There’s no doubt that holiday hunger exists up and down our country. It's why we have an established system where those who might fall into this category get free school meals in term-time and their families are helped through the benefit system in the school holidays.
Up to this point free school meals have only ever been intended to support eligible pupils attending school during term-time and have not been a general welfare measure. They are aimed at providing healthy meals for children in schools to ensure that disadvantaged students can learn to the best of their ability in education.
When this pandemic struck our schools shut for the first time in my memory (although provision was maintained for the children of key workers and the most vulnerable.) This left a gap which was filled by a voucher and other measures.
During this year’s summer holidays, most children in England had been out of school since March, and the Government decided to extend free school meals throughout the holidays, to reflect the long period of home-based learning. The national food voucher provision and the Covid Summer Food Fund combined ensuring the extra costs of feeding children at home over term-time were met with £380 million in support for families. This extension of free school meals to 50,000 extra eligible children (and the expansion of breakfast clubs), added to the increases in local welfare assistance via a £63 million fund for councils, an increase in Universal Credit by £1,000 a year, and the creation of a £180 million fund for those struggling with rent, were all part of this safety net as many faced uncertain circumstances in the summer. It made sure that parents and families have the money to feed themselves and their children has been our priority throughout the pandemic.
As students returned to school in September, the existing term-time free school meals returned and have been benefiting children who need them, just like normal. And as we gradually returned to the new normal it was decided that we should go back to the system that had been working previously.
All policies are, of course, kept under constant review in light of the unprecedented nature of the challenge we face whilst dealing with coronavirus (There’s more information about financial support for people’s jobs and businesses on my website: https://www.heatonharris.com/coronavirus-winter-financial-support ) and the Government recently sent more money out to local Councils to ensure any local needs can be addressed..
Over the last few days, the Northamptonshire MPs have been working together with Northamptonshire County Council (NCC) to put a system in place to provide free school meal vouchers across the County for the October half-term period. We wanted to make sure that no one locally could possibly fall through the safety net that already exists.
So, thanks to the extra Government grant to NCC earlier this week, extra provision to target local need is being provided. As a “localist” I believe this is the right way to tackle this challenge - councils know their communities and their needs best and with the financial backing of central Government, are also well placed to address them. That is exactly what we are doing in this instance and I’ll post more information here about the vouchers and similar schemes in the future.
One final point: all the Government interventions listed above (and others) are designed to help people in their hour of need. In a way you could say they are treating the symptoms of the worst of all problems – poverty. Whilst it is right to do what we can to alleviate these symptoms we also need to treat the root cause of the problem. The best way of lifting people out of poverty is ensuring we have a strong economy; one that creates jobs, rewards people for their endeavours and encourages them to help themselves and others and where people and businesses pay taxes to ensure that all of the measures I’ve talked about above – and a whole host more, like a strong NHS, can be provided.
This Government, I think it is fair to say, has rather a lot on at the moment – and we are trying to get the balance right so we can help people through the pandemic and ensure our economy remains strong, so we can pay for all the interventions we are having to make. These are unprecedented times and we won’t get everything right, but that’s not for lack of caring or trying.
More information about the provision of free school meals in Northamptonshire can be found here.