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Not generous

30 October 2020

THE Government might have saved itself a lot of trouble, not to mention the cost of special advisers, if, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, it had simply commissioned a civil servant to feed ministers with regular extracts from A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe’s semi-fictionalised account of London in 1665. The text contains many parallels with the present day, among them Defoe’s reflection on why the plague took its greatest toll of the poor. “The citizens had not public magazines or store-houses for corn or meal for the subsistence of the poor; which, if they had provided themselves, as in such cases as is done abroad, many miserable families who were now reduced to the utmost distress would have been relieved.” As for how this might be financed, Defoe observes that money was found readily enough for the mass rebuilding programme after the Great Fire of the following year.

The Prime Minister’s attempts to salvage some credit from the free-school-meals row look doomed to failure, as signatures to Marcus Rashford’s parliamentary petition to extend meals for vulnerable children to the holidays tick over the one-million mark. Mr Johnson’s argument that the dispute was only about the method of delivery — he prefers holiday clubs to schools — was undermined by the Government’s foot-dragging, which meant that no provision was made for the half-term holiday. As a result, hundreds of local councils and charities have stepped in, but there is little doubt that, in the uncertainty, many children will, indeed, have gone hungry this week. The website of the charity Feeding Britain, of which Archbishop Welby is president, registered “404 page not found” on Tuesday in relation to one of its trustees, Jo Gideon MP, who voted with the Government last week against extending school meals.

On Monday in the Lords, Baroness Penn continued to defend the Government’s position. They were aware, she said, that families were facing “an incredibly difficult time . . . which is why we have increased the generosity of Universal Credit by £20 a week”. It is easy enough to deride the term “generosity” in relation to the low sums paid out and the tight limits on eligibility; but the word is misplaced even conceptually. Benefits are paid from the public purse or, if borrowed, from future contributions. The thousands of workers who will move to Universal Credit at the end of this week when the furlough scheme wilts will be right to ask in what way the return to them of some small portion of what they paid in tax and National Insurance is a mark of the Government’s generosity. Besides, a new paper by the Institute for Public Policy Research has suggested that extra funds given to the poorest families will stimulate the economy by as much as £1.80 for every £1 given. Supplying the wants of the poorest families, therefore, is not generosity or charity, but thrift.

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