Thank you for writing to me about free school meals and the parliamentary debate and vote that took place on 21st October. I have read your email carefully and noted your views and concerns.
I appreciate your strength of feeling on this matter, and please be assured that I share your passion for ensuring that everybody in this country, especially children, do not go hungry.
While there has been considerable coverage of what Parliament did not agree, there has been less attention to what it did agree. Immediately following the parliamentary debate, MPs backed the existing emergency package of support measures for families which is worth billions on top of free school meals during the school week. Parliament thereby endorsed ongoing activities to help the most vulnerable children and households in society.
Free school meals were introduced to support children while they are learning, and 99 per cent of schools are now back open. During the holidays, families must have a robust safety net, which can help them cope with the extra pressures of coronavirus. At the start of the pandemic, key benefits were boosted by over £1,000 per year for 12 months, part of a £9.3bn increase to the welfare safety net. Councils have also been given an additional £63m to help those families most in need, including supplying food when that is what is needed.
On top of the additional £63m to councils, the Government this week announced the introduction of a further £170m Covid Winter Grant Scheme. The scheme will see new funding made available to support families with the cost of food and utilities over Christmas until Easter. It is my understanding that funding will be dispersed according to each Local Authority’s population.
Guidance will be given to Local Authorities on the best way to deliver this support, including use of the benefits data to which councils already have access. Councils already have the information from social services, health visitors and current recipients of free school meals to help in identifying how best to support children and families. The Government has said that it will not constrain how Local Authorities deliver these services, and could include cash, vouchers, food, or funding through third party organisations, depending on local needs and demands.
The Government has also confirmed an increase in Healthy Start scheme payments, a significant extension to the Holiday Activities and Food programme, and has made a further £16m available to fund local charities to build on the £16m provided in May providing food for those struggling.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Rt Hon Dr Thérèse Coffey MP, laid out in some detail the Government’s position in Parliament, as well as reinforcing the Government’s commitment to supporting those in need during these difficult times. Please see below a link to Hansard, where you can read Dr Coffey’s contribution at the end of the parliamentary debate on 21st October, as well as the important contributions of many other Members of Parliament. Below this link I have printed out for you the speech that Dr Coffey made when summing up the debate, as I think it gives a comprehensive and very readable account of the Government’s position.
Secretary of State Dr Thérèse Coffey:
“We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]
“I think that feeling has come through in many of the speeches tonight made by right hon. and hon. Members. It came through even where there was anger about some of the different policy approaches that could be taken. I think the House is absolutely united in wanting to do the best for vulnerable children.
“Social justice has been at the absolute heart of every decision that the Government have taken to help the people of this country get through this pandemic together. Whether it is about trying to do our best to save lives and livelihoods, about devising the shielding scheme where we provided 4.2 million food boxes to people, or about making sure that schools were kept open by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the most vulnerable children in society, those are the approaches that we have taken in trying to make sure that we can get through this pandemic together.
“It is a truism that when the Labour party has left government, unemployment has always been higher than when it went into office. That is not the same for Conservative Governments. The Conservative approach is that the best way out of poverty is through work. What we have also done in the time that we have been in office since 2010 is to make a shift away from the cliff edges that happened under the tax credit system, where people made rational decisions that they would be better off not working than working. We have turned that on its head so that people will be better off in work unless they cannot work.
“I am very conscious that in every constituency it is highly likely that we will see unemployment rising in a very difficult and challenging way, particularly for the sectors that we know about such as hospitality and similar, and where we have put much greater national restrictions. Right here, right now, this Conservative Government are standing behind the people and businesses of this country to help them when they need it most. In terms of our schools, I have already pointed out that we had extra support throughout the year, including through holiday activities. In terms of supporting employees, we have had the furlough scheme, which will take us through to the end of October, through half-term. It has cost, and is costing, taxpayers £53 billion to provide that support for families right across the country. There will be a new job support scheme with enhanced measures for those parts of the country where stricter and more radical public health changes need to be made, in order to help to tackle this virus. Amid all that, I am very proud of the people that work in my Department for the support that they have given to vulnerable people across the country, making sure that we have got money to people when they needed it in terms of the welfare state.
“In particular, it is important to stress that £9.3 billion is not a small amount of money compared to what was injected into the welfare system when we had the last financial crisis. It is giving families an extra £20 a week, and that takes those families right through to Easter next year. It is important that we try to make sure that we have that targeted support, which is why, in addition to the councils that received £500 million extra earlier in the year, an extra £63 million was specifically given to councils, because our social workers know the families in their areas who are at risk and can get that extra help to them. Of course, with the Barnett formula, all the devolved nations have had extra funding as well.
“We are in a situation where the Government have firmly stood behind the most vulnerable children and people in the country, and I am very proud of our Government for doing that….
“…The hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) spoke in praise of the holiday activities and food in the summer. We share her view on that; it is one of the schemes that we funded. The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) was absolutely right in her passionate conviction that we are here to do what we can to help children in society; and that is what we have been doing—not least by improving children’s educational attainment, to enable them to have a genuine future career.
“My hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who have experience as teachers, said that a major part of our approach should be to improve the chances of families. That is why the Government are working together—we are working with my hon. Friends in other Departments—not only on identifying what we can do to help the most challenged families in society, but on tackling the cost of living. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced the extension of the energy price cap, and we shall continue to do more. Nearly a million pensioners are getting £140 off their energy bills later this year without lifting a finger; that is what we are doing to help people.
“The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), who was praised by her near neighbour the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, spoke about the benefits of a hot meal in the middle of a school day that helps children learn. Yes, we agree. We have provided that, and extended it to the youngest children automatically. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) is right that we must continue to focus on those children who are in protection plans, and those families who are suffering drug abuse and family breakdown, and we need to keep a focus on making sure that we support the child in the whole.
“We are actually in quite a different situation from where we were earlier in the year, when we were in a national lockdown, with a very strong “stay at home” message, and people’s lives were highly restricted. The virus was new; it was scary. We were—and still are—continuing to learn how to handle the situation, but together as a Government we have tried to ensure that we continue to put the vulnerable first. We are in a different situation now. We are not in the same measures of lockdown. More people have come off the furlough scheme and are now back in work—they can work from home or go to work. Schools are open. The NHS is treating many more people, not just the people with coronavirus. So we need to encourage life to continue as it is. That is why we have put those enhanced measures into tier 2 and tier 3. I congratulate the leaders of the councils who have decided to take that offer of support from the Government, to ensure that they can help the people who they represent.
“It is really important that we continue to come together as a House to recognise the support that has gone in. That is why we tabled the amendment to today’s motion, recognising that we have undertaken significant ways to help the most vulnerable children in society. I am very keen to ensure that we keep that focus on the most important of our generations for the future, so that people do not fall through the cracks. That is why I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Ministers across Government, including the Prime Minister, say regularly that there will be nobody left behind, and that we will do our best to strive every day to save the lives and livelihoods of people in this country.
“We really must consider, genuinely, what should be uniting us today. I am very conscious that Labour Members may think that theirs is the only way to approach this issue. I say gently to them: recognise the support that has been given to the families that you represent; recognise the £9.3 billion in welfare alone, never mind the furlough income that has been there, and is continuing to help people. So, right here, right now, let the House come together, support the amendment and show a united message to the people of this country that we shall support, and continue to support, the most vulnerable people in our country.”
The Opposition motion was defeated, but the Government’s amended motion was fully approved as follows:
“That this House notes that schools are now fully operational following the covid-19 outbreak, and will continue to offer free school meals in term time; welcomes the substantial support provided by the Government to children worth £550 million annually; further welcomes that this support has been bolstered by almost £53 billion worth of income protection schemes, and £9.3 billion of additional welfare payments; notes that eligible families have also been supported throughout lockdown through the receipt of meal vouchers worth £380 million while schools were partially closed, alongside the Holiday Activities and Food Fund; and further supports the Government in its ongoing activities to help the most vulnerable children in society.”
I applaud the work of Marcus Rashford in bringing the issue of food poverty to public attention and to the attention of MPs and ministers in the summer and more recently. He is very deserving of the MBE that was announced a few weeks ago.
I have been in very close touch indeed with Woking Borough Council throughout this pandemic and you will see from the following link that the Council, supported financially by the Government, has pledged that no vulnerable people or children will go hungry during this pandemic:
I hope that this response has helped explain my position in supporting the Government, and also demonstrated my continued commitment to supporting everybody in Woking, especially children, throughout these difficult and challenging times. If you know of any children or families that need additional support, please do let me know and I will do my utmost to ensure that they receive the help that they need.
Thank you again for writing to me about this very important matter.
With best wishes.
Jonathan Lord MP
Member of Parliament for Woking