Opinion

It's time to turn the heat up on this government

The very existence of warm banks is clear evidence that our leaders have failed us. The one thing we must not do is normalise it

Prime Minister Liz Truss has hosted a reception to celebrate the USA-British Lamb Agreement. 10 Downing Street. Picture by Rory Arnold / No 10 Downing Street

What was abnormal is now normal. But the alternative is worse. When we step back and consider the existence of warm banks, history will ask difficult questions of how we got here. Warm banks will be warm public spaces open this winter for people who are cold and fearful of not being able to meet energy bills. Jump back four years and explain to yourself that this would be needed. Explain that food banks have also become so normalised that the King visits them to lend support, that the former prime minister has identified them as the new essential societal social safety net.  Explain that the figurehead for the financial earthquake we’re in the midst of has suddenly become the scapegoat for it.

Explain that even though these warm banks will exist, they face problems themselves. A popular place suggested for them is libraries. But local authorities have been so starved by years of austerity that even if their libraries are still open, they too face problems meeting energy bills.  

Clearly, this is not unique to Britain. Public buildings in Germany are receiving advice to heat to 19°C. French ministers are to wear warmer clothing to show they are united with the people. Or maybe they look good in knitwear. But here it feels we are at the nexus of so many issues.  

Anger may be an energy, but it won’t heat people up. So, if not the warm bank there is a possibility that lives will be lost. Perhaps there will be a benefit in that some people sitting alone and cold will have some company as they head out to public places. Perhaps this will have a mental health bonus at this time of the closing of the light and shortening days.  

But we must not normalise it. Neither must we accept as normal any more arguments against an expansion of free school meals. One of the most highly searched for pieces on this website over the summer was information on where parents could get an alternative to free school meals during school holidays. That need is only growing. 

If the social imperative wasn’t enough, if the need to prevent children from starving wasn’t enough, last week a financial reasoning was laid out. Research by PwC said that for every £1 invested in providing free school meals to all kids whose families were on universal credit, there would be a £1.38 return over the next number of years. That sounds to me like a way to boost growth. 

As Jamie Oliver said when pressing government again on a wider school meals policy, “If you output healthier kids, you’re going to have a more productive, more profitable country.” It’s a win-win – essential in the moment, foundation for the future.  

Should we have needed Oliver and Marcus Rashford to keep this conversation alive? Should we have needed Martin Lewis to prep us for the warm-bank winter? It is always vital that a government listens to and works with experts who can help build towards the greater good. Listening to the wisdom of those who know what they’re talking about, then developing some policy ideas that help rather than terrify, is a smart way to go.  

Any time now would be good.  

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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