The columnists’ thin gruel: How client journalism helped to make the school meals scandal happen

For years, the British media has been buying the government's rhetoric on poverty wholesale and selling it back to the rest of us. It's less filling than a free school meal food parcel.

I had thought Sir Keir Starmer was Leader of the Opposition and a 58-year-old former human rights lawyer and Director of Public Prosecutions. I was wrong. It turns out he’s a comically naive bunny rabbit in a children’s cartoon. Witness his response to the growing realisation that the private contractors engaged to supply free school meal packs are putting tuna in money bags, sending half a pepper and a scrap of carrot, and declaring the pitiful mess adequate to feed children for days:

“Where is the money going?” Sir Keir cries as though he’s Bobby Ewing walking out of the shower having dreamt the entirety of the Blair years. Starmer is so desperate to seem both ‘competent’ and ‘compassionate’ that he’ll wave his arms around like one of those novelty inflatables that advertise car dealerships while utterly neglecting to acknowledge any of the systematic failings.

That’s not surprising though once you dive into the recent history of the British press on the topic of free school meals. Before Marcus Rashford slotted shot after shot past the lumbering Sunday League team that passes for a Cabinet, the columnists and commentators had spent a few years sneering at radical policy proposals on free school means, predominantly because Jeremy Corbyn was anywhere near them.

Even after Rashford’s work, The Times columnist (and former chief speechwriter for David Cameron), Clare Foges, penned a piece in December that argued for vouchers over money as ‘taxpayers’ — used here as a synonym for censorious right-wingers — are uncomfortable with what the poor might spend the cash on. She wrote:

This is a debate that doesn’t do nuance, as we saw during the furore over free school meals earlier this year. You are either on the side of those who think the problem is families failing to budget, cook for and feed their children properly, or those who think the problem is a Tory government too tight-fisted to help out. If we could only accept that there are grains of truth in these opposing arguments, we might come to a solution that would actually work for the children who are hungry…

…Though it is a gross misrepresentation to suggest that most of the poorest parents are merrily splashing their cash on satellite TV subscriptions and not on meals, it is unhelpful to pretend that all budget their money in a sensible way. It is not unreasonable for taxpayers to feel concern about a rising benefits bill and the culture of dependence this can create. Such feelings are likely to become more acute in the years ahead, as those on middle incomes are inevitably asked to pay more in tax to pick up the eye-watering Covid-19 bill that has been run-up this year.

We need, in short, a solution that will help to fill empty stomachs while at the same time being politically palatable to Middle England; something that will please both Marcus Rashford and the Taxpayers’ Alliance. For this, ministers should look at a compassionate but controversial idea. They should maintain the £20-a-week Covid-19 uplift to universal credit that is due to expire in April but they should start to give a proportion of UC money in food vouchers. Raise the idea of vouchers and there are some who will look at you as though you’ve just said workhouses were a jolly good thing. The very idea of giving vouchers instead of cash is cast as inhuman, cruel, a way of compounding the misery of poverty. If a voucher scheme were to displace cash benefits entirely this would be a fair criticism but my suggestion is that a proportion of the money should be paid in vouchers. Recipients would still have a degree of freedom to spend on clothes, alcohol or whatever else they wish, but a chunk of the money would only be redeemable to spend on food.

She published that piece on December 28 and no doubt felt very compassionate and reasonable as she tapped away at it on Boxing Day, surrounded by the abundance of her own lifestyle. “Recipients would still have a degree of freedom,” she writes as though that is a very generous thought to apply to the ne'er-do-wells she has in mind. Surely they’ll love vouchers, right? They’ll fit so well in their tracksuits or whatever it is those people wear [subs to check].

Foges makes a point of noting that some of the free school meals provision put in place following Rashford’s campaign was delivered through vouchers, but she’s carefully choosing her facts there — those vouchers were on top of existing benefits and allowed recipients to spend them at a range of retailers on a range of items. But the implication of Foges’ plan is that people who need help can’t be trusted to use it properly and must be kept in a rat-run designed by policymakers.

You could reasonably say, “Well, The Times is on the right but it’s not fair to roll your eyes at the whole of the British print media.” My reply is… look at this from Observer columnist and Chief Leader Writer, Sonia Sodha:

The leader she linked to back in April 2017 was an absolutely prime piece of bothsides-ism which screamed:

Corbyn’s flagship education policy – pledging to spend almost £1bn on providing free school lunches for all primary school children – appears far less objectionable. But it fares little better on the tests that matter. The principle of free and universal public services rightly sits at the heart of our NHS and state school system. But universalism is expensive and should be reserved for when it is clear that providing two-tier, means-tested services would erode quality and levels of provision and create harmful social stigma.

No such argument exists for school lunches: there is no evidence that it would be a cost-effective way of boosting nutrition and attainment for pupils from poor backgrounds.

This is the mechanistic, technocratic thinking that really took flight under Thatcher, Major and Blair. In Tower Hamlets where, until recently, my step-daughter went to school, every Primary School pupil receives a free school lunch regardless of their social or economic background. The Observer decried that idea as “expensive” (checked the Trident bill recently?) and focused entirely on whether it is “cost-effective”. But there are other factors you can consider.

When all pupils get a free school meal, there is no stigma about doing so. There is no need for logistics that divide children in dining halls between those who have the money to pay and those who don’t. Everyone has the same experience and that has a value that transcends mere cost-effectiveness. That it also means every child is guaranteed a hot meal when they’re in school is obviously the greatest benefit, but the social upside for the community shouldn’t be discounted.

Still, Sonia Sodha (2021) is pushing a very different line to Sonia Sodha (2017). Now she rails against the government’s political incompetence and cruelty:

Remaining in 2017, when Labour’s policy of expanding free school meal provision was so maddening to so many of the commentariat, I want to take a look at what The Daily Telegraph was saying. Warning: Contains nuts. Also writing in April 2017, Constance Watson — now plying her trade at The Catholic Herald — wrote:

Teachers in the state system are provided with names of students on Free School Meals. They then know that these children may benefit from a bit more attention, because they’re less likely to have their own bedroom, complete with a desk to do their homework on. Their parents probably don’t have disposable income to take them on culturally enriching jollies.  Removing this key indicator, as Corbyn proposes, means that teachers may miss the opportunity to identify their needs and respond accordingly.

While Mr Corbyn’s Robin Hood fantasies of stealing to the rich to give to the poor are all well and good, they will not confront the wider problems facing the state education system, nor will they increase the likelihood of the poorest members of our society attaining academic parity.

If anything, penalising the private sector threatens to result in more parents taking their children out of fee-paying schools and placing them in the state system, thus increasing the burdens on state schools and further perpetuating the problem. Investing in the state system should involve cutting class sizes, or channelling funds into quality teaching and engaging syllabuses. Not, as Mr Corbyn suggests, dishing up the gruel.

Imagine believing that free school meal eligibility is the only way to identify children in need of additional support or that suggesting more children should be eligible for a free school meal is “dishing up the gruel”. Ideology is one helluva drug and to write for The Daily Telegraph you must be willing to freebase it.

Surely though, the Telegraph view must have substantially shifted since then, right? No.

In October, as Rashford was raising the immediate threat of severe food poverty over Christmas, the Telegraph’s comment section ran a piece by Jill Kirby headlined: “The conservative case against Marcus Rashford's school meals plan”, presumably after the original headline — “Fuck the poor, let the feckless shits starve!” — was rejected as “a little on the nose”.

Still, the article’s lede hammered home the point: “Ministers are failing to make the principled argument for individual responsibility and self-sufficiency.” Yes. I agree. Poor families should take individual responsibility for a devastating pandemic, the government’s brutal Universal Credit system, and the economy diving into the toilet as if it were Renton going swimming in the shitty toilet.

Kirby wrote, with all the warmth of a python in a chiller cabinet, that:

There is a Conservative case against Rashford’s proposals, and it starts with a simple question: why should parents suddenly no longer be responsible for feeding their children during the holidays? This is not a straightforward matter of starving children too poor to afford food, as much of social media might have it. It is a complex area that covers not only children who are fed too little but also the countless others eating too much of the wrong thing. Too many parents seem to have no idea of what constitutes healthy eating. Isn’t the danger that further stripping them of responsibility will make that problem worse?

Her solution is to throw the poor on the mercy of “the community and voluntary groups”. Even after he slunk out of Downing Street, whistling as he went, David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ continues to provide cover for the Conservative’s true belief, “Why the fuck should I have to pay to help other people?”

Across the narrow political spectrum of British newspapers — from barely centre-left to extremely hard-right — the notion that poverty is a moral failing, the result of having not tried hard enough is repeatedly pushed. Column after column asserting — with no real evidence — that the poor can’t cook, won’t cook, and will, in fact, spend any help on booze, fags and “flatscreen TVs” (there is no other kind now) has been a boon to governments of all colours and combinations who’ve never met an outsourcing firm they couldn’t shovel cash towards.

Columnists are now running around in high dudgeon now about the awful food being foisted on the vulnerable by these companies is but they’ll never admit their own role in leading us to this situation. Villainising the most vulnerable and framing them as feckless and foolish has given politicians licence to leave them to suffer. The newspapers will never learn that lesson because most people writing them assume they’ll never need the help.