It’s not because they can’t cook either, as Labour councillor turned Tory MP Lee Anderson claimed the other day. During a debate on the Queen’s Speech, Mr Anderson – a former miner – claimed that people who use food banks can’t cook a meal from scratch. "They cannot budget,” he added.
Perhaps the honourable member for Ashfield has not noticed, but people are going hungry because the country is engulfed in an economic crisis. Inflation is raging, with the Bank of England predicting it will hit ten per cent within months.
Household bills, from mortgages and rents to heat and light, are sky high. Food inflation is out of control, with basics such as milk and eggs predicted to rise by a further 50 per cent over the coming months.
And people – ordinary people, not Members of Parliament on £80,000 a year with the promise of a gold-plated pension – are paying the brunt of the austerity economics that has been the hallmark of successive Tory governments since 2010.
In its outlook for the UK economy published this week, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggested that about 1.5 million households across Britain face near-destitution, with their energy and food bills exceeding their income.
And it predicted that Scotland will be among the areas hardest hit, with only London faring worse. More than 150,000 Scottish households will find themselves with not enough money to heat their home and eat. It may come as a surprise to Mr Anderson and others of his ilk, but not even a Michelin-star chef can produce a nutritious meal if she doesn’t have any money to buy ingredients.
Nor will the Good Food Nation bill that is currently going through the Scottish Parliament provide much help to people whose income does not meet their basic needs. According to the Scottish Government, the legislation will ensure “public bodies will produce good food nation plans to support social and economic well-being, the environment, health and economic development”.
But will these plans put food on the family table, or is the bill simply another performative policy that provides ministers with positive press lines, but makes little or no difference to people’s daily lives? I will let a single man, struggling to live on £300 a month, be the judge of that.
And in a sentiment that eerily echoes that of Lee Anderson’s claim that people are hungry because they can’t cook properly, when Scotland’s Rural Affairs Secretary, Mairi Gougeon, introduced the bill, she said that “wide-ranging food education can equip school pupils with the key skills they need to cook tasty, nutritious meals using the incredible array of world-class produce we have".
Scotland most certainly does have world-class produce, but people on poverty wages or basic benefits can barely afford value packs of pasta. Fresh Scottish salmon and prime cuts of beef are simply beyond their reach.
It fell to a former Tory minister and man who has probably never gone hungry in his life – except perhaps when deep in the Afghanistan countryside – to suggest the answer to the crisis.
Rory Stewart tweeted earlier this week that the single most “practical, efficient and effective intervention for improving people’s lives” is cash. Hard cash. Not cookery lessons. Not food banks on every corner. What people who are struggling to survive need is money. And of course he is right.
Even the independent review on food, commissioned by the UK Government and published last year, recognises that fact. Its scope did not cover economic measures, focusing, like Scotland’s Good Food Nation bill, on plans for healthy eating and other such worthy interventions, but towards the end of the report, its authors let rip.
“There is a widespread notion that giving low-income households extra money to spend on food is a waste of time. We heard this again and again during our consultations with citizens – even from those who were themselves on benefits. “They’d just spend it on booze and fags” was a common refrain, only partially in jest.
“But all the evidence suggests this is a myth. Studies in this country have shown that, as poorer families’ income goes up, they spend more on fruit, vegetables, fibre, oily fish and other foods rich in vitamins and minerals. And families actually cut their spending on alcohol and tobacco as their income rises.”
And evidence from low-income countries, where food insecurity is endemic, shows that giving people money – social cash transfers, to use the development jargon – is the single most effective way to improve their lives.
Last autumn, when the UK Government removed the £20-a-week uplift on the basic rate of Universal Benefit that it had introduced as part of its pandemic response, poverty campaigners warned that the cash cut would cause severe hardship to people already struggling. Sadly, they have been proved right.
It’s a matter of national shame that people are going hungry in Britain today. They don’t need well-meaning but ultimately meaningless ‘good food’ plans, nor do they deserve the disdain dished up by the likes of Lee Anderson.
What people need is cash in their pocket so they can put food on their table. Reintroducing the £20-a-week uplift to Universal Credit would cost the Chancellor £6 billion a year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
The Tory government has wasted far more on far less in the 12 years they have been in power, losing £16 billion alone from fraud and errors in its Covid loans scheme for businesses. Six billion is surely a small price for a rich country to pay to stop its people going hungry.