Marie Antoinette is infamous for responding to the news of the starving peasantry of France with the words “let them eat cake”. But now we are seeing the same callous response from the Tory government in relation to child food poverty in Britain.
On Monday evening, parents began reporting on social media that the food they had received – in lieu of vouchers for free school meals – was nowhere near the £30 worth promised.
Instead, the ‘hampers’ provided consisted of only a few potatoes, a tin of beans, a loaf of bread, and the odd random vegetable. This is a cruel slap in the face for working-class families suffering because of the pandemic.
Priced via Asda:— Roadside Mum 🐯 (@RoadsideMum) January 11, 2021
Public funds were charged £30. I'd have bought this for £5.22.
The private company who have the #FSM contract made good profit here.
This scandal follows the U-turn the government was forced to make last year, after they initially voted to cancel free school meals. The Tories eventually retreated under public pressure, thanks to a successful campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford.
This time round, it was again Rashford – not Keir Starmer, the so-called leader of the opposition – who raised awareness of this food parcel scandal.
Under Starmer’s leadership, Labour has consistently failed to hold the government to account. Similarly, the Labour leader recently refused to back the NEU teachers’ union in their campaign to keep schools closed, over health and safety concerns.
This episode has once again revealed the barely-concealed corruption that lies under the surface with this Tory government.
Like so many important services throughout the pandemic, the provision of these food parcels was outsourced to the private sector. The catering company awarded this contract was Chartwells, a subsidiary of Compass Group. This is the world’s largest catering company, which recorded profits of £20 billion last year.
Compass Group has been under scrutiny in the past for its poor service. It has attracted allegations of providing substandard food, in both Europe and the US. And the firm was also implicated in the horse meat scandal in 2013.
The outsourcing giant even had one of its subsidiaries pay a settlement of around £40 million, after it was alleged that the company improperly obtained confidential information about a contract to supply food and water to UN peacekeepers in Liberia.
The government is now claiming to have been taken for a ride by Chartwells. But Tory ministers cannot be allowed to duck responsibility so easily.
Firstly, it was well known that the Compass Group has a bad reputation – a fact that was perhaps smoothed over thanks to Chartwells’ CEO being a major Tory donor.
Secondly, this whole system of outsourcing public services to private companies has long been known to be a rotten scam. From Carillion, to test and trace, to the provision of PPE: outsourcing and privatisation simply siphons money out of the public purse and into the pockets of fat cat bosses and shareholders (including many Tory chums and cronies).
And far from being ‘more efficient’, outsourcing consistently results in a worse service, with companies cutting costs, slashing workers’ wages, and increasing prices, all in order to squeeze out the maximum amount of profit. The Chartwells food parcel fiasco is a graphic illustration of this, with £30 of taxpayers money resulting in £5 of scraps and meagre rations for impoverished children.
Yet again, this demonstrates why we must put an end to outsourcing, and instead bring all public services back in-house. We cannot trust private parasites with responsibility for feeding hungry children, or for meeting any of society’s needs.
Under public pressure, we are now seeing another Tory U-turn. Due to the huge public outcry and outrage, the government has been forced to move back to providing vouchers, and away from relying on outsourced food parcels.
However, even this has its limitations. For starters, Chartwells has already pocketed a huge amount of public funds.
Most importantly, these vouchers are still just a sticking plaster over a bleeding wound. They do nothing to solve the ever-worsening crisis of food poverty in the UK. Instead, they just boost the profits of the big supermarket chains where these vouchers will be spent.
As with Universal Credit, such welfare payments effectively act as a subsidy to big businesses and unscrupulous landlords, who force families to go hungry by paying poverty wages to working-class parents and charging eye-watering rents.
Instead of handing over public money to the capitalists in this way, the major supermarket chains and other key levers of the economy should be put under public ownership and workers’ control, to be run for the benefit of society, not the bosses’ profits. This would solve the problem of food poverty once and for all.