After The Rashford Row: What Next For The Government And Child Poverty?
The Tories took a hammering after Boris Johnson refused to cave in to Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign. But could it mark a watershed for the party in the long run? Alain Tolhurst investigates.
“Look, there isn't a single one of my colleagues you'll speak to who thinks that we handled this correctly,” one senior Conservative MP said when asked about the fallout from last week’s Commons debacle.
After Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford campaigned to extend the free school meal system into the half-term holiday, Labour used an opposition day motion to force a vote on the issue, and make the government stand behind a decision not to do so in the middle of a public health and economic crisis.
It led to angry scenes in the chamber as the Tories accused those on the opposite benches of playing politics; but it is they who have borne the brunt of the fallout from the debate.
The MP for Birmingham Northfield, Gary Sambrook, tweeted a picture of graffiti which accused him of “eating big dinners”, much to social media’s enjoyment, but also the epithet “scum”, repeating the word Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner used to describe his colleague Chris Clarkson in the Commons, for which she later apologised.
Shaun Bailey, the new MP for West Bromwich, said his mother had also been phoned up and called “scum”, while another - Stuart Anderson - said he received death threats.
Some Tory backbenchers’ contributions did little to quell the tension, with Ben Bradley, the young MP for Mansfield, repeatedly getting into rows with Rashford on social media before connecting free school meal vouchers with “crack dens” and “brothels”.
Such inflammatory arguments – made in defence of a symbolic vote which had no legal weight or impact on policy – were not even on the side of public opinion when it came to the issue, as polling showed.
But the bigger issue for the Tories is that the row wasn’t just about the extraordinary campaign run by Rashford: in fact, the evidence suggests it was underpinned by a genuine cultural change.
This week a new survey in the British Social Attitudes survey revealed that even before the pandemic struck, the public was becoming more and more in favour of higher welfare spending.
Iain Porter from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation told PoliticsHome that while austerity policies were being pursued throughout the 2010s, “the moods were already softening.”
“So by 2015 even, there was a lot less kind of harshness towards social security, a lot of… softer public attitudes to it.”
One of the reasons he and other campaigners on poverty and social mobility point to is the continued squeeze on working age benefits by the government in the past few years, which has created lots of in-work poverty, which he calls “the defining problem of our times”.
The former Tory Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb said the party needs to make sure it doesn’t fall out of step with public opinion and comes up with a plan to tackle poverty.
“There are old stereotypes of the Conservative Party that our opponents will try to resurrect, and it’s incredibly frustrating for us in my party, because we are spending extraordinary sums of money right now to protect family incomes.” he said.
"Tens of billions of pounds on the furlough scheme, the self employed income support scheme, you know, this is not a government that has ducked the challenge of spending enormous sums of money to protect families from poverty.
“But nevertheless, because we didn't handle this correctly, we didn't get on the front foot in a way that a number of my colleagues have been calling on the government to do after the first Marcus Rashford row in June – we allowed our opponents to resurrect an outdated and incorrect narrative about us.”
He said his colleagues were right to argue that simply extending free school meals outside of term time was not the right way to deal with the issue, saying it is “riddled with problems” such as low take up and stigma.
"I think the government, because of the row that we've had, needs to really show it's on the front foot on this issue, that it understands the issue, that it really cares about the issue,” he added.
“What I hope to see is that the government announces a clear plan for how we tackle the issue of child food poverty through the winter and beyond, but as part of a much broader approach to tackling poverty and hardship through the pandemic.”
A number of charities and campaigners have also been calling for the government to show it has a plan, and have expressed frustration one has not been put in place given the available data on what policies work in reducing it.
“We have a lot of knowledge about what can reduce child poverty,” Sasha Morgan, director of the Social Mobility Commission said.
“And it just makes for uncomfortable reading for this government, it's not magic. There are lots of things that we are not absolutely sure about the evidence for, we need to do experimentation, we need to look at things differently on - reducing child poverty, it's not the case.”
She described the recent rows over free school meals and the £20 uplift in Universal Credit to a “Dunkirk response”, rather than a long-term sustainable solution.
She accused the government of having “neither a comprehensive plan for social mobility, or indeed child poverty”, and said it needs to realise that “it has been elected on the backs of people who are going to suffer the most”.
There is a focus on what the Chancellor Rishi Sunak will outline in his one-year spending review in late November, but Morgan says the government needs to have a 20 or 30-year plan to tackle this issue.
That is exactly what under Tony Blair the last Labour government did, setting out the target in 1999 of eliminating child poverty by 2020.
One of the people charged with implementing that was Stephen Timms, who as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, co-sponsored the Child Poverty Act in 2010, which enshrined these ambitions in law.
Passed in the last weeks of Gordon Brown’s administration, it was seen by critics as merely a way to try and tie the hands of the incoming Conservatives.
Unsurprisingly Timms disagrees: “We always knew that getting to meeting the 2020 goal was going to be a stretch.
“It never looked like a doddle, but it did look doable, and we certainly felt really strongly that the government should be aiming to have some clear goal in mind to eliminate child poverty.”
The targets were dropped in 2015, with the then-secretary of state for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, saying the measures of poverty were “deeply flawed and a poor test of whether children’s lives are genuinely improving”.
He said in its place the government would “introduce a new and strengthened approach to tracking the life chances of Britain’s most disadvantaged children.”
Duncan Smith’s legacy on Tory welfare policy still looms large four years after he left DWP, most notably in Universal Credit, the brainchild of the Centre for Social Justice think tank he founded. But it also lies in the cap on benefits and the two-child limit on a number of benefits, a measure which Timms said “is clearly a generator of child poverty”.
If the Tories are to win over those who think they do not care about social mobility and reducing poverty, then those policies need to be removed regardless of how much the headline amount of money is put back into the welfare budget.
“We've slipped a long way backwards and things are set to get a lot worse as things stand,” Timms said.
Other senior Tories have spoken out too recently, including former ministers Caroline Nokes, Paul Maynard and Robert Halfon, all with more inclusive - and more expensive - solutions.
Campaign groups including Child Poverty Action Group want to see the eligibility for free school meals greatly expanded - currently only households with an income below £7,400 can claim them.
The government’s own National Food Strategy, published in June, said “there is a significant number of insufficiently nourished 7-16-year-olds at school who are not currently in receipt of Free School Meals”.
CPAG and others want to see it extended to all households in receipt of Universal Credit, a policy which could see the number of pupils eligible rise from 1.4 million pre-pandemic to around 2.9 million due to the effects of Covid-19 on job losses, potentially adding several hundred million to the cost of administering the policy in 2021.
In the short-term, a decision over whether to keep the temporary £20 uplift in Universal Credit is set to be a key indicator of how the government will proceed.
The cross-party work and pensions committee, which Timms chairs, has recommended it stays, and he says: “It feels inconceivable that the government is going to say, next April, yes, we're going to take £20 a week of everybody's benefit, but that is the current policy.”
The Treasury has hinted this week it may be willing to keep it in place, and there is strong pressure from Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s own side, including from Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross - who said it would not "be fair to pull support away from people while this pandemic continues to damage our way of life so deeply”.
Choosing to make permanent the £1,000-a-year increase in the standard allowance would, in the long run, cost the government £6.6billion per year and add roughly 10% to the annual cost of UC, though as the IFS pointed out in a briefing earlier this month it would be “undoing only a fraction of the cuts to benefits implemented since 2010”.
That is is the key point Azmina Siddique from the Children’s Society wanted to get across when discussing the government’s plan, saying: “They've put in a lot of support for people, but at the same time, it's against the backdrop of sustained years of cuts to people’s safety net.”
This was echoed by CPAG’s director of policy Louisa McGeehan, who said: “When ministers stand up and say they put £6 billion into supporting family incomes in the pandemic, that is right.
“But that is set against a long term trend of almost £40billion being taken out of social security for working age people.
As with so many battles over Tory policy it comes back to spending, and the battle between departments and the Treasury, who are known to not be fans of Universal Credit.
One Tory who used to work in Number 11 said Sunak himself, “isn't hostile to the extra money that we put into it”, saying: “Genuinely I don't think he's one of the people who thinks of it as money wasted on poor people, he’s not in that place.”
Ian Porter thinks the Chancellor will keep it in place, saying: “I think when the government realises just the impact of whipping that away from people it will think back to the public outcry from Marcus Rashford campaign.
“And that will reinforce just how important it is to kind of strengthen these lifelines that the pandemic has shown we all rely on when we hit those troubled waters.”
He added: “We've seen them dig in before, and we've seen them ultimately come around and do the right thing.”
Crabb also says he hopes the uplift is made permanent, saying beforehand Universal Credit “wasn't providing an adequate income for for families right at the bottom of the of the income scales”.
Boris Johnson’s repeated defence for not caving in to Rashford’s campaigning for a second time was that councils had been given a £63 million grant for vulnerable families.
But the guidance on how to spend that money, which has announced on July 10, was that it should be spent within 12 weeks - long before the October half-term, and was not ringfenced for feeding poor children.
One council leader told PolHome it was an “absolute lie” to claim the cash had been handed to local authorities to feed poor children.
There is a feeling among some Conservatives this could be a “watershed moment”, with one new MP joking that “Gary Sambrook eats big dinners” could be the “milk snatcher” slogan for a new generation.
Crabb is not so sure, pointing to the fact Thatcher still won three elections after that, saying: “This doesn't have to be a defining moment for the Conservative Party, and I don't believe it will be. But the government needs to step up on this.”
The issue is put most succinctly by McGeehan, who said: “The problem with the ‘we've got to draw the line somewhere’ argument is that with all the support that different sectors of the economy are needing, do you really want to draw the line at the poorest children in the country?”