How the “Financially competent” Tories turned £30 for hungry children into THIS

Coronavirus has come to reveal the inequality in our society in numerous ways. One of the most pressing consequences is the increase in levels of poverty which have been exacerbated through the mass redundancies and inadequate levels of benefits available to support people who have lost their jobs.

With schools being shut to the majority of students, the government came under fire last year for their opposition to the Labour motion to continue the free school meals program during the summer holidays, with every single one of Worcestershire’s 7 Conservative MP’s voting against the continuation of the scheme. The campaign against this decision was led on many fronts but a large amount of credit goes towards footballer Marcus Rashford, whose tireless campaigning against child food poverty resulted in another U-turn by Boris Johnson.

In September the schools reopened, spreading the virus further and being a contributing factor to another national lockdown, with pressure from the teaching unions forcing the government to close the schools. As a result, children eligible for free school meals are still entitled to receive this support; however the government have altered the scheme so that provision no longer comes in the form of a voucher but through parcels provided by the Chartwell group, who charge the government £30 per child, per week.

Photos have been circulating online featuring vegetables which are cut in half, single slices of cheese to last a child a week and some families being given bottles of water. Below is what one Worcestershire family was expected to feed three children on:

The scandal is not just the total failure to provide an adequate volume of food with balanced nutrition, it’s the fact that the government has been charged £30 by Chartwell’s for what is less that £5 worth of food if we take into account the fact they will have bought the items in bulk, reducing the overheads for production.

Samantha Charles a Labour councillor in Malvern summed it up perfectly in a statement to the Malvern Gazette:

“It looks like yet another case of the government helping its corporate friends become parasites of the pandemic, by outsourcing food hampers at a cost of £30 to the taxpayer, to provide no more than £5 of food to the child. Hunger is being used as a financial opportunity. Squeezing extra profit from hungry kids must stop… Parents should be given the full amount to spend on feeding their children.”

So who are Chartwells? They’re a primary school catering company owned by the Compass Group. The former chair of the Compass group was Paul Walsh, who is a Conservative party donor and backed David Cameron for Prime Minister in 2015. The current boss of the Compass Group is a man named Dominic Blakemore, who in 2018 was paid a salary of £4.6 Million—that’s 260 times the average catering staff wage.

So where is the rest of the money? The Tories have an annoying and expensive habit of handing contracts to private companies owned and operated by their friends and donors, as seen through the billions of pounds of taxpayer money handed to Serco for a totally useless track-and-trace system. The taxes which we pay into the system in the hope that they will be redistributed to support those in need has increasingly been directed to these corporations and individuals, with the victims of this being those most in need, such as children on the free school meals programme.

In regards to the local situation in Worcestershire, a County Councillor made this statement regarding the local authorities proposals to combat child food poverty over the Christmas holidays:

Schools should provide meal options for all pupils who are in school, including vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. Meals should be available free of charge to all infant pupils and those pupils who meet the benefits-related free school meals eligibility criteria.

Under normal circumstances, schools do not provide free school meals to eligible children who are not in school. But during the national lockdown, the government expect schools to continue supporting children eligible for benefits-related free school meals who are at home during term time.

The DfE are strongly encouraging schools to work with their school catering team or food provider to provide food parcels to eligible free school meal pupils who are at home. Where school kitchens are open this should be the approach taken by schools. The steps that schools are taking during this national lockdown period will depend on local circumstances but include:-

providing food parcels through the school catering team or food provider

providing vouchers for a local shop or supermarket

– using the Department for Education’s national voucher scheme.

Schools also have access to the voucher scheme used throughout the holidays so can use this and get recharged by the Local Authority.  All these steps will ensure no child goes without.”

Worcestershire County Council allocated a budget of £3 a day for a child on free school meals totalling £15 a week for lunches. In contrast, Hereford County Council were more generous with £7.72 per child a day being pledged over the Christmas period.

In 2017 national Government data showed that almost 1 in 4 Worcester children are living in poverty, with the current figure almost certain to have gone up due to the pandemic and economic insecurity. This equates to more than 4000 children, as calculated by the Worcester News.

The argument often made is “don’t have children if you can’t afford them” which totally fails to take into account the insecure nature of work with the pandemic plunging many into redundancy. Why should the children be made to suffer for the failure of our government to take decisive action, which in turn would have protected jobs and incomes? The furlough scheme only pays 80% of the average monthly income of that worker—outgoings such as rent and bills however remain at 100%; the poorest in society are being hit the hardest through no fault of their own.

Another position taken by many is “the government doesn’t have the money to pay everyone to stay home/provide free school meals”. When we look at the cost of the pandemic and what the government has put money into, what we see is a monumental transfer of wealth to the very richest. The failed track-and-trace scheme alone has cost the taxpayer £22 Billion. The money is there, the magic money tree is always available for the corporations and when MPs give themselves yet another unnecessary pay rise, but not for the children growing up in poverty—a poverty the government has created.

The free school meals parcels are not only a grotesque display of immorality but a total rip-off for the taxpayer. The government should urgently strip Chartwells and the other providers of this contract, return to the voucher scheme and trust parents and families to make their own decisions. The national government’s priorities are clear and to reiterate it again, their allegiance lies with their millionaire mates, not the people of this country.

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