What Do Those Free School Meals ‘Ration Parcels’ Tell Us About Modern Britain?

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Way back in 2004, Boris Johnson once claimed that “nailing [Tony] Blair is like trying to pin jelly to a wall”. The observation is not without irony, given the current PM’s own habit of trying to avoid being pinned down on various Covid policy missteps.

As it happens, Johnson’s government is in many ways now taking lessons from Blair, not least on his key recommendation to delay second doses of vaccines and use the supplies to instead double the number of people who get a jab.

Today, the Blair era was even more evident as the Cabinet was informed that Sir Michael Barber, who ran the former Labour leader’s No.10 Delivery Unit, had been drafted in to conduct a “rapid review” of the current government to ensure “focused, effective and efficient” policy delivery.

Since his own brush with Covid last year, Johnson has also had a bit of an epiphany on his own weight problems, adopting New Labour-style recommendations on healthy eating and exercise that he once derided as the evil influence of the nanny state.

But the issue of nutrition took on a much more important significance over the past 24 hours as parents of kids on free school meals shared photos online of the woefully inadequate parcels (laughingly called “hampers” by some private firms providing them) with which they are expected to provide meals during lockdown.‌

Many parents will tell you how much their children raid the fridge while stuck at home, so the images of these sad collections of bread, beans, cheese, carrots and frube tubes were all the more heartbreaking. That phrase “substantial meal”, that dominated the “Scotch egg loophole” debate before Christmas, never seemed more criminally inappropriate.

We have to thank two brilliant food poverty campaigners, Marcus Rashford and Jack Monroe, each of whom have personal experience of going hungry, for exposing the sheer extent of the problem. It appeared No.10 had learned not to ignore this topic, swiftly condemning the food parcels as “unacceptable”, as minister Vicky Ford held a meeting with one private provider Chartwell’s.

Yet perhaps just as striking today was the testimony of one teacher, Zane Powles, a former Grenadier Guard who walks several miles to deliver lunches daily to kids in need in Grimsby. He told Radio 4’s World at One how he uses the deliveries to also check on his pupils’ home schooling.

As admirable as Powles efforts are, the fact that a teacher is having to personally deliver food to his pupils, often supplemented by his own pocket and that of the school, is a pretty damning indictment of any government. It also underlines how poorly prepared Gavin Williamson’s department for education was for this lockdown, with a meal voucher scheme still not in place.‌

For many parents, a supermarket voucher is preferable to the parcels that look like wartime rations. Even better, however, would be extra cash payments on universal credit or other benefits to allow them the flexibility and dignity to buy their own food. Professor Greta Defeyter, an expert on holiday hunger, rightly called today for a “cash first approach” that would boost parents’ autonomy and self respect.

Of course, one reason cash payments aren’t made is the all-too common belief among some MPs that the feckless poor would blow the money on booze, fags and even drugs (as Ben Bradley infamously suggested last year). There’s scant evidence for this, just as there is scant evidence that benefit sanctions are needed to ensure people look for work.

In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that sanctions are not only damaging to the poorest, but also counterproductive and a waste of money. The National Audit Office found the DWP spent £30-50 million a year applying sanctions, and around £200 million monitoring the terms it set for job seekers – but saved just £132 million.

As record numbers of people go onto Universal Credit, many experiencing the holes in the welfare safety net for the first time, it’s worth remembering too Amber Rudd’s quietly devastating admission that the system “led to an increase in foodbank use”. The computerised nature of the benefit has held up despite the demand, yet sanctions were reintroduced last July by the DWP after a brief moratorium in the first lockdown.

Then there are the even bigger issues. Sir Michael Marmot, whose landmark work in 2010 exposed the depth of UK health inequality, has pointed out that if the poorest 10% followed government guidelines on healthy eating, they would have to spend 75% of their income on food. Poverty, not a lack of desire to be healthy, was the key factor.

Marmot’s work appeared to win cross-party backing, but within months of the Cameron-led government getting into office, it had failed to adopt his key recommendation of “a healthy standard of living for all”. In fact, Cameron went in the opposite direction, with austerity cuts and what Frank Field later estimated was a £37bn cut to the benefit budget over a decade.

That figure was quoted by Jane Corbett, Liverpool City Council’s Assistant Mayor For Fairness And Tackling Poverty (yes, that’s a heck of a title) when I chatted to her recently on the roots of the inequality pandemic that preceded but were exacerbated by the Covid pandemic.‌

But Corbett also pointed to another early decision by the Cameron government that has had long-lasting impact too. The 2010 Equalities Act, passed in the dying days of New Labour, imposed a duty on public bodies to consider how they could reduce the inequalities of outcome that result from socioeconomic disadvantage. Yet it required a formal decision by the government to activate the key section. No government has done it since, neither Cameron’s, May’s or Johnson’s.

If that duty (Section 1 of the Act) was formally commenced, and if Michael Marmot’s key recommendation of a “healthy standard of living for all” was implemented, a government that was really committed to tackling food hunger could begin the hard yards needed to make it a reality.

It’s worth noting that during repeated lockdowns, the policy of universal free school meals has disappeared too, with the DfE giving free school meal help only to those primary school kids whose parents are on benefits. Dominic Cummings famously battled hard against universal free meals when the Lib Dems introduced them in the Coalition, but imagine if all primary pupils – in junior school not just infant school – were treated the same and given a free meal without stigma.

It was more than 100 years ago that the first Labour party leader Keir Hardie declared: “Matters which are really urgent include provision of meals…it’s more economical and in every way more desirable to make provision for every child…rather than go on making provision for necessitous cases only.”

The PM has often been ridiculed for his ‘cakeism’, but ‘let them eat cake-ism’ would be a much more toxic political legacy. If Johnson really wants to surprise us all as we come out of this pandemic, maybe he could trump even Tony Blair and expand that universal free school meals for primary pupils.

Add in a better welfare safety net, a higher living wage and new duties to tackle inequality and those photos of children’s “food parcels” could be rightly put in the dustbin of history.


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