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System malfunction: what food parcels show about Britain

food parcels
© Copyright David Hawgood and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Roar writer Rory Orwell argues that MPs labelling food parcels as paternalism works as an ideological cover for misallocation of funding.

Spare us the pseudo-outrage over Dickensian food parcels. As the laws of politics dictate, Gavin Williamson said he was disgusted. Yet as the laws of Whitehall permit, he was also inept at failing to secure funding for them for the second lockdown. The oft-cited sum of £63 million is funds that had mostly been used by local councils already. After a decade of austerity, councils are accustomed to being squeezed.

And yet, remarkably, the cabinet wobbles on, let off the hook by the public’s low expectations. We see no resignations, no scalps taken. Both the righteously angry discourse and the misallocation of resources are direct results of the lack of responsibility and foresight licensed by the overarching Westminster system.

I like freedom. Freedom is good.  I don’t think the state can do everything and I well understand the scepticism of socialism – it goes against the grain and fabric of an idea of society. I am suspicious of the government “interfering”. But when I read that “interfering” is what a Tory MP dubbed providing free school meals during the debate in the chamber of the House of Commons, I cringed, all the more so as he said a lot of his constituents would be appalled at this idea.

Of course there was a flurry of calls and emails piling up at the offices of UK lawmakers, from concerned constituents urging them not to cave into some communism by proxy by funding the provision of free school meals.

One MP’s perception of paternalism is, in reality, another person’s helping hand. To try to invoke the tradition of 20th century neoliberalism not only does disservice to neoliberalism, it more importantly does a disservice to the problem. Yet that is the back foot on which the governing party stood. We are the Conservative party ergo we will not accept Labour’s idea because it is from Labour.

In October, a Telegraph newsletter even deployed a culinary phrase by dubbing Labour’s motion “bread-and-butter opposition politics”, giving us perhaps a glimpse into the lamentable groupthink of government backbenchers. What’s worse is that Labour realised their motion would likely not be supported, and what that means about our system. 

Fundamentally, this about how our politics can become a barrier as much as an enabler to the health (or as much as can be hoped in these circumstances) of a society. Partisan Westminster is performative and polarising, retaining a clearly remarkable ability to put the pitting of points above the swift finding of solutions.

All the while, our nation, its reputation, and people’s lived experience sinks. To fail to ensure the provision of good food is interfering with children’s health and, therefore, their freedom to grow and learn. As the (only) government member who resigned suggested, it was unconscionable. 

Westminster had one job: to allocate the money. On that count alone it failed, let alone on  expanding the eligibility for free school meals on a means-tested basis, which would perhaps be an admission that welfare payments aren’t sufficient.

The patchwork of councils, businesses, and charities such as the Felix Project, stepped up (although this is a precarious insurance, and may result in a “postcode lottery” across the country). But this was in England, not the other three nations of the UK which provided parcels or, better still, vouchers. 

Yes, there was poor planning and communication across Whitehall departments. But perhaps also England is too politically divided, its fiscal territory too wide. The idea of subsidiarity is that local representatives understand communities better. (Similar concept with test-and-trace: a county team reached a higher proportion of positive cases than Serco ever could have done.)

Regionalism and devolution incentivises communication and accountability, which is missing, and also why “food insecurity” persists. Instead, when politicians think of a nation, they think of their idea for it. They fall into the trap of ideology, for example arguing for parental responsibility, and missing the point. 

Coming out of this pandemic, our country will have to re-evaluate not only how it allocates resources, but also who is authorised to do so. The prioritisation of budgets is a political balance. When the government is on the defensive, we see tick-box, announcement-orientated politics. We have done x or y, rather than we seek to address z by doing a. Because – and lockdown has of course compounded and revealed this – they don’t spend enough time with constituents.

As a cabinet minister said to the Sun, “No  10 and Treasury policy advisers are standing firm, but they don’t have to go back to face angry voters in their constituencies every weekend.” Vouchers have been restored, and yet the fundamental-structural problems remain.



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