Tories deny free school meals to 2 million children


Categories: News

Conservative MPs – including all Scots Tories – refuse to back free meals for children in school holidays

Yesterday afternoon in the House of Commons, Brendan O’Hara MP led for the SNP in the Opposition Day debate on access to free school meals and called on the UK Government to commit to tackling widespread poverty, exacerbated by the pandemic.

This is a copy of his speech:

“It is a pleasure to speak in the debate this afternoon and to give the full support of the Scottish National Party to this Opposition motion. We very much welcome this debate, particularly as just yesterday the Scottish Government announced a £10 million package of funding for local authorities to continue providing free school meals over the forthcoming school holidays, up to and including the Easter break of 2021. The Scotish Government did that, quite simply, because in the middle of a global pandemic and with an economic crisis looming, that was the right thing to do. As the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security, Shirley-Anne Somerville, said:

We are doing all we can to ensure the right support gets to the right people at the right time in the right way.

Shirley-Anne Somerville, Cabinet Secretary for Social Security, Scottish Government

“Part of getting the right support to the right people in the right way at the right time involves ensuring that those who are most exposed to the economic consequences of the pandemic know that their children will still at least have one hot meal every day, even if it is during the school holidays. I agree with Kate Green  that it is remarkable that, in the 21st century, at a time like this, in one of the richest countries in the world, we are even having to debate this or to ask the Government to fund free school meals over the school holiday period to prevent 1.5 million of the poorest and most vulnerable children in England from going hungry.

I, too, would like to pay tribute to the work done by Marcus Rashford to shine a light on this issue. As a hugely successful young professional athlete, it would have been so easy for him not to have done what he has, but it is a measure of him as a person that he has not forgotten where he came from and the struggle that his family and others had to endure every day growing up. In his public petition, he is asking the Government to keep going with the free school meal programme that was put in place over the summer holidays and did so much to help children from low-income families, who have been hardest hit by the pandemic. It is not a huge ask, but it has struck a chord across these islands, including several hundred of my constituents in Argyll & Bute, who, although not directly affected by this, have been struck by the sincerity and compassion of this young man.

“Sadly, that compassion was not replicated in the Government’s response to the petition reaching 300,000 signatures. Their spokesperson said: “It’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays. We believe the best way to support families outside of term time is through Universal Credit rather than government subsidising meals.”

“Of course, they said that when the Government had just announced that they were taking the £20 universal credit uplift away. That particularly dismissive, not to say callous, response exposes just how hollow the Chancellor’s promise was back in the summer to do “whatever it takes” to help people through this crisis. As we head into what will certainly be very difficult times this winter, with coronavirus cases on the rise, prompting fears of a second wave, taking away food from under- privileged children seems a perverse way of doing whatever it takes to help. Bizarrely, that same UK Government spokesperson said of the summer holiday school meal scheme:

“This is a specific measure to reflect the unique circumstances of the pandemic” as if we had somehow come through it all, the pandemic had gone and everything had returned to normal. Is that really what the Government wanted to say? Is that the message that they wanted to get out? If so, it is palpable nonsense, as any health professional, self-employed worker, hospitality business owner, seasonal worker or someone who is about to lose their furlough will confirm—as will the parent and carer of every poor child in England whose income has fallen and are now reliant on food banks and for whom a free school meal had become almost a daily necessity.

Children going hungry in a country as rich as this is a consequence—a direct consequence—of political choices.

“This is a political choice. There is no doubt that if this Government prioritised eradicating poverty, the money would be found in an instant, because poverty is not accidental. It is not inevitable. It is a political choice. Poverty is not something that happens by accident. Children going hungry in a country as rich as this is a consequence—a direct consequence—of political choices. A decade of austerity in which the poorest and weakest in our society were forced to carry the can and bear the brunt of a financial crisis that had nothing to do with them was a political choice, and so too is the decision to take away poor children’s food during an economic and health crisis. It is staggering.”

This is the link to the vote on the debate