Responding to Rashford

15 Jan

We argued yesterday that those losing out most during this pandemic are not those at the bottom of the poverty ladder, but those on the next rung up.  These include a mass of the “just-about-managing”.

Since policy options are necessarily limited, whoever is in goverment, and demand trade-offs between different interests, it isn’t hard to see what the consequences will be when the pandemic abates – and are already.

In sum, the Government can’t avoid making choices that most help those who remain the poorest, or else those who have recently become poorer.

At the moment, it is unsure which to do.  Explaining why this is so also explains why it is on the back foot against Marcus Rashford’s campaigning, and suggests a means of it getting back on the front foot.

New Labour’s original child poverty target in government was to reduce the number of children living in households with less than 60 per cent of median equivalised income.

This measure can have perverse outcomes: for example, if the average income goes up, but the incomes of people lower down the income scale stay as they were, then poverty will be officially recorded as having increased.

“Such a definition means there are more people in “poverty” now than in the 1970s despite decades of material progress,” our columnist, Neil O’Brien, argued in back in 2012 when he was heading up Policy Exchange.

He believed that Labour was conflating fighting poverty with boosting equality, and he was right. In 2015, that target was duly abolished.

Iain Duncan Smith, then Work and Pensions Secretary, wanted to replace it with a new measure – one that would, for example, assess whether poorer children were getting an improved education which would boost their life chances.

But there was none available at the time, so the Government settled for a new duty to report levels of educational attainment, worklessness and addiction.

Which brings us to his former Special Adviser, Philippa Stroud – now Chief Executive of the Legatum Institute, whose work underpinned our piece yesterday, and illustrates the choices that Boris Johnson must now make.

She believes that the Social Metrics Commission (SMC), which she helped to form after leaving government, has cracked the problem and found a definition that will work.

Were the Government to take it up, it would at least be clear what is trying to do when trying to help reduce poverty – which, as matters stand, it doesn’t.

This leaves it vulnerable to every lobby and interest group with its own definition, own campaign and own demand, which may once again seek to blur the difference between tackling poverty and equality.

Stroud has conceded on this site that some “will be nervous about a new measure of poverty, even one that has gained consensus across the political spectrum”.

That Ministers are apprehensive about giving their opponents a stick to beat them with explains the delay in taking up the SMC measure by developing experimental statistics.

But although they are damned if they do, they are also damned if they don’t – as we have seen.  Rashford is moving on from free school meals, and is now tweeting about the forthcoming Universal Credit uplift decision.

Stroud pointed out that maintaining the uplift would assist those on the first rung up of the poverty ladder rather than those at the very bottom.

That might well be the right action to take – but is it where the Government wants to concentrate its anti-poverty efforts?  What are the trade-offs?

Where else might the money go instead?  For example, could it be used exclusively to help to get people into work rather than to assist some people who are already in it?

It’s true that if Ministers have a settled direction in which to steer their ship, those on board will inevitably complain about it.  And the Treasury will want to muddle along.

But if they don’t, the passengers will effectively take control – shouting a mass of conflicting instructions, which those Ministers will then ignore, contradict and surrender to in conflicting measure (if Number Ten doesn’t do it for them).

This is bad for the Government, bad for the Conservative Party – and, above all, bad for those at the bottom end of the ladder, wherever they are situated on it.  Stroud’s advice should be taken without further delay.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: This highlight of the parliamentary week is dying from long-windedness

13 Jan

Brevity is the soul of wit. Shakespeare brilliantly gives this insight to the long-winded Polonius.

Today at Prime Minister’s Questions too many MPs channelled their inner Polonius.

Question after question was sententious and far too long, and the whole session lasted almost three-quarters of an hour, which is 50 per cent too much.

The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, did at one point cut Boris Johnson off, at a time when the Prime Minister had veered into a stream of abuse which had nothing to do with the question which had been put.

But reform has to start with the questioners. The briefer they are, the more conspicuous the Prime Minister’s evasions will be.

Sir Keir Starmer reminded the House of Johnson’s assurances at the last PMQs on 16th December that the measures then in force to deal with the pandemic were sufficient, and asked: “How did he get it so wrong?”

A good question, to which the Leader of the Opposition should have stuck, instead of which he began offering the House excessive quantities of evidence, of a kind which might be required at a criminal trial, or on some other parliamentary occasions, but which weighs PMQs down and runs the risk of making it unwatchable.

This half hour is, or should be, tabloid politics, with the accusations subbed down to witty headlines which demand witty replies.

“That just isn’t a good enough answer,” Sir Keir said at one point, but then changed the subject to food parcels, whereupon Johnson, with tabloid quickness and shamelessness, allied himself with Marcus Rashford, whom he praised for “doing quite an effective job” compared to the Leader of the Opposition.

Ian Blackford, for the SNP,  asked some good questions about Scottish fishermen who cannot get their catch to market, but again he was far too long, which made the irrelevance of the PM’s replies less embarrassing.

The Queen pleads with Polonius to get to the point. Anyone who values PMQs as a spectacle – something the public might actually want to watch – must enter the same plea.

U-turn of the year – A Level results and the Government abandoning the Ofqual algorithm for predicted grades

31 Dec

In a tight competition, A Level results were deemed U-turn of the year by our panel with 28.11 per cent of the vote. Many will remember the outcry in August after the Department of Education used an algorithm by Ofqual to predict grades, leading to huge disappointment among students. Gavin Williamson and the Ofqual soon apologised and decided that all A Level and GCSE results in England would be from then on be calculated by teacher assessments.

In at 25.87 per cent, our panelists felt that the Government’s position on free school meals was another big U-turn, followed by Sadiq Khan’s decision for London to have a lockdown and curfews, only to then fight for these to be avoided, and Keir Starmer in last place with his Brexit flip flopping. Either way, there was no stand out winner in this category, unlike some of our others.

Frank Young: Educational Long Covid. Why the collapse of schooling over lockdown will haunt the poor for years to come.

3 Nov

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice

If the Marcus Rashford affair has taught us anything, it is that the Government is in urgent need of a poverty strategy to plug the hole in thinking when emergency measures come in.

Until recently, being Education Secretary was the Cabinet job everyone wanted, and for good reason. Number crunchers at the Department for Work & Pensions worked out some years ago that, for a poor child, failing at school was the number one predictor of staying poor in adult life. It’s as simple as that.

Well before state schools were closed down last spring (with private schools moving almost entirely online), the so-called educational attainment gap persisted as an annual reminder of this particular pathway into future poverty. Disadvantaged pupils are particularly prone to low levels of literacy and numeracy – and this in turn leads to low pay, insecure jobs and unemployment.

If we really want to ‘build back better’ when the pandemic is in the rear view mirror, we will need to tackle educational inequalities of outcome, in much the same way that we need to build houses.

More than half a billion school days have been missed since March, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds having less contact with their teachers and less work marked than wealthier children. In the first month of lockdown, private school children were twice as likely to take part in daily online lessons as those in state school.

The full impact of school closures on children’s outcomes is not yet known, but the closures are likely to have worsened the attainment gap. The exam fiasco over the summer will have further disrupted education for children at a critical time in their studies. This is a form educational Long Covid that will have an impact on already disadvantaged lives for many years to come.

We seemed to have stopped talking about the ‘root causes’ of disadvantage as we chase our tail to lockdown, bail out and subsidise our way out of the pandemic. Any poverty strategy will need to take a long hard look at where the educational disadvantage starts – and that is in the home. Between the ages of four to 16, a typical British child will spend only 15 per cent of their time at school. Damian Hinds got this when he described family life as the last educational “taboo”.

Home environments marked by multiple transitions, disrupted attachment to a parent and frequent conflict increase the likelihood of children displaying externalising behaviour problems, leading to poor engagement and attainment at school.

The experience of lockdown has only increased made the situation worse. In response to the escalating education crisis, we spend £26 on catch-up schemes for every £1 we spend on reducing conflict within families. That’s an argument for increasing the £1 – not decreasing the £26 that is desperately needed.

Our nursery sector is teetering on the brink following an extended, enforced shutdown. It is too soon to tell how many will shut their doors, unable to make running a nursery work but as ever this will hit the poorest hardest. At just 3 years old, disadvantaged children are almost 1.5 years behind their more affluent peers in their early language development.

Once attainment gaps arise, they are hard to close. Children who attend high-quality settings for two to three years are almost eight months ahead of children who attend none. This is exactly where we need to focus a renewed push to tackle poverty and disadvantage.

Schools are receptacles of disadvantage – whether it is a dysfunctional home life or a terrible start in life. We can now predict longer term educational underperformance from the earliest days: when Frank Field looked at this issue he found more than half of children in the bottom 20 per cent of attainment in school at school will remain at the bottom when they take their GCSEs.

As Robert Halfon has said on this website, we need a poverty strategy. The money set aside for catch-up should be rolled into the next spending review to give schools a permanent pot for focused, back-to-basics tuition in literacy and numeracy.

Small is beautiful when it comes to catch up – and we can lock this into our efforts to rebuild from the pandemic. Teachers make the difference, and getting the best teachers into schools with disadvantaged catchments should be a big priority. High-quality teaching is particularly transformative for disadvantaged pupils. Over a school year, these pupils get 1.5 years’ worth of learning with high-quality teachers; they lose half a year’s learning when taught by poorly performing teachers.

Don’t overlook family support, hidden away in the Department for Work & Pensions. The Reducing Parental Conflict programme now has three years of evidence based interventions to stabilise family life. It is much an education issue as it is a poverty issue for the department doleing out welfare payments. We need action now to tackle children going without – but we also need a plan that tackles disadvantage early on.

Syed Kamall: Rashford’s campaign calls for state action – but it equally highlights the power of individuals and community

29 Oct

Professor Syed Kamall is Academic and Research Director at the IEA. From May 2005 to June 2019, he was a Conservative MEP for London.

While Marcus Rashford’s campaign to provide free meals for children has gained much publicity and public support, it has also come under criticism for providing meals for children regardless of need and for even nationalising parental responsibility.

The campaign is built on the assumption that state intervention is necessary to solve societal problems but equally it has highlighted the power of private individuals to affect change, as well as the dedication of volunteers in our local communities.

The campaign perhaps should be seen in the context of our country’s long history of helping those in need. As far back as 1597-8, the Elizabethan Poor Laws were administered through parish overseers, who provided relief for the aged, sick, and infant poor, as well as work for the able-bodied in workhouses. The latter would of course be unacceptable today. In the late 18th century, this was supplemented by the Speenhamland system, providing allowances to workers with below subsistence wages.

By the nineteenth century, it is estimated that as much money passed through voluntary organisations to those in need as did through the poor law. Many adults belonged to an average of five or six voluntary organisations, such as trades unions and friendly societies, offering financial protection against sickness and unemployment as well as savings societies, literary and scientific institutes.

While charitable provision was diverse, it did not reach everyone in need, which led to calls for state intervention and the introduction of state pensions in 1908 and state social insurance in 1911. Voluntary organisations began to accept money from the state, becoming complementary or supplementary welfare providers, but no longer being seen as the first port of call for those in need.

The 1942 Beveridge Report recommended a single contribution and a single state benefit agency for social insurance. Beveridge wanted friendly societies to act as state benefit agencies offering additional services if funded voluntary contributions. However, this idea was rejected by the Government and led to the post-war welfare state.

Despite the growth of state welfare, the UK maintains a mixed welfare model with thousands of local civil society non-state projects in neighbourhoods across the country, providing support and signposting for families in need, long before we saw the inspiring help that volunteers have provided during the Covid-19 lockdown. However, even within these organisations, there are some who see their efforts as stepping in where the state should be acting, rather than as part of a rich tapestry of local civil society.

This bias towards state-intervention is one that sees multi-millionaire footballers become advocates for more government action, where local community groups may already exist and even do a better job than state agencies. When I was a politician, I was sometimes contacted by constituents asking me to find a taxpayer-funded local council or national government or EU grant or hoping I could pass a law to solve a local problem. When I offered to introduce them to a project that had solved a similar problem in their neighbourhood, some were inspired while others saw this as an example of state failure.

Poverty, especially child poverty, has a devastating impact and as a society we should do everything in our power to offer routes out of poverty. But government is not the answer to every problem, and in our rush to do something, we should not overlook or squeeze out alternative solutions.

While some critics may prefer that Rashford built a coalition of other millionaires and companies to support local civil society organisations or offer to pay more tax before calling for state intervention, they risk overlooking the incredible good this young working class man has done.

Whether he sees it or not, his campaign has demonstrated the power of local civil society non-state organisations to address problems in their neighbourhoods. He has also inspired others to – In the words of Gandhi – become the change they want to see.

He is also raised the issue of corporate welfare, which in some cases has also seen money given to companies who did not necessarily need it. Is it any wonder, that Rashford and others argue spending public money on school dinners would be a better use of the taxpayer’s money, especially when so much has been splashed around?

Finally, the campaign has reignited the debate over universal provision vs targeted help and whether a better way to help hungry families would be via Universal Credit, giving families in need the money directly to make the best use of it for their individual circumstances and not to assume that parents will use the money for non-essentials rather than food.

On such an emotive subject it is easy for the waters to get muddied, for political opponents to take polarised positions and to trade accusations of being uncaring or misguided. Maybe we should instead take a moment to applaud Rashford for his actions, for demonstrating that welfare beyond the state is very much alive and for igniting a debate on the effectiveness of the solutions he proposes.

Philippa Stroud: The Coalition stopped officially measuring poverty – which left its successor unsightedover free schools meals

28 Oct

Philippa Stroud is Chief Executive Officer of the Legatum Institute, and leads the Social Metrics Commission.

Marcus Rashford presents the Conservative Party with a problem. No Conservative believes that any child in this country should ever go hungry, but we also want to build a society in which parents are able to earn enough to support their own children and, where that is not the case, in which there is a welfare state that supports those in need. These are our long-term objectives.

So what happens at a moment of crisis when there is a short-term need, and why has the call for the expansion of holiday provision of food and activities to support an additional 1.1 million children in the short term gathered such momentum?

In 2016, the Government abolished the old measure of poverty as an official measure. This means since that year it has been walking blind. Policy decisions have been made in a vacuum without a tool that shines a spotlight on the needs of the most disadvantaged.

The Government has made some great decisions, but without the certainty that what they are doing is hitting the target. Has poverty gone up? Is it plateauing? Until there is an agreed metric that tracks this, who can say?

That is why I launched the Social Metrics Commission (SMC) in 2016, drawing from left and right, and have proposed a new set of poverty metrics: to end the war on poverty measurement so that we could put our energy into working towards an effective poverty reduction strategy.

By the SMC measure, until the start of Covid-19, Conservatives could rightly declare that work was the best route out of poverty and, with record high levels of employment, this strategy was clearly effective, with 90 per cent of households where both adults work full time being out of poverty.

But during this global pandemic, the SMC measure also tells us it is those in deep poverty who are being most significantly impacted by the virus. Two in three (65 per cent) of those employed and in deep poverty prior to the crisis have seen reduced hours or earnings, been furloughed, and/or lost their job.

Although these numbers are not tracked by the Government, the public instinctively feels this to be the case. Locally, Conservatives know this too and are responding with short-term fixes.

The London borough of Kensington and Chelsea for example has promised £15 food vouchers over half-term for its 3,300 local children eligible for free school meals. Councillor Josh Rendall, the lead member for family and children’s services, said: “This is not a long-term solution but this is an exceptional year and we know it has been a tough one for many families.”

Conservatives have a good story to tell. Number 10 and 11 have worked tirelessly to put the entire resources of Government behind protecting the British people from Covid-19, including in the short term with increased support in the benefit system, the Job Retention (and soon Support) Scheme and, in the long term, through improved services for mental health and education, tackling the costs of housing and driving forward the levelling up agenda.

But in the absence of an effective poverty measure, we are unable to quantify the positive impact of all of these choices, gain credit for a comprehensive strategy on poverty, or identify whether there are short term challenges that still need to be addressed.

We need to be able to say that no child in Britain will go hungry on our watch – but we can’t. And we are allowing others to create a narrative for us, and in the absence of an agreed poverty measure and subsequent strategy, we always will. This does not need to be the case.

Had we had the SMC measure already in place, we would have been monitoring the impact of Covid-19 on the most vulnerable during this time of crisis. Had we adopted the SMC measure, we would have known in May that although the pandemic is hitting everyone, it is hitting those in deepest poverty the most and that short term measures may be required to see the poorest through this time.

It was Will Quince, a Work and Pensions Minister, who first announced that the department was taking forward the SMC measure of poverty and developing Experimental Statistics, back in May 2019. But even now, when accurate and timely data is needed more than ever, the work has stalled.

I know there will be some who will be nervous about a new measure of poverty, even one that has gained consensus across the political spectrum and already won the Government much political capital. But the measure is in effect a framework. It is the best way of capturing the “who” is in poverty – the “who” we need to be concerned about and looking out for. The Government can then decide where it wants to place its effort – so at a time like this it would have focused on those most impacted.

The Government could decide to focus on those who are moving in and out of poverty and close to the labour market (the top seven million). That is in effect what the £20 uplift has done in Universal Credit.

Or, it could decide to focus energy and resources on those in deep poverty – those who are 50 per cent below the poverty line (bottom 4.5 million). This is the most vulnerable group and where I would put my energy and effort at a time of national crisis. This is who many of the public thinks of as being in poverty, which is why they are so concerned now and why Rashford has received so much support.

I know that many Conservatives, like myself, came into politics because we were concerned about the long-term drivers of poverty. We feel deeply concerned about the most vulnerable in the nation. We know that poverty is about money, but that it is also about family, education and skills, debt, housing, sickness and disability, and employment. It is about the support being there when you need it so that you can get up and onto your own two feet again and find your own way out of poverty for you and your family.

This is a moment to take action in the short term – as the Government has been doing and still needs to do – but it is also a moment to get our house in order for the long term: to adopt the SMC poverty measure and build a comprehensive poverty strategy so that now and in the future we can say hand on heart, on our watch: no child went hungry.

Normal relations between the Conservative leader and Conservative MPs are breaking down

28 Oct

The poor bloody infantry are fed up. As Paul Waugh reports, Conservative backbenchers complain that on the question of free school meals during half term they were sent into action without either a clear objective or a proper plan.

The high command should have foreseen there would be a problem and worked out what to do about it.

Instead of which, those Tory MPs who were bold enough to go over the top, generally the younger and less experienced recruits, found themselves exposed to a hail of criticism.

The moral high ground is firmly in the hands of Marcus Rashford, who has 3.7 million followers on Twitter, to whom he declares in his Pinned Tweet: “It’s time we put party politics aside and worked together to find a long-term sustainable solution to child food poverty in the UK.”

The only practical response to such a statement is to agree with it. Rashford must be treated as an ally, not an adversary, and any accidental exchanges of fire with Rashford’s supporters must be replaced by whole-hearted co-operation in the great cause of feeding the nation’s children.

Instead of which, Downing Street failed to see there was a problem, let alone to grip it, and the Chief Whip, Mark Spencer, expressed the hope that Conservative MPs would have a great half term.

Backbenchers feel Downing Street does not take them seriously, and does not realise they can act as a valuable early warning system, exposed as they are to public opinion in their constituencies.

The letter to the Prime Minister on Monday from over 50 Conservative MPs in northern seats, expressing the fear that the Government’s levelling up agenda is being abandoned, is a further sign that normal methods of communication with Downing Street are reckoned to have broken down.

All Prime Ministers find themselves accused, from time to time, of failing to listen to their own backbenchers. One should not imagine that it is unusual for the leader to seem, especially to his or her own troops, to have become cut off in Downing Street, isolated from normal human emotions, unable any more to see how the poll tax will strike ordinary, sensible voters.

But it is a bit early for Boris Johnson to start suffering from this condition. Part of the trouble is that as long as the pandemic rages, he cannot play his natural game, which is to get out and meet people.

A second problem is that he has never taken the House of Commons seriously. He is by no means the only Tory leader of whom this could be said: neither Theresa May nor David Cameron was really a House of Commons person.

But it is still a pity that Johnson has never had the time or the inclination to get to know his fellow parliamentarians better.

Nor, so far as one can see, does anyone else in Downing Street really know them, or possess that awareness of shifts in parliamentary opinion which is the fruit of long experience.

This is, in fact, an inexperienced administration, containing few ministers or advisers who have been around for more than a few years.

Johnson himself, as I noted when writing my account of his early life, likes to learn how to do things by actually doing them. This was how he approached being Mayor of London, and it began to work once he had found immensely knowledgeable people like Sir Simon Milton who could do the bits he was never going to learn how to do.

There is a kind of high-minded commentator who implies that in the right hands, i.e. those of someone as gifted as the commentator, government can be an exact science. This rhetorical device serves to show in an even worse light the errors made by the present incumbent. We could have had perfection, and instead we have to put up with this.

The public is generally more charitable. It recognises that in coping with a crisis like the pandemic, an element of trial and error is unavoidable.

But there comes a point where it expects that lessons will have been learned from the errors. And it is on this capacity to learn from mistakes that the success of Johnson’s prime ministership will depend.

Ryan Bourne: If you want to feed hungry children, don’t target food poverty. Aim to reduce poverty as a whole.

28 Oct

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute. 

Covid-19’s initial economic impact fell disproportionately on those least able to mitigate it. An Institute for Fiscal Studies paper in July found that single parents, low educated poor households, and ethnic minority groups suffered the worst relative hit. Since then, workers in low-wage services industries such as hospitality, transport, and retail, have faced both the worst of unexpected job losses and uncertainty about their income.

With this unique shock, it is unsurprising that a welfare state built around previous experiences has exhibited failures in protecting against hardship. Falling incomes, especially for those without savings or access to government benefits, have consequences. The Food Standards Agency reports greater food bank use, self-reported hunger, and families eating out-of-date produce.

That context is why the Government faces intense pressure over extending free school meals during school holidays through Easter 2021. Given the uncertainty around the efficacy of other government support, you can see the temptation to follow the advice of Iain Martin, who proposes caving to Marcus Rashford’s campaign again. Give the “£20m, handshake with Marcus R on steps of Number 10 on Monday and Royal Commission into child poverty,” Martin tweeted.

That defeat might seem a small price to pay to end the optics of opposing meals for hungry children, regardless of any questions you might have about the realities, or the desirability of extending the government scheme. As Isabel Hardman writes, the belief that Conservatives are insensitive to “food poverty,” coming first in righteous anger over food bank use in 2010-2015 and now “free” school meals, has hung around the Conservatives for a decade, whether fair or not.

Martin’s short-term solution, however, neglects that campaigners won’t be satiated by extending out-of-term meal vouchers to Easter 2021. Rashford’s campaign’s ultimate aim, remember, is to implement the Dimbleby Review, which would double the number of kids on benefit-triggered free school meals by extending eligibility to every child from a Universal Credit household (an extra 1.5 million kids.)

Crossbench peer Baroness D’Souza is already pushing for out-of-term meal vouchers to become a permanent feature. Combined, that would be billions of pounds, year on year, not tens of millions.

Come next year, no matter the labour market’s health, the Government will face the same criticism. If much of austerity taught us anything, it’s that even when acute need passes, wrapping up programmess will renew accusations that Conservatives “want to starve kids” by “snatching” their lunches.

Milton Friedman’s warning that “there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary government programme,” in part stems from recipients’ aversion to losses. A Royal Commission packed with do-gooders who examine food poverty in isolation will bring further demands for spending and diet control.

That is why, I suspect, some Conservative MPs vociferously oppose the Rashford campaign. It’s not heartlessness, or even this specific extension they oppose, but the precedent and direction of travel. They can foresee the vision of government this type of reflexive policymaking and its paternalistic particulars end with.

The problem for them is that they are on a hiding to nothing in claiming this specific measure risks creating longer-term “dependency” or “nationalising children” if the public think today’s needs are real. Conservatives who believe in a small, limited state have to have answers —about what responsibility the Government should have in dealing with hardship, what tools it should use, and what its role should be for those falling through gaps.

After ten years in government and riding cycles of support for the welfare state, there’s a lack of clarity in the Party’s position, with a mix of preferences among its MPs for income support, service provision, civil society solutions, and combinations of the three. There is a clear, principled alternative vision of how to deal with poverty if the Tories want it. But it requires getting off the fence.

That alternative would say that “food poverty” is not distinct from poverty. Free school meal campaigners are broadly right that hunger is not usually caused by parental fecklessness.

Therefore, logically, food poverty largely results from insufficient disposable income for some families. If widespread hunger is evidenced, the debate should therefore be about whether benefit levels or eligibility are sufficient to meet basic needs—the goal of a safety net welfare state.

This type of limited support that trusts people to use top-ups for the betterment of their families is vastly preferable to a paternalistic state stripping us of responsibility, through demeaning out-of-term food vouchers akin to U.S. style food stamps.

In deep unexpected crises, the case for additional emergency income relief is greater. But if there really is a more structural problem of hunger, then it demands examining why wages plus benefits are insufficient to deliver acceptable living standards. Rather than just look at benefits then, we should examine living costs, too—the poor spend disproportionately high amounts on housing, energy, food, clothing and footwear, and transport.

My former colleague Kristian Niemietz wrote a free-market anti-poverty agenda back in 2011, which I’ve pushed MPs to adopt since. He showed that market-friendly policies on housing (planning reform), food and clothes (free trade), energy (ending high-cost green regulations), childcare (reversing the credentialism and stringent ratios), and cutting sin taxes to economically-justified levels could shrink poverty by slashing the cost of living for the poor, so reducing food hardship, homelessness and more.

Most of this agenda would require no extra spending or busybodying from government paternalists; some of the policies would bring the double-dividend of raising wages .

The Government has ambitious policies in a number of these areas. But why are they never linked to the poverty discussions? As they press for planning liberalisation, why is nobody highlighting how cheaper housing would lessen these tales of distress? Why is nobody identifying the discrepancy of some campaigning about food poverty while opposing trade deals that would make food, clothes, and manufactured goods cheaper, to the huge relative betterment of poor consumers?

Sure, there would be families who make bad decisions and find themselves in trouble, even in a world of cheap and abundant housing and an effective safety net.

But instances of poverty owing to lack of resources would be much lower and these thornier challenges (often stemming from addictions, loss, ill-health, criminality and more) are much better identified by local charities and civil society groups anyway, as Danny Kruger argued in the Commons last week in relation to hinger. Giving nearly three million kids “free” school meals year-round would be an absolute sledgehammer to crack any remaining nut.

In today’s emotive debates, it’s not enough to just oppose proposals when the need is perceived as urgent. Conservatives must be better at re-setting the debate on their terms—a task much easier if they held a clear vision of the role and limits of state action.

How to ensure that disadvantaged children are fed when schools are closed

26 Oct

When Theresa May was Prime Minister, Conservative MPs stopped voting, for a time, against Opposition Day motions.  This had two upsides.  First, they were no longer assailed in their constituencies for trooping through the lobbies against motions that could be read to be innocuous.  Second – and even more to the point – one can’t lose a vote if one doesn’t vote at all.

The downside of not opposing those motions was that, once they passed and the Government then ignored them, Ministers were open to the charge of holding the will of Parliament in contempt.  In any event, Labour then unearthed a device that the Government couldn’t bypass – the Humble Address.

We mention this to-and-fro from the last Parliament in the wake of a vote in this one.  Tory MPs are raging about being whipped to vote against last week’s Opposition Day motion on free school meals – especially those newly-elected last year.  They feel that the Whips’ instruction has made them targets in their seats.

Angela Rayner’s disgusting cry of “scum” may be part of the reason: over 100 Conservative MPs say that they and their staff have been the targets of abuse and threats.  Some Labour MPs have form in this way: remember John McDonnell’s notorious remark about lynching Esther McVey.

We believe that Tory MPs can’t simply run away from Opposition motions.  But we also feel that those unhappy backbenchers have a point.  For the simple truth is that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the departmental ministers concerned could scarcely be handling this issue worse were they trying.

One can grasp the scale of the problem by pondering the arguments that Conservative MPs have been deploying against making free school meals available during the Christmas holidays.  The problem is not that there are none.  It is that there are too many.

On the one hand, it was said last week that the taxpayer can’t afford it.  It’s true that we are losing a sense of what the Treasury can afford as the Coronavirus bills pile up.  But if the Government can afford Eat Out to Help Out, why can’t it afford Feed Kids to Help Out?

On the other, it was also said that the Government is spending millions on feeding poorer children.  True again.  But the money is divided up between a mass of programmes – support to local authorities, the Universal Credit uplift, the holiday activities and food programme, Fareshare, Magic Breakfast, and more. That’s a mouthful to communicate.

Conservative MPs point out that the last Labour Government didn’t make free school meals available during the holiday period.  Correct: but Gordon Brown’s failed administration is beginning to become a bit of a distant memory. They say that parents should be responsible for feeding their children, not the state.

Quite so – up to a point.  But if the principle were extended to its logical conclusion, there would be no free school meals at all.  What about sudden unemployment after furlough, to strike a timely note?  Or disability?  And what about state policy that frustrates families – complex childcare schemes, high energy bills, food taxes?

When a Tory MPs can claim that vouchers for meals are being spent on crack dens and brothels, without being able to produce hard evidence, one can hear the bottom of the barrel being noisily scraped.  If vouchers are such a bad idea, why did the Government make them available over the summer holidays in the first place?

There is a hint of the Thatcher era about what is happening now.  Some will say that she won three elections, and the moral of those victories is: ignore the protesters.  But there is a new dimension – even if you don’t believe that the loss of reputation for compassion came back to haunt the Party once it lost its reputation for competence.

It is that while Labour MPs and the hard left are one thing, local businesses, charities and football clubs are quite another.  All these, and more, are queuing up to offer help to disadvantaged children.  Do you warm to the idea of the Big Society?  Well, here it is in action – with the Conservative Party on the wrong side of it.

Reports today suggest that Downing Street knows that it has dug itself into a hole, and must now start to dig itself out.  That would be best attempted by finding a plan that’s better than Labour’s (or Marcus Rashford’s) communicating it, implementing it – and then campaigning for it.

Fortunately, there is one to hand.  If you think about it, schools are not the right venue for delivering help to poorer children during the holidays – for the obvious reason that, by definition, they are then closed.  And the exceptional circumstances of the spring lockdown are now, we all hope, behind us.

Nor do vouchers guarantee “healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink”, to quote from Government guidelines – which, in the case of food, is better delivered hot.  These are best provided in a formal setting.  Which is precisely the aim of the Holiday Activities and Food Programme which we mentioned earlier.

This is a £9 million programme in its second year of pilots.  This summer, it supported up to 50,000 disadvantaged children across 17 local authority areas at a cost of some £9 million – providing at least four weeks of free activities and healthy food during July and August 2020.

The speech of last week’s debate came from Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Clevelys (Blackpool itself, by the way, has eight of the ten most deprived areas in England).  “My view is that we need a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support stream to deal with the trials that have occurred,” he said.

Maynard is not alone in understanding the issues: see Alan Mak’s work, for example, on Magic Breakfast. But he was right to suggest that the pilots have been too slow.  As he said, the issue “is the ultimate example in politics of where something must be done. That is very different from saying that anything should be done”.

Exactly so, and two different groups of people ought to read his speech with special care.  The first are Ministers, the Downing Street apparatus, the Treasury – and a handful of backbenchers.  There is no more matter more primal than food – and getting fed, especially if one is going hungry.

This debacle is a fearful warning to Boris Johnson, Downing Street, the Government and CCHQ: in all things, let alone any matter so emotive, one needs a policy, a message – and the capacity to campaign on it.  In each of these areas, they have been found wanting.

They will have to raise their game on continuing the Universal Credit uplift, and responding to the second part of Henry Dimbleby’s report on food strategy.  Why didn’t they, in this case?  Perhaps because, amidst all the focus on the Just About Managings, they are missing a point: social justice matters in the former Red Wall, too.

The second group of people concerned are the Rashford campaigners.  Some Tories complain about the footballer.  We aren’t joining them.  After all, if it wasn’t for him, we might well not be writing this morning about the issues he has highlighted.

But he should surely see that vouchers, dispersed to parents in a mass of homes, are not a substitute for nutritious meals, delivered to children who are gathered together in a formal setting – just as in term-time.  If Ministers offer such a programme on a bigger scale, he should jump at the chance to embrace it.

Iain Dale: The way the BBC and Sky News behave, you’d think we are the only country in the world with a second wave

23 Oct

It’s been another difficult week for the Prime Minister, who has come under attack from Labour both for the failure to come to an agreement with Andy Burnham, or to cave in to demands for kids to get free school meals in the next few school holidays.

Sometimes in politics it is right to say so far – but no further. Bottom lines are important in conducting negotiations.

However, in the case of the money offered to Greater Manchester it is a little difficult to understand how the two sides could fall out over a trifling £5 million.

On free school meals, it would cost £157 million to provide them during the autumn half term, Christmas, February half term and Easter holidays to those children already due to receive them.

Given the U-turn that Marcus Rashford forced in the summer, I do wonder whether this has been worth the political and reputational fallout. “Tories rip food from starving children’s mouths” is the narrative that’s already developing, and however ridiculous that is, sometimes it’s just not worth the political fight.

The Government is right to point out that circumstances are different now and schools are open. But it cuts little ice. The Labour Party is promoting the narrative that the Tories are happy to pay £7,000 a day to failing test and trace consultants, and £12 billion to fund the failing test and trace system, yet quibble over a few million to feed hungry children. You can just see the election videos now…

Mark my words, there will now be a further ratcheting of demands, and what I mean by that is that there will now be a campaign to permanently provide free school meals in school holidays, Covid or no Covid. To do that would cost £350 million a year.

A small price to pay to protect our children’s health, the campaigners will say. But it would be yet another way of the state taking over parental responsibilities. Where does the role of the parent end and that of the state begin? This is an argument which is going to gain a lot of traction in the next few years.

Since the state will inevitably take on a much bigger role in promoting an economic revival that it would normally do, it is yet further proof that all politics is cyclical. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, the big state v small state argument was one of the big political debates of the day. Fifty years later, I suspect it will dominate the 2020s.

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The way the BBC and Sky News behave, you’d think Britain was the only country in the world experiencing a second wave.

It’s happening virtually everywhere to one degree or another. Belgium and France seem to be experiencing the worst of it, with Spain and the Netherlands also having massive problems.

Even in Germany, local restrictions are being introduced all over the country. France’s track and trace system has more or less totally collapsed.

Does our insular looking media ever tell you any of this? You get a bit of coverage in The Times, and that’s about it.

It is absolutely the case that catastrophic errors have been made in this country over the last eight months, and I do not seek to hide from that.

All I am saying is that many other countries have faced similar issues and made the same mistakes. It’s not to defend the wrong decisions that have been made, but we rarely get any nuance or context.

The British people know that those in charge are having to make very difficult decisions day after day, and they have sympathy with that. All they ask if for a bit of honesty when things go wrong, and that politicians hold their hands up.

That’s where the Government’s comms strategy has been failing. People appreciate honesty, not obfuscation. Boris should take more of a lead from how Macron has handled failure and learn from it.

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I’ve made more progress in reading Tom Bower’s new biography of Boris Johnson. Having expected a complete hatchet job, I’m finding that it’s nothing of the sort.

Yes, there’s a lot about Johnson’s weaknesses, but Bower has done a fine job in writing a book which provides real insight into the Prime Minister’s life and character.

His final two chapters on the Coronavirus crisis are incredibly powerful, and go totally against the conventional wisdom that the politicians have been a shambles, and the scientists and civil service have been on the side of the angels.

He doesn’t just assert that there have been major failings on the part of the latter – he provides the evidence. This book is well worth £20 of anyone’s money.

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Tomorrow at 5.25pm I’m appearing on Pointless Celebrities with Jacqui Smith as my partner in crime.

Honestly, the woman is taking over the BBC Saturday night schedule, what with her Strictly Come Dancing antics and everything.

Our Pointless episode was recorded back in January. and I was beginning to despair that it would ever be shown. We were up against Michael Fabricant and Martin Bell, Ayesha Hazarika and John Pienaar, and Camilla Tominey and Rachel Johnson.

I’ve never done a game show before, and if I’m honest, I’m not sure I wholly enjoyed the experience. I don’t mind doing things out of my comfort zone, but these sorts of shows present a huge opportunity to make a complete fool of yourself.

I didn’t – at least I don’t think I did – but there’s a tremendous pressure to say something hilariously funny or incisive. I’m not wholly sure I stepped up to the plate. Hopefully everyone will be too distracted by my red suit…

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“Did the hon. Lady just call me scum?”

Yes, apparently she did. That was the question Chris Clarkson, a Conservative MP, asked Angela Rayner.

The deputy speaker, Dame Eleanor Laing was furious with her and told her off in no uncertain terms – although bizarrely she didn’t make her apologise.

Sky News, however, clipped the episode up without even including Dame Eleanor’s comments and made out that it was a matter of dispute as to whether Rayner had actually said it.  It’s exactly the sort of editing which encourages distrust of the so-called Mainstream Media.

Anyway, I suspect that quote is going to hang in the air for a long time. Several people suggested I should commission a mug with it on for my online shop. So I have. And it’s proved surprisingly popular among male purchasers… Should you wish to join them, buy it here.