The UK is hungry for change…

Legal Eagle  

Image© Derek Harper

You will eat by and by, in the glorious land in the sky, way up high, work and pray and live on hay, you`ll get pie in the sky when you die…

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of EP Thompson`s The Making of The English Working Class, which Phillip Dodd recently described as a formidable account of class development. This is rather ironic, given that in 2013 we are witnessing the pauperisation of this very same, once proud class. Last Saturday, the Guardian ran an excellent piece on `The human cost of recession` by Chris Menon and Sophie Robinson-Tillett. The article dealt with the seemingly paradoxical situation of comparatively low UK unemployment levels coinciding with a drastic drop in the standard of living for many in work. People it seems are in employment, though frequently engaged on temporary contracts, usually part-time with sporadic adjustments in hours. Workers are increasingly denied a contract of employment. If an individual is paid an income which barely meets their needs, what are they expected to do if they are denied further support?

We have arrived at a low point in Britain today. Where it`s considered almost radical for a worker to have a contract of employment and revolutionary to expect it aligned to a living wage. We are witnessing a situation, where working people are becoming dependent on charity for a nutritious meal. The pauperisation of the British working class is running full steam ahead. The executive chairman of the food charity the Trussell Trust, Chris Mould, was reported in the Guardian last week saying, `People are often surprised that less than 5% of food-bank clients are homeless but many of the 300,000 people we`re helping are low-income working families`.

I lost a little bit of faith last year in the trade union movement`s capacity to provide practical help for those workers forced to take up zero-hour contracts. There are of course other organisations providing help for workers in crisis. In particular religious based groups (such as the cited Trussell Trust), doing much to alleviate problems the low waged face, such as hunger. After all Liberation Theology appears to be back in fashion, and so it seems in the UK the Social Gospel is too. The Trussell Trust are a Christian based non-party political organisation, serving all religious denominations (and none believers). Very importantly when dispensing charity and free food, they operate a non-judgemental approach. They believe `everyone has the right to have food on their plate, dignity, skills, a chance to work and hope for the future`. Recent research highlighted by the Trust suggests that the economic downturn is placing a massive strain on many working people in Britain. This situation exacerbated when linked to job losses and benefit cuts combined with severe hikes in food prices resulting in, `people spending more on food, but eating less and turning to foodbanks as they struggle to feed themselves and their families`. The same research highlights that slightly less than 5 million people in Britain are currently in food poverty. This means that 10% of this huge cohort’s household weekly income goes on food. This dire situation is projected to get worse by 2017 when `household food bills will rocket by £357`.

The Trust provides further information about the depth of this problem, elsewhere on their website. For example they point out that, `foodbanks fed 128,697 people nationwide in the last financial year, compared to 61,468 in 2010-11 an increase of 109%`. Again, the explanation for this situation is connected to an assortment of problems linked to the economy, such as rising food and fuel prices. In the midst of `static incomes high unemployment and changes to benefits`. Further research cited, suggests a staggering 1 in 5 mothers in Britain go `without meals to feed their children`. One example linked to this research, highlighted a women living on £38 per week, whose situation is so perilous that her family appeared to be surviving on the food box dispensed by this charity.

The Conservatives, have always been great supporters of charity and it is no surprise to discover that the Prime Minister has spoken positively (as he should) about the work of this outstanding charity. During Easter he met with the Trussell Trust Executive Christ Mould, who was commended for the work of foodbanks, `Chris says: The Prime Minister`s acknowledgment of foodbanks is a testament to the incredible work of all those across the UK who have stepped up and launched foodbanks in their towns to stop people going hungry. It`s a big well done to everyone involved`.

Well done indeed. The Trussell Trust deserves to be commended for their work, the organisation appears completely dedicated to helping the UK poor. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that people in Britain find themselves in economic difficulty and reliant on charitable food boxes because of economic policies followed by government. A point, the Trust indirectly makes when highlighting that distribution from foodbanks have increased by 109%. This is clearly connected to government policies and a change in government – the years cited give a big hint as to why this has happened. It is also worth pointing out that in the midst of grinding austerity there is massive wealth. Take the years 2011/12, according to the Office for National Statistics an incredible £13 Billion was paid out in bonuses in the City. Yet it was during this time that a huge increase in those using foodbanks took place. Billions are paid out to Bankers who caused the economic crisis in the first place, there is clearly a massive disparity here and a severe lack of justice. The poor get a bag of food while the rich sacks of money.

People do not find themselves, especially in such large numbers, dependent on charity by accident. It is structural and clearly linked to policies implemented and followed by government. A range of cuts in benefits or restrictions in welfare combined with economic policies, which encourage unemployment or casualisation such as zero-hour contracts. This is the result of a policy framework that the Coalition government designed. No matter how kindly dispensed, charity remains charity. It is distributed at the discretion of the benefactor, not as a right. And we need to dramatically move away from the notion that charity is a panacea. The poor are in desperate need of the Trussell Trust food boxes and I praise their work and promotion of excellent research. But we need to put that research to good use and point out that the hungry require political and economic change and that will not be found at the bottom of free bag of food.

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