Feeding Britain is the report of an All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into hunger in Britain. It’s depressing that a report like this should have to appear at all. There’s no shortage of food in Britain, as the government has been quick to point out. That comment misses the point, however; we know from Amartya Sen’s work on famines that there is almost always enough food. What matters is whether people are entitled to eat the food that is there.
There are two processes that stand out in the new report. One is the problems caused by the punitive, insensitive regime that has been imposed on benefits, particularly the problems caused by delays in benefit and sanctions. The other is the growth of problems for people on very low wages. We certainly need an increase in the minimum wage, and an extension of the same protection to people who are supposedly ‘self-employed’.
Beyond that, we should be thinking of introducing something like the ‘solidarity wage’ formerly developed in Sweden. Following the same line of reasoning as Sweden used to, we could argue that don’t have any shortage of bankers, high paid executives; they are in a world-wide labour market and the posts are easy to fill. By contrast, carers, cleaners, child care assistants, roadmenders and labourers are hard to replace. If their wages go up, that will become the going rate, but the activity will still need to be done. The interesting thing about that argument, right or wrong, is not just that it runs counter to the received wisdom in the UK. It’s that, when it was put into practice in the 1970s, it didn’t seem to make much difference, positively or negatively, to overall economic performance. What it did affect was the distribution of income. We can, if we choose, simply decide to put a greater priority on improving low pay.