Following the current vogue for movie franchises Wirral Leaks proudly presents The Professor’s third instalment of The Hunger Games saga starring Frank Field. The series of hunger reports associated with Field including ‘Britain’s not so hidden hunger’ published in May 2016 are considered in the context of Field’s written work and his most recent (and frequent) media pronouncements.
‘The liberation from the Victorian approach – or so it is interpreted – came when the poverty debate began laying the blame for poverty on society and its institutions instead of the poor themselves’
Frank Field, Neighbours from Hell
Nearly two years has passed since Frank Field’s ‘Feeding Britain’ report appeared in a storm of media controversy. In addition to rightly condemning this government’s rabid policies towards the ‘deserving‘ poor, Frank’s team decided that the ‘undeserving’ poor, who could not budget and cook properly, who wasted their benefits on non-essentials, only
had themselves to blame for their hunger. These feckless, ungrateful people should be sent to the State Troubled Families Gulags for ‘reprogramming’. As Frank’s co-author, the posh Tory, Lady Jenkin, famously said: If they can’t cook, let them eat porridge. A bowl only costs 4p.
The issue of these ‘undeserving’ poor people was framed not as one of intellectual and social inadequacy but as a matter of personal irresponsibility and lack of moral sensibility. Frank has long had a clear and fixed view of the coping differences between the deserving and undeserving poor in the underclass
‘How can these different circumstances be explained if personal character and its view of responsibility are written out of the script?’ – Frank Field, Neighbours from Hell
Nothing has changed two years later. Frank’s second hunger report, ‘A Route Map to ending hunger as we know it in the UK’, was launched at the end of 2015 and the 3rd , interim report, ‘Britain’s not so hidden hunger’, in May 2016…and somewhat more circumspectly than the first report. The 2nd report is based on submissions from a sample of the 420 UK food banks which are now active according to the Trussel Trust. The sample evidence involved narrative observations from 115 food banks. This is a sample of 27%. Seven of the submissions were said to be anonymous. The second report still rightly sees a major factor in hunger creation as rabid government welfare policies and their deliberatively destructive implementation. However we will see that sadly, underlying attitudes to the ‘feckless’ poor in the report have not changed. Turning to page 79 of the ‘evidence’ we read that
‘A sizeable majority (is it 20, 30, 40%?) of submissions attributed the onset of, and constant vulnerability to hunger in some families to their inability to cook and budget from week to week. ‘
Several food banks are quoted. Liverpool’s HOPE+ centre allegedly said
‘while it might not be a popular observation… many people do not spend their limited budget wisely in respect of food…this is due to a lack of basic budgeting skills and an inability or unwillingness to cook.
Frank concludes that therefore, school curricula must include compulsory ‘home economics and life skills courses’. A good thing surely? Well, yes but we must be careful when Frank becomes prescribing in the area of social policy. Things may get out of hand. Consider his views on the wider state control of UK society in his book, Neighbours From Hell:
‘Moral and civic duties provide the very foundations upon which civilised life is built and are a proper area for legislative prescription and if necessary sanctions’
Moral duties? Who is to decide on these …why Frank, of course. We must therefore be careful where Frank’s nostrums are involved. Other food bank correspondents took less condemning stances on the hungry. Financial Action and Advice, Derbyshire said
‘Many people have poor budgeting skills and prioritise wrongly…some have poor literacy and numeracy and don’t understand contracts…’
The issue here is primarily one of low IQ and poor education, not moral turpitude.
On page 80 the report turns, in earnest, to the theme of waste and the irresponsible use of resources by the poor. We are told that
‘The financial benefit of being able to use one’s resources more efficiently could make a huge difference to household budgets. The average cost to all households of the food and drink they throw away each week is £9 or 14% of the average weekly shopping budget.’
Presumably we are invited to assume, without evidence, that these figures apply equally to the poorest in the UK and without any caveats. It’s hard to throw away food from an empty fridge…or preserve food when you have no electricity to run it. It is interesting that the average shopping budget implied above is £64 while job seekers allowance and employment and support allowance (in the WRA Group) for the sick and disabled, is just £69 per week. (By the way the author knows from his professional career with a large multi-national that food processing and transport losses in the supply chain are often in excess of 25%. Perhaps the well off, throw away, middle class and the food companies should be condemned rather than the, desperate, hungry poor?)
Having set up the poor as ‘wasters’ we now move on to allegedly wilful misuse of benefits. We learn according to Frank, that
‘Even if wages and benefits were high enough to provide a subsistence minimum, we fear some of our citizens still would fall below our national minimum because of the havoc wreaked on their budgets by addictions to drink, smoking and gambling.’
This is based on two condemning reports from (unidentified) food banks. One allegedly said
‘…we are anxious that by giving them food we are freeing up money for some of them to fund other habits. Most of them smoke, many of them have drug or alcohol dependency…
We are trying to cap the level of benefit which entitles clients to come to us.’
The second allegedly said
‘Fags are ever present among poor people. They [fags] hoover money out of the pocket
…the addictive and damaging aspect of smoking is awful. It is a major factor in taking money for food and spending it on addiction…’
Of course government has the power to ban addictive and health damaging products as it does with illegal drugs. But then think of the outcry if popular ‘drugs’ were banned outright …and the loss of tax revenue. No, it is easier to further raise unit costs and impose more tax, which penalises the poorest ‘addicts’ and has no effect on the middling classes, while appearing virtuous. The poor should not be smoking and drinking anyway should they?
Addiction is a ‘lifestyle choice’…but only if you are poor.
It is interesting that in comments on other ‘hunger creating factors’ in the report, the food banks are always identified…but not in this case. In other areas of concern several food banks are typically quoted. In this case only two. Is this because dependency and misuse of benefits is not a major issue and few correspondents reported it as such? Well apparently only 2 out of 115 submissions, or 1.7% of submissions, took this strong
stance. Why are these 2 not identified? Were they by coincidence, 2 of the 7 anonymous submissions received in total? Should we give equal weight to opinions which are anonymous? In other research fields, data of unknown provenance would be deleted.
In fact under the earlier ‘debt’ section of the report, the County Durham food bank takes
a directly opposite view on this matter.
‘Our debt advice service is increasingly seeing people who are simply on low incomes rather than those who have been unwise in how they spend their money. Single parents, working but on low incomes, are being seen especially [frequently].’
This view is not referenced in the ‘addictions’ and ‘benefit wasting’ section although it is clearly relevant to the issue at hand and its origin is clearly identified.
Although ‘dependency’ and ‘addiction’ are recognised medical conditions we see no discussion of accessing serious medical treatment, but we see again a concern for the risk of creating a ‘moral hazard’, implied in supplying food to the hungry. It is the same apparent ‘hazard’ which persuades many to not give money to beggars…they will only waste it.
This was an argument frequently used by Iain Duncan Smith, DWP minister, to justify cutting benefits. As the report says, we should do all we can to combat smoking and other addictions. We must not however ‘punish’ desperate people in the mean time …which clearly a small minority of food banks is ready to do…with the implicit endorsement of Frank’s report. But then Frank has long established views on ‘dependency’ and lack of moral fibre as his earlier utterances show. And as he said in the Wirral Globe on 22.05.15
‘The Victorians [or rather the evangelical Christians] were not wrong when they called alcohol the demon drink’
Of course many food banks are run by Christian church groups. Perhaps the two pro-Frank food bank quotes (out of 115 ) share his views and are able to apply them to the unfortunate hungry who come to their doors? Surely Frank and his moralising friends should be campaigning to ban the ‘demon drink’ in general …beginning by closing down the House of Commons bar and imposing sobriety checks on MPs entering the chamber.
Surely MP and peer ‘allowances’ should be reduced in case they are misspent on booze and cigars…and much worse. And what about the alcohol, tobacco and legal high infested middle class, not to mention the coke snorting metropolitan elite? Well, Frank et al, lack the levers to compel moral compliance in such groups.
The fact is the ‘hungry poor’ is the last minority where ideological governments intent on rolling back the Welfare State can justify rabid cuts by labelling powerless citizens as ‘scroungers’, ‘benefit cheats’ and addicted, moral degenerates, unworthy of support. It is doubly sad when ‘charity’ groups, supposedly opposing government benefits policy and ‘supporting’ the hungry poor, use the same moralising arguments to try to impose their views on how the poor should behave. Persuasion or rational argument and education is one thing but using hunger as a weapon for (supposedly) moral and social reform is quite another. Is this perhaps an overly harsh view of some in the ‘charity’ sector? If we examine other attitudes and recommendations in Frank’s report we will see that it is not.
Chapter 4 is about ‘rescuing Britain’s wasted food’. Frank tells us
‘Earlier in this report we outlined a series of uncomfortable findings around some families lacking skills that were once passed from one generation to the next; namely how to be good parents and be able to cook decent meals on a limited budget…the absence of these skills can impact badly upon one’s self worth.’
Hang on there…where did the issue of ‘being good parents’ sneak into the debate on
poverty and hunger? Well Frank has long had feckless, inadequate parents in his sights. That is why in the first Feeding Britain report he tried to get hungry, mentally impaired parents sent to the abusive, ineffective, Troubled Families Projects. As he has said many times
‘As an ever increasing number of families becomes dysfunctional an ever increasing supply of socially offensive individuals results’- Neighbours From Hell
Frank would like to see Citizens’ Contracts imposed by the state which would enforce his views on ‘moral and civic duties’ and behaviour …at least on the dependent poorest. Citizen ‘duties’ would be linked to ‘benefit entitlement’. As he said in NFH
‘New boundaries need to be drawn…Benefits provide such a boundary as between them they provide universal coverage for those most likely to commit antisocial behaviour [the undeserving poor]’
Frank, who has attacked the Conservative government for cutting benefits to the poor, is ready, for those who fail to abide by his model of society, to…well…cut their benefits!
Not only this, but the imposing of sanctions should be seen as a criminal justice matter!
‘The agency deciding what action should follow a repeated failure to meet a [citizen’s] contract should be the police and only the police. Once the police have the required evidence to levy a sanction…[it] should automatically come into operation on the appropriate benefit.’
The hungry poor appear to be trapped between a rock and a hard place. On the one side
a rabid government: on the other, some in the ‘charity sector’ with a moral utopian agenda. The only difference between Frank and this Conservative government on benefit sanctions is the reason for them, although in both cases those reasons are ideological as we have seen. So how will Frank use the issue of food waste to promote his utopian aims? He will use so-called Social Supermarkets along the lines of the Community Shop model. In the report he recommends, grandly that
‘A next phase in Britain’s fight back against hunger must encourage the growth and evolution of social supermarkets. Here we have an accessible source of affordable food that also comes with so much more in the way of practical and emotional support…’
The Community Shop website itself says
‘CS is a social enterprise that is empowering individuals and building strong communities by realising the social potential of surplus food’
That is some claim. The idea is to buy ‘surplus’ food from manufacturers at ‘ten pence in the pound’ and sell it at ‘thirty pence in the pound’ to a defined subset of the poor. The CS chairman has told the media
‘CS is tackling the problem of food surplus while giving it a real social purpose. Not only do we offer high quality, low cost food to people experiencing tough times, but we provide them with the chance to take up support services…because they are [then] motivated to do better.’
Surely this time Frank is correct to enthusiastically support such a positive model? The author looked more closely at the scheme some time ago. Their jolly website once listed the wide range of means tested benefits which enables ‘those on the cusp of poverty’
to access the Community Shops. The author was surprised to note that sick and disabled people on long term employment and support allowance were excluded…yet these are amongst the most disadvantaged benefit recipients in the country. Well it turns out that CS is only for those on in work benefits and the unemployed and the ‘real social purpose’ is ‘training to get them back into work’ and ‘motivated to do better’.
So these Community Shops actually, do not support the most vulnerable in the Community, nor those in a state of urgent need. No doubt the social supermarket model is worthy but it seems peripheral to the problem of immediate, urgent hunger in families. Why is Frank so keen on it then? We will see.
Surely helping the unemployed is still a good thing? Well according to The Independent there is a catch: to get the ‘cheap’ food the applicants must sign up to a compulsory development and mentoring programme called the ‘Success Plan’…nothing is left to ‘chance’ despite the chairman’s claim. This appears to be rather like many state schemes available through Job Centre Plus. So why the ‘charity sector’ duplication? Well ASDA,
the Co-op, M&S, Morrisons, Tesco, etc, who supply the food get good public relations coverage …doing their bit for the poor. What does the company get? We do not know …perhaps just a warm glow? Well in 2014 the Community Shop won the ‘Community Partner’ award of the powerful Food & Drink Federation whose members had supplied the surplus food. Warm glows all round. CS won the award in competition with famous social activists and philanthropists like General Mills, Mars Foods and Siemens. Anyway, at least the potentially hungry CS members ‘are motivated to do better’ …or they don’t get any food. Certainly Frank can’t get enough of this scheme. We might suspect it takes Frank back to those heady Victorian days when the feckless poor could be turned around in their lazy, immoral ways in return for bread or workhouse shelter. After all there is a moral imperative here as benefits ‘rot the soul’, according to Frank in 2012. As he also said about means tested benefits
‘As we now have a welfare state based on meeting need, this encourages individuals, not unreasonably, to try to ensure they qualify under this guise. It therefore pays to lie about one’s earnings, to cheat, or to be [economically] inactive. The worst side of human nature is encouraged…’ – Neighbours From Hell
‘It’s our fault as politicians to have put temptation in front of people. If the system pays people more on incapacity benefit [than job seekers allowance], it’s human nature to claim the higher amount. We have to remove the incentive’ – Guardian, 2006.
What this means is taking £30 per week off genuinely disabled and chronically sick people
rather than increasing incapacity and ESA applicant screening efficiency. Frank has forgotten that the welfare state was founded precisely to support people in need and ‘for as long as the need lasts’ according to Lord Beveridge himself. As the author suggested earlier, Frank and his like minded friends, appear to be ideologically as concerned with avoiding ‘moral hazard’ and ‘soul rot’ as feeding the urgently hungry. At the very least the above statement makes very clear what Frank really thinks about the poor he says he is championing. Is that so different from the views of rabid Tories like Eric Pickles, then Communities minister, who commanded a ‘less understanding approach’ be applied
‘ We have sometimes run away from categorising, stigmatising, laying blame…It’s time to wake up to that…to realise the state is no longer willing to subsidize a life of complete non-fulfilment on just about every level.’
In March 2015 Eric declared the supposed triumph of his Troubled Families Projects in
‘turning around’ the dysfunctional, feckless, lazy, cheating families we have discussed.
Somehow getting somebody back into work in 8.9% of the 75% of families who began the projects with all adults unemployed, and marginally reducing truancy, defined this triumph. In Frank’s home territory on Wirral just 2.6% got jobs. Even these modest results were exaggerations since Eric’s own department tells us that
‘It is likely some of the improvements in outcomes would have happened in the absence of [project] intervention’
It should be noted that the council survey data used by Eric to make his claims are not recognised as official government statistics and have not been audited by any independent body. Eric’s claims were defined by the director of the National Institute for Economic & Social Research as
Some MPs expressed doubts on the veracity of the success claims in the House of Commons, including Hilary Benn MP. However Frank still rose to congratulate Eric, whose approach to dysfunctional families was clearly as policy nectar to Frank, and put in his two pence worth, based on his expert observations of the dysfunctional poor
‘There were other scallywags who could not be bothered to feed their children.’
Sounds familiar? Meanwhile in Eric’s TF projects, 33% of the families had adults with long term, debilitating, physical illnesses or disabilities and 45% had adults and 33% had children with serious mental health problems. 39% had children with special educational needs statements and 28% had children in special schools. 97% were in social housing. 27% were in rent arrears. They were very poorest. Now that’s feckless for you. Only 3% had members receiving treatment for drug or alcohol dependency. 93% of the adults had no involvement in crime and anti-social behaviour. We do not know how many families had to resort to food banks.
There is much that is worthy in the second Feeding Britain report and particularly in the dissection of the roll out of Tory government ‘welfare reforms’ in creating hunger in the UK.
Recommendations for reform of government welfare reforms are well targeted. The simple innovation of having a (hopefully independent) benefit adviser sit in the food banks to try
to resolve benefit problems is excellent : the so-called Food Bank Plus model, although
the echo of ‘Job Centre Plus’ is disturbing and mission creep should be watched carefully.
There are some recommendations, possibly, equally well meant but unlikely to be practical. The idea of budgetary advisers in JC+ encouraging desperate claimants, already in dire straits, living from hand to mouth, that they really should save for a rainy day is quaint, to be polite. It is a reasonable strategic aim but out of place in an emergency context. It very much reflects Frank’s root conviction that the feckless poor simply need reprogramming to behave more responsibly and so escape poverty. Frank’s concept of downplaying ‘relative poverty based on median income’ as the key indicator of UK poverty and substituting social or ‘life chances’ indicators has been very popular with Tories who
want to take the heat off the benefits and poverty debate. Concentrating on ‘life chances’
might correctly highlight the need for social (unlikely under Tory austerity) investment in several areas but it also turns the spotlight onto the supposedly feckless behaviour of the poor themselves. If that ploy was successful the way to a new Frankensteinian Utopia is opened!
Some of the analyses and recommendations we have examined need to be looked at very carefully and if implemented, monitored very closely. At least the ideological basis of this government’s actions is crystal clear: the reduction or elimination of the welfare state. The ideological basis of some of Frank’s proposals is not overt and should be spelled out. If one wants to try to build a new, Moral Jerusalem on the backs of the poor and hungry do so openly so that the community may debate it. But then Lady ‘Porridge’ Jenkin raised a storm of protest at the first Feeding Britain report launch when she crudely blamed the ’feckless’ poor for their own hunger. Let us hope the media and the British public will remain on the side of unconditional compassion for these vulnerable, hungry families, and particularly for their children who are indisputably innocent, and equally, be vigilant in future about damaging policy innovations by the state and by self-styled ‘do-gooders’ with an agenda.
I completely support Archbishop Welby’s key question in his introduction to the second UK hunger report
‘How can we take part in a wider debate about the nature of our society?’
We have to give Frank credit for consistency of purpose and sheer, brass balled cheek.
In May 2016 the interim Feeding Britain report, ‘Britain’s not so hidden hunger’ came out…
fairly quietly. But locally Frank could not resist using it in the press to push his socio-religious-political agenda. Under the title ‘Hunger stalking primary schools’ Frank ascribed the problem as resulting from
‘a breakdown in parenting and a rise in the number of families on low incomes.’
Given the priority position of the ‘poor parenting’ claim I expected to find significant new evidence in the report. However the only mention of poor parenting is in Frank’s report forward. The evidence and conclusion sections focus exclusively on the impact of low incomes i.e. on poverty. Yet Frank mentions irresponsible parents
‘spending too much on drink or drugs’
as one reason for hungry children, but then immediately says
‘we do not know [if this is so]’
Having then described his assumed model of parental neglect, based on what he calls ‘impressions’, he continues
’We have too few facts to give any numbers.’
This is a continuation of the evidential style of Frank et al, in the first and second hunger reports, where as we noted earlier, Lady Jenkin blamed malnutrition on poor parents not knowing how to cook. After all, as she said
‘A bowl of porridge only costs 4p.’
But what do you do if you have no money for the gas or electricity? Jenkin was blaming the victims and two years later so is Frank Field.
P.S. Frank is always ready to attack minority groups who lack the intellect and resources to
defend themselves. But sometimes enthusiasm carries him away and he forgets that
some people, such as traduced retail billionaires, will sue him to hell when falsely
called a ‘thief’ in the media. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the BHS scandal there
are many who will watch with interest as Saint Frank either climbs down or is ripped
apart in court for his loose talk and inaccurate claims.