Notes From the Margins…

Jelly on a (Tory) Plate

  • January 12, 2021
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Some readers may be ancient enough to remember certain mathematics textbooks that asked you to calculate your weekly grocery bills, or how long it would take four men to dig a hole in road.  I was reminded of these exercises today, when I saw the following tweet from @RoadsideMum about the package she had received as part of the government’s Free School Meal program for children unable to go to school:

A lot of people have been making similar calculations in response to this tweet,  and many have posted photographs of their own parcels to point out the discrepancy between the  contents of these parcels and what they might have bought if they had been issued with vouchers instead.   Marcus Rashford, whose campaigning efforts last year dragged a reluctant government into extending the free school meals voucher scheme, has described these parcels as ‘not good enough’, and even the government now says that these parcels breach its own guidelines.

We don’t know how the contents of these parcels were decided,  but the free school meals scheme is overseen by Chartwells, a catering company with extensive experience of schools catering, which prides itself on ‘engaging with young impressionable customers and developing a positive, healthy relationship around food.’ Last March Chartwells was heavily criticised for providing school meals to Bristol schools that consisted ‘mostly of snack bars, crisps and a slab of butter’, as part of its  £11-a-week-per-pupil contract with Bristol County Council.

Chartwells is a subsidiary of the £200 billion a year Compass Group, the largest catering company in the world.  Its previous director was Paul Walsh, a former member of David Cameron’s business advisory group. Before joining Compass in 2014, the big game hunting Walsh was also the CEO of the drinks giant Diageo. In 2010 Walsh criticised what he regarded as high levels of corporation tax under Labour.

Even after the Coalition reduced corporation tax in 2011,  Walsh continued to complain that levels were too high and threatened to move Diageo’s business abroad.  Yet in 2015 Walsh was one of the 150 business leaders who wrote an open letter praising the coalition’s economic record and urging the public to vote Tory.

The Compass Group’s shareholders also include the Tory peer Michael Bishop, now Lord Glendonbrook, former owner of BMI, whose personal worth is estimated at £280 million.

With these connections, it isn’t surprising that Chartwells got the contract for a program that the government had not wanted to implement in the first place.  Throughout the pandemic the government has consistently channelled procurement contracts to insiders, cronies and supporters, regardless of they offered the best service or value for money.

Even if we accept that Chartwells is a company with sufficient experience and expertise in school meals provision to justify its contract, its previous record should have flagged up the need for some form of oversight and local authority intervention in the implementation of the scheme.

Yet none of this appears to have been forthcoming.  Instead we find – once again – a web of connections that bind this incompetent, callous government and a coterie of wealthy Tory insiders, to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

As those old textbooks might have asked: if a family gets £5.22 instead of a  £30 food voucher, how much money does a Tory-connected company make?

We don’t know the exact answer, but we shouldn’t even have to ask the question.  And this calculation raises another question that is political and moral rather than mathematical.  Why did we vote for a Tory government that had to be dragged into providing free school meals in the first place, and which then appears to have allowed what should have been a public service – feeding hungry children trapped at home – to become yet another profit-making opportunity?




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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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