This week, the UK government has become embroiled in yet another scandal involving the provision of free school meals for vulnerable kids. The scheme, which has historically helped millions of working-class children and their families, was recently reinstated following a high-profile campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford.
However, the reinstatement of free school meals has not taken the traditional form of monetary vouchers. Following agitation from Tory MPs and the media, who engaged in a sustained campaign of demonisation against working-class parents, loudly and falsely claiming that food vouchers were being spent on everything from booze and fags to crack cocaine, the government has resorted to a system of hampers supplied to schools by a private contractor.
It quickly became apparent that the hampers, meant to last up to ten days and amount to a value of £30, contained barely more than £5 worth of poor quality, basic foodstuffs. This is not to mention that the since the company supplying the hampers will have been shopping at wholesale prices, the total cost of the hamper is likely have been considerably less.
So where did the millions of pounds of public money go? What black hole did it disappear into before such pittance was able to reach the mouths of the hungry children for whom it was earmarked? There is a word for when a government hands out lucrative public contracts to its close network of associates, only for those same associates to pocket the vast majority of the sums received: corruption.
It is hardly ever used to describe practices in Britain. It is the hallmark behaviour of the worst kind of tinpot, failed states. When the government’s ability to raise taxes is translated into a transfer of wealth from the population at large to a network of clients, associates, and family members, we are witnessing the end of the market economy as we know it and the start of something much worse.
In the free school meals scandal, the company that is criticised is Chartwells. Chartwells is part of Compass Group, a British-based multinational which still managed to make £582 million in profit during the pandemic – although this was well down from £1.85 billion profit in 2019. Compass Group is an organisation with a history of questionable practices. In 2005, members of staff were found guilty of misconduct in bidding processes to feed UN Peacekeepers across Africa & the Middle East. The company was also implicated in the 2013 horse meat scandal, in which horse DNA was found in burgers fed to schoolchildren in Ireland.
Consider how that would be reported in any other country. Now, consider this. The former Compass chairman Paul Walsh was a Conservative donor and a member of David Cameron’s business advisory group. His replacement last year, Ian Meakins, was chairman at Alliance UniChem when ex-Tory MP Kenneth Clarke was a non-executive director. The revolving door between big business and the Conservative Party means that decisions about how public services are provided, and by whom, are often taken a long way away from public scrutiny. By the time the scandal hits, it is all perfectly legal.
The entire British economy is geared up for this kind of state-sponsored patronage; forty years of neoliberalism have made it reliant on endless outsourcing and contracting in every department of the public sector. The theory that the private sector, and the profit incentive, automatically leads to a more efficient service has been continuously disproven throughout this crisis and before. In fact, the ‘efficiency savings’ made by private contractors often takes the form of legalised theft. Not only has it resulted in a great plunder of public wealth, but it has left the British state uniquely ill-equipped to deal with shocks like the current public health crisis. The infrastructure is simply not there – it was packed up and sold off years ago, and now we are all paying the price.
It is unlikely that the people perpetrating these outrages see themselves as villains. Decades of sneering derision levelled at the lives and habits of ordinary working-class people has created an ideological climate whereby it is almost common sense that low-income parents cannot be trusted to take simple decisions involving how to spend their money and feed their children. Alongside the neoliberal attack on the state, we are now seeing the results of a longstanding campaign against the collective dignity of ordinary people. When our rulers are routinely applauded for their callous treatment of a so-called ‘underclass’, it allows them to frame their abdications of duty in terms of tough moral leadership.
The government and their friends in big business and the press can wrap this scandal up in all the Thatcherite private sector idolatry they want: corruption by any other name still stinks.