Contrary to what some people have been saying, I have not voted to take free school meals from children. Supporting vulnerable children, families and individuals has been at the heart of all I have done at this challenging time.
I am fully committed to free school meals, and this government has expanded the eligibility to more children than any other Government in over fifty years by offering a free school meal to every child in reception, year 1 and year 2, to those students from lower income eligible families in further education colleges and, most recently during the pandemic, to children of families on lower incomes with no recourse to public funds.
Wednesday night (21st October), Parliament voted on a Labour motion to extend the provision of free school meals outside term time for the rest of this year. This was an Opposition Day Motion – it was not something that was legislation or in any way legally binding.
There is no debate about the importance of supporting families during this time. This debate is not about whether or not to support families but how and what mechanisms should be used to do so.
The actions we took at the start of the pandemic reflected the extraordinary circumstances we found ourselves in – where the lines between education and home were blurred. Schools provided meals for eligible pupils whilst they learnt from home and so rightly, the Government temporarily extended Free School Meals over the school holidays.
While schools were restricted from opening to all pupils, additional support was given to families in recognition of the unprecedented levels of disruption and uncertainty for schools during this time.
But we are now in a different position with schools back open to all pupils. Provision for free school meals is ordinarily term time only and there is no requirement for schools to continue this provision during school holidays.
For over 100 years, free school meals have always focused on providing a hot meal during the school day as this helps children to learn. In the exceptional time when schools were closed to most students we continued to help them with either food packages or vouchers. Now schools are open, kitchens are open and children are again receiving free school meals at school, many schools are also providing parcels to those who are self isolating due to COVID-19.
Regarding school holidays, over the summer, our Holiday Activities and Food Programme helped up to 50,000 disadvantaged children with free healthy meals and enriching activities. For the past three years we have been running these programmes in various parts of the country. We know from these schemes that some families do need extra support especially in the long summer holiday, but it is not all the children on free school meals that need the support. Indeed even when free food and activities are offered the majority of eligible children on free school meals do not take them up.
I believe we must target support to those that need it most, and make sure that those families and children that need support can get it. This is why we have also established the £63 million local authority welfare assistance fund to provide essential food and other items to those that need it – a fund which will be active over this half-term holiday. This support is available to families in Redditch.
We also know that the best way to support families and children is through the welfare system, not through providing supermarket vouchers. This ensures that support is reliably delivered to those who need it most, when they need it most and in a way which allows families to spend it in the way which will help them best. The welfare system is set up to provide this direct support all the year round in a way in which schools are not. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have provided unprecedented support for those in need and boosted the Universal Credit standard allowance and Working Tax Credit by over £1,000 per year for the next 12 months. We also provided nearly £1 billion of additional support for renters affected by coronavirus, by increasing local housing allowance rates for housing benefit and universal credit. Through our income protection schemes we have so far protected 12 million jobs and people at a cost of almost £53 billion, which is testimony to the Government’s commitment to supporting those in need.
Despite persistent child policy throughout the years Labour were in power, free school meals were never extended to the weekends or the school holidays.
I of course recognise this is a challenging time for families across the country which is why the Government has also temporarily extended free school meal eligibly to include children from families who have no recourse to public funds and have a maximum household income of £28,200 for areas outside of London.
There is a legitimate debate about how to deliver welfare to low-income families. It is also quite understandable, and democratically healthy, for Labour to attack the government’s competence or its judgment. But yesterday’s debate focused on the motives and morals of Conservative MPs, with the very explicit observation that ‘Tories don’t care’. This hardly tallies with the actual experience of many of my colleagues who have worked as teachers or social workers, or worked for charities supporting children and families living in disadvantage. I regret the personal moral criticism because I think our democracy depends on the assumption of goodwill on the other side. Without this assumption, we’re not having a conversation at all, just an exchange of personal insults, and the public good is not served.
There will be support for children in receipt of Free School Meals in Redditch next week. Support Redditch, who I have worked closely with, will be delivering free food parcels to the most vulnerable households across Redditch from next week. Their food parcel scheme includes families in receipt of free school meals as well as other people in need for different reasons related to the impact of COVID-19. This service has been funded by grants from the Government, Worcestershire County Council and the Police and Crime Commissioner for West Mercia.
I will continue to do all I can to ensure families in Redditch get the support they need to be able to feed their own children through the support we have already made available.