Conservatives reject call to extend free school meals over holidays

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

The government has voted down – by a majority of 61 – a motion put forward by the Labour Party calling on the Conservatives to extend free school meals over the holidays up to and including the Easter break next year.

Following an opposition day debate in the Commons this evening, the government declined to support the proposal that would have seen the same level of support afforded to families as was provided over the summer break.

Closing the discussion tonight, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey claimed that the government was trying to “make sure we continue to put the vulnerable first” but also said that “work is the best way out of poverty”.

Addressing the House, Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green told government ministers today: “Child poverty is a pandemic of its own. It is a pandemic that reflects the great evils still haunting our society.

“A society blighted by wages that are not enough for working families to make ends meet, a housing crisis that creates insecurity, and a social security system cut to ribbons by the party opposite.

“Today’s proposals are not a silver bullet, and they will not end child poverty. They are a sticking plaster, but one that is badly and urgently needed. Needed by the 1.4 million children who could go hungry without them.”

She added: “While the provision of free school meals is closed, the gravy train is still open for business. £7,000 a day for consultants working on a test and trace system that doesn’t work.”

Coventry MP Taiwo Owatemi gave an impassioned and personal speech on her experience of free school meals, telling MPs: “I am completely saddened that we are here talking about free school meals as if it is a luxury. It is not a luxury…

“I was on free school meals and I know how important it was for me and my family. I know there were many, many mornings when I had to rush into school and a free school meal provided me with breakfast, with lunch and a snack…

“We shouldn’t be here deciding whether or not this should be a vote. Free school meals should never be something that is put to a vote. It should have been something on which we actually work together across the opposite bench.”

Tan Dhesi MP pointed out to MPs this evening that just as it was the “right and humane thing” for the government to provide free school meals over the summer holiday, it should do so the same over the winter period.

Naz Shah offered a fierce defence of free school meals, lambasting Tory MPs: “It is about morality. It’s absolutely about morality. This isn’t a debate about whether it’s food bank vouchers or whether it’s free school meals.

“This is a debate about poverty, which bit of that do people in this House not get? This is about children who will not have a meal, will not have sufficient nutrients to go to school or go about their daily lives and be able to learn.”

The Bradford West MP also cited the Trussell Trust as warning that there will be a 9% increase in food bank usage as a result of the government’s insistence on withdrawing the £20 uplift in Universal Credit.

Shadow early years minister Tulip Siddiq highlighted the positive step taken elsewhere in the UK to commit to a holiday provision. She told parliament: “It is only children in England who won’t get this support…

“I want to pay tribute in particular to the Welsh government who have not only guaranteed this support but at every stage they have announced it well in advance, giving families the right to have certainty and the right to plan.”

The Welsh Labour government last week announced that it had put together a funding package of £11m to make sure that free school meals are provided during every school holiday, up to and including the Easter break in 2021.

The UK government has been under pressure to provide support for families in England. A petition started by footballer Marcus Rashford for the government to provide free school during term breaks, has gather over 300,000 signatures.

The government saw some opposition its own backbench MPs today, with Robert Halfon arguing in the debate that it is a “no-brainer” to extend free school meal provision at least until the end of the pandemic.

Five Tories voted with Labour to support the motion this evening: Robert Halfon; Caroline Ansell; Jason McCartney; Anne Marie Morris; and Holly Mumby-Croft.

Rashford’s petition calls on Downing Street to introduce free school meals for all under-16s where a guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit or the equivalent legacy benefit, and to raise the ‘healthy vouchers’ scheme to £4.24 per week.

The demands follow from the recommendations of the National Food Strategy. Rashford led the successful campaign for free school meals over the summer, which forced the government into a U-turn earlier this year.

Labour had also launched its own ‘Holidays Without Hunger’ campaign and party leader Keir Starmer hailed the climb down from Downing Street at the time as “another welcome U-turn from Boris Johnson”.

Labour called last week for free school meals to be extended over all holidays between now and spring 2021. Johnson has so far rejected all pleas, saying: “It’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays.”

Below is the full text of the motion voted down by the Tories today.

That this House calls on the government to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021 to prevent over a million children going hungry during this crisis.

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