Firstly, I must say that as a former teacher and having grown up in a council house with a single-parent family, I’m fully aware of the terrible trap of food poverty – and the very real social injustice it represents. "And I know that for many of the 1806 children (at the last count) who are eligible for free school meals in Somerton and Frome, they represent not just much-needed food but the ability to learn on an equal footing with others. So I approach all debates and legislative proposals on this topic with enormous seriousness.
But, to be clear, the debate on Wednesday was not on substantive legislation designed to make a difference to the lives of vulnerable children, but was an Opposition Day motion. These are purely symbolic and designed to signal political differences. Of course, that’s not a criticism as such – both parties do the same when in opposition – but a recognition of the fact that this was about signalling more than providing targeted assistance.
Of course, when schools were forced to close at the inception of the Covid pandemic, the Government did agree to roll-over the provision of free school meals to eligible families from March to September – and over £380 million worth of vouchers were redeemed in supermarkets across that period. Given that children were not at school – and it was then unclear when they would be able to return - it was absolutely right to provide that consistency at a time when families needed as much certainty as possible. Everyone’s ability to plan ahead has been hugely compromised by the pandemic, and where the Government is able to provide a binding ligament of certainty, it should, of course, do so. With children now back at school, those eligible for FSMs (free school meals) are once again receiving them in their proper setting.
While I do believe that the earlier extension was essential, I don’t believe that extending it still further is the best way to combat, or even significantly ameliorate (the very real problem of) food poverty and all of the negative consequences that flow from that. Northumbria University and Healthy Living UK conducted a recent study which suggested that the usual benefits to the most vulnerable children that come from FSMs were significantly reduced by substituting the voucher scheme for the usual in-school delivery. According to this study, 35% of eligible children skipped a meal during the period of the voucher scheme, with 45% eating fruit less than twice a week and consuming an average of ½ a portion of vegetables a day. So if an extension of the voucher scheme is not the answer, what is?
In the motion this week, there was no alternative proposed as to how this scheme could be improved to help those who need it most. Any direct alternative would need to be a mix of cooked meals delivered in schools that remain open outside of term-time or some form of food parcel. But who would be responsible for the cost and distribution of cooked meals or food parcels? How would the additional costs of staffing be covered? Will teachers and/or support staff be required in school during the holidays? How easy will it be to renegotiate staff contracts?
The motion before the House simply called for a blanket extension of the existing scheme to last until Easter next year and very possibly beyond. That the state should provide free meals for millions of children for 365 days a year. And, of course, I understand (and share) the urgent moral impulse to provide support to those children in need - but the question is how best to do so. I don’t believe what was proposed is the best way to achieve the improvements every right-thinking person would want.
There are two alternatives. One is to continue (and extend, as we’ve been seeing this week) support through other avenues. An extra £9.3 billion has been put into Universal Credit to support exactly those most in need (with the average household receiving an increase of £1,040, plus an additional £53 billion which has been spent on Furlough (to the end of October Half Term). Also, local authorities have received an extra £63 million to get food to those most in need – an initiative praised by the Trussell Trust.
And, again this week, we're seeing more support delivered through the changing of thresholds within the furlough scheme and new grants for businesses in areas affected by local lockdowns.
Alongside this, I do think it may be worth looking at how the Department for Education’s Holiday Activities and Food programme (which ran this summer) could be expanded in order to provide more carefully targeted support where gaps in provision exist, and I will be in touch with Ministers in the coming days to make that case and see what can be done.
So the question is not whether we should provide help, but how we ensure that help is actually effective. That’s the question on which I’ll continue to focus in the coming days.