Foodbanks, the Irish Famine, and Poor Law reforms

By Bernadette Meaden
December 1, 2018

Foodbanks expect more people than ever to need their help this Christmas, but MPs who support the policies which created such need are shamelessly using it for seasonal photo opportunities. Dominic Raab posed  with his local foodbank volunteers, and Ross Thompson, MP for Aberdeen South, posted  a picture of himself on Twitter, taking a tin of peaches from a supermarket shelf. He tweeted, “I was pleased to make a donation to the local food bank, to help those who are vulnerable and in need. #EveryCanHelps”  

Perhaps Mr. Thompson’s tin of peaches will go into one of the foodbank’s ‘cold parcels’ which are made up for people who have neither food, nor the means to heat it. Many such parcels may be needed in his constituency, as Universal Credit was rolled out in Aberdeen on 31 October, so they may just be feeling the impact. Clearly Mr. Thompson, a staunch defender of Universal Credit, cannot, or will not, make the connection between his votes in Parliament and the hunger of his constituents.

Unfortunately, this ability to regard the hunger of others with relative equanimity has often been characteristic of those who govern Britain. Historically there has been a rather chilling capacity to accept the hunger of poor people as a sort of natural phenomenon which is to be accepted, patronised  – or even deliberately used as a disciplinary tool. Indeed, it is possible to hear, in the words of those who currently promote welfare reform and austerity, echoes of those who oversaw Poor Law Reform in the 1830s and the Irish famine in the 1840s.  

The language of welfare reform often sounds strikingly like the language of the 1832 Poor Law Commission. The mantras are similar. ‘You should always be better off in work than out of work’, or as they said in 1832 "Every penny bestowed, that tends to render the condition of the pauper more eligible than that of the independent labourer, is a bounty on indolence and vice."  

Under Poor Law reform, workhouses were constructed and it was decreed that people should not get any form of assistance outside them. They were intentionally grim, so that only those in the greatest need would enter. Today, Universal Credit is so stressful and demanding for many people it has been described as a ‘digital workhouse’, with the UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston saying, “Universal Credit has built a digital barrier that effectively obstructs many individuals’ access to their entitlements.” 

We may not have physical workhouses, but now even the ability to ask for help can be taken as proof that you don’t actually need it.  Recently Chris Hancock, Head of Housing at Crisis, tweeted, “Dealing with Local Authority homeless decision where one reason to find someone 'non priority' is the fact they have shown capacity & ability to even make the application. Frustratingly bizarre logic. 'Your application would have been stronger had you been unable to make it...'” This got the reply, “We see exactly same thing with disability benefit assessments. If you turn up for assessment and/or appeal hearing, they find you have no problems with mobility, if you don't turn up, they refuse your claim.” Not so much a workhouse perhaps, more of a ducking stool.

Amongst those involved in 19th century Poor Law Reform there was great concern that assistance for the poor would simply encourage them to have children. Modern welfare reform has come up with a solution to that: what the UN Special Rapporteur calls “the deeply problematic two child policy” and “the outrageous rape exception”, an idea which Dickens or Hardy could have written about.  

Just over a decade after the Poor Law Reforms, the potato crop failed in Ireland. What is usually referred to in England as the Irish Famine (1845-1849) is now sometimes referred to as a starvation, because what began as a natural disaster was greatly exacerbated by the actions and inaction of the British government, which ruled Ireland at the time.

As historian Jim Donnelly explains, “in Britain in the late 1840s, prevailing ideologies among the political élite and the middle classes strongly militated against heavy and sustained relief.” The government did set up schemes to assist people, but, “All sorts of obstacles were placed in the way, or allowed to stand in the way, of generous relief to those in need of food. This was done in a horribly misguided effort to keep expenses down and to promote greater self-reliance and self-exertion among the Irish poor.”

Historians refer to this attitude as 'moralism' - “the notion that the fundamental defects from which the Irish suffered were moral rather than financial.” Or as Iain Duncan Smith wrote 160 years later when promoting welfare reform, “At the heart of these solutions is recognition that the nature of the life you lead and the choices you make have a significant bearing on whether you live in poverty. Policy-makers regularly fail to understand this, instead viewing poverty through a financial lens only.”

Donnelly continues, “Educated Britons of this era saw serious defects in the Irish 'national character'-disorder or violence, filth, laziness, and worst of all, a lack of self-reliance...The Irish had to be taught to stand on their own feet and to unlearn their dependence on government.” The obsession with, and determination to stamp out ‘welfare dependency’ is not a recent development.

So, just as starvation was seen as an opportunity to teach allegedly lazy Irish people a lesson in the 1840s, the answer to poverty in 21st century UK was not to give people what they needed, an income sufficient to cover their essential needs. The answer was to impose discipline, and if deemed necessary, hunger, so that they would learn their lessons and become self-reliant. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur says, “In the area of poverty-related policy, the evidence points to the conclusion that the driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering.” Amongst the designers of Universal Credit there was much talk of discipline and behavioural change, which is why conditionality and sanctions are such a big feature.

We know that benefit sanctions are officially expected  to cause a decline in the health of healthy adult (section 35098 onwards) due to the inability to obtain necessities such as food. So we know that for poor people, state-imposed hunger is considered an appropriate disciplinary tool in the 21st century as it was in previous centuries.

So this winter, we won’t have mass starvation in the UK because, although our government seems quite relaxed about leaving large numbers of people destitute and without the means to eat or keep warm, we have a compassionate population which will step in and plug the gaps as best they can.

But don’t let’s fool ourselves. People are dying, and will die, on our streets. There will be many people in cold dark homes who are too ill, too disabled, too embarrassed, too depressed or too anxious to seek help - and they will go hungry. But there is no sign that the government will ever acknowledge that this has any connection to the policies they have implemented. The fact is that without a fundamental change, hunger and severe deprivation will remain a permanent feature of our society, and we cannot let that happen.

We have to demand justice. We cannot simply accept that in one of the richest countries in the world it is only charity that prevents people starving.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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