The government U-turn last November on the provision of free school meals during the holidays, in the wake of Marcus Rashford’s successful petition, indicated to some that our rulers had finally tuned in to the public mood. Rashford himself said at the time that “the intent the government have shown today is nothing but positive, and they should be recognised for that”. (Marcus Rashford forces Boris Johnson into second U-turn on child food poverty by Haroon Siddique, The Guardian, 8 November 2020)
Fast-forward three months and what have we seen? Images of the parcels received by eligible families have been shared widely across social media over recent weeks. They present a depressingly inevitable image – the original picture shared by Twitter user @RoadsideMum showed a can of beans, two potatoes, eight cheese slices, a loaf of bread, two carrots, three apples, two Soreen malt lunchbox loaves, three Frubes, some pasta and one tomato. This was supposedly the equivalent of a £30 voucher, and was intended to take the place of ten school lunches.
The public purse is £30 lighter for each hamper of this kind that is provided, which was estimated by the mother in question at the value of £5.22, if purchased directly from Asda. Yet government directives encourage schools to provide parcels for collection, rather than vouchers for the same amount – even when covid restrictions stress limiting unnecessary travel and interpersonal contact. As @RoadsideMum went on to comment: “The private company who have the #FSM contract made good profit here.”
All this goes to show that when, owing to the swell of public outrage, the ruling class can no longer drag its feet on provision of services, it will seek any opportunity to profit from the imposition. After voting down the Labour motion to provide 1.4 million disadvantaged children in England with school meal vouchers through to Easter 2021 – replete with warnings about the destruction of the economy and rising dependency on the state – the Conservative party and the network of businesses it serves have done what they can to twist the U-turn to their own advantage.
So where is all the money going? One of the private companies responsible for these shameful parcels, worth a fraction of their supposed price, is Chartwells, the leading provider of catering to schools in Britain. (Chartwells supports children across the UK during Christmas, Compass Group UK)
The company’s business director is Stephen Forster – also the chair of the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA), which is responsible for drawing up the guidelines of what is to be included in the parcels in the first place. Chartwells has received at least £165m in school catering contracts over the last four years. (School meals row: boss of scandal-hit caterer set rules for food parcels scheme by George Greenwood et al, The Times, 15 January 2020 and ‘Unacceptable’ lockdown food parcels axed by UK school chain by Beth Staton et al, Financial Times, 12 January 2021)
In 2015, the company paid out $19m in settlement of a lawsuit in Washington DC, after it was accused of bilking the city and mismanaging provisions for public schools, “with food often arriving at schools late, spoiled or in short supply”. (DC schools food vendor pays $19m to settle whistleblower lawsuit by Michael Chandler, Washington Post, 5 June 2015)
Chartwells is, in turn, an arm of the food giant Compass Group – the same multinational that previously courted infamy over the notorious ‘turkey twizzlers’ school meals that were pilloried by Jamie Oliver in 2006. Its chairman until 6 January this year was Paul Walsh, a Conservative party donor and former member of the business advisory group under David Cameron’s government. (Free meals firm at centre of outcry was run by Conservative party donor by Adam Forrest, Independent, 13 January 2021)
In 2015, the same year Chartwells was being sued for serving rotten food to children in the USA, Walsh was one of the signatories to an open letter urging the British electorate to vote Tory because to do otherwise “would send a negative message about Britain”!
These are the people – and this the system – we expect to deliver the provisions they could barely even agree to provide in the first place. It can be no surprise when those provisions turn up a day late and more than a few dollars short.
Chartwells and Compass Group are not the only private firms with overly-intimate government connections, a lackadaisical approach to their remit and sticky fingers. French company Edenred held a £425m contract with the Department for Education for the provision of school meals vouchers between 20 March and 31 August 2020.
Edenred was awarded this contract under emergency powers without proper tender, owing to its being an existing supplier to government departments. No account of its profits from the disastrous scheme – either by the DfE or by the National Audit Office – has been taken. (Investigation into the free school meals voucher scheme, National Audit Office, 2 December 2020)
Stories of public funds leaking through sieve-like private enterprises is nothing new and is by no means limited to the issue of free school meals. We have reported throughout the pandemic on the blatant and disgraceful way that capitalist parasites have used every opportunity to bleed public coffers dry, and how the Conservative party has been only too happy to lubricate the process.
From PPE, to the Nightingale hospitals, to the test and trace fiasco, there is not a single aspect of the management of this crisis that has not been seen as a chance to line someone’s already well-stuffed pockets.
The public outcry and mobilisation inspired by Marcus Rashford’s petition is truly inspiring and must be encouraged. The double whammy of economic and health crises has given the working class bitter pills to swallow and tough lessons to learn. In learning them, our class can only grow in strength and confidence.
One lesson that we must urgently take note of is that so long as the entire struggle is tied to wringing concessions from the ruling class, like blood from a stone – and so long as our rulers continue to hand over public services to companies whose first priority is to maximise shareholder returns – we will remain at this impasse. All such ‘victories’ turn to dust upon contact with the profit-seeking motive of parasitic finance capital.
Their profits are always first on their list – they must be first on ours, too. Public services must be removed from private hands.