The Observer view on the Commons vote to let poor children go hungry

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA</span>
Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

It speaks volumes of the government that it has taken a 22-year-old footballer to step into the vacuum to provide moral and compassionate leadership during a pandemic. Perhaps Boris Johnson thought that giving Marcus Rashford an MBE for his campaign for holiday food vouchers for poor children would muffle his voice. But Rashford has continued to speak truth to power in a way that puts the government to shame. Johnson last week instructed Conservative MPs to vote against a motion to uphold Rashford’s continued calls to extend holiday food vouchers for poor children. Just one Conservative minister, Caroline Ansell, thought this was a resigning matter. The rest of the sorry pack, including education secretary, Gavin Williamson and children’s minister, Vicky Ford, dutifully trooped through the lobby.

That vote to deny children who get free meals during the school term food vouchers in the school holidays was bad enough. Even worse are the arguments MPs wheeled out to justify their decision. Brendan Clarke-Smith said giving food to hungry children was akin to “nationalising children”. Ben Bradley implied these vouchers were spent in crack dens and brothels over the summer. Mark Jenkinson argued that food parcels were being traded for drugs in his constituency. (Neither offered a shred of evidence for these ridiculous suppositions.) Selaine Saxby hoped those businesses in her constituency stepping in to provide free meals would not be seeking further government support. Philip Davies lambasted a 16-year-old constituent who wrote to him about the issue for being “intolerant”.

Mark Jenkinson argued that food parcels were being traded for drugs in his constituency

Senior ministers know better than to openly voice these sentiments. But these views are far from fringe: they offer an ugly glimpse into a persistent strand of Tory thinking about poverty. Too many who have lived privileged lives on the Conservative benches believe their successes are down purely to their hard work, not the advantages that were handed to them on a silver platter. The corollary of this fantastical belief is that people who live in poverty, who cannot get a job that pays enough to support their family, are somehow morally deficient.

This is nonsensical dogma. Poverty is less the product of individual life choices but overwhelmingly the inevitable result of the deficient economic and social orders that shape all of our lives. It is generated by low pay, unemployment and poor mental health. Minimum-wage jobs do not pay enough for parents to provide for their children without state support; little wonder that seven in 10 children in poverty come from working families. Just as bad is the poverty that sets in when large numbers of jobs vanish from an area and a lack of support to retrain consigns many to the scrapheap, making it hard for their children and grandchildren to escape the shackles of multigenerational joblessness.

But it does not suit small-state Conservatives to acknowledge this. Even as they stigmatise people for relying on state handouts, they refuse to ensure cleaners and carers are paid enough to support their families. The Conservative MP Kit Malthouse justified voting against last week’s motion because a better way to help children in poverty was to “pump money into the welfare system”. We wholly agree, but this was an odd sentiment from someone whose party has spent the last decade eroding tax credits and benefits – many families lost the equivalent of thousands of pounds of support a year – in a way that has contributed to rising levels of child poverty. Conservative chancellors may have told us it was a necessary economy, but the tax cuts they handed more affluent families and businesses that cost billions of pounds a year suggested otherwise. If unemployment soars, as expected, in the coming months, things will get worse. The £20 a week boost to universal credit is set to be rescinded next April, dropping unemployment benefits to their lowest real-term levels since the 1990s.

Brendan Clarke-Smith said giving food to hungry children was akin to “nationalising children”

Meanwhile, the government has failed to mitigate the educational and mental health impacts of the pandemic on children. And, rather than address the root causes of the under-attainment of poor children at school over the last decade, Conservative ministers have flirted with the notion that it is somehow the widespread teaching of critical race theory in schools that is disadvantaging white, working-class children. Alongside asylum seekers and the legal profession, children now appear to be fair game in the culture-war politics of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings: whether it is to take potshots at those campaigning against structural racism or to make Victorian-era aspersions about the feckless poor.

They have made a massive misjudgment. The dogwhistle politics of Vote Leave cannot carry the country through a pandemic and the overwhelming response to Rashford’s call – the hard-pressed businesses, councils and individuals who have come forward to reduce the number of children going hungry – shows they have misjudged a nation. It is a heartwarming antidote to the callousness of ministers.

But what do we teach our offspring when, though we can afford to, we choose not to ensure that all children have somewhere safe and warm to live, that they don’t go to bed hungry, that they have a pair of shoes without holes? We teach them that to be poor is to be shameful, that there is nothing wrong with a world where despite working all the hours under the sun you will never escape the fear and anxiety of what would happen if your fridge breaks or your landlord serves notice. We teach them that what should be theirs by right is theirs only through charity and benevolence.

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