900,000 children under lockdown will lose free school meals, warns Labour

Andrew Kersley

Nearly one million children in areas under Tier 2 and Tier 3 restrictions are set to lose access to free school meals over the holidays unless the government changes course, the Labour Party has highlighted.

According to new analysis by the House of Commons Library for the opposition party, around 900,000 children who claim free school meals live in areas – such as London, Liverpool and Manchester – under tougher restrictions.

Pupils in Tier 2 and 3 alert level regions who use the free school meals programme make up 61% of the over 1.4 million children across the country at risk of losing their free meals over the school holidays.

Labour’s intervention comes ahead of a House of Commons vote on Wednesday that will likely see Tory MPs vote against ensuring pupils have access to meals during every holiday between now and Easter 2021.

Deputy leader Angela Rayner is set to lead the debate for Labour on the opposition motion. She said: “This vote is about our values as a country and whether the government, in the middle of this crisis, is happy to let our children go hungry.

“Millions of families up and down the country are facing a bleak winter of real hardship as the furlough scheme is withdrawn and further restrictions are put in place without proper support for businesses, jobs and livelihoods.

“It is a moral outrage that the government will happily spend over £6,000 a day on consultants and line the pockets of Serco shareholders in return for a Test and Trace system that has collapsed whilst leaving almost a million children in areas subject to Tier 2 and Tier 3 restrictions to go hungry.

“No child in our country should be waking up hungry and having to face the day worrying where food might be coming from. But if Tory MPs don’t do the right thing today, this vital support will be withdrawn next week and over 1.4 million children across our country will go hungry.”

The new Labour-commissioned analysis has found that in areas under the highest government lockdown level of Tier 3, 99,071 out of a total of 472,614 pupils – more than one in five – are eligible for free school meals.

Cities such as Liverpool and Birmingham were found to have some of the highest free school meal usage. In Liverpool, just over one in four pupils are eligible. In Birmingham, the figure is closer to one in three.

More than 200,000 children in England have had to skip meals because their family could not access sufficient food during the coronavirus lockdown, and 2.4 million children are living in food-insecure households.

The Commons debate was proposed by Labour after a fresh campaign by Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford, who helped to force a government U-turn on offering free school meals to pupils outside of term time in July.

But Boris Johnson rejected Rashford’s new plea, saying: “It’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays.” The Prime Minister recommended that struggling families apply for Universal Credit.

Shadow early years minister Tulip Siddiq wrote to Conservative MPs on Monday urging them to rebel during the vote and described the programme as an “important means of support for families across your constituency”.

The Welsh Labour government has announced that it will spend £11m to make sure that free school meals are provided during every school holiday from now up to and including the Easter break in 2021 as incomes take a hit during the Covid crisis.

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