would therefore be the anchor around which food policy was developed. 

A new framework law would identify duty bearers at both central and local level, and could provide for co-ordination of responsibility for implementation of the law by assigning responsibility to the different agencies involved. Political monitoring mechanisms (by Parliament) to hold these duty holders accountable, and legal mechanisms (by administrative and/or judicial bodies) for review of their decisions, should be provided for.

Finally, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights has stated in its General Comment 12 that there should be effective judicial or other appropriate remedies when the right to food is violated. A new national framework law could provide for effective recourse procedures in cases of alleged violations, and specify those aspects of the right to food that are actionable under the law.

The Commission recognises that the incorporation and justiciability of the right to food can only apply to areas of devolved competence and so would be inherently limited in scope. Nevertheless, we believe that the incorporation of the right to food into law in Scotland would be a driver for positive change and provide a backstop of legal protection.

Judith Robertson is chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission

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