Steve Baker, Conservative MP for Wycombe and a well-known Brexiter, said he was not surprised by new research showing that his constituency has the highest levels of food insecurity of anywhere in the country. Around 14% of residents reported going hungry in January and February this year, while a third said getting enough food was a struggle. Mr Baker has the benefit of local knowledge. It is less than a year since another report showed Buckinghamshire to have one of the worst records on social mobility in the UK. But for ministers, these new figures should be a wake-up call. Hunger is disturbing in and of itself. But there are particular reasons to worry about pockets of deep poverty in otherwise wealthy areas.
Buckinghamshire’s highly selective education system is one factor contributing to holding back children from poorer families while perpetuating social segregation. Higher property prices in the south and home counties mean that rents and mortgage costs take bigger chunks out of incomes. But whatever the underlying causes, what these latest figures reveal is a society disfigured not only by severe deprivation but also by widening inequality. Official figures showed the incomes of the poorest fifth of households growing more than the richest fifth in 2019-20, although child poverty rose during the same period. But with the explosion in the use of food banks that accompanied the pandemic, and furlough payments and a Covid-linked universal credit rise due to be withdrawn next month, while property and asset prices have risen, the direction of travel now is towards increased polarisation.
Last week, the 12 directors of children’s services in north-east England issued a joint warning that “shameful” levels of poverty are driving dramatic rises in referrals to children’s social services. They described a “vicious cycle” leading to spiralling costs and reductions in early intervention. Now, Mr Baker has added his voice to those demanding changes to universal credit, in particular the five-week wait for initial payments.
Lack of food is not, of course, the only indicator of chronic poverty and societal unfairness. Inequalities in housing, education and employment have also all been exacerbated by the pandemic, in interconnected ways. For example, the rise of remote working is predicted to lead to greater polarisation between neighbourhoods, as businesses in affluent areas benefit disproportionately from wealthier people who are more likely to be able to do their jobs from home. Demand for second properties in rural areas also appears to be increasing, pushing prices further out of reach for those on lower incomes and without wealth.
But perhaps because hunger is so ordinary a sensation, and also because for many years it seemed have moved out of the realm of domestic policy (and into that of disaster relief and development), food poverty retains the power to shock. Last year, ministers bowed to pressure applied by the footballer Marcus Rashford, who led a campaign to extend free school meals.
The recently released national food strategy calls for them to go further, raising the income threshold for eligibility and providing funding for holiday clubs offering meals. Perhaps Mr Baker’s shot across the government’s bows may prompt a change of approach, following the recent shock of a byelection loss in Amersham and Chesham. But for now, it appears that Boris Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, are prepared to see people go hungry rather than find the money to boost their incomes – for example, via the temporary wealth tax recommended by a commission of experts last year. Unless they can be persuaded to change their minds, the nutrition recession that began under the austerity regime of David Cameron looks set to go on.