Chartwells food parcel. Photo: @RoadsideMum / Twitter Chartwells food parcel. Photo: @RoadsideMum / Twitter

Profiting from underfeeding children living in poverty is the latest example of Tory contempt for the working class, argues Helen Rutherford-Gregory

Just when you think the bar can’t be set any lower for this Tory government, it turns out they’re letting private companies profit off starving children. Having resisted providing food for vulnerable children until they were forced to u-turn by public pressure, they are now determined to not even do that properly.

During the first lockdown last April, I wrote about the chaos surrounding the shocking handling of the school meal vouchers by private profiteers Edenred. This time, they’re no longer giving vouchers but meal packages – which have been revealed to be worth far less than the £30 they’re supposed to.

Pictures emerged on social media, posted by parents of bizarre, of small hauls which include a few small apples, some squeezy yoghurts and one tin of beans (and in one case half a tomato and a quarter carrot) expected to last ten days, some parents commented that they’d be able to buy the equivalent for around a fiver in a supermarket.

#FreeSchoolMeals On the left £30 of food. On the right what private company Chartwells have supplied having been awarded a government contract to supply for £30 free school meals.

Utterly shameful profiteering off some of the country’s most disadvantaged kids!

— MunchBunch (@Munchbunch87) January 11, 2021

Tory cronyism

Chartwells, part of the Compass group and posting profits of £1.2bn a year, is paid £30 per parcel by the government. What are they doing with that £30 if the food is worth only £5 (and that’s at retail price)? Distribution, which shouldn’t be a cost shouldered by hungry children anyway, surely doesn’t cost £25 per parcel. The only explanation is that minimal amounts of food are being given out so the multi-billion pound company can make a substantial profit.

In typical fashion, the cronyism reeks. Former Chairman of Compass group, Paul Walsh, was previously part of a business advisory group to David Cameron. It’s reported that there was absolutely no tendering process, as happened with the school meals vouchers deal worth £234 million that Edenred failed on, yet profited hugely from.

Under emergency powers introduced for the Covid-19 crisis, the government grants these contracts as it sees fit. As with a number of contracts they’ve given out during the pandemic, including £12bn for a test and trace system that didn’t work, it’s clear that these are being awarded to their mates regardless of whether they are actually delivering.

Not that the government respected tender laws before these powers – as evidenced by none other than Edenred suing the government back in 2014 for awarding the childcare voucher provision to competitor Atos, king of outsourcing, without a tendering process. It’s a depraved picture I paint here of snouts in a public trough. No wonder there’s very little left at the other end of the scale.

This scandal is yet another example of why privatisation doesn’t work.

Contempt for the working class

Apart from the glaring difference between the provisions Chartwells is offering working class children living in poverty and the meals they provide for students at Eton, it has to be asked why the families are not being given vouchers instead. The typical response from Tory quarters is imagining that working class parents are likely to ‘misuse’ the vouchers – an argument which never made sense because the vouchers were limited to what products they applied to.

The contempt for the working class is clear. Whilst it might be that someone like Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson can send someone to the supermarket with an American Express and never think about the cost of their groceries, working class people are very aware of the cost of living and what is needed to feed their children.

This scandal, on top of the deliberate failure to provide laptops or internet for the poorest children to learn under lockdown and numerous other examples, shows with clarity that the Tories do not value the lives of working class children.

Where’s the Opposition?

Marcus Rashford, as deft with a tweet as he is with a football, has led the charge on this issue as he has been doing throughout the pandemic. He has raised the alarm and has already had a meeting with Chartwells and the Department for Education to try fix the problem.

As the Leader of the Opposition Starmer sits back in defence watching his team get hammered, happy with his inflated wage and picking his nails, Union Jack draped around his shoulders, Rashford grafts and runs forward with the ball yet again. It’s clear that we cannot rely on Starmer’s Labour to oppose the government and defend the working class.

This crisis has been studded with U-turns forced by public pressure and this is an issue where we must not, excuse yet another pun, drop the ball. This issue encompasses not only the basic need to eat, but the scandals of cronyism and corruption which have been utilised to profiteer from Covid throughout.

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