Commons passes Labour free school meals motion as Tories abstain

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

MPs have passed a Labour motion calling on the government to ensure 1.4 million children across the country receive the full value of free school meals for the duration of the school year, including holidays.

The proposal passed in the House of Commons with 272 votes in favour and none against, after the Prime Minister accused Labour of “playing politics” with its opposition day motions and instructed Tory MPs to abstain.

Commenting on the result, Labour’s Kate Green said: “Labour’s motion asked for nothing more than the chance for every child to learn, and for no child to go hungry, but the government would not support it.

“We cannot leave children’s futures in the hands of a minister who will not fight for these basic rights. It is time for Gavin Williamson to go.” She said the Education Secretary’s record throughout Covid has been “shambolic”.

Opening the debate for Labour in the House of Commons, Green told parliament: “The Prime Minister and indeed the Secretary of State claimed to be outraged by images of food parcels they saw on social media.

“But I, and my party, are outraged my ministers consistent and unforgivable failure to stand with children and families throughout this pandemic. Pupils and parents deserve a government that’s on their side.”

The vote tonight followed a public backlash over images shared on social media by parents of inadequate free school meal packages, which have been distributed to households with eligible children now learning remotely.

Green told the chamber that government ministers had refused to take responsibility for the food parcels being handed out to children across the country and said they were a “direct result of their own policies”.

The Labour frontbencher highlighted that the government set guidance for contractors on what constituted an acceptable food package “worth only a fraction of the £15 made available to providers for families to feed their children”.

She urged the government to make a cash payment to parents, saying: “Sack the companies providing a substandard service and just give parents the money. Secure family incomes by using the existing social security infrastructure.

“Put £15 a week into the bank accounts of the parents who need it to feed their children. Put your trust in mums and dads… End the scandal of inadequate food parcels or vouchers that take days to arrive.”

Referring to a vote earlier this evening on Universal Credit, on which the Tories also abstained, the Shadow Education Secretary told MPs: “I’m giving the members opposite a second chance to do the right thing this evening.”

Ahead of the debate, Labour had appealed to Conservative backbench parliamentary colleagues to end the “catalogue of chaos” on free school meals by voting with the opposition on the motion tabled for consideration this evening.

The motion put forward by Labour today also called on Williamson to “set a deadline to ensure that every learner has the resources required to learn remotely” and to regularly update parliament on progress on implementation.

“At the beginning of this pandemic, 1.8 million children did not have the devices or internet connection they needed to work from home,” Green told the Secretary of State for Education this evening.

She added: “Despite the best efforts of teachers, of school leaders and support staff, some children fell behind their peers because they lacked the basic resources to continue learning when they couldn’t be in the classroom.

“The Secretary of State rightly started to provide some devices to some of those children. He set a target of 230,000 devices by the end of June last year. But not only did that fall far short of the number of children who needed them, he didn’t even deliver those devices on time.”

She highlighted that the Labour administration in Wales, which she told MPs repurposed existing orders, was in contrast to the Conservative UK government supporting pupils with devices by the end of May last year.

Green suggested that the Secretary of State for Education and his department could learn from their Welsh counterparts, arguing that Williamson’s “inability to learn from his failures and from their success is inexcusable”.

She pointed out that only 700,000 devices have now been delivered to pupils, against the target set by the Department for Education to provide for 1.3 million to children across the country, and demanded a deadline to be set.

According to Ofcom, 9% of children in the UK representing between 1.1 million and 1.8 million last year did not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home. More than 880,000 lived in a household with only a mobile internet connection.

Research by leading education charity Teach First late last year showed that four out of five schools with the poorest pupils in England do not have enough devices and internet access to ensure all self-isolating pupils can keep learning.

“You know the most fundamental failure of all, Madam Deputy Speaker?” shadow schools minister Wes Streeting declared to parliament tonight as he closed the debate for the opposition. “We went into this pandemic with a digital divide.

“We went into this pandemic with a widening attainment gap. We went into this pandemic with rising child poverty. And it’s not good members on the other side talking about social policy as if it’s just been invented.

“The last Labour government lifted nearly a million children out of poverty. So, if you want our help – we’ll help you to end child poverty. The problem is a poverty of ambition from the government.”

Labour also put forward a motion calling on ministers to extend the £20-per-week uplift to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits earlier today, which passed. Neither motion, as opposition day motions, are binding on the government.

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