If Charles Dickens were alive today, he’d have no shortage of material for a sequel to his great work Oliver Twist. You must know the scene — it’s been dramatised in several film versions — The young, hungry boy in a workhouse, being fed gruel and daring to ask: “Please, sir, I want some more.”
More? More! The boy wants more — and is duly punished for his temerity. Ah yes, how far the United Kingdom has advanced since Dickens’ work was published in 1838. Now, when a raft of social agencies, even the government’s own commissioner for children, thousands of small restaurant and cafe owners, social agencies up and down England — all pricked to conscious action by the Twitter feed of Manchester United’s young star forward Marcus Rashford — come together and pledge to offer free meals to hungry schoolchildren over the coming Christmas and New Year holidays, there is a void of coherent argument, compassion and indeed support from the front benches of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government.
Over the past two weeks, since Rashford highlighted that an estimated 55,000 schoolchildren in England and Wales would miss their vital school lunches during the current half-term and upcoming seasonal holidays, there is a growing sense of anger up and down England — a feeling that gathered momentum after the Johnson government voted down an opposition Labour party motion to provide the programme.
Rashford, who turns 23 at the end of October, grew up depending on school meals and with a single mother who depended on food banks. He has never forgotten what it feels like to go to bed hungry. And unlike too many footballers who are too busy lining their pockets nowadays, Rashford has continually raised the issue — so much so that he managed to convince the Johnson government in the spring to provide funds for school meals as they were locking down because of coronavirus.
The pandemic has brought economic devastation to millions. Lockdowns, enforced restrictions, the new normal — all have brought havoc to those in low-paid service jobs most vulnerable to the fiscal side effects of this virus. And in the UK, where a patchwork of stop-start, revised and re-revised support programmes have cost the government some £215 billion (Dh1 trillion) and counting, it is those in minimum wage jobs who have been hardest hit.
A deeply flawed effort
Simply put, the government’s efforts along with its reliance on a deeply flawed universal credit programme have left too many failing to make ends meet and waiting too long for assistance. And that translates into many more children having to rely on school programmes to have food in their bellies during the day, possibly at night too.
Rashford’s campaigning in the spring earned him an MBE recently. He’d gladly hand back that Member of the British Empire award if it meant that even one more day of school meals was provided from government funds. Manchester United, Rashford’s club, has said it will provide 5,000 meals daily.
For its part, the Johnson government says it has provided some £65 million already to councils and local authorities to fund school meal programmes. The councils don’t disagree but point out that £65 million was for 12 weeks only — which runs out about the same time as Rashford’s birthday on October 31. Besides, they say there are many more families living in uncertainty because of the economic effects of coronavirus, the service is more in demand than before, and the pandemic has placed too many demands on their overstretched services that were cut back to the bare bones after more than a decade of Conservative government austerity measures.
Whatever way you look at this, the optics aren’t good for a Conservative government that is already under fire for its scattergun approach to the coronavirus pandemic, its pitting of cities and council against each other in haggling over funds for moving to Tier 3 of revised regional lockdown restrictions, and failing to “level up” long-existing disparities between the North and South of England.
Tensions at a boiling point
Tensions reached boiling point in the House of Commons during the debate on extending the school meal programme, with one opposition MP being severely reprimanded for yelling “Tory scum” at the government benches. Despite the parliamentary rebuke, the slur is now being spray-painted in graffiti outside some Conservative MP’s constituency offices and appears frequently on social media feeds.
Johnson has long-admired the late Margaret Thatcher as a Conservative leader and former PM. His handling of the school meals issue is, however, also reminding a lot of rank-and-file Tories of one of her meanest and long-regretted acts. When she was Education Secretary, she ended a long-standing programme that provided free milk to all British schoolchildren, earning her the moniker “Thatcher the Snatcher”. It’s hardly a title he wishes to lay claim to now.
Over the past week, the government is making noises that it somehow wants to find a way out of this mess, finding a way to back down without being seen to commit yet another of a long line of U-turns and policy reversals. It’s been suggested that if a Labour motion is again brought forward on the issue, a free vote for Conservatives might indeed allow more funds to be provided for the programme.
If the whole debacle wasn’t embarrassing enough, some 100,000 people a day are signing an online petition calling for the removal of subsidised meals for Members of Parliament at the Westminster complex. Hypocrisy is one word that springs to mind when MPs won’t support feeding hungry schoolchildren while they dine on the cheap at the taxpayer’s expense. Yes, and another Dickens’ quote from David Copperfield springs to mind: “There never were greed and dunning in the world yet, that did not do too much, and overreach themselves. It is as certain as death.”
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe