Monday, 25 February 2013

Food banks and inequality ‘Food banks are the safety net of safety nets. It is only when government fails that food banks have to step in… They are not a substitute for social policies that protect people’ - Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, speaking in London recently, cited by Patrick Butler. De Schutter said that widening economic and geographic inequalities in western countries such as the UK were reinforcing the existence in deprived neighbourhoods of ‘food deserts’ – places with few shops and where cheap, healthy produce was hard to come by. The question arises in this context, is it morally defensible for a government to adopt policies that demonstrably increase economic inequalities to exacerbate the situation? I find it hard to think of anything more offensive right now. As far as I can tell, the Guardian is the only major news broadcaster to cover this story – presumably the other sources do not regard it as important. Meanwhile, I find it curious that this government – usually so determinedly disinterested in evidence of any kind – has initiated research which ‘will examine the extent and effectiveness of emergency food aid, amid concern that increasing numbers of low-paid and benefit-dependent households are forced to use charity food sources’. So they’ve spotted that there is ‘concern’, well done there. I can find no reference to the inquiry on the Defra site so far. I suspect they’re cautiously checking the morality of applying the ‘big society’ brand in this case (seriously: see the first 30 secs here).
Bashing ordinary people who are making their civic contribution It’s been a triumphant few days for those who like bashing ordinary people who happen to be making a civic contribution. Last week we had a rash of unfortunate remarks about a group of citizens who, as jurors, asked for clarification on their role. True, it sounds as if there may have been some difficult characters among them, but the questions were presumably part of the (legitimate) way other jurors dealt with that difficulty. There’s not much justification for some of the snobbish sneering (e.g. about 'intelligence' - wait, make that 'cognitive abilities') from some commentators. Thankfully, the Independent kept perspective and published an article by Trevor Grove, clarifying things for His Lordship the Judge Bod: ‘as someone who has been on several juries and also written a book about the jury system, I must tell Andrew Edis, QC, that jurors often do struggle to understand their basic tasks. After all, they are ordinary members of the public drawn from widely different backgrounds, most of whom have not been inside a courtroom in their lives. Some may not have been born in this country. Others may never have passed an exam. Yet amazingly enough these unpaid, untrained, randomly picked, involuntary volunteers, who are suddenly required to pass judgment on a fellow citizen in sometimes very disturbing cases, nearly always rise to the occasion. A large majority of judges, lawyers and police agree that most jury verdicts are just, or at any rate reasonable, in light of the evidence. And only in about 1 per cent of trials do juries fail to reach a verdict.’ (Emphasis added) To continue the theme, today (on WATO and elsewhere) we have had a moralising, ideology-loaded hectoring of school governors from Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector. With all the sensitivity of a drunk rhinoceros, the man plunged straight into likening ‘the worst governors’ to jurors who were ‘incapable of understanding their responsibilities in a court case'. Well done there Mike. So if there's a problem, it’s not the system, far less a conflict about the purposes of the education system, it’s just that ordinary people are dull-witted peasants. Sadly, that’s still really the problem for the elite – how to get the plebs to do what is expected of them. And you thought it was only a question of ordinary people doing their duty, or in many cases, far beyond their duty, in the interests of fellow citizens. It might be worth pointing out to people like Wilshaw that many school governors invest their time, energy and expertise in their roles in order to give young people chances despite the heavy forces, ahem, working to deny them such chances. For example, judging by his preoccupation with them, it still hasn’t occurred to Wilshaw that performance targets are damaging. What explains this determined denial by the governing class? Even the police are getting the message, with the Independent Police Complaints Commission making it clear yesterday in the depressing example of Southwark Sapphire Unit, that ‘The pressure...

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