Tuesday, 1 Dec 2020

Communities shouldn't be forced to step in to help when the government won’t

Since Tory MPs voted against the extension of the free school meals voucher scheme last week, more than 1000 organisations have pledged to support our children instead.

This groundswell of support, attached to the high-profile campaign by 22-year-old footballer Marcus Rashford, has been so heart-warming. His Twitter timeline has become a showreel of community spirit and hope.

Cafes, coffee shops and football clubs are among those across England pledging to offer free meals instead. 

But this shouldn’t be necessary. At a time when many such organisations will be staring down the barrel of financial uncertainty themselves, there’s a tragic irony that they feel they have to.

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It’s the right thing to do, of course, it is. But many hospitality businesses have been on their knees due to coronavirus facing drastically reduced footfall, navigating new rules, furlough schemes, tier systems and significant uncertainty. So how is it fair that they should help foot the bill?  

Rashford’s campaign secured the continuation of the scheme in England for the easter and summer holidays in 2020, but Tory MPs voted an extension down 322 to 261. Meanwhile Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continue their schemes.

The UN Convention states that every child has the right to the best possible health and governments must provide them with nutritious food. In 2019, roughly 1.3million children in England claimed free school meals with an additional 900,000 estimated to have sought them since coronavirus arrived in the UK. More than 2,000 children’s doctors have signed a letter pressuring the Government to U-turn on their decision.

The cost of the pandemic response in the UK is estimated at £210bn, £12bn of which was plunged into a problematic test and trace system.

Yet the Government is unable to find the money to continue this scheme, instead alleging that a higher rate of Universal Credit and £63m given to councils (which have been defunded for a decade) is everything they can do to try to ensure ‘no child goes hungry’.

But if they’re so confident this is enough, why aren’t the 1,000 plus organisations being told not to worry about helping?   

Instead, some Tories have championed this, including Ben Bradley, MP for Mansfield. He appeared on BBC Breakfast on Saturday, stating on BBC Breakfast that ‘not everything has to come from central government’ and that local communities have a duty to support vulnerable people.

This appearance followed his tweets, since deleted after backlash around stigmatisation of working class families, which alleged free school meal vouchers won’t reach the children in his constituency who need them most.

Selaine Saxby, Tory MP for North Devon, wrote in a now-removed Facebook post: ‘I am delighted our local businesses have bounced back so much after lockdown they are able to give away food for free, and very much hope they will not be seeking any further government support’.

Meanwhile other Tory MPs have encouraged a U-turn. But even if they do go back on this, there are other examples where the public have felt the need to take up the baton.

Where basic societal functions are concerned, like the NHS being adequately funded and children being fed, the Government should be doing more so the public don’t have to

In April, Captain Tom Moore raised almost £33m for NHS Charities Together by completing 100 laps of his garden. Whilst he deserves every accolade, the concept of a then-99-year-old man hauling his body around for public donations, whilst the Tory Government has underfunded the NHS for years, is jarring. The NHS isn’t a charity.

In 2009/10, Trussell Trust food banks handed out around 41,000 packs. Projections for winter 2020 estimate that without governmental intervention, volunteers will distribute 846,000. In 2017, multi-millionaire Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg described increased demand for food banks as ‘rather uplifting’, which is another way of saying philanthropy is being exploited.  

The organisations offering to bridge the free school meals gap, Captain Tom, Rashford and food bank volunteers are all heroes. It’s heartening and humbling to witness their determination in the face of bleak times.

But whilst each individual act of kindness comes from a place of compassion, the net impact plays into the hands of greed and sustains the normalisation of the public stepping in. This isn’t good enough. Something must change. 

Political commentator Owen Jones said he once heard a senior Tory figure say, off-the-record. that the ‘Conservative Party is a coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people’.

This is such a telling window into their true strategy. For those who aren’t given just enough, the community help papering over those cracks is wonderful, but it allows a culture of forced self-reliance to flourish and is used to justify removal of safety nets.

Maybe they even expected and planned for this reaction. Is this what David Cameron’s ‘big society’ idea really looks like? MPs are set to get another pay rise, while nurses and their fellow key workers will have to ‘live off the claps’.

A U-turn on free school meals would suggest the Tories realise they haven’t quite got the careful balancing act of giving just enough right on this occasion. Though it certainly defends that privilege, perhaps it risks too much backlash.

Despite us having the sixth-largest economy in the world, charity has such an established, vital place in our culture and is responsible for crucial provision. People donating money and time want to do their bit and feel good about the change it contributes to when they do.

But where basic societal functions are concerned, like the NHS being adequately funded and children being fed, the Government should be doing more so the public don’t have to. We have enough to worry about right now.

If the Government is convinced they have the ‘right approach’ and free school meals is in hand, why aren’t they telling these organisations and kind souls that it isn’t their civic duty to help, and especially not in these circumstances? It’s almost like they know their intervention alone won’t be enough.

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