There has been significant interest in the debate and vote that took place on 21 October 2020 regarding the provision of Free School Meal vouchers during the October half-term. Many of the claims made are untrue, and spread by political opponents who seek to divide at a time we should be staying together.
Below, I have set-out both the nature and substance of the vote. Whilst it is quite long, I wanted to ensure those interested in the issue were able to get a full and comprehensive explanation which covers all the relevant points, including those posed by questions in a recent 38 Degrees Survey. Please also note that I have not responded to the 38 Degrees Survey, as I believe it is more effective for constituents to receive an explanation from me that isn’t filtered through a third party.
It is important to say at the outset that free school meals in term-time are not going anywhere. The debate that took place on 21 October 2020 was about how we ensure children have access to food during school holiday and how we make sure every child is supported – whether they’re on free school meals or not.
First of all, the debate and vote that took place on 21 October.
This was a non-binding ‘Opposition Day’ vote. These are debates given to the opposition to allow them to politically point score on whatever the burning political issue of the day is. It was not a vote that would or would not have delivered more free school meals and so in reality has no impact. I mention this because that often means that these ‘Opposition Day’ motions are often designed to create outrage and to stir up the public – because that is all they can do. The way they are structured also means that you must vote on the opposition wording before any amendment. For example, if Labour put a motion down to say ‘we support clean drinking water’, and we wanted to amend it to say, ‘we believe in clean drinking water and fresh air’, we would have to vote against their original wording first, before voting on the new wording. This of course would allow the opposition to run around saying that “Tory MPs voted against clean drinking water”. That is the normal way opposition day debates work and everyone knew this was Labour's motivation on Wednesday.
You may be interested to know that the final motion that was approved by the House, myself included and opposition MPs, includes a clear determination to continue to make progress in supporting the most vulnerable children in society. That, however, does not generate any headlines because it does not fit with the narrative that the Labour Party, or the media, wanted to paint. The below hopefully sets out how we are doing that in the short-term, making sure children have access to food next week, and the long-term.
It is also worth saying that it is poor form for the Labour Party to try and showboat on this issue. When the financial crisis hit in 2009 – when they were in Government and represented Burnley - and many people lost their jobs, the Labour Government did not cover free school meals during the school summer holidays as the Conservatives did, and nor did they provide billions of pounds via the furlough scheme and the job support scheme to help keep people in work. Instead, they simply put them on the dole.
We did not do that.
Turning to the substance of the issue…
As everybody knows, in March this year we had to bring the country to a standstill, including our schools where every child was sent home. In doing this, the decision was rightly taken to ensure every child who would have received a meal at school, could get one at home, either by a food package from the school or a voucher. This provision was, for the first time, extended across the school holidays, including the summer holiday. I’m proud we did that.
However, only children whose parents were either claiming out of work benefits or on a very low income were entitled to this help. That’s the criteria for Free School Meals. But as many of us will know, so many families have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic that we could not only look at the old criteria – we also had to look at who else might also have needed help.
Here is a scenario to consider: Two friends, Angela and Kelly.
Angela previously was on a low income and their child qualified for FSM. However, the family had done well at work and now earned £30,000 a year. That income had not been affected by COVID. Her children still qualified for FSM, because having previously been on a low income that funding followed them throughout their time at school – it didn’t stop.
Kelly was self-employed and her children did not qualify for FSM. Because of COVID, less hours were being worked and earnings lower than before, with the family living off their savings. The family had significant fixed costs like a mortgage and car repayments, which they had to take payment holidays on to reduce their outgoings.
If, during the October half-term we simply extended the free school meal vouchers, which would have been the easiest thing to do, Angela would have got help despite having a good income and not experiencing any hardship due to Covid. Kelly, who was struggling, would get no help. And so whilst it might sound good on the surface it wasn’t the best thing to do.
With that in mind a solution was needed for the October half-term, for Christmas, and then longer-term.
For the October half-term - instead of spending another £20m on the £15 vouchers, we instead spent £63m on giving our local councils the resources to specifically target those in need, because they are the people on the ground and closest to where the need is. £1.5 million went direct to Lancashire County Council and, of this, Burnley Council received £149,083, specifically to help with food and other essentials.
That’s to make sure organisations like Burnley Together could operate properly, providing the help where it was most needed. This funding was also on top of the £65,000 grant that Government provided to Burnley Together for food only a few months ago.
And to put this money into context, it would have costed around £55,000 to fund FSM vouchers for every eligible child in Burnley in October half-term - the money was more than there. With the fund put in place it didn’t matter whether a family currently received free school meal vouchers or not, what mattered was whether help was needed. And if help was needed, this fund ensured it was provided.
I have seen claims that this money had all been spent because it had been allocated before. It hadn’t. The Burnley scheme for using the funding went live on Monday 26th October – the first day of the half-term. I also checked-in with the Council throughout the week to ensure the funding was sufficient (which it was).
So anyone who needed help during the half-term, or who needs help now, can contact Burnley Together on 01282 686402 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
But that is not the end of the issue
That is not where the support ends. As I said, we need to find a solution to holiday hunger for the long-term. One which ensures children who miss out when they’re not at school have access to the food and other support they need. For the past three years it is the Conservative Party, which I am proud to be a part of, which has put money into programs like the £9 million ‘Holiday Activities and Food Program’. This has supported 50,000 of the most disadvantaged children across England during the summer. I am personally keen to see this program, or something similar, expanded as it proves food, support and enrichment to children who might otherwise not get it.
As a government we have also this year extended the Breakfast Club Program which again supports some of the most disadvantaged children in our country, including many in our own borough. Free school milk is also provided to eligible children alongside the school fruit and vegetable scheme which is now up and running again as schools have reopened.
And, more than anything else, we are also supporting incomes like no other Government has done before. The furlough scheme, and self-employed income grant scheme are the most generous of anything ever undertaken by a British Government. They support workers, and they support families. All of this is intended to keep income as close to normal levels as is financially possible, so families can continue to pay their bills and put food on the table. This is not to mention the work we did with banks and other lenders to allow mortgages, rents and other items to have payments frozen so the essentials could be prioritised. And it is something that was delivered by a Conservative Government, with the backing of me and every one of my colleagues.
Due to Covid-19 we have also increased the rate at which Universal Credit is paid to provide more cash in the pockets of those on benefits and for those who find themselves out of work, suffering an immediate drop in income, UC can pay a cash advance within 24 hours to ensure families don’t go hungry. Anyone in need can always come to me and my team and we will do everything we can to help.
The Government also provided millions of pounds of support to food banks across the country – adding more to our layers of support – and I personally went lobbying the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to help secure the £65,000 we got from this locally. I hear the argument that we shouldn’t need foodbanks, and the reasons we have them are often far more complex than some would realise, but when people are struggling I make no apologies for trying to help ensure access to food is possible.
I’ll never stop working to ensure every local child has the support they need, in the right way and addressing whatever the reason is that they need it. Layering our support so we catch everyone with our safety net. Free school meals during term time, holiday clubs during the long summer break, additional welfare support during short period. I have also spoken to the Education Secretary many times about how we ensure support is also there over Christmas and details of this will come out in due course. This will follow the excellent report done by Henry Dimbleby on a National Food Strategy, which was roundly commended across political parties.
With all of the above in mind, I will never accept that I need to take lessons from the Labour Party on how we protect our vulnerable children and families. During the vote I voted in a way which I thought would ensure the most support would go to those who need it, and for an approach I thought would make sure no child would go hungry during the October half-term – whatever their circumstances. You may still think, after reading this, that the best approach would still have been to continue the FSM voucher scheme, but I hope you can see that I wanted the same ultimate aim of ensuring no child went hungry, albeit it through a different approach which I believe made sure nobody was left behind.