John Penrose, the Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare, is under fire after a letter he wrote to a constituent saying that breakfast clubs help “children with chaotic parents”. His remarks have been written up by, among others, the Mirror, the Metro, Sky News and his local newspaper.
There is just one problem with the story: what Penrose said is true, and trivially so. The purpose of breakfast clubs is to provide breakfasts in part for children from families on low incomes, but primarily for children with chaotic lives and complex care needs. Households that are unable to provide breakfast to their families through lack of means are supposed to be supported via cash transfers – the purpose of breakfast clubs is to provide support to families whose problems go beyond the absence of money.
What Penrose has got wrong is very different: he talks about breakfast clubs as a policy intervention that tackles poverty. But this is not true, as Penrose’s own letter essentially accepts: support for people with chaotic lives and complex needs is about ameliorating and supporting those problems. Your life does not become any less chaotic because the state has directly stepped in to provide your child breakfast, and you are no more likely to find your way out of poverty the day after your child enrolls in a breakfast club than you were before. The value of the breakfast club is very different: what it is doing is making sure that your child is fed and that their life chances are boosted as a result. But it is not a poverty reduction measure – it is a harm reduction one. Measures to reduce poverty, whether they are indirect (through increasing the number of high-wage jobs, providing opportunities for lifelong learning and reselling, and so on) or direct (by simply, you know, giving people more money, whether through the tax credit or the employment benefit components of Universal Credit) are not the same thing as measures to help people with chaotic lives. They just happen to largely be the responsibility of the same government department.
Some people with chaotic lives are going to need complex support indefinitely – most people in poverty are suffering from a dearth of money and power, not a sudden increase in the amount of “chaos” in their lives. That a growing number of families using breakfast clubs are not “chaotic” by any definition of the term is not an indictment of what Penrose said, but of the consequences and motivation behind government policy as a whole: not just of the extensive cuts to the welfare state since 2010 and their consequences for the incomes of the poorest in society, but of the explicit logic of the UK’s punitive welfare state.
The argument for the painful benefit sanctions that people face if they are not demonstrably seeking work is that without them people would simply claim benefits indefinitely. But if you have a “chaotic” life (as the vast majority of people who are sanctioned do), you are not going to respond to being sanctioned by going out and finding a job. It will simply deepen the chaos in your life and increase your misery and hardship. You can’t, at once, rightly contend that some parts of state provision exist for the benefit of people in chaotic lives, but that it is humane, effective or right that those same people should face sanctions because of behaviour they are not going to change.
The row over Penrose sums up the paradox of the United Kingdom’s current debate over free school meals. Viewed one way, the political debate over welfare has never been in a better place as far as people who want a more generous and less punitive state are concerned. Viewed another, the political debate is blind both to the reality that most people are suffering not from an absence of goods but a shortage of money, and that the minority have chaotic lives and complex needs suggests that the progress we have made, such as it is, is somewhat illusory.