This week, the House of Commons is in recess and lots of MPs, including myself, will be helping to organise and deliver meals for children and families in their area. Managing hunger has become a huge part of my job over the past five years and during the pandemic it is one of the main functions of my constituency office.
The last decade of Tory government has meant many people were so close to a poverty cliff-edge that when the pandemic broke they fell sharply into the icy cold water below.
Changes to tax credits; the roll-out of universal credit; the insecurity that has come with the changes to the way people are employed; the closure of many voluntary service advice centres; and the reduction in council services due to cuts have all played their part in creating this landscape where people are struggling to feed their families. However, you wouldn’t think this was the case were you to follow the Twitter feed of some very ill-advised Conservative politicians. Reading these tweets, you might end up thinking that the child poverty issue facing our nation was not born out of political decisions, but was instead the fault of those who abuse substances.
It is an age-old tactic to blame poverty in our nation not on mismanagement by those at the top but to look around for a powerless scapegoat in the shape of, to name a few past examples, “fallen women”, “single mothers” or those with mental ill health. Mark Jenkinson, the new Tory MP for Workington, talked about how food parcels were being traded for drugs. Ben Bradley, the MP in Mansfield, entered into a conversation about how food vouchers were ending up in crack dens. Both seeming to assert that the reason for their decision to vote against holiday hunger provision was out of a fear of it may be growing the dependency of wronguns. They went with an argument that kicked a tiny minority of people who cannot kick back.
Let me be perfectly clear: the vast majority of children who qualify and rely on free school meals do not have parents who are addicts. Children on free school meals have loving, caring parents who put their children’s needs first, but are on low pay or who are out of work through no fault of their own. These Tory MPs knew this but they wanted a culture war to pitch parents against each other, making out that some need the support of free school meals because they are simply villains.
This was extremely ugly, and for me, extremely painful. I could spend months talking with either of these ill-informed men about how hard it is to live in a household with those who abuse substances. For 20 years of my life I watched as my parents grappled with having a son who was addicted to very dangerous substances. I could win a medal for taking a hard line, for tough love and for pointing out the pain my brother’s actions caused for me and my loved ones. I don’t think my now clean and healthy brother is without responsibility for his actions and neither does he. He spent years undertaking the process of making amends (a big part of the 12-step recovery programme), for the pain and danger that he caused us. I am not here to say that those who suffer from substance misuse are without responsibility, they aren’t. But I am here to say that substance misuse is a disease, a mental health disorder and a sickness that needs to be treated. It is not a political argument for cruelty.
When a member of your family is sick with alcoholism or drug addiction it is not so easy to ask for help. It is clouded with shame and silence. If my brother had had another illness my parents would no doubt have talked about it with their work colleagues, friends and family. At school people might have felt more sympathy, rather than just thinking that my family were doing something wrong.
Very few schemes exist to give the families of those suffering with drug addiction any respite. There is little support for teenagers like me, who grew up keeping secrets, scared of finding your brother dead in his room. Families of those who suffer substance misuse don’t get to blame an evil disease and fight for better research; by and large they blame themselves alone for the sickness. This is what stigma does.
If these Tory MPs really wanted to help the kids of parents with substance misuse, they went about it in exactly the wrong way. They stigmatised them and suggested that because of kids with their misfortune, other children would have to suffer. Believe me when I say that these young people already feel this; they feel ashamed and scared.
Today I will go out with my sons and deliver food in the Northfield area of Birmingham where my little nephews live. My nephews rely on free school meals, not because their dad used to be a drug addict, but because both their parents were zero-hour care workers who are now retraining at university to be social workers and drug workers. Their mum unfortunately was just diagnosed with breast cancer, putting their lives in further danger; their own Tory MP, it seems, wouldn’t want them to become too dependent.
In my opinion, Marcus Rashford now deserves not just a medal, but a crown. He wrote on Twitter this weekend, “Some of our children will be waking up anxious this Monday morning, let’s show them that there is never any shame in asking for help.” It made me cry because (alongside the heart-warming response of the British public to do what the government won’t) it was a relief to hear someone say that one of the fundamental issues children in poverty face, for whatever reason, is shame. Shame will hold you back. Shame needs addressing just as hunger does. The only shame in this country should be felt by those who wanted to kick families like mine for political gain.
Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley