Contrary to the campaign being spread across social media by political opponents, the Conservative Party has not voted to take free school meals from children. Supporting vulnerable children, families and individuals has been at the heart of what the Government has been doing throughout the pandemic.
Although the intentions of the campaign being led by Marcus Rashford are honourable, it is important to remember that the vote to which you refer was not on a motion which would have had any substantive effect. Rather, it was the latest in a series of Opposition Day motions engineered by the Labour Party to sound deliberatively emotive and inflammatory, but which misunderstand the substance of the issue at hand.
This Government has expanded the eligibility for free school meals to more children than any other Government in over fifty years. We now offer 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.
Free school meals are focused on providing a hot meal during the school day, which 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.
Nobody believes that hungry children should not be fed, or that the Government does not have a role to play in this; we simply disagree on the best way of delivering this aim. We must target support to those that need it most and make sure that those families and children that need support can get it. The Government has established the £63m local authority welfare assistance fund to provide essential food and other items to those in need. The fund will be active over this half-term holiday; Shropshire Council has been provided with £311,899.69. They have confirmed that everybody in the county who needs help during this October half term will be able to get the assistance they need. All children in Shropshire who are in receipt of free school meals will receive help throughout the entire Christmas holiday period.
Families must have a robust safety net, which can help them cope with the extra pressures of coronavirus. At the start of the pandemic, key benefits including Universal Credit were boosted by over £1,000 per year for 12 months, part of a £9.3bn increase to the welfare safety net. Universal Credit has proven effective during the crises, as an efficient means of delivering funds directly into claimants’ bank accounts.
While there has been considerable coverage of what Parliament did not agree, there has been less attention to what it did agree and what I supported. Following the debate, MPs backed the existing new package of support measures for families which is worth billions on top of Free School Meals. Parliament endorsed ongoing activities to help the most vulnerable children in society.
As the needs of vulnerable people have changed during the pandemic, so has the support available. The day after this debate, which carried no weight, new job support measures were announced. As winter approaches, I expect colleagues to continue in this spirit to support the most vulnerable children in a range of ways.
The Government’s record on this issue is one to be proud of and I hope that the above explains why I voted in the way I did. As yet, I have not received any correspondence from constituents who are unable to feed their children over half term and, when I visited them this week, the staff at the Whitchurch Food Bank confirmed that they were not aware of any such cases either. Nevertheless, if you are aware of any local families who would benefit from support over the half term holiday, I would encourage you to get them to contact my office so that I can help to ensure that they receive the help that they need.