Christmas 2019 - Dickensian for many, but not in a good way

By Bernadette Meaden
November 13, 2019

The fascination with Christmas TV advertisements has tended to pass me by. However, this year’s offering from Sainsbury’s caught my attention, though possibly not in the way they intended. 

Dated ‘Christmas 1869’ it opens with a brutal boss bullying a group of ragged little chimney sweeps. As the group passes a street stall with oranges for sale, the children gaze in awe at the unattainable luxury of fruit, while their cruel boss helps himself. A little chimney sweep is wrongly accused of stealing an orange, and promptly locked up.

What caught my attention was the children’s longing looks at the fruit as an unattainable luxury – because it struck me that there will be children living like that now, in the UK in 2019.

Today, the Trussell Trust reports that the past six months have seen the steepest rise in foodbank use for five years. And in case anyone doubts that these figures represent people in dire need, new research shows that the average weekly income of households using foodbanks, after housing costs, was £50. One in five had no income whatsoever in the month preceding their referral to a foodbank. In fact, 94 per cent of people using a foodbank are deemed destitute.

Just as in the Sainsbury’s advertisement, there are now children growing up in the UK who will see fresh fruit as an unaffordable luxury. Imagine being a parent with £50 a week to spend in the winter, choosing between heating, light, hot water, warm clothes, toiletries, and food. How could fresh fruit be on anybody’s shopping list in that situation? And of course, very few foodbanks can provide fresh produce  – for logistical reasons it is nearly all tins and packets.  

The damaging effects on the health, development and wellbeing of children in households living like this are so obvious, it seems redundant to state them here.

And there is no way the government can deny this reality. The Eatwell Guide, from Public Health England, is the Government's official guidance on a diet that meets all our nutritional needs. In September 2018, the Food Foundation researched the affordability of this recommended diet, and published Affordability of the UK’s Eatwell Guide It concluded, “For households in the lowest income decile, close to three-quarters (73.6 per cent) of disposable income would need to be spent on food to meet the Eatwell Guide costs. This is compared to only six per cent in the highest income decile.” 

For almost a decade I’ve written about the misery and destitution caused by government policies which were deliberately aimed at the poorest and least privileged of our fellow citizens. Promoted by the Conservatives under the euphemistic term ‘welfare reform’ they were enacted with the help of the Liberal Democrats and greatly exacerbated by austerity.

As the poverty and hardship grew, government denials and obfuscation kept pace. Every time a government policy was linked with poverty and hunger, politicians came up with explanations – people were just having a cash flow problem, or they just needed to learn how to budget, or learn how to cook. Meanwhile, robust evidence of the harms of government policies mounted, from trustworthy and extremely credible sources.

And yet the Conservatives still pretend that either the hunger and destitution does not exist, or if it does exist it’s not as bad as people say, or they try to blame individuals for their lifestyle choices – as if, after 2010, growing numbers of people just decided to stop heating their homes, stop buying food, and put themselves at risk of homelessness, as a lifestyle choice.  

The fact is that we now have a social and moral emergency in our country, and we have the evidence to prove it. But the politicians who caused this emergency refuse to concede that fact. So we have to ask ourselves, why? They cannot, surely, be any longer unaware of the evidence. We have to ask if Boris Johnson's adviser Dominic Cummings was correct when he said: “I know a lot of Tory MPs and I am sad to say the public is basically correct. Tory MPs largely do not care about these poorer people.” 

Cast your mind back a decade. Did you ever imagine then, that in a General Election campaign, charities would be asking the next government to protect the citizens of the UK from hunger? Wasn’t that what we used to try to do for people in other parts of the world, through agencies such as Christian Aid and CAFOD?

When we hear in the coming weeks, as we inevitably will, of people dying on our streets, please don’t regard it as a personal tragedy without a political cause. When vulnerable people have support removed, be it in terms of income or services, some of them will die. And that will in some way, almost without exception, be traceable back to one or more political decisions. That is why voting really is a matter of life and death, if not for you, then for a fellow citizen.

By the way – the Sainsbury’s advert ends with the bad boss getting a lump of coal in his Christmas stocking, and fruit for every child. I sincerely hope that the General Election brings a similar result.

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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 

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.