Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Keep them hungry, keep them compliant

At least some people will have felt a warm glow today, as British Gas announced that its profits had been boosted by the colder weather.

But while the Centrica-owned company was busy patting itself on the back and promising nice rewards for shareholders, Anne Robinson, director of consumer policy at the price comparison website Uswitch, had a different take on the matter.

“Seven out of 10 of us actually went without heating at some point during this winter,” she commented. “Over a third of us have reported that we feel it’s actually affected the quality of our life and also our health.”

Rising energy costs is just one of the factors meaning that an increasing number of people in the UK go hungry, because they find themselves having to choose between heating and eating.

In 2011-12, foodbanks fed 128,687 people nationwide. In 2012-13, the Trussell Trust, one of the major charities behind foodbanks, anticipates that number will rise to over 230,000.

The trust itself says that rising costs of food and fuel, combined with static income, high unemployment and changes to benefits are causing more and more people to come to foodbanks for help.

“With over 250 foodbanks currently launched,” says the trust, “our goal is for every town to have one.

The first Tressell foodbank opened in 2000, while the UK Foodbank Network came into being in 2004.

According to the trust, many of the people who are seeking help are in work.

So even setting aside the vexed issue of What To Do with the feckless, idle unwashed – for which there is far less evidence than David Cameron would have you believe with his ‘three generations who’ve never worked’ routine, itself thoroughly debunked last autumn by research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which could find no such family – we are left with the issue of many families with members in work but who work, but cannot afford the cost of living even at a basic level.

There’s plenty of other evidence for this: debt counsellors for the welfare arm of the trade union UNISON, for instance, are seeing an increase in calls and referrals.

As one of the counsellors explained to me recently, this is not people who are living it up and spending massively on luxuries.

Many are simply struggling to pay the mortgage – and then falling into the trap of taking out loans with pay-day loan sharks.

Let’s face it, the national minimum wage for an adult over the age of 21 is £6.19 an hour. If you’re lucky enough to be in full-time work, that’s £216.65 a week, gross.

Just to give you an idea of what that means, according to’s residential price index today, there is no one-bed accommodation for rent in Hackney for under £270 per week (studio flats start at £230 per week).

If you were lucky enough to be getting the Living Wage, (£7.45 in the UK, £8.55 in London) and be on 35 hours, that would mean £299.25 gross in London – so still little to actually feed and clothe yourself, never mind pay for heat, light and water or, heaven forfend, anything like a TV or a phone, after you’ve paid for a roof over your head.

So it’s hardly a shock when, with rising fuel bills (British Gas raised their costs by 6% last autumn, remember) increasing numbers of people are finding themselves in serious difficulty.

Yet the idea has lovingly been nurtured by substantial elements of the UK media that even the working poor are somehow ‘undeserving’ – or at least guilty of nicking the hard-earned money of the better-off via benefits paid for by the tax.

It’s classic divide and rule, and a return to the Victorian belief that the poor are in that state because they somehow deserve it.

Oh, we might have grown past the idea that sin was the reason anyone was in poverty in the first place, but little else seems to have changed.

Now since this started with British Gas and increased profits, let’s, for the sake of clarity, stress that I am not opposed to profits.

But the search for ever-increasing profit, and the need to appease the City on growth (and arguably the agencies who decide whether you’re getting an AAA battery or just an AA one) is also the reason for the horsemeat scandal that continues to rumble on and on, encompassing ever more of Europe.

Lengthened supply chains increase the number of companies that are involved and need to make a profit.

Unless the retailer at the end of that chain then hikes the price to the customer, someone is either going to have to see their profits reduced – or find other ways of maintaining profit margins.

Here’s a non-food example. London’s Victorian sewers are currently being replaced. One of the main contractors is Murphy, a major civil engineering company. But look at the vans if you see one: ‘working in partnership with Optimise for Thames Water’.

So, whereas in the bad old days of nationalised utilities, it would gave been one company doing the job, now it’s three. With three lots of staff and three lots of shareholders to pay.

And this is efficient?

It really isn’t rocket science to see that, when you cut through the crap, this is at the root of what has happened with all those burgers and meatballs and cottage pies.

It’s like the dodgy tobacco from China that’s full of the sweepings of the floor, and probably some even less pleasant things. Or the ripped-off vodka.

It’s all about selling something cheap – and still making a profit.

There’s a slight difference in that the horsemeat in various products may not be harmful – although there are questions about the presence of veterinary drug ‘bute’, which may have illegally entered the food chain.

But one aspect of this that is particularly distasteful, though, is that the entire business highlights the exploitation of the working poor. It’s no coincidence that the scandal has centred on ‘economy’ and ‘value’ ranges.

If the CEO of Centrica, for instance, eats horse, then it’s likely to be a piece of prime meat and with knowledge.

It all raises questions about the food chain, about sustainability and about localism – even if secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Owen Paterson was trying to use a speech at the National Farmers’ Union conference today to push the case for GM, despite it’s own inglorious record.

Still, that might help secure him a job with Monsanto if his political career ever ends, and help keep him from the doors of a foodbank.

In Germany, development minister Dirk Niebel has suggested that horsemeat that has been mislabelled as beef should be distributed to the poor.

Which raises an interesting point. It’s pretty dire reading of all these products being withdrawn and, presumably, destroyed. This is, for the most part – on the basis of what we know – safe to eat.

Now a policy of ‘giving it to the poor’ is just downright patronising and paternalistic, but why not sell it at a substantial knockdown, relabeled as containing (or possibly containing) horsemeat, and let customers decide for themselves?

It avoids vast amounts of wasted meat – something that is surely close to criminal – gives people the option of buying a very low-priced product and even means that the retailers get something back on the product instead of nothing.

But the hysteria around the issue – talk of products being ‘contaminated’ is but one illustration – is a block to coherent thinking like this. Although it does help to cloud the real issues.

And in the meantime, it's very 'Big Society' that organisations such as the Trussell Trust are (thankfully) helping to keep people going.

However, it's worth noting that this is yet one more illustration of the hypocrisy of a government that has sought to claim that 'we are all in this together'.

Let's be clear. We are not 'remotely 'all in this together'. Because unfortunately, the likes of David Cameron and Nick Clegg and George Osborne are not remotely likely to need a foodbank any time soon.

But crucially, if we have arrived at a point where, even in one of the richest countries in the world, working people cannot afford to live without charity, then we need a massive rethink.

And we need to start seriously considering a way of organising society differently.

We don’t need to abandon profit. But we do need to remember that life must come first. And we do need to think about that life in a sustainable and people – and planet – friendly way.

And perhaps the start would be combating the notion that having people in the UK, in the 21st century, seeking help from foodbanks is even remotely acceptable.

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