Often, when bad things happen, we want to believe that this is an isolated error that can be easily rectified. More often, though, this error is systemic: the outcome of a system structured to do exactly this – like the UK school meal fiasco.


First published in January 2021.


For those of you who have not been following the school meal scandal, the UK government, after resisting doing anything for poor children missing school meals due to lockdown, finally contracted out free school meals to a bunch of private companies.

These companies are supposed to provide £30 worth of food per week, but according to many estimates are providing a fraction of that (closer to £5).

Why they could not just give food vouchers or direct cash is another question.

After huge amounts of people and social media pressure, and copious coverage in the media, the meals are to be replaced with direct vouchers. Congratulations to all who worked so hard, starting with Jack Monroe, Marcus Rashford, and Mother Lisa.

But the systemic aspects still remain: this HUGE amount of visibility pressure was required to get the government to do the most basic task of feeding hungry/poor kids. The problem of their designing all policy to increase private profit rather than public benefit remains.

This is added to a long list of privatisation scandals where the UK government has contracted out freight, PPE, testing, multiple Covid contracts worth billions of pounds, with very patchy delivery.

My point here is that these are not mistakes. They are systemic.

The UK government’s main role in this economic system is to funnel public money to private profits. Privatisation is a core way this happens. We wrote about it in this article with Dr Kate Bayliss and Dr Giulio Mattioli on electricity, water, and bus transport.

Inequality, poverty and the privatization of essential services: A ‘systems of provision’ study of water, energy and local buses in the UK - Kate Bayliss, Giulio Mattioli, Julia Steinberger, 2020
This paper is concerned with the distributional effects of the deregulation and privatization of essential services in Britain since the 1980s, based on a cross...

Our point is that the real purpose of this system (as opposed to the narrative it uses to justify itself) is rent extraction by the private companies: not citizen access to affordable, sustainable, and quality services.

Schematic depicting the agents and relations studied through Systems of Provision (SoP). | Inequality, poverty and the privatization of essential services

This problem is systemic in all aspects of the UK government’s operation. This means that we, as citizens, can’t just criticize each “error” as it arises, and hope that criticism will act as a error-correcting mechanism.

It means that we have to attack the core of the Tory programme of privatization, and demand a return to a state which uses public capacity to work for the public’s benefit through public institutions. This is our only avenue forward.

Sadly, I am not sure that Keir Starmer’s new economic policies go at all in this direction, despite a large fraction of Labour (myself included) wanting massive public investment in public services, including a Green New Deal.

Not sure where to go from here, and I know it might sound obvious, but private profiteering from public expenses is a feature, not a bug for this government. They cannot be shamed into acting in the public benefit, since that is not at all their purpose.🔷




Professor Julia K. Steinberger, Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Lausanne. She studies the relationships between the use of resources and performance of societies.


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[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 13 January 2021 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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