OPINION: Let them eat (birthday) cake - the hunger which shames our country

Volunteers at Norwich foodbank packing food parcels

Volunteers at Norwich foodbank packing food parcels - Credit: Archant

It is a mark of how farcical our country has become that most of the past week’s headlines revolved around a £50 fine imposed on a man who seems incapable of grasping the fact that if you are in charge of making the rules, you really ought to be first in line when it comes to abiding by them.

I don’t accept that Partygate is ‘fluff’, or trivial, or unimportant. Apologists for our prime minister claim that with so many other serious things happening in the world, we shouldn’t be focussing on what they regard as an unimportant distraction.

But the fact that seem to think it’s fine that our politicians believe that if you are powerful enough you don’t have to obey the law, shows just what a skewed sense of priorities they have.

It is at times of crisis that we most need leaders who can set an example. Who don’t laugh off law-breaking as if it is some merry jape. Who have a respect for the people on whose behalf they wield power.

I don’t need to tell you what a serious situation the world faces at the moment. War is of course the dark shadow which looms over our entire continent. But you don’t need to look beyond our own shores to find plenty of problems which suggest a monumental failure of leadership from those in power.

Perhaps the most shameful of these issues is that a significant proportion of our population can no longer afford to feed their families. I am saddened and shocked to write those words in 2022, but those are the facts.

Research published this week by the Trussell Trust, which is the umbrella charity overseeing Britain’s foodbanks (along with Whitehall off licences, one of the few sectors enjoying growth at the moment), found that nearly one in ten parents are ‘very likely’ to need to turn to a foodbank to feed their children in the next three months.

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Let me repeat that: one in ten. Not just a tiny number of marginalised people on the very edge of society, but 1.3 million British parents who cannot afford even to put food on the table.

On Easter Sunday, the Archbishop of Canterbury used his sermon to express his concern about families struggling for even the basics. “Families across the country are waking up to cold homes and empty stomachs,” he said.

Predictably, several politicians took to the newspapers to criticise the archbishop for ‘moralising’ – exactly what they feel the job of the head of the Church of England is if not to express moral views, I’m not quite sure.

The UK is still the fifth largest economy in the world, despite Britain seeming to be hellbent on crashing down that particular league table. The fact that we seem content to watch as a worryingly large proportion of our population goes hungry or cold – and often both – should shame us all.

In the short term, we need to be digging deep to help those hard-pressed foodbanks provide emergency help to get food on the table right now.

But that is just a sticking plaster, and to solve the problem completely, our feckless politicians need to be putting down their glasses of Prosecco and their slices of birthday cake, and talking the plight of those who can no longer afford even to eat more seriously.

It isn’t that we don’t have enough wealth in the country to go round. It’s just that the national cake is divided more unequally than ever before.

If we want to avoid watching children going hungry, we have to be prepared to pay more in taxes, to fund a safety net which will allow everybody to at least have the basics of a home, warmth and food on the table. That view shouldn’t be in any way controversial.

It’s a myth that high tax economies don’t work. The fact is that almost all of the developed countries which are doing better than the UK, economically and socially, pay higher level of taxes, to fund a better safety net and better public services.

Ultimately we have a choice: we can live in shame in a country where one in ten parents is forced to turn to charity to feed their children, or we can accept that those of us who can afford it will have to pay a bit more in taxes to ensure everyone can at least eat.

If you want to live in a civilised country, that should be the easiest choice in the world.