Professor Syed Kamall is Academic and Research Director at the IEA. From May 2005 to June 2019, he was a Conservative MEP for London.
While Marcus Rashford’s campaign to provide free meals for children has gained much publicity and public support, it has also come under criticism for providing meals for children regardless of need and for even nationalising parental responsibility.
The campaign is built on the assumption that state intervention is necessary to solve societal problems but equally it has highlighted the power of private individuals to affect change, as well as the dedication of volunteers in our local communities.
The campaign perhaps should be seen in the context of our country’s long history of helping those in need. As far back as 1597-8, the Elizabethan Poor Laws were administered through parish overseers, who provided relief for the aged, sick, and infant poor, as well as work for the able-bodied in workhouses. The latter would of course be unacceptable today. In the late 18th century, this was supplemented by the Speenhamland system, providing allowances to workers with below subsistence wages.
By the nineteenth century, it is estimated that as much money passed through voluntary organisations to those in need as did through the poor law. Many adults belonged to an average of five or six voluntary organisations, such as trades unions and friendly societies, offering financial protection against sickness and unemployment as well as savings societies, literary and scientific institutes.
While charitable provision was diverse, it did not reach everyone in need, which led to calls for state intervention and the introduction of state pensions in 1908 and state social insurance in 1911. Voluntary organisations began to accept money from the state, becoming complementary or supplementary welfare providers, but no longer being seen as the first port of call for those in need.
The 1942 Beveridge Report recommended a single contribution and a single state benefit agency for social insurance. Beveridge wanted friendly societies to act as state benefit agencies offering additional services if funded voluntary contributions. However, this idea was rejected by the government and led to the post-war welfare state.
Despite the growth of state welfare, the UK maintains a mixed welfare model with thousands of local civil society non-state projects in neighbourhoods across the country, which provided support and signposting for families in need long before we saw the inspiring help that volunteers have provided during the Covid-19 lockdown. However, even within these organisations, there are some who see their efforts as stepping in where the state should be acting, rather than as part of a rich tapestry of local civil society.
This bias towards state-intervention is one that sees multi-millionaire footballers become advocates for more government action, where local community groups may already exist and even do a better job than state agencies. When I was a politician, I was sometimes contacted by constituents asking me to find a taxpayer-funded local council or national government or EU grant or hoping I could pass a law to solve a local problem. When I offered to introduce them to a project that had solved a similar problem in their neighbourhood, some were inspired while others saw this as an example of state failure.
Poverty, especially child poverty, has a devastating impact and as a society we should do everything in our power to offer routes out of it. But government is not the answer to every problem, and in our rush to do something, we should not overlook or squeeze out alternative solutions.
While some critics may prefer that Rashford built a coalition of other millionaires and companies to support local civil society organisations or offer to pay more tax before calling for state intervention, they risk overlooking the incredible good this young working class man has done.
Whether he sees it or not, his campaign has demonstrated the power of local civil society non-state organisations to address problems in their neighbourhoods. He has also inspired others to – in the words of Gandhi – become the change they want to see.
He is also raised the issue of corporate welfare, which in some cases has also seen money given to companies that did not necessarily need it. Is it any wonder that Rashford and others argue spending public money on school dinners would be a better use of the taxpayer’s money, especially when so much has been splashed around?
Finally, the campaign has reignited the debate over universal provision vs targeted help and whether a better way to help hungry families would be via Universal Credit, giving families in need the money directly to make the best use of it for their individual circumstances and not to assume that parents will use the money for non-essentials rather than food.
On such an emotive subject it is easy for the waters to get muddied, for political opponents to take polarised positions and to trade accusations of being uncaring or misguided. Maybe we should instead take a moment to applaud Rashford for his actions, for demonstrating that welfare beyond the state is very much alive and for igniting a debate on the effectiveness of the solutions he proposes.