Welfare reform: increasing hunger by design

By Bernadette Meaden
January 10, 2019

In the UK today there is more protection for the nutritional needs of prisoners than there is for people who are poor and in need of social security.

As HM Inspectorate of Prisons says, “Prison Rules and Prison Service Instructions (PSI) set certain requirements for meal provision, to be followed by every establishment. Prison Rule 24 states that prisoners must be provided with three meals a day, and these should be 'wholesome, nutritious, well prepared and served, reasonably varied and sufficient in quantity’.” 

Compare this with the fate of a benefit claimant. For missing a phone call, being late for an appointment, or failing to access their online journal, they and their children may be left with no money and no food – all without a trial. That is why the sanctions regime has been described by Dr David Webster of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies as, “an amateurish, secret penal system which is more severe than the mainstream judicial system”. 

Now, let me stress  – I firmly believe that prisoners should be treated decently. Deprivation of one’s liberty is a terrible thing, and conditions in our prisons are in many cases squalid, frightening and unsafe. Inspection reports reveal that the food is in some cases barely adequate. My point is that in the prison system we rightly have rules to ensure that prisoners don't starve, but in the social security system, which is meant to support people, we have rules that use hunger as a punishment for a small mistake or failure to comply. 

So it is hardly surprising that a new report, Hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK, reveals that “Food insecurity is significant and growing in the UK, with levels among the worst in Europe, especially for children.” Yes, the UK, which so many Brexiteers see as a world-beater only held back by the shackles of the European Union, does surpass every other EU country in one respect – it tops the table for the percentage of children under 15 living in a severely food insecure household.

Responding to this report, Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, said, “A failure to address the root causes of poverty has led to soaring need for food banks”. But in my opinion, it is not what the government has failed to do which has led to the soaring need for foodbanks – it is what the government has actually done. What was billed as just that – an attempt to address the root causes of poverty, welfare reform – was so catastrophically wrong-headed, ideologically driven and incompetent that it has caused hunger on an unprecedented scale.

Anyone who still needs convincing that harm is an intrinsic and inevitable feature of the current brand of welfare reform should read the Joint Public Issues Team briefing Universal Credit: increasing poverty by design. In 2015 the same team produced a report on benefit sanctions, calling for "the immediate cessation of removing benefits from families with children and those with mental health problems." Of course that didn’t happen, and now, lo and behold, the UK tops the EU list for children living in hungry households.

One suggestion in this new report is that the government appoint a Minister for Hunger. But as Alison Garnham of Child Poverty Action Group has pointed out: “We already have a minister responsible for our social security system which, on any basic understanding of its role, is meant to prevent poverty, destitution and hunger in this country.”

If we need a Minister for Hunger we have to accept that our social security system has been seriously damaged. And any Conservative MP appointed to such a post will have voted for all the policies which caused that damage. The only honest and effective way they could proceed would be to denounce their own government’s policies and demand they be reversed. Anything less would be window dressing, a PR exercise to make it look as though the government cared, whilst continuing to implement the very policies which make people hungry.

Of course not all the causes of hunger are a direct result of welfare reforms. Not everybody who can’t afford to eat is affected by Universal Credit, benefit sanctions, or cuts to sickness and disability benefits. The failure of wages to keep up with rising living costs is also an important factor. But I would argue that welfare reform has also played a role in suppressing wages, and helped produce the phenomenon which has puzzled economists – high employment levels accompanied by wages which fell in real terms.

When people in low-paid employment know that if they lose their job, the alternative is potential destitution at the hands of the DWP, then they are far less likely to rock the boat. The fear of losing a job is strong, and leaving a job voluntarily, no matter how bad that job may be, becomes almost unthinkable. So upward pressure on wages is reduced, even as employment levels rise.

Yes, the shocking and scandalous hunger revealed in this latest report is, like the poverty which produces it, caused by political decisions and can be eliminated by political decisions. But it is impossible to imagine those decisions being taken by the current government.

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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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