Many people have contacted me about how we ensure that no child in our country goes hungry in the 21st Century. Let me say at the outset that I did not and never will vote to stop Free School Meals, especially as I was a recipient of Free School Meals while at school.
We need to ensure there is a system in place to help vulnerable children who are entitled to, and need, Free School Meals for the periods when they are away from school. I absolutely supported the Government’s decision to help these children during the summer. With children already off school for a long period many parents had been hit financially in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. I wrote to the Government at the time in support of this. The help in the summer was provided mostly in the form of vouchers, along with £9.3 billion increase in funding for Universal Credit which equates to over £1,000 per recipient household. Plus, of course, the unprecedented furlough scheme that cost £53 billion to help save jobs.
So, we need to come up with a scheme to help vulnerable children who may otherwise go hungry when schools are on holiday - without misrepresenting the facts.
Firstly, it is fundamentally wrong to say that Free School Meals was under, or is under, threat. Free Schools Meals, as I have already indicated, have been around for many years under Governments of different political parties. Even when we had unemployment of over 9 million we didn’t have Free School Meals in school holidays even though there was much less support than we have had during Covid-19.
What we all would like to happen, between now and the longer school holidays, is to have in place breakfast clubs and after school clubs. This will mean vulnerable children can be in a safe place and get the nutrition they need and deserve. Covid-19 and this Free School Meals campaign has actually highlighted a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed if we are to tackle the inequalities in our society.
During the summer, for expediency, the Government used a voucher system. I personally don’t like the voucher system. I know from my own experience the stigma and embarrassment that can come from their use.
We have a fantastic community spirit locally and we need to see this as an opportunity to find a solution that works all across the country involving the Government, local authorities, businesses, community groups and families addressing this problem together, then some lasting benefits might arise from this controversy.
Finally, let’s keep to the facts. Free School Meals are here to stay, but when schools are shut vouchers are not Free School Meals. We can do better than that.