AMIDST ALL THE WESTMINSTER DRAMA, a brief but extraordinary interview may go largely unnoticed and unremarked. But it contained a dire warning which should be heard and acted upon urgently.
Paul Drechsler is a former Chair of the CBI, and now Chair of the International Chambers of Commerce and Chair of London First. Mr. Drechsler was speaking on the BBC Radio FourToday programme on 6 July. As a man at the heart of the economic establishment he was asked to consider the options for the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, and was no doubt expected to do so in a comfortably conventional and predictable way. That wasn’t what happened.
Asked whether cutting taxes should be the new Chancellor’s first priority, Mr. Drexler replied: “I think the most important thing to do is to feed people who are hungry. I mean, that is a burning platform at the moment. The poorest in our society are going to be starving to death the second half of this year. That needs to be addressed. Sprinkling a bit of cash over everybody, including the people who don’t need it, isn’t going to make a jot of bloody difference.” (You can listen to the interview at 1 hour 22 minutes here.)
For a man of Paul Drechsler’s background and experience to state the position in such stark terms is extraordinary, and should be an alarm call for all politicians. No doubt those who think they can make nutritious meals for 30p, or believe people simply need to learn how to cook, or budget, will dismiss these remarks as just the opinion of one man. It should, however, be more difficult to dismiss the opinion of an entire profession, one dedicated to our health and wellbeing.
In May, the Royal College of Physicians commissioned a survey which revealed the impact of the cost of living crisis on people’s health. Reacting to the results, Professor Sir Michael Marmot, a world-renowned expert on health inequalities, said: “In my recommendations for how to reduce health inequalities, sufficient income for a healthy life was one among six. But it is crucial as it relates so strongly to many of the others, in particular early child development, housing and health behaviours. As these figures show, the cost of living crisis is a potent cause of stress. If we require anything of government, at a minimum, it is to enable people to have the means to pursue a healthy life.”
The means to pursue a healthy life is not much to ask. And for children, as Michael Marmot says, this issue is even more crucial because the effect of poverty on their development can last the rest of their lives. Indeed, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) is now warning of a ‘generational impact’ as parents struggle to feed their children. Camilla Kingdon, president of the RCPCH has said: “The reality of modern Britain is that actually to feed your children a healthy diet is an extraordinary challenge, and we only expect that to become more of a problem.” She added, “If you literally do not have the money, you cannot do the right thing. It’s heartbreaking.”
In an effort to help, the College is developing an app and a toolkit to enable paediatricians to have conversations about poverty, and to help families get support to improve their child’s health. One of the places they could look for inspiration is the Cash First approach developed by the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN)
IFAN members operate foodbanks, but are working to make themselves redundant. Their Cash First approach aims to reduce the need for charitable food aid, by helping people to access all their financial entitlements and maximise their income, as the most effective and respectful response to food insecurity.
But of course IFAN and the RCPCH can only work within the financial parameters set by the government in Westminster. The government decides how the wealth in society is distributed, it decides whether and how to tax wealth. It sets the minimum wage and the level of social security benefits, both of which are failing to keep millions of people from poverty and, increasingly, destitution. The government has the power to change our situation radically, but this government is not inclined to do so. It believes in a small state, which might sound innocuous but in reality means low taxes for the rich, and precious little of anything for the poor.
In the current political situation, who knows what changes the next weeks or months will bring. But as we go into school holidays where some children might not get a proper meal all day, and approach a winter where many households will ‘self-disconnect’ from their heat and light, the government cannot say it hasn’t been warned. As the government talks about tax cuts, the Chair of the International Chambers of Commerce has said: “The poorest in our society are going to be starving to death the second half of this year”. And as foodbanks run out of food, only the government can help.
Michael Marmot says the minimum we can ask of a government is that it enables us to have the means to pursue a healthy life. Under this government, we are reduced to hoping it will help people to stay alive.
© 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. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden