The festive season is a time when intricate plans are formulated with family, negotiated among friends and then unceremoniously ripped up. And it is in keeping with this last piece of Christmas tradition that the plan I had to provide a comprehensive retrospective of social justice in 2013 has just been consigned to the bin. Why? Because in a season, a parliamentary session, a calendar year – not to mention a governmental term of office – of such horrendousness for social justice, it’s easy to be desensitised by a deluge of mournful metrics. I don’t want that. Pic: Xmas Tree lights, Flickr under creative comms licence, brendan-c
- Dexter Dias QC is a Researcher at Harvard University, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge, and a barrister practising in Human Rights law in London. Follow @DexterDiasQC and www.justicebrief.com
However, there are two stories that came to my attention through (of all routes) followers on Twitter, that I wanted to share with you. The first is an advertisement for Fortnum and Mason’s ‘very finest’ Christmas hamper, the Imperial, which contains ‘a winter wonderland of extravagant and irresistible delicacies’, and comes in at a cool £5000. But while somewhere within said imperious hamper white truffle oil has been ‘rubbing shoulders with Beluga caviar, foie gras with truffles and chewy, chocolatey Florentines’, a group of leading experts from the Medical Research Council have written a letter to the British Medical Journal. In it these eminent doctors and academics warn that Britain faces a ‘public health emergency’ with a surge in dependency on emergency food aid and a doubling of malnutrition cases.
So while for most of us plans are made – and agonised over – about what to have for the centrepiece Christmas meal, for an increasing number of others there is agonising of a different kind: the extent to which they will eat at all.
Between April and September this year, the Trussell Trust provided emergency food to over 350,000 people in the UK. This is triple the number helped in the same period in 2012. The growing reliance on emergency food aid has been found in all areas of the country. For instance, in the relatively affluent South East – the nation’s second richest area – food bank use has increased by 60 percent. Those reliant on such aid are increasingly not just the homeless, but those subject to benefit reform and the ‘working poor’.
A report by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, Walking the Breadline: The scandal of food poverty in 21st century Britain, estimated that the total number of people currently reliant on food aid could be over 500,000. We need to step back and think what this actually means. What this statistic tells us is that around half a million of our fellow citizens and neighbours do not have enough money to buy the food that they and their families need. In Britain, in the 21st century.
Speaking of this ‘deeply distressing reality’ this Christmas, Chris Mould, the Trussell Trust’s chief executive, stated that ‘thousands of families will struggle to put food on the table. We’re already meeting parents who are choosing between eating and heating.’ On the other hand, Cabinet Office Minister Nick Hurd recently described food banks as ‘a magnificent response to difficult times.’
Which begs the question: why are the times so ‘difficult’ for so many? Difficult in what way? Difficult why?
To begin, one must not – in fact one must never – denigrate the efforts by people of goodwill who assist in staffing food banks or who donate food.
All this is irreproachably commendable. I suppose on one strained construction it could even conceivably be stretched into support for that big policy idea of the Conservatives, the Big Society – self-help, voluntarism, charity, community engagement. A ‘shift in culture’, as it was framed. Or perhaps not.
From poor to rich
Perhaps not because in actuality the troubling spectacle of the flourishing of food banks is evidence not so much of a shift in culture as a shift in resources – from poor to rich. Enhancing social provision is one thing; replacing it is another. Welfare dismantling; low wages; no wages; underemployment; precarious employment; unemployment. We must never lose sight of the fact that the severity of this state of affairs is not inevitable. he phenomenon of food banks in 21st century Britain is a direct consequence of the social arrangement that shapes our nation. We have food banks in such number, and in such demand, as a result of the operation of a number of connected social processes, animated by policy choice.
We live in an era of what French social theorist Loic Wacquant calls aggressive neoliberalism. By this Wacquant means that the system organising society possesses a number of distinctive features: an increasing wealth division between rich and poor, the rolling back of social support and safety nets, the fetishisation of the market, the burgeoning of state coercive powers (including the overuse of incarceration). It is what Wacquant terms the ‘punitive regulation of poverty’. It is a worldview that is largely implacable in the face of market-generated social suffering. For neoliberalism is a social philosophy that misrecognises callousness for strength and social compassion for weakness.
The missing report
The Government’s stance is that despite ‘speculation’ that welfare reforms are massively impacting the growth of food banks, there is ‘no robust evidence’ to link the two. So where could the evidence be? In February DEFRA commissioned a research team from Warwick University to ‘review evidence on the landscape of food provision and access’. It examined the increasing use of food banks and soup kitchens. The purpose was to provide a ‘Rapid Evidence Assessment’, involving a few weeks of intensive work. To the credit of the research team, they delivered the report to the Ministry in June 2013. And then a strange thing happened.
Things started to move rather less rapidly and the report subsequently disappeared from the landscape. Indeed the Sunday Times states that it is being ‘suppressed’. While an all-party group of MPs has called on the government to publish the report’s findings, thus far nothing has been forthcoming. As of 16 December, the updated House of Commons Library briefing note claims that the report is still undergoing ‘review and quality control’. Six months later. You can draw your own conclusions about the report’s conclusions.
So where are we this Christmas? What does this tale of woe tell us? Certainly the intensifying immiseration of the most marginalised, most deeply dispossessed of our citizenry is an affront to claims of civil society and inclusiveness. But it is something more.
It is, as Wacquant piercingly points out, corrosive of the idea of democracy itself. For we are creating a social subgroup not just of the poor but of the hungry. People who are constantly anxious about having sufficient food for themselves and their children. In this context, governmental policies that exacerbate this particularly degrading form of social suffering are not just misconceived, they are ultimately and inescapably an obscenity.
Dexter is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers, a researcher at Harvard University and a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge