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Short of food? Let them eat fish

12 December 2014

ONE of the admirable things about Holy Trinity, Brompton, in one of the wealthiest parts of London, is that it does not despise poor people. This may seem a small accomplishment, until you consider the commoner attitudes among people who run the country, or even those who merely went to school among the elite.

Here, for instance, is a leader from The Times: "The people there have always been listless, improvident, and wretched, under whatever rulers. . . Their present misfortune is that they are simply what they have always been. . .

"When we see a dense population on one of the finest shores of the world, with an inexhaustible ocean before their eyes, yearly allowing immense shoals of fish to pass visibly before their eyes, with scarcely an effort to exact a toll from the passing masses of food, we must either rebuke their perverseness or pity their savage condition. We do pity them, because they have yet to be civilized."

I'm cheating, slightly, because that was written in 1848, and about the Irish, at the height of the potato famine.

But compare and contrast Monday's Times leader on those who starve in England today: "Volunteers at food banks are already bringing their skills to the food-poverty challenge. In the best-run food banks, they ensure that people have to prove real need and face searching questions about their circumstances.

"The answers to these questions are used to help people to tackle the underlying reasons for their need, whether that is bad financial management, an addiction or, for example, a mishandling of their benefit claim."

Of course, a starving claimant has about as much chance of getting the money to which he or she is entitled as an Irish crofter had of swimming out and catching a haddock with his bare hands to feed his family. So you can see what the Archbishop is up against.


STARTING in The Mail on Sunday was, then, a shrewd way to get his point across. It guaranteed the enmity of the Daily Mail (which hates its Sunday sibling, as is traditional in these relationships) - but the Daily Mail would have had a go at him anyway. And it did reach a large audience that would normally be pretty unsympathetic to the claims of foodbank clients.

They would not normally expect to hear that "hunger stalks large parts of our country.

"For many this will have resulted from a sudden crisis or an event which has thrown life's certainties into the air. Things pile up. One person the inquiry heard from had stopped to help someone who collapsed on the street. He missed his appointment and lost his benefits for a while.

"The scenario here can often be mercilessly straightforward: when an additional expense arrives out of the blue or expected income is missed, bare cupboards and empty stomachs swiftly follow. Even being in work and earning money no longer appears to offer complete protection against these situations."

What caught the imagination was his introduction: that hunger in this country shocked him more than destitution in Zaïre. This was an example of the way that "Archbishop says something obviously true" will always make a news story.

I am told that John Humphrys had prepared a whole line of incredulous questioning about how anyone could compare British poverty with that of an African country ravaged by decades of war. Never mind that the Archbishop did not say it was worse, just more shocking. Refusing interviews was an excellent tactic here.


AS FOR the substantive proposals, results were mixed. The most ingenious came from Rachel Sylvester, in The Times, who tried to cast the report as an argument between Iain Duncan Smith, imaginatively cast as a defender of the poor, and the heartless George Osborne.

The Guardian was and is uneasy about the whole idea of foodbanks. The fear is that they will be used to shrug off the state's responsibility for feeding people. So the leader ended:

"Food bank volunteers are motivated by good, often Christian, ethics, which people of all political persuasions should salute. But much of the new hunger is the responsibility of Messrs Cameron and Osborne. And there is no apolitical way to say that."

For the Daily Mail, opinion came, as usual, wrapped as news: "The Archbishop of Canterbury was warned not to become a 'political pawn' last night after calling for state-backed food banks.

"But yesterday senior Tories criticised the clergyman for supporting the 'nationalisation' of food banks. In addition, the MPs' study found that families' lack of money was not the only problem.

"The all-party Commons group on hunger warned that some parents spend far too much money on cigarettes, alcohol, takeaways and other 'non-essential items of expenditure' because they lack basic budgeting skills."

Also, they don't go fishing in the sea at all, despite the known fact that it is full of fish.

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