The Sunday Times

January 15th, 2012

Obese and useless, our state cannot even feed its children

It is hard to believe that in this country, in the 21st century, there are people who need food parcels. Food hand-outs. But so it is.

Last week I went to a small, unremarkable-looking cafe, in a drab part of deprived inner-city Plymouth, that hands out food parcels. By halfway through the afternoon the volunteers there had given out 25 boxes’ worth, enough for at least 50 people: many of the parcels are for ordinary families who have homes, not just for people one might imagine such as those sleeping rough or drug addicts.

I wonder how many people know that food parcels are far from rare in this country and quickly becoming more common. Early last year I was shocked by a news report that food parcels were being handed out in Okehampton — also, by coincidence, in Devon. Food parcels in green and pleasant Devon? And not only that — more were needed. The Okehampton Baptist church food bank had gone from providing one or two parcels a week to between 40 and 50, partly because of a sudden rise in redundancies in the town. I had imagined this need for food parcels was unusual, local and temporary. But that isn’t so.

There are perhaps as many as 200 places across the country handing out free donated food parcels right now, and there is little that’s unusual or local or temporary about it. Most of them are linked to the Trussell Trust and most are very recent.

The trust, which runs the only such network in Britain, estimates that the number of people fed by food banks could swell to 100,000 in 2011-12 and soar to 500,000 by 2015 — half a million people by the end of this parliament. And these are ordinary people: among the hungry, the homeless are now in a minority, according to the trust. Buddy, can you spare a tin of beans? At the Oasis cafe in Plymouth, people come and go, and some are there discreetly with vouchers for food, issued by a social worker or a doctor. In the back, volunteers are busy packing donated tins of meat, vegetables and fruit with dried foods, cereals, instant mash and long-life milk or milk powder: it is a standardised food parcel list and, although well considered and practical, it’s bleak. Bleakest of all was the note at the bottom about “extra treats when available”: one of the four was jam. That sounds like my mother’s childhood before the war, in the Hungry Thirties, when she saw other children walking to school barefoot, clutching a lump of bread and suet for their lunch. The sight of ordinary parents, ashamed of their own poverty, having to rely on the most basic of charitable cans and jars to feed their children is like the world of Dickens.

It is difficult not to feel completely enraged by such sights. What is the meaning of a welfare state if it cannot prevent these things? Last year Britain spent £110 billion on welfare (along with £121 billion on healthcare and £122 billion on pensions) and despite this eye-watering outlay, charitable food banks were springing up faster than ever: the Trussell Trust network launched 88 new ones in 2011 alone. With that kind of welfare money to spend, not one single food bank should be needed.

Of course it is true that the new signs of hardship to be seen around the country are the markers of austerity Britain. But today’s economic climate isn’t enough — at least not yet — to explain the existence in the country of hunger. What explains it in large part is waste. A few days ago it emerged that over the past two years — in parallel with the rise of the food banks — the government has wasted £31 billion of taxpayers’ money.

The National Audit Office published figures showing an institutional inefficiency in national and local government spending: defence costs and the private finance initiative (PFI), along with the notorious National Health Service IT system, have frittered away the most, but the benefits system squanders about £3.3 billion every year through error in payments and fraud. Meanwhile, there has been more than £10 billion in uncollected tax. That £31 billion amounts to a very large chunk of the £81 billion of savings George Osborne is trying to make within this parliament.

Commenting on this as the chairwoman of the House of Commons public accounts committee, Margaret Hodge was scathing about the incompetence and lack of commercial sense involved in Whitehall. It is “blindingly obvious”, she said, that frontline services could be saved by tackling the tens of billions of pounds of waste in the system. How true. How urgently necessary. But I wonder how she — or anyone — proposes to do that.

The problem lies in the culture of the civil service, and in local government as well, where deeply uncommercial attitudes combine with overweening ambition to micro-manage everything. An uncommercial attitude is the one displayed by local authorities several years ago that notoriously awarded PFI contracts to school dinner providers for 25 and 30 years. The ignorance and the childlike lack of awareness of market forces and the very point of a PFI almost defy belief.

Such desperately incompetent contracting and the mentality behind it is common — institutionalised, you might say — in the state sector: the anecdotes are legion. Beyond that there is the usual tendency of bureaucracy to feed upon itself and to grow bigger and bigger — and less and less necessary — almost uncontrollably. These departments have become Augean stables and it would take a mythical Hercules to clean them and make them fit for purpose.

Given all that, the only hope of stopping the waste — or some of it — is to demand that central and local government should take on much, much less. The state has become too bloated to be healthy or up to the task: it is obese and it is sick. It should be starved into competence. That means — and it is something only austerity will enforce on state sector resistance — greatly reducing and simplifying what it sets itself to do.

Local social services departments, for instance, should pare themselves back to the most essential work, abandoning everything else — however worthy it might sound — such as equality and diversity programmes, sex education outreach projects or drop-in for transsexual travellers and absolutely anything that does not directly deal with want — want of the most basic social care, want of a safe home and, above all, want of food. If people have to turn to charity for food, what on earth is the point of our elaborate welfare state?