I have been contacted by constituents about the vote on Wednesday regarding free school meals (FSM) outside term time for children in the coming months.
The long term welfare and opportunities for all of our children, and the affect this pandemic is having on our youngsters, is a matter very close to my heart and during this most challenging time it is important we make the best interventions we can to support each other and the most vulnerable in our communities.
Last night, Parliament voted against the Opposition Day motion on further extending free school meals out of term time. I voted with the Government on continuing to offer free school meals in term time, following the £550 million of support provided by the Government for children annually, which has been bolstered by almost £53 billion worth of income protection schemes and £9.3 billion of additional welfare payments in a targeted way to support the families who are most disadvantaged.
We have seen exactly this again today with another £1 billion package coming to councils to help those most in need. Despite some inflammatory discourse it is a Conservative Government who has actually extended the free school meal eligibility to an additional 50,000 children and expanded programmes like breakfast clubs at school.
For context £550 million of support, through the National Funding Formula, provides free school meals for disadvantaged children and young people across England. Throughout this pandemic, schools have continued to receive this funding and the Government has provided additional funding through the national voucher scheme to support children at home when schools remained closed except for key workers.
I believe it is absolutely imperative we as a Government continue to offer the appropriate support our children and future generations need to help them through what must be an incredibly stressful and unsettling time.
The Government has continued to provide a wide range of support for children in terms of free school meals. As I said earlier, since the Covid-19 outbreak, the Government has added over £9 billion pounds to the welfare system, supporting families with children in a range of ways and will continue to do so. This support includes:
- Increasing Universal Credit by £1,000 per year- a rise of £20 per week
- Increasing the Local Housing Allowance and creating a £180 million fund to help struggling families with their rent
- An additional £5 billion increase to benefit rates as part of 2020/2 uprating of benefits including around £400 million more on children’s benefits
- Creating a £63 million fund for councils to use for local welfare assistance of which WSCC receives over £737K
- Awarding £16 million to food charities
With 99% of children now back in school, they are now benefitting from FSM during term time as they usually would. Breakfast Clubs are continuing to run in the most disadvantaged areas of the country, whilst the extension of FSM plus the Holiday Activities and Food programme supported children during the summer months when the majority of children were still at home and before schools opened more fully in September 2020.
For those on the Opposition benches to accuse the Government of not simply supporting children across the country over the course of this pandemic is simply baseless and completely unjustified. The Secretary of State for Education, the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP, said at the Despatch Box in the House of Commons this week explained “it was right to provide free school meals during holidays during the unprecedented and unpredictable period, but we are in a different position now that we have welcomed all pupils back to school," going on to further explain how “taken together it is clear that the Government has taken very significant and unprecedented action to support children and families at risk of hardship during this period. Free school meals are and always have been about supporting children with a meal to help them when they’re at school or currently at home learning. But it is our support through Universal Credit and our comprehensive welfare system that supports families."
The link to the full debate this week (Wednesday 21st October) on the Free School Meals matter can be found here https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2020-10-21/debates/79C0CA8D-CADF-4562-9317-5A51810BB5DE/FreeSchoolMeals?highlight=free%20school%20meals#contribution-AFEC2D84-B89B-496F-974C-5D1635102DF6
My DWP colleague, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Rt Hon Therese Coffey MP, on this matter, at the Despatch Box stressed 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.”
My Ministerial colleagues have explained how existing suppliers are actively working with schools to ensure meals and/or food parcels are being provided to pupils who are eligible for benefits-related FSM where they are having to self-isolate due to Covid-19. Meals continue to be free of charge and available to:
- pupils who meet the eligibility criteria for benefits-related free school meals
- all infant pupils
I do want to thank Marcus Rashford MBE for his work to highlight the difficulties which many families can face. Anybody using their personal experience and understanding is vital within politics and campaigning and his commitment is hugely valuable.
Within Part 1 of the National Food Strategy, the three policy proposals put forward by Mr Rashford's taskforce have been suggested and Ministers in the relevant Government departments are carefully considering all these. I was also pleased to hear the Schools Minister, the Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, said he would be happy and keen to meet with Mr Rashford to discuss the issue, which I am sure will be useful and productive.
Before the return to school in September, detailed guidance was published to help schools prepare for pupils returning to school, including possible approaches to help school leaders and Head Teachers in their decision-making processes around school meals.
The link to the Government’s support and guidance around providing free school meals can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance-for-schools
I daily spend my time as an MP and Government Minister working to support opportunities and work to reduce inequalities. For example, I will shortly be joining the new DWP Youth Hub which will be launching in Crawley to support people 16+ to get into work or training who are at risk of long term unemployment and this is an initiative I have led and is one of 100 new ones due to be open across the Nation. I am also the Minister responsible for much of the delivery of the ‘Plan for Jobs’. Which means daily I am working to help people stay close to the labour market, retrain and progress and support their families.
I would like to share meanwhile further interventions by the Conservatives to help people the cost of living:
Ending low pay by introducing the National Living Wage (NLW), taking the proportion of jobs that are low paid to its lowest level in 20 years. In 2019, 16.2 per cent of all employee jobs were low-paid, when considered in terms of hourly earnings – the lowest proportion of low-paid employee jobs by hourly pay since the series began in 1997 (ONS, Low and high pay in the UK, 30 October 2019)
Giving the NLW its largest cash boost in April to £8.72 and nearly 3 million people a well-earned pay rise. The NLW received its largest ever cash boost in April – increasing by 6.2 per cent to £8.72. This meant an annual pay rise of £930 for a full-time worker on the NLW, and of £3,600 since we introduced the NLW in 2016. Taking together our changes to the NLW, income tax and national insurance – the lowest-paid working full time could in real terms be better off by £5,200 than they were in 2010 (HMT, Press release, 31 December 2019).
Raising the National Insurance threshold to £9,500 – saving people approximately £100 – and committing to not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance over this Parliament. Our rise to the national insurance threshold in April means that 31 million workers will receive a £100 tax cut. The tax locks will benefit families across the country, helping them with the cost of living and ensuring they will get the full benefit of economic growth in their pay packets (Conservative Party, Manifesto 2019, 24 November 2019, HMT, Budget 2020, 12 March 2020).
Average income – in 2018-19 prices – has risen since 2009-10. Final income – after tax and benefits – has risen by £1,090. In 2018-19, the median household final income was £32,578, up from £31,488 in 2009-10 (in 2018-19 prices). This is an increase of 3 per cent (ONS, Effects of taxes and benefits on household income, Table 21, 23 June 2020).
Freezing fuel duty for the tenth year in a row keeping more money in people’s pockets. We have frozen fuel duty for a tenth year in a row saving the average driver more than £1,000 over the last decade (HMT, Budget 2020, 12 March 2020).
- Banning letting fees to save tenants millions of pounds and making the market fairer and more transparent. We have brought costly letting fees to an end, saving tenants around £240 million a year (MHCLG, Press Release, 1 June 2019).
We have a track record that shows we are serious about poverty reduction in the UK.
The richest pay a greater share of taxes under the Conservatives. The top 1 per cent are paying a larger share of income tax (29.6 per cent) than at any time under the last Labour government (26.5 per cent in 2009-10) (HMRC, Table 2.4 shares of total income, 28 June 2019).
Taking the number of children living in a workless household to a record low, improving their life chances and boosting financial stability for families. Due to the success of our employment and welfare reforms, only 9.1 per cent of children lived in a workless home in 2019, down from 16.2 per cent in 2010. In total, there are 746,000 fewer children living in a workless household under the Conservatives (ONS, Working and workless households in the UK: October to December 2019, 4 March 2020).
Reducing the percentage of people in absolute poverty, before and after housing costs are considered, since 2010 – meaning families with disposable income and greater financial security. Both measurements are one per cent lower than when the Conservatives came into office in 2010. During that time, real net disposable income, adjusted for inflation, has risen by £35 per week from £412 to £447 after housing costs – an increase of 8 per cent, meaning more money in people’s pockets (DWP, Households Below Average Income: An analysis of the UK income distribution: 1994/95 – 2018/19, 26 March 2020).
The number of people living in relative income poverty increased by almost a million in four years under Labour. There were 10.9 million people living in relative income poverty in 2008/09, up 900,000 from 2004/05 (HM Government, State of the nation report, May 2010).
Despite Labour’s rhetoric that inequality has increased under the Conservatives, income inequality was actually lower in 2018 than 2010 when Labour left office, and employment rose by over 4 million since then. All measures of inequality (original; gross; disposable) were lower in 2017-18 than 2009-10. The latest employment data shows employment at a record reached a record high of 33.14 million in March 2020 – up 4.10 million since 2010 (ONS, The effects of taxes and benefits on household income, disposable income estimate: 2018, 05 March 2020; ONS, Labour Market Statistics, 19 May 2020).
Universal Credit has been effective at getting support to where it is needed. A JRF report written prior to coronavirus concludes that UC could ‘loosen the grip of poverty across the UK’ and that 5.5 million people in poverty will see increases to their income as a result of the system (JRF, Where next for Universal Credit and tackling poverty, 21 February 2019).
The Government is doing all we can to support people through this pandemic. I know some will disagree with the outcome of the debate on Wednesday. However, I am hopeful this will give some important context.