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Andrew Bailey

Andrew Bailey. Photo: Bank of England / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Work harder and longer, get a better job or learn to cook. This is the empty advice of the people in charge of the policies driving people into poverty, writes Terina Hine

According to the Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey, Britons are facing “apocalyptic” rises in food prices. According to Conservative MPs, ministers and their friend at the Bank there’s nothing they can do about it. And anyway it’s really not their fault. 

Struggling to afford food? It’s because you can’t cook. Not getting paid enough? Well, work harder, longer, find a better paid job. Interest rate rises: don’t look at me, blame Putin, Covid, China. 

On Tuesday, the Bank of England Governor found himself on the front page of seven national newspapers, and not in a good way, having followed up his apocalyptic comments about food price rises with calls for wage constraint. Coming from a man who earns £575,000 a year, his call was unlikely to be met with a positive reception.

Home Office Minister Rachel Maclean had already suggested on Sky News that hard pressed workers should respond to price rises by “taking on more hours or moving to a better-paid job”. Perhaps she had in mind one like hers, that pays £106,000 per annum with 8 weeks paid leave and a generous expense account. An expense account that paid her £213,000 last year.

The minister is clearly unaware that workers in the UK already work longer than our EU counterparts by the equivalent of an extra two and a half weeks a year. Perhaps rather than reading this TUC research she instead relied on the pamphlet “Britannia Unchained” that declared British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”. The authors included four MPs, now Cabinet ministers - Liz Truss, Dominic Raab, Kwasi Kwarteng and Priti Patel.

And it’s not just Rachel Maclean who is keen to dispense advice for hard pressed workers. Last week we heard Conservative MP Lee Anderson inform the Commons that there was no “massive” need for food banks, that people just need to learn to cook. Then there was Environment Secretary George Eustice advising us on how to shop - choose supermarket own brands, apparently they are cheaper - who knew?

The chair of NatWest joined in, helpfully suggesting the poorest 20% “reduce their discretionary spending by 20%”. No doubt the discretionary spending which comes from all those extra hours at that better paid job. Good plan! 

Inflation has now officially hit 9% and is set to rise further. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation shows that this rise has the greatest impact on those with the least; inflation for the  poorest tenth of households is in fact at 10.2%, whereas for the richest tenth it is at 8.7%.

But rather than reversing the National Insurance hike, providing funds through Universal Credit, or introducing a windfall tax (U-turn pending) — things which would be of material benefit for workers — the only measure the government has announced this week is to postpone the obesity bill. Shoppers will continue to be bombarded with multi-buy deals of the unhealthiest food on offer. The message is not let them eat cake but rather let them eat crap. 

Adding insult to injury one Tory MP had the gall to complain that food bank usage is being politicised, as if the explosion of food banks in one of the richest countries in the world is not a political issue.

Attempts to depoliticise hunger is not new, neither is blaming the poor for their poverty. None of this is helped by headlines such as this in Monday’s Independent: “I’m too worried about money to care about politics” written by an obviously failing political correspondent. But when petrol retailers have recently increased their profit margin by 2p per litre, when oil and gas giants make £900 per second and when the government benches failed to vote for a windfall tax that could reduce energy bills by £600 per household, it is indeed political. 

Over 40% of people on Universal Credit are in work. Benefits are being used to prop up low wages - wages which have been squeezed so much that they are still below the levels they were before the 2008 financial crisis, and are expected to fall again this year. But it’s not the fault of the corporations, the banks, the government - no it’s our fault for being unable to budget and for taking low paid jobs. 

This crisis is built on the last ten years of Tory austerity, exacerbated by the external shocks of Covid and the war in Ukraine. It is a crisis that the poor continue to pay for, while corporations and elites are bailed out and make profit, draw huge salaries and offer nothing but useless, empty advice.

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