70 MPs raise urgent concerns over free school meal voucher system

Urgent concerns have been raised over the free school meal voucher system that was supposed to have been rolled out across the country during the coronavirus crisis.

The government scheme is supposed to ensure that children do not go hungry while schools are closed, but Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh has highlighted ongoing problems.

In a letter to Gavin Williamson today signed by a cross-party group of 70 MPs, McDonagh says families without internet access have been excluded as it is an online system being operated.

There are also parents without email addresses, school with “incomplete or inaccurate” lists of email addresses for those eligible, and families who do not know about the system, the MP reports.

According to the MPs writing to the Education Secretary, there are a “significant number of schools” that have not seen this voucher system implemented at all.

They say that vouchers are only redeemable at specific stores – such as the expensive Waitrose and Marks and Spencer, rather than the cheaper options of Aldi or Lidl.

“Would it not be in the interest of the families, the supermarkets and the taxpayer if all stores were part of the scheme and not just the most expensive?” the MPs ask.

The government says schools should now be able to provide every eligible child with a weekly shopping voucher worth £15 to spend at supermarkets.

Below is the full text of the letter to Gavin Williamson.

Dear Secretary of State,

RE: Free School Meal Vouchers

We are writing regarding the free school meal voucher scheme operating throughout the coronavirus crisis lockdown.

For countless families in our constituencies, free school meals are an essential lifeline of support, ensuring that all children have a nutritious meal on the table. We are pleased that this support continues despite schools being closed. However, we are concerned that the logistics of this process has resulted in many of our most vulnerable families falling through the support net.

The scheme, operated by Edenred, is an online system, with vouchers emailed to parents who redeem the voucher at their local supermarket. But many of the most vulnerable families do not have internet access. For example, the 127,370 children trapped in temporary accommodation are often moved between accommodation and struggle to find a provider who will change homes as frequently as they do.

In addition, we have heard from parents who do not have an email address, from schools who have incomplete or inaccurate email lists for eligible parents, and even from families who do not know about the system in the first place. These difficulties are exacerbated given the reports of an increasing number of families in financial difficulty who are cancelling their broadband services to minimise their outgoings at this time of uncertainty.

We have also heard from a significant number of schools for whom this system is not yet even up and running.

What’s more, where it is in operation, the vouchers are only redeemable at specific stores, with Waitrose and Marks and Spencer eligible but stores including Aldi and Lidl not. Would it not be in the interest of the families, the supermarkets and the taxpayer if all stores were part of the scheme and not just the most expensive?

Many families reliant on free school meal vouchers already struggle to put food on the table. At a time of financial uncertainty for many, our most vulnerable families are not receiving the support they are entitled to. We ask that this is rectified as a matter of urgency.

Yours sincerely,

Siobhain McDonagh MP

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