The recent Opposition Day motion on considering the extension of free school meals into holidays has received a great deal of coverage in recent days. I certainly understand the anger some are feeling, given the way that this has been portrayed by the media, reflecting a very effective campaign by the Labour party which has exploited the very good work done by Marcus Rashford to highlight the problem of child nutrition during school holidays.
There are sometimes moments in politics when you know that you have completely lost the argument already, and I think this reflects the fact that the government has not recognised the public mood on this issue, which Marcus’s campaign and the Labour Party has skillfully captured. The government will listen to this and is already indicating a different approach for the Christmas holidays. But I think I owe it to you to explain what the government was thinking when it voted down the proposal to extend the free school meal voucher scheme to cover the school holidays.
First of all, it is worth noting that the motion before the House on Wednesday 21st was a plain Opposition Day motion. It is simply not the case that the government voted to “stop children receiving free school meals”. It would not have changed the law. It would merely have instructed the government to think again about extending the scheme outside of term-time. However, I should be clear that children will still be receiving their free school meals during term time, contrary to claims from more extreme campaigners.
The Government had already allocated £1.4 million pounds to Essex County Council to help those who are struggling to afford food and essential supplies in the current year. This fund is to allow the County Council to target help to those in Essex who need it most and will cover meals for vulnerable children in the holidays along with other schemes to help everyone in Essex who are struggling.
And here is how Essex is using the money from the government – click on the hyperlink and read what they are doing –
Essex County Council announces support for families this half term
Alongside the extra funding for Councils, the Government have introduced an uplift of £20 a week to claimants of Universal Credit to ensure that those on the lowest incomes have extra assistance each week and not just during the school holidays. These are not the actions of a government that does not care about the least fortunate.
I was pleased that the Government implemented a voucher scheme for £15 a week for the most vulnerable children when they were unable to attend school due to COVID-19 and it was also right that this scheme was extended through the summer holidays. As schools are now back and meals are being provided in the usual way during term time, this scheme has ended, but it is also right that targeted help is still being given to the most vulnerable through Government funding to local Councils to target help those who most need it. This is a much larger package than just a week of meals and also helps the most vulnerable in Essex in other ways too. It is absolutely right that this support is sent through to the County Council so that they can decide where best to spend the money to help the most people in Essex. They can target the money more effectively than vouchers to spend in supermarkets, where there were no systems to control what the vouchers were actually spent on. Fresh thinking in government will build on this much better approach than voucher schemes.
As I have explained, it must be understood that the vote being referred to on Wednesday 21st was a vote at the end of an Opposition Day debate. These are allocated throughout the Parliamentary year to allow the Opposition to choose a topic to be debated in the House of Commons. While there are usually votes on these motions, they are not binding on the Government and do not secure any further action from the Government as they are only an expression of opinion. If the Opposition motion on free school meals had passed on Wednesday this would not have provided any meals for any children over the school holidays.
Having said that, the government has listened to how people have reacted. We certainly have plenty to learn about how to communicate our commitment to poorer families much better.