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Opinion

Outsourcing free school meals is not the answer to feeding hungry children

Why on earth does it take a 23-year-old professional footballer to bring an incredible social inequity into focus and forcing change at the top of government? Again

We can’t rely on Marcus Rashford to do it all himself.

When the free lunch scandal began to unfold last week, it was largely on social media. The photos of disgracefully scant provisions (including, in one, mostly just bottles of water and half a pepper) brought understandable anger. How could what was clearly just a couple of pounds worth of food be billed at £30? After Rashford got involved, the Government paid attention.

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There was a question in Parliament, with Labour leader Keir Starmer thanking the Manchester United star for bringing the issue to wider notice. Then Rashford revealed he’d spoken to Boris Johnson and received a commitment from the PM to correct the things that had gone wrong.

This is good. But why on earth does it take a 23-year-old professional footballer to bring an incredible social inequity into focus and forcing change at the top of government? Again.

And why should he have to? Why can’t the Government see the problem first time, learn from it and fix it? This goes beyond free school meals. The meals, and the fight to provide them at all for the poorest children, is the symbolic shock that has brought us here.

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A mother will know better how to make £30 work for food for her family than a private company, especially a company with shareholders keen to see profits maximised.

The greater issue is one of outsourcing – that belief that business and commerce know best in everything. And that everything can be regulated by market forces, meaning there is an equilibrium so services are provided without the pesky influence of government, national or local, and that waste will be sliced off, allowing incredible efficiency.

This rationale has been hanging on a shoogly peg for some time. Covid has dropped it among the rubbish on the floor.

The Westminster government spent £22bn on the test and trace programme. The BMA described it as “aggressive outsourcing”. Many of the contracts involved were awarded without due diligence. The entire country can see it hasn’t worked effectively. Boris Johnson, in a rare moment of candour, admitted that there were “some lessons to be learned” over his government’s handling of the crisis. Whether this means the outsourcing feeding frenzy will abate is not clear.

The reason for the need for outsourcing is clear, though. If vital services and resources are stripped, as they were during the austerity years, vacuums will be left at local and national levels. And if things need done, private companies will be parachuted in. The Government might argue they had no choice. In the short-term, this is true. But it’s their fault for doing EVERYTHING in the short-term.

There is a wider ideological issue in play. The Government does not seem to believe there are really poor people in Britain. Unless Marcus Rashford tells them. And even then, they don’t seem to believe certain people should have agency in their own lives to be given the money they need and to spend as they see fit. A mother will know better how to make £30 work for food for her family than a private company, especially a company with shareholders keen to see profits maximised.

There has to be a complete change to how government serves us. Local authorities should be helped and encouraged to hire workers to take care of tasks that they’ve had to outsource. And if outsourcing is to happen, better, transparent tendering is essential. Find a place in it for social enterprises that don’t force a race to the bottom. Build with the future, rather than shareholders, in mind.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue 

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