The Sunak approach: those who have much will be given more

By Bernadette Meaden
July 15, 2020

This government’s modus operandi increasingly reminds me a of a verse from Matthew’s gospel – but not in a good way.

In Matthew 13:12, Jesus says: “Anyone who has will be given more and will have more than enough; but anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has.” Jesus was not talking about material things, but Boris Johnson's government seems to have taken it as a guide to the way it allocates resources.

The Chancellor’s recent mini-budget was a perfect example of this. Prior to his statement there were calls from numerous organisations for him to urgently address rising poverty and hunger, particularly child poverty.

Mr Sunak chose to ignore these calls. Rather than do anything to help people who are struggling to eat, he chose to help people who can afford to eat out in restaurants, with a nice little discount.

Two days later the Independent Food Aid Network reported a 177 per cent increase in demand for emergency food aid. Just days after that, it was reported that in England, “almost 2,500 children have been admitted to hospital with malnutrition in the first six months of the year.” 

When drawing attention to such grim realities, one is often told that if children are going hungry it’s because their feckless parents are spending their money on drugs/alcohol/smart phones etc. Rather than entering into debate on this, I now routinely supply a link to one of two documents. The Trussell Trust’s State of Hunger, which found that the average weekly income of a foodbank user, after housing costs, was £50.  Or a report which explains that many households now have what Citizens Advice calls a ‘negative budget’  - meaning their income simply doesn’t cover their key living costs. People with negative budgets spend an average of 90 per cent of their income on fixed outgoings.

And yet despite this shameful reality, the Chancellor chose to lavish money not on the hungry, but on restaurant-goers, seemingly in the dubious hope of some sort of trickle-down effect. As someone put it on social media, ‘not so much a New Deal as a Meal Deal.’ Experts in the industry said it was “poorly thought out” as restaurants would “have to rely on new/additional diners and not just those swapping their usual night out to save money.”

The Job Retention Bonus looks like another way of throwing money at people who don’t really need it. Paul Barnes, head of a big accountancy firm said, “Who is really going to keep an employee just for the £1,000 bonus? It makes no sense…big companies who would have already brought the staff back anyway will now make a windfall. So I don’t see it rescuing many jobs and I do see it costing our government a fortune.” 

And it wasn’t just the Chancellor’s political opponents who found his use of public money questionable. John Harra, Chief Executive of HMRC took the unusual step of writing to Rishi Sunak requiring his written instruction to proceed, after identifying risks that the schemes did not meet the standards for managing public money.

Perhaps the icing on the restaurant cake was a stamp duty cut, for people buying and selling property. As the Opposition immediately pointed out, 34 per cent of homes bought in 2019/20 were second properties, so many of the people benefiting from this measure would be landlords and people buying holiday homes.   And lo and behold, on 14 July The Telegraph reported, "'It's gone bonkers': buy-to-let inquiries boom as landlords swoop on stamp duty break". Anyone who has will be given more…

So, after a decade of Conservative austerity, a Conservative Chancellor is now splashing the cash freely, some might say recklessly – but not in the direction of those who are most in need. For the growing number of people reliant on benefits, chasing a shrinking number of jobs, the government is resuming benefit sanctions: “anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has”.

This strict conditionality for people claiming meagre social security benefits on which they can barely exist is in sharp contrast to the reckless abandon with which the government has been throwing cash at private companies. From questionable PPE contracts to shambolic test and trace, the pandemic has been a bonanza for some, often despite scandalous track records. 

Perhaps we shouldn’t have expected anything different from a Chancellor whose pre-Budget ‘man of the people’ photo opportunity revealed that he drank his coffee from a mug costing £180. 

In the current circumstances, big government spending is certainly called for, and any Chancellor would need to be bold. But the current Chancellor could be using money so much more usefully, and so much more justly. We are in a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a climate crisis. Outside of the government, organisations like the New Economics Foundation or the IPPR or the Centre for Welfare Reform have a wealth of ideas on how we could treat this crisis as an opportunity. An opportunity to stop papering over the cracks, stop trying to prop up an economy and a society built on unnecessary consumption and waste, and build a smarter, greener, more healthy country and planet, in which all people could have access to the necessities of life. But Instead, our government has taken it as an opportunity to channel vast sums of money to where it isn’t needed, and where its main effect will be to entrench privilege and inequality.

Meanwhile, hunger grows, personal debt grows, evictions loom, and the planet warms, but the Chancellor continues to bolster the privileged and excessive consumption.

What we need is a Chancellor who would bring to mind not Matthew 13:12, but another gospel verse, from Luke: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1: 53).

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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.