“The best value for a taxpayer’s buck,” said Jamie Oliver, urging the cause of free school meals during his guest-editing slot on the Today programme this week. He’s right about the need to feed hungry children amid soaring hardship levels. It’s a no-brainer: education can’t enter the head of a child with an empty stomach.

It’s simple: giving a tray of food to a child arouses none of the “moral hazard” fears falsely raised by Conservatives claiming that parents waste benefits on the wrong things. The cost is negligible: £2bn a year to feed every child in England every day is a cheap price to make sure no child goes hungry in a country so singularly blighted by poverty and inequality.

Naturally, the programme asked the Department for Education for a comment: its reply may have startled listeners. It boasted that more than a third of children in England already receive free school meals. A third! That might sound generous, as if reaching quite far up the earnings scale. But no. To be eligible, a family must be on universal credit, earning less than £7,400 a year. This is an astonishingly low threshold, showing how many children are living in very poor families. Next year it is predicted to be worse still.

New analysis shows more than 200,000 of these eligible children miss out on free school meals for lack of auto-enrolment: their schools lose the pupil premium attached to every free school meal child. A further 800,000 more children who live below the poverty line (less than 60% of median income) are not eligible due to complex criteria chronicled by the Child Poverty Action Group. Even more live in struggling households hovering just above poverty level. Oliver is right: the absolute minimum the state can do is feed every child every day – not just lunch, but breakfast too. The Magic Breakfast charity says 3 million children start the day hungry when 28p a day would cover the cost of breakfast. Child poverty campaigners no longer speak of “deprivation” but of destitution.

On the programme, Tony Blair talked about how now, even more than when he was in power, there is a need to invest in early years with food, care and education. Labour lifted a million children out of poverty, and set up 3,500 Sure Start centres to reach every new family. By the next election, it will provide pledges on this: its education spokesperson, Bridget Phillipson, has already announced free breakfast clubs for all primary schools as just a “first step” on a much larger children’s policy to come.

For political balance, no doubt the Today programme was pleased to secure an interview with George Osborne, eagerly backing Oliver’s campaign. In full smirk, he boasted that he had introduced free school meals for children aged five to seven when he was chancellor. But in the coalition, Nick Clegg had to fight against him, only winning on school meals in exchange for the Tories’ absurd marriage tax allowance, campaigned for by the Daily Mail, as if a £250-a-year tax-break would send couples rushing down the aisle.

Jamie Oliver gives the thumbs down to chips and fatty food as he serves up a healthy school dinner to pupils from Ealdham Primary School
Jamie Oliver gives the thumbs down to chips and fatty food as he serves up a healthy school dinner to pupils from a London primary school. Photograph: Andy Butterton/PA

Osborne’s chancellorship was a litany of vast sums taken from benefits for children. Yet the Today presenter, Nick Robinson, raised none of that in his interview, allowing the child impoverisher to pose reborn as a child benefactor, sharing Oliver’s objective of “better-fed, healthier kids”.

Yet it was Osborne who broke any pretence of a social security safety net by freezing and cutting benefits below inflation. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation regularly sets a minimum income standard (MIS), a good benchmark for an “acceptable” living standard arrived at by asking the public what they regard as the minimum basket of goods for “needs, not wants”. It includes such basics as a winter coat, two pairs of shoes, clothes priced at Primark and Matalan, food for four at £122.37 a week, cheapest mobile for adults at £10 a month, £20 for a child’s birthday present, one week a year holiday in a UK caravan park and an allowance for a child to go swimming.

Donald Hirsch, emeritus professor of social policy at Loughborough University, has worked on the MIS over the decades and monitored how benefit levels in the past 12 years have kept falling further and further below that standard, in what he calls “a step change” to a point where some families on benefits have less than half the MIS now.

Two parents working full-time on the minimum wage with top-up benefits don’t reach the £43,400 MIS for a family of four. Rocketing costs for childcare, rent and food (up 17.2% this year) cripple budgets.

Stripping away the £20 extra from universal credit that families received during the pandemic did untold damage, after it temporarily reduced poverty. But Osborne’s cuts aimed directly at children had a special malice. Removing any benefits for a third child impoverished millions, as 30% of all children live in such families. His benefit cap set at £20,000 a year, constantly frozen, drove down benefit levels. As well as the wicked bedroom tax, he cut rent subsidy so that only the cheapest housing in an area qualifies, with demand hugely outstripping supply and leading to families crammed into overcrowded homes, or moved far away – taking children out of school. All this while he cut inheritance tax and the top tax rate generously.

The wonder is that Osborne, architect of austerity, is not treated as a pariah. On the contrary, honours and riches were showered on him, from Companion of Honour, to £650,000 a year for one day a week advising BlackRock while still an MP. He hopped off to edit the Evening Standard. Culture? He was the driving force behind depriving the BBC of half its funds. He is chair of the British Museum, despite savaging museums, the arts and libraries: 200 museums closed on his watch. Councils were stripped bare, affordable housing wasn’t built, infant mortality rose for the first time in living memory, life expectancy fell for poor women. Pay stagnated or fell, for the public sector most, hence the current strikes. Only pensioners’ lives improved.

Otherwise, he left devastation everywhere you care to look. He protested before the 2010 election that Labour’s warning of his planned cuts was “a pack of lies”. The cuts were not accidental: they sprang from his earliest shrink-the-state ideology. But the worst damage of all done by him and his successors is to children. That harm will last decades as poverty scars many for ever, storing up future problems (and state costs) in health and dependency.

It was kind of him to drop by the BBC studios to bless Jamie Oliver’s campaign, but let no one interview this man again without challenging his very personal responsibility for so much public squalor and hidden destitution amid private wealth. Times have changed, the public mood and attitudes have turned more generous, and this man, above all others, should be held to account wherever he goes. But on he glides, smirking, from reward to reward.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist


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