Back in August, chancellor Rishi Sunak bribed us, with our own money, to ‘eat out to help out’. Taxpayers’ money was handed out willy nilly to subsidise our nights out in restaurants and pubs in order to prop up the hospitality industry. Most of us didn’t eat out because we had to. We ate out because we fancied it. Less than two months later, politicians have voted to stop free school meals being given to the very poorest children in the land over the coming school holidays and Christmas. I cannot help but think we have plumbed new depths in Broken Britain.
There are something like a million children who are likely to go hungry in the coming weeks and months, in all cases through no fault of their own. Tory MPs complain that free school meal vouchers are “misused” by some parents and I have no doubt that this is true. But my experience, throughout a working life that began in 1974, is that in the vast majority of cases, this is not true. And whilst I have never personally gone hungry, it was only because my loving mother sometimes did.
People ask what’s so different now from a year ago when vouchers were not issued in the school holidays and the simple answer is this: COVID-19. The subsequent economic crash has affected the less well off proportionately far harder than the better off. If you need me to explain why, then I suggest you stop reading now.
This is not about cost. How could it be? Boris Johnson’s dungheap of a government has handed out many billions to his business cronies and friends. Just look at the shambolic privatised Track and Trace service, run nationally in a call centre by minimum wage staff working from a script and run by Baroness Dido Harding, a businesswoman with no history of public service or knowledge of the NHS. To date, it has cost the taxpayer some £12 billion and it doesn’t work properly. Millions – some say billions – have been trousered by the business friends of Dominic Cummings, the de facto unelected prime minister. To allow children to go hungry was a deliberate political decision. In the middle of terrible pandemic, during a catastrophic economic crash, the the timing will astonish anyone who doesn’t yet realise what kind of government we have.
What I will never understand is the ability of some to not be affected by the suffering of young children. It is almost as if we regard them as the deserving poor. And if some suffer because of ‘poor parenting’, whatever that means, should that make any difference? Of course, poor parenting needs to be addressed, but specifically as part of a wider consideration about where society is going. That can’t be fixed overnight, but hunger can.
If Johnson’s government can prop up his mate Tim Martin’s Wetherspoon pub business with our money, then they can find a far smaller amount of money to stop children starving. They can, but they won’t. Instead, they attack the young footballer Marcus Rashford, who has personal experience of going without food as a child, for ‘virtue signalling’. Food vouchers do represent a form of sticking plaster, but sticking plaster is what’s needed when the short term alternative is nothing.