Friday, April 1

School meals (again)

Depending on which news service you consult, the Government (or rather Saint Tone of Sedgefield - may he reap the rewards he so richly deserves) has allocated £280 million to improving the quality of school meals.

However, as with all announcements made by this Government, the headline figure must be carefully dissected for the truth.

First off, the sum to be spent is over 3 years (so that puts things into perspective – it will run out long before the next election) with no commitment that it will be continued on beyond the 3 year period. An opportunity to valiantly renew the funding and save the children etc. etc. and make political capital for the NEXT election.

Secondly, the sum of £60 million is being allocated to “a School Food Trust to advise schools - and parents - on healthier meals”. So of the initial £280 million, fully 21.4% is being skimmed off immediately on a Governmental Department to interfere in the running of the scheme. I would suspect that this will be flung together - after all, it is vitally important to be seen to be doing SOMETHING. It doesn’t matter that what is being done is ultimately useless. Excuses can be wheeled out if the wheels come off the thing and “It will take some time for results to filter down, while these Civil Servants cannot be criticised in doing a difficult job under arduous circumstances” etc. And Saint Tone (also the patron saint of Teflon) can claim more resources (i.e. our money, his Civil Servants and co-incidentally Labour Voters who got their jobs due to Saint Tone) will solve the problem. More funding? I think not – rather a raid on the remaining £220 million.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure that they will need plenty of paperwork and directives to justify their existence. They can happily produce masses of instructions to be issued to schools and masses of forms to ensure their diktats are carried out, which will need to be checked, collated and processed. The individual schools will need to employ someone to complete forms, inspect kitchens and ingredients, train staff in administration tasks etc. to satisfy this Civil Service Department.

It could be done under Local Authority control but again I am wary of the efficiency of the Councils on this point. I live in the Peoples Democratic Republic of North Tyneside. Their efficiency is improving - but only because the arrogant labour Party Councillors, when they heard that an elected Mayor was being imposed, assumed that it would be a Labour Mayor so they voted and assigned quite sweeping powers to the new position. Place all the power in the safe hands of a Labour man and allocate him dictatorial powers was their plan. They had been in power continuously for 26 years so it was a assumed to be a safe assumption. How I howled with laughter when a Conservative Mayor was elected! The authority has gone from a deficit of £26 million (with zero reserves) to a surplus and a sensible level of reserves under her 3 year stewardship. I received a percentage pay rise larger than the percentage council tax rise this year for the first time in 10 years I have lived there … and the company I work for flings pay rises around like an armless Scotsman flings around manhole covers. But I digress.

It might be sensible for the Authority to appoint two or three nutritionists and support staff (inspectors, clerks and any other APPROPRIATE personnel) to look after a number of schools but once again, even with the best wil in the world, these people will have to be recruited, accommodated, provided with equipment, desks etc. trained and paid and will otherwise consume part of the £220 million allocated to the improvement in meals. I wonder what their salaries would be? Certainly if “Market forces” apply (that is, if some skill is rare, you need to pay more to attract the skill level needed) and all councils in this scenario will be competing to recruit the same type of staff, then the salaries will be higher than might otherwise be expected.

I accept that the cooks will need training and paid overtime and kitchens re-equipped but these costs should not be terribly high. And I also believe that people at the sharp end like the “Dinner Ladies” actually want to do a good job. After all, they are seeing the customer every day, aren’t concerned with the politics of the thing, and aren’t concerned with guarding their own backsides and being seen to be politically correct. I’d very much suspect that they want to produce good food to a standard they and their own kids would be happy to eat.

So how much of the cash promised will actually end up on the plates of the kids? I’d suspect a very small percentage of the original, fine sounding £280 Million. Don’t hold your breath but watch this space, as they say.

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