Contrary to what some people have been saying, I have not voted to take free school meals from children. Supporting vulnerable children, families and individuals has been at the heart of all I have done at this challenging time.
I am fully committed to free school meals, and this government has expanded the eligibility to more children than any other Government in over fifty years by offering a free school meal to every child in reception, year 1 and year 2, to those students from lower income eligible families in further education colleges and, most recently during the pandemic, to children of families on lower incomes with no recourse to public funds.
For over 100 years, free school meals have always focused on providing a hot meal during the school day as this helps children to learn. In the exceptional time when schools were closed to most students we continued to help them with either food packages or vouchers. Now schools are open, kitchens are open and children are again receiving free school meals at school, many schools are also providing parcels to those who are self isolating due to COVID-19.
Regarding school holidays, over the summer, our Holiday Activities and Food Programme helped up to 50,000 disadvantaged children with free healthy meals and enriching activities. For the past three years we have been running these programmes in various parts of the country. We know from these schemes that some families do need extra support especially in the long summer holiday, but it is not all the children on free school meals that need the support. Indeed even when free food and activities are offered the majority of eligible children on free school meals do not take them up.
I believe we must target support to those that need it most, and make sure that those families and children that need support can get it. This is why we have also established the £63m local authority welfare assistance fund to provide essential food and other items to those that need it – a fund which will be active over this half-term holiday. Derby City Council has received £333,340.27 and Derbyshire County Council received £808,261.89 from this fund to distribute locally.
We also know that the best way to support families and children is through the welfare system, not through providing supermarket vouchers. This ensures that support is reliably delivered to those who need it most, when they need it most and in a way which allows families to spend it in the way which will help them best. The welfare system is set up to provide this direct support all the year round in a way in which schools are not. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have provided unprecedented support for those in need and boosted the Universal Credit standard allowance and Working Tax Credit by over £1,000 per year for the next 12 months. We also provided nearly £1 billion of additional support for renters affected by coronavirus, by increasing local housing allowance rates for housing benefit and universal credit. Through our income protection schemes we have so far protected 12 million jobs and people at a cost of almost £53 billion, which is testimony to the Government’s commitment to supporting those in need.
The House of Commons accepts that there is a great deal of public interest in the prices of food and drink sold from venues across the parliamentary estate and we are frequently asked about the ‘catering subsidy’. However, catering services for the House of Commons are provided by an in-house team who do not provide a subsidised service in the commercial sense of the word. Some venues make a profit, referred to as contribution because it contributes to reducing overall costs. In other venues, the cost of providing the service does exceed the income received in sales due to the irregular hours and unpredictability of parliamentary business. The contribution or cost of each venue is calculated by subtracting the food and operational costs from the catering sales. Rather than a subsidy, the House monitors the contribution or cost of each catering venue, which include cafeterias, dining rooms, restaurants and bars. Prices of food and drink are regularly benchmarked against appropriate external comparators. MPs are not provided with free meals. There are only 650 MPs but over 6,000 pass holders on the parliamentary estate plus security staff and others who all use the food outlets, these outlets are not exclusive to just MPs.
I had a proxy vote for the recent Opposition day debate but unfortunately there was a technical fault which meant that my proxy pass did not work, as such it looks like I abstained.
I can reassure you of this Government’s fundamental commitment to supporting children in low income households and the billions of pounds that we have dedicated to that end, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope that you will agree that this support is best directed through the welfare system, or through specific schemes that target those in most need, such as the local authority welfare assistance fund, which is why I did not support an extension of free school meals supermarket vouchers during the holidays.