The Observer view on the food parcels scandal | Children


Nobody with a heart wants to see children go hungry during this pandemic. There is a simple and effective way to help prevent this: adding an extra £15 per week to tax credit payments for children eligible for free school meals while schools are closed. This gives parents certainty; it allows them to buy food that meets their child’s needs, while the costs are modest in the context of the sums being spent on the pandemic response.

Yet the government has become embroiled in its fourth public battle about child hunger in just a few months. Last summer, Boris Johnson refused to pay for lunches during the holidays at a time when many low-income parents were facing increasing hardship because of the pandemic. He was shamed into a U-turn by the footballer Marcus Rashford, who has provided the moral leadership so lacking from government. In October, Johnson picked the same fight again, opposing the extension of holiday meal vouchers for half-term. Then last week it emerged that to save money, schools have been pushed towards using caterers to provide food parcels, rather than supplying vouchers during lockdown.

The quality of some of those packages has been dire, but the very notion of a food parcel encapsulates the insulting assumption that parents on low incomes cannot be trusted to spend cash on food for their children despite the wealth of evidence that parents will do anything, including going hungry themselves, to ensure they do not go without. And the government has now instructed schools not to issue vouchers or parcels during February half-term, saying that local councils should provide support via another fund that local leaders say was never intended for this purpose.

Why does the government keep picking the same fight over and over when the solution is so clear? It reveals two things. First, this government has a traditionally Conservative worldview of people who struggle to make ends meet. Rather than recognising the key driver of child poverty is jobs that pay parents too little to support their families, Tories persist in seeing poor people as feckless. This manifests itself not just in backbenchers implying food vouchers are being spent on “crack dens and brothels”, but in Conservative chancellors who over the course of a decade have slashed tax credits for low-income parents by thousands of pounds a year, at the same time as spending billions on tax cuts for more affluent households, pushing unemployment benefit to its lowest level since the early 1990s from April.

It is a disgusting lens through which to view people in low-paid work, many of whom have been risking their lives during lockdown to do essential jobs such as care work and staffing supermarkets to keep society running. The product of David Cameron’s “compassionate” Conservatism is children receiving food parcels supposed to last days that contain half a vegetable wrapped in clingfilm.

It is also a symbol of the total lack of strategy to minimise the impact of Covid on children and young people. From the handling of school closures to the dearth of mental health provision via the woeful treatment of students: this is a government that is expending all its energy picking needless fights on the basic issue of whether children should be fed, rather than focusing on how to protect child wellbeing during a pandemic that will damage their life chances for decades to come.

That is why we called last week for government to set up an independent commission to make recommendations for how to reduce the impact of Covid on this generation. Today, charities, politicians and doctors have backed this call.

We urgently need an injection of thinking about how best to protect young people from the long-term damage of Covid-19. The input of a commission of experts would benefit any government whose energies are so absorbed by the immediate health implications of this crisis, but particularly one that cannot even implement a plan to prevent child hunger during a pandemic. We hope it will heed our call.




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