The Guardian view on hungry children: government meanness, public kindness

Editorial
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Justin Leighton/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Justin Leighton/Alamy Stock Photo

What kind of party opposes feeding hungry children in the middle of a pandemic? And what kind of politicians take the opportunity for snide remarks about those seeking to help them? “You know what some people call us,” Theresa May told the Conservative conference 18 years ago: “The nasty party.”

Child food poverty means both present misery and future disadvantage. Marcus Rashford’s non-partisan campaign was compelling enough to force the government to U-turn this summer, agreeing to pay for vouchers to feed those on free school meals over the holidays. Yet this week it set its face against his call for an extension. Though five Tories backed Labour’s motion on the issue – one resigning from a government post to do so – 322 others voted against. Some added cheap jibes (“virtue-signalling”) at a man whom the government gave an MBE for his campaigning.

There has long been an audience for divisive rhetoric directed against immigrants and families on benefits (most of which are working households). Yet there was widespread revulsion at Wednesday’s vote. Even Nigel Farage chipped in to observe that voting the extension down “looks mean and is wrong”.

Not everyone will be familiar with Nelson Mandela’s observation that the keenest revelation of a society’s soul is the way it treats its children – but most will share his instinct. They can do the maths: more than £6,000 a day for consultants on a failing test-and-trace system versus £15 a week for food vouchers; £522m for the “eat out to help out“ scheme, subsidising those who can afford restaurant meals, versus £24m to feed children who can’t. And they will wonder why England won’t pay when Northern Ireland will do so, and Wales and Scotland have committed to pay until spring next year. The decision is all the more worrying as demand for free school meals soars, and downright odd on the eve of the chancellor’s announcement of a multibillion-pound package for businesses and workers, recognising that these are extraordinary times and that the economic crisis is only beginning.

The outpouring of help from hundreds of businesses around the country is a visceral reaction to government meanness, as well as a welcome testament to people’s decency and generosity. Cafes, takeaways and pubs that are struggling due to Covid-19 restrictions have nonetheless promised free meals to those who would otherwise go without. What a contrast with the MPs who implied that parents were irresponsible and spoke of “nationalising children” and deepening dependency. Extraordinarily, one suggested that many of his constituents “would be appalled by the government interfering in their daily lives to ensure that their children do not go hungry”.

Many Conservatives expressed concern about hardship. They are right that more fundamental solutions than holiday schemes are needed. But years of Tory government have brought sharp rises in child poverty, thanks to measures such as the two-child limit on benefits. In one of the richest countries in the world, 4.2 million children are living in poverty: 600,000 more than in 2011-12. Even before the pandemic, that figure was projected to rise by another 1m by 2022, to 5.2 million. The MPs who say that schools should not have to feed children forget that many are already forced to do so. Local authorities who have seen their funding slashed by austerity are stepping into the breach too.

In the past, the Conservatives’ reputation for callousness was matched by a belief in their competence. That is being demolished by this pandemic. Even Boris Johnson was finally forced to admit to shortcomings in his “world-beating” £12bn test-and-trace system this week, as contact tracing fell to a new low and waiting times for test results soared to almost double the target. This is a post-shame government, brazening out its failures, untruths and sheer cruelties, assured in its vast majority and the distance of the next general election. How rich that Conservatives should lecture struggling families on responsibility, while refusing to take any themselves.