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In October, Tory MPs voted overwhelmingly against providing children with free school meals during school holidays. A decision already called “callous”, got even harder to justify when medical professionals spoke out against it. But we ask whether focusing on the short-term issue fails to address a problem which is much bigger?

The opposition day motion for free school meals

On 21 October Labour brought an Opposition Day Motion before Parliament. They asked the Government to fund free school meals through the school holidays, in England, until Easter 2021. This is in line with what Welsh and Scottish Governments have already done.

Introducing the vote, Kate Green, Labour MP for Stafford and Urmston, said that 1.4 million children benefit from free school meals. She added that 900,000 of these live in areas that were, at the time, under tier 2 and 3 restrictions, with the furlough scheme due to end.

The motion was voted against by 321 votes, to 261.

Why not fund free school meals?

It’s hard to justify voting against feeding children, but 321 Tory MPs did, so what was their justification?

Some Conservative MPs have come out, since the vote, to defend their stance. Brandon Lewis told Andrew Marr that “a couple of things have changed” since the summer; he said that most schools are now open, Universal Credit has been increased and £63 million has been given to local authorities as a ‘hardship fund’.

Wakefield MP, Imran Ahmad Khan, who also voted against the motion has accused Labour of spreading false information. He feels that the public have been falsely led to believe that the vote was about free school meals being provided more generally – not just outside of term time. He said that “the reason the Conservative Party voted against this motion was to clearly spotlight it as a political ruse that would not have cured the disease of poverty”.  The vote was not to create legislation, so would not have been binding, he also added.

Stuart Andrew, MP for Pudsey, and Deputy Chief Whip for the Conservative Party told the Yorkshire Post that meal vouchers were provided over the summer, because, at this time, families had been forced to cover the costs since March. He juxtaposed this with the situation in October, where most schools have now returned. He also said that vouchers are not an ideal solution in any event; as they do not ensure that children get the nutritious food they need. He feels that the £63 million funding provided to Councils was a more effective way of helping.

Since the vote, the furlough scheme has been extended, which will hopefully alleviate some of the hardship families are facing.

What the experts are saying

As of 24 October 2,200 paediatricians had signed an open letter to the government, urging them to support the scheme. Professor Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said; “I’ve rarely seen such anger among our members”.

Their letter says that “More than 4 million children in the UK live in poverty and around one third of those are reliant on free school meals. The pandemic has entrenched and exacerbated this reality”.

With the theme of ‘following the science’ being so important during the pandemic, it would seem counter-intuitive to ignore these experts, now.

The bigger picture

Has Labour’s motion brought to the fore a bigger problem though? One which extends far beyond Easter 2021 – when they propose that meals are provided until. Kate Green, suggested in Parliament that “funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021 to prevent over a million children going hungry during this crisis”. Despite Parliament’s opposition, the public seem to largely support the sentiment.

But why should it stop at Easter? Labour’s implication that the current package of benefits to support families on low income is insufficient. If this is correct, why should help stop at Easter? If knowingly leaving children to go hungry is callous at a time of crisis, is it any better outside of crisis? Arguably, it’s worse.

Turning again to the experts, the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health’s letter even says “food vouchers will not solve this problem, but they offer a short-term remedy”.

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