Words by Summer Kelly
On 23 October MPs rejected a Labour motion to extend free school meals into the school holidays. The defeat was 322 votes to 261 as the government whipped its MPs to vote against, leaving only five conservative MPs voting for the plan and one MP – Caroline Ansell, subsequently quitting her role.
During the summer holidays the government bowed down to pressure leading to a U-turn on the decision to stop free school meal vouchers following an open letter written by Marcus Rashford. Mr. Rashford pleaded for the government to go back on its decision and allow the vouchers to extend throughout the holidays in order to feed nearly 1.3 million children. The vouchers were to be spent in supermarkets and allowed for around £3 a day to be spent on a child’s meal.
However, the government once again voted to block the extension of free school meal vouchers during the holiday and it appears this time there is no U-turn in sight. Boris Johnson has said the government did not back the motion as it is supporting families instead with a Universal Credit increase of 20 a week that was introduced in April and has given 63m to local councils.
The decision to stop the vouchers has caused public outrage with many celebrities stepping in, such as comedian Rufus Hound who took to twitter branding the Conservative party “scum” for essentially “keeping hungry children hungry”.
The Child Poverty Action Group has stated that “we have reached a low point”, as the government steers clear of “moral responsibility”. Since the vote more than 2000 paediatricians have signed a letter stating that child hunger should “transcend politics”.
Many Conservative MPs have come out in defence of the vote with MP Brenden Clarke-Smith deeming the support of celebrities to be nothing more than “virtue signalling”, further stating that this was not a vote to “help poor kids – yes or no”, but a “promise to roll out a huge expansion of long-term state dependency to millions”.
The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said it was right to help in an “unprecedented and unpredictable period, but we are in a different position now”.
However, with the plight of Covid-19 and the second wave, unemployment has seen its largest increase since 2009 with a 138,000 growth meaning rate of unemployment has jumped from 4.1% to 4.5% according to ONS (office of National Statistics) and this continues to grow meaning poverty rates will increase and the need for such facilities as free school meals and food banks will increase with it.
The government has also been criticised for mismanagement as to keep the scheme running throughout the half-term would’ve cost £20 million this has been compared to the £90 million that was spent on one week of the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme.
Although there has been a backing from the majority of Tory MPs, one MP for Eastbourne – Caroline Ansell, has quit her role as a private secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Explaining her reasoning, she stated: “we are still living very much in the shadow of a pandemic, vouchers are a lever not perfect, not sustainable, but one which I thought could be used to reach families in Eastbourne and across the country in the immediate time ahead”.
Ansell was one of only five tory MPs that voted to back the Labour motion. Sir Bernard Jenkin, a senior Conservative MP and Conservative chair of the Commons liaison committee recently added: “I think we have to admit that we misunderstood the mood of the country here”.
The chairman of the Education committee, Robert Halfon, has said he is also not supporting the government on this. With such influential Conservatives coming out in disapproval of the vote, it is easy to believe there may be another U-turn again this time, the pressure is certainly on and it is certainly still possible.
With the government standing by its decision, local councils and businesses are providing school meals instead. Over 40 local authorities, the UKs biggest local authority – Birmingham – have stepped in, announcing it will supply vouchers for 61,000 pupils.
Marcus Rashford also shared over 100 cafes and restaurants that are offering to help stating “this is the England I know”, adding that he was “blown away” by the outpour of support for the campaign.
The Labour party have vowed to keep putting the pressure on and challenge the decision to block free school meals further. Keir Starmer stated that if there is no change before Christmas, Labour will push for another vote.
This comes as a petition against using public money to support MP’s food costs had received 740,000 signatures by the night of 24 October. People also took to the streets on Saturday 24 October to protest against the decision, with more protests planned to take place across the country.