Osborne, the great child impoverisher, supports free school meals. Has he forgotten who he is? | Polly Toynbee

“Te best value for taxpayers money,” said Jamie Oliver, urging the cause of free school meals during his guest slot on the Today show this week. He is right about the need to feed starving children in a time of growing hardship. It is obvious: education cannot enter the head of a child on an empty stomach.

It’s simple: Giving a child a tray of food raises none of the “moral hazard” fears falsely raised by Tories who claim parents are wasting benefits on the wrong things. The cost is negligible: £2billion a year to feed every child in England every day is a cheap price to ensure that no child goes hungry in a country so singularly affected by poverty and inequality.

Naturally, the show asked the Department of Education for a comment: its response may have surprised listeners. He boasted that more than a third of children in England already receive free school meals. A third! This may seem generous, as if it reaches quite high on the income scale. But no. To be eligible, a family must be on Universal Credit and earn less than £7,400 a year. This is a surprisingly low threshold, which shows how many children live in very poor families. Next year it is expected to be even worse.

A new analysis shows that more than 200,000 of these eligible children do not receive free school meals because they fail to register automatically: their schools lose the pupil bonus attached to each free school meal. Another 800,000 children living below the poverty line (less than 60% of median income) are not eligible due to complex criteria chronic by the Child Poverty Action Group. Even more live in struggling households that sit just above the poverty line. Oliver is right: the absolute minimum the state can do is feed every child every day – not just lunch, but breakfast as well. The Magic Breakfast charity says 3 million children start the day hungry when 28p per day would cover the cost of breakfast. Activists in the fight against child poverty no longer speak of “deprivation” but of destitution.

On the program, Tony Blair explained that today, even more than when he was in power, it is necessary to invest in early childhood with food, care and education. The work lifted one million children out of poverty and set up 3,500 Sure Start centers to reach every new family. By the next election, he will provide promises on this: his education spokeswoman, Bridget Phillipson, has already announced free breakfast clubs for all elementary schools as a “first step” of a policy for much larger children to come.

For political balance, there is no doubt that the Today show was delighted to secure an interview with George Osborne, eagerly supporting Oliver’s campaign. With a smirk, he bragged about introducing free school meals for children aged five to seven when he was chancellor. But in the coalition Nick Clegg had to fight it out, only winning on school meals in return for the Tories’ absurd tax break for marriage, demanded by the Daily Mail, as if a £250 tax break per an would send couples rushing down the aisle.

Jamie Oliver shrugs off chips and fatty foods as he serves a healthy school lunch to pupils at a London primary school. Photograph: Andy Butterton/PA

Osborne’s chancery was a litany of vast sums taken from child benefits. Yet today’s presenter Nick Robinson brought up none of that in his interview, allowing the child impoverisher to pose as a child benefactor, sharing Oliver’s goal of ‘Better nourished and healthier children’.

Yet it was Osborne who shattered any claim to a social safety net by freezing and cutting benefits below inflation. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation regularly sets a Minimum Income Standard (MIS), a good benchmark for an “acceptable” standard of living achieved by asking the public what they consider to be the minimum basket of goods for “needs, not wants ”. It includes basics such as a winter coat, two pairs of shoes, clothes priced from Primark and Matalan, food for four at £122.37 a week, cheapest mobile for adults at £10 a month, £20 for a child’s birthday present, a week a year’s holiday at a caravan park in the UK and an allowance for a child to go swimming.

Donald Hirsch, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University, has worked on the GIS over the decades and monitored how benefit levels over the past 12 years have steadily fallen. below this standardin what he calls “a sea change” to a point where some beneficiary families now have less than half of the MIS.

Two parents working full-time on minimum wage with top-up benefits fall short of the £43,400 MIS for a family of four. Soaring costs for childcare, rent and food (up 17.2% this year) are crippling budgets.

Ministers slammed as 200,000 eligible children in England denied free school meals

Removing the extra £20 Universal Credit families received during the pandemic has done untold damage, having temporarily reduced poverty. But Osborne’s cuts aimed directly at children had a particular viciousness. The removal of any allowance for a third child has impoverished millions of people, as 30% of all children live in such families. Its permanently frozen £20,000-a-year benefit cap has driven down benefit levels. As well as the nasty tax on bedrooms, he cut rent subsidies so that only the cheapest accommodation in an area would be eligible, with demand far outstripping supply and leading to families crammed into homes overcrowded, or moved far away – taking children out of school. All the while, he generously reduced inheritance tax and the top tax rate.

The wonder is that Osborne, architect of austerity, is not treated like an outcast. Rather, honors and riches were showered on him, from Companion of Honor at £650,000 a year for one day a week, advising BlackRock while he was still an MP. He jumped to edit the Evening Standard. Culture? He was the driving force behind the deprivation of half of its funds at the BBC. He is president of the British Museum, despite the savage museums, arts and libraries: 200 museums closed under his supervision. Municipalities were stripped, affordable housing was not built, infant mortality rose for the first time in living memory, life expectancy plummeted for poor women. Wages have stagnated or fallen, especially in the public sector, hence the ongoing strikes. Only the lives of retirees have improved.

Otherwise, he left devastation everywhere you care to look. He protested ahead of the 2010 election saying Labor’s warning of its planned cuts was “a bunch of lies”. The cuts were not accidental: they stemmed from his early state-shrinking ideology. But the worst of all the damage caused by him and his successors concerns children. This evil will last for decades, as poverty will mark many forever, accumulating future problems (and state costs) in health and dependency.

It was nice of him to drop by the BBC studios to bless Jamie Oliver’s campaign, but don’t let anyone interview this man again without challenging his very personal responsibility for so much public misery and hidden misery in the midst of private wealth. Times have changed, the mood and attitudes of the public have become more generous, and this man, more than any other, should be held accountable wherever he goes. But he slips, smiling, from reward to reward.

Osborne, the great child impoverisher, supports free school meals. Has he forgotten who he is? | Polly Toynbee – Up News Info