A few facts on this week’s Free School Meals (FSM) debate, which you’ll have seen in the news a lot.
It's important, so please take a few moment to read what I have written here, where I try and explain the issues to you. As ever, there’s more to this than meets the eye, and there’s a bit of detail in it.
Firstly, this week's vote wasn’t a vote on a Bill. It wasn’t something that would change the law. It wasn’t a vote that would provide any money to anybody.
It was a vote on what is called an “opposition day motion”, in other words, a vote on a theoretical topic - a “motion” - decided upon by the opposition. This is a way to raise issues for debate, and it’s often very helpful - but it does not do any more than that. So, to say that Conservative MPs have in some way voted against feeding children is simply wrong.
This wasn’t just a simple “do we help poor kids, yes or no?” question. We all agree about the need to do that.
The difficult bit, and the bit where there is much more complicated debate, is about HOW we do it.
What the opposition motion suggested was that the state should provide meals for millions of kids, 365 days a year.
Now that might sound like a good idea, but it is important to understand that Free School Meals eligibility is not a good indicator of need: it does not automatically mean 'hungry in the holidays’.
There is no sense at all in rolling out a new entitlement to hundreds of thousands of families who don’t need it in order to help those that do, when we can instead target the money at those who are in real desperate need and offer them a better level of help.
So, please don’t think that the very blunt, untargeted approach suggested in that theoretical opposition day debate is the best way to tackle food poverty, or poverty more generally. There’s a real danger that - if you did take that motion’s advice - you would roll out a huge expansion of long term state dependency to millions, when we could be targeting that help much more effectively. I do feel that we need an effective use of funding to support the poorest who need it most.
What I want to see - and what I voted for - was to target that funding more effectively to kids in desperate need, like the huge £1bn package that the Government has given to councils this week who are tasked with local and targeted support of disadvantaged people and families. In any event the Government has extended free school meal eligibility to a further 50,000 children and expanded programmes like breakfast clubs, so we’re doing more on that, too.
And so I very much think that we should help, but let’s be targeted about it.
The help that we have given includes, since the start of Coronavirus, adding over £9 billion to the welfare system. This has allowed us to:
- Increase Universal Credit by £1,000/year;
- Increase Local Housing Allowance and create a £180m fund to help struggling families with their rent;
- Create a £63m fund for councils to use for local welfare assistance - more on what this means for us locally below;
- Award £16m to food charities.
Locally, the Government has given Oxfordshire County Council over half a million pounds of funding specifically to support local families who are struggling with food and essentials.
Rather than the - roughly - £20m Free School Meals proposal nationally, we have already rolled out a £63m plan, delivered by Councils, who were tasked with targeting this money to those families that most need it, with whatever services are most helpful to them. That includes, if it is a problem, food.
This is a more personal, targeted approach to specific problems, so the decisions are taken at a local level by the organisations that know their residents best, rather than a blanket national scheme. Our approach is also one that comes with 3 x more funding nationally - and the local approach ensures it goes to those who need it most.
This is part of more than £9 billion of similar support for vulnerable people nationally since March.
Government has very much acted to help families who are struggling, and with a massive amount of money.
So if anybody out there is saying “Conservative MPs voted against feeding kids”, that couldn't be further from the truth. What we all voted for was proper targeted support for those most in need. That goes way beyond just food. What we voted for was real, effective, targeted help, rather than something that just sounds as if it might be.