5 terrible Tory excuses for not extending free school meals this week

Andrew Kersley

The Conservatives voted down, by a majority of 61, a Labour motion this week to extend free school meals over the holidays up to and including the Easter break next year. Just five Tories voted with Labour to support the motion.

LabourList has found and put together a list of some of the worst justifications from Conservative MPs that have cropped up in the past few days for not voting in favour of the free school meals extension.

1. They are not in favour of “nationalising children”.

This gem came from 2019 intake Conservative backbencher Brendan Clarke-Smith. It started doing the rounds on Twitter almost immediately after the free school meals debate ended on Wednesday evening.

The new Tory MP for Bassetlaw told the Commons: “Where is the slick PR campaign encouraging absent parents to take some responsibility for their children? I do not believe in nationalising children.

“Instead, we need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility,” he said. Referring implicitly to Marcus Rashford, he added: “This means less celebrity virtue signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty.”

There is the obvious issue, of course: it is not entirely clear how extending an already existing scheme to feed children is “nationalising” them. But the rest of his argument is also pretty questionable.

Clarke-Smith suggests that the government has been dealing with these “real causes of child poverty”, which would make extending the free school meals programme to help feed children over the holidays irresponsible.

Leaving aside the unique circumstances of a global pandemic that has driven one million new pupils to sign up for the scheme, the total number of children living in relative poverty has increased under the Tories.

2. Children were already fed during term time.

Birmingham Northfield MP Gary Sambrook justified his decision to vote against the motion in a letter to a constituent, in which he claimed that the government only fed children over the summer to make up for missed term-time meals.

He wrote: “We took the unprecedented step, which had never been done before in history, to extend free school meals over the summer holiday this year because the majority of children hadn’t been in school since March and families had been meeting extra costs.

“The situation is now totally different. The majority of children are back in school and have therefore been benefitting from free school meals during term time as normal. We need to avoid creating a deepening cycle of state dependency.”

His argument suggests that free school meals ought only to be tied to whether a child was fed during term time, and not, for example, the extraordinary circumstances of a global pandemic and economic crisis.

Leaving aside that the problem of food poverty does not disappear once term ends, it is not clear how the situation is “totally different” now. Cases of Covid are rising, more of the country faces restrictions and the economy is facing a significant downturn.

Rising unemployment has led to a higher demand for food banks and free school meals. The idea that somehow the need or circumstances are less dire now than during the summer is tenuous. The only difference is that schools are still open.

3. Free school meals reward bad parenting.

Mansfield MP Ben Bradley justified his decision to vote against the free school meals motion by suggesting that extending the scheme would encourage parents to choose not to feed their children and rely on state support.

Asked on Twitter whether he really believed that parents would choose not to feed their children and depend on the state, Bradley replied: “Some do… don’t think that’s controversial to say, [to be honest].

“Some parents are not good parents and prioritise other things ahead of their kids. Small minority, yes… but some do. Step out of the PC [politically correct] bubble and come live in the real world.”

His response raises several questions. For example, as Hannah Al-Othman said, if a number of parents do not prioritise their children as they should, are these not the children that the state most needs to feed?

Writing for the Spectator in 1995, Boris Johnson criticised what he called “uppity and irresponsible” single mothers and claimed that their children grow up “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate”.

It is not surprising to see a similar line spouted by Bradley, who once declared that the “vast sea of unemployed wasters” ought to get vasectomies so that taxpayers do not have to pay to support their children.

4. The policy could destroy the currency.

Tory backbencher Steve Baker offered up this line of thinking in response to a tweet by Marcus Rashford, which argued that the government was going to “turn a blind eye to the needs of the most vulnerable children”.

The Wycombe MP responded: “No one will be turning a blind eye and it is wrong to suggest anyone would. Not destroying the currency with excessive QE [quantitative easing] is also one of our duties.”

QE is the process by which the Bank of England buys government bonds to fund public spending. It is not clear why Baker thinks this would be very relevant to free school meals, which would have cost just £20m to extend over the winter break.

The idea that spending in the tens of millions puts the entire economy at risk is questionable to begin with, not least when you consider that the government is set to borrow £372bn this year to fund its coronavirus policies.

In a later tweet, Baker agreed it was wrong for Rishi Sunak to spend “£500m to help people dine at places… such as Wagamama”. The staunch fiscal conservative seems to believe neither policy is worthwhile.

5. They may have supported it if Labour had not used “unparliamentary words”.

Former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan suggested on an episode of Question Time on Thursday night that more Conservatives might have supported the policy if deputy leader Angela Rayner had not called a Tory MP “scum”.

Morgan told the programme: “I think the Labour Party might have found they got more supporters yesterday if the deputy Labour leader hadn’t called one of the Conservative MPs ‘scum’ in the course of the debate.”

She added: “Well, if the Labour Party had really wanted support, they wouldn’t have made it what’s called an opposition day debate. There would have been other ways to build a coalition in parliament.”

The former minister concluded: “If the Labour Party really want to get people supporting this debate, then labelling Conservative MPs with unconscionable, unparliamentary words, and then the way it was dealt with, absolutely not.”

Labour frontbencher Bridget Phillipson, who also appeared on the programme, posed the obvious question when she responded: “So kids go hungry this Christmas because you don’t like the parliamentary process?”

The implication of Morgan’s remarks is that the government would have entertained the idea of supporting the free school meals motion if the Labour Party had introduced the policy in a friendlier way.

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