The recent vote on free school meals has provoked a great deal of comment.
At the outset, I should make clear that I support the provision of free school meals for those who need them during term time. I supported the Children and Families Act 2014, which extended that provision to students in 6th Form Colleges and Further Education and I have supported further extensions since. I recognise many families struggle to afford food and other necessities, especially during the covid 19 outbreak, and I believe government has a moral duty to help them.
I could not support the motion to extend free school meals into forthcoming holiday periods, however, because I do not believe it sets out the right way to provide that help. I reached that conclusion for two reasons.
First, it should be clear to everyone that the current pandemic is creating a massive demand for government help and at the same time reducing the capacity of individuals and businesses to pay the taxes which give government the resources to provide that help. It is therefore imperative that government help is targeted effectively at those who need it. The motion put before the House of Commons did not, in my view, meet that test. When the issue of support equivalent to free school meals was last examined, schools were not open to the majority of pupils. Now they are, which is welcome but means that free school meals are, under the normal practice since the 2014 Act I referred to earlier, provided not just to those in financial need, but also to all children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2, regardless of need. The motion we were asked to support called on government to ‘continue funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays directly until Easter 2021’. The motion did not restrict that provision to children in financial need or exclude universal provision for those in Year 2 or younger, and enacting it as worded would therefore oblige the government to use limited resources to provide support out of term time also to families who are relatively well-off, and potentially a significant number of them. The latest official estimate was that 1.4 million children receive free school meals due to financial need, and a further 1.4 million receive them due to the universal provision for younger children. I do not suggest that is what the drafters of the motion intended, but that seems to me to be the effect of its wording, and it would not, in my view, be a sensible approach to provide a subsidy to some who don’t need it instead of concentrating on those who do.
Secondly, as we seek to establish support mechanisms which may need to serve for many more months as the virus remains a feature of our lives, I cannot accept that increasing the administrative burden on education outside term time is the best way to deliver what is in effect welfare support. Excluding universal provision for younger pupils, all families eligible for free school meals are also eligible for one or more welfare benefits or income support, and it is these mechanisms which are specifically designed to get help to those most in need. It is worth noting that, during the outbreak period, £9.3 billion of additional welfare payments have been made, including an extra £20 a week for Universal Credit recipients, benefitting 4 million households. A further £63 million has been made available to local authorities to help vulnerable families. I note that Warwickshire County Council will itself be providing further support for families in need, which is welcome. This is all in the context of £53 billion of job support measures for England alone. None of this means of course that more could not and should not be done, and I want to see that happen but, in my judgment, it is far better to use the established welfare system to do it, in addition to new measures like the Holiday Activities and Food Programme, which is specifically for those who find it difficult to manage during school holidays.
These are the reasons I voted against the motion, following a debate which I regret has been long on abuse and short on rational discussion of how best to help those in need, as I have no doubt we all want to do. Our political debate does not need any more name-calling, and we should surely all try to recognise that compassionate people can disagree on the best way to achieve the objectives they share.