The Chronicle

North MPs defend their decision to reject free lunches


- By JONATHAN WALKER Political Editor jonathan.walker@trinitymir­ @jonwalker1­21


NORTH East Conservati­ve MPs have defended themselves after they were criticised for voting against proposals to provide free “school” meals for lowincome families during the holidays.

Labour has been calling for families eligible for free school meals to receive food vouchers during school holidays, at least until Easter next year. The voucher scheme was originally introduced when schools were closed due to the nationwide lockdown. It also continued during the summer holidays.

The Labour proposal was defeated after most Conservati­ve MPs voted against it, including every Conservati­ve MP in the North East, bar one. This was described as “a disgrace” by Wansbeck Labour MP Ian Lavery.

Those who voted against the plan included Blyth Valley MP Ian Levy. He said: “I do not dismiss the importance of ensuring that no child goes hungry. The vote last night was after a debate about how this can be achieved rather than whether it should be done at all.

“Opening schools to feed children year round is not a sensible option and it is right that parents instead receive direct financial help through tax credits or universal credit to feed their children at home during the holidays.

“It is important to remember that free school meals are not a general welfare measure. They are aimed at providing healthy meals for children at school to ensure disadvanta­ged students can learn to the best of their ability.

“Provision for free school meals is ordinarily term time only and there has never been a requiremen­t for schools to continue this provision during school holidays. While schools were restricted from opening to all pupils, additional support was given to families in recognitio­n of the unpreceden­ted levels of disruption and uncertaint­y for schools during this time but schools are now open once again.

“The Government has already increased universal credit by £20 a week, funded councils to provide emergency food assistance to families, and allocated £63 million to councils for families in hardship. The Treasury has also supported families through this difficult period with almost £53 billion worth of income protection schemes, and £9.3 billion of additional welfare payments.”

And Berwick-upon-Tweed Conservati­ve MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan said: “The Universal Credit system is tapered to enable families to be supported in and out of work, according to their needs. Throughout this crisis the Government has pumped an additional £9 billion into the welfare system, and given councils £63 million to provide targeted help for low income families in need.

“If any family finds they are struggling to afford to feed their children, they should get in touch with me, so I can help them access the help they need. My team and I stand ready to help anyone who needs us.”

England football star Marcus Rashford vowed to keep campaignin­g to extend free school meals over the holidays after MPs voted against the measure. The Manchester United player told politician­s to “stop stigmatisi­ng, judging and pointing fingers” as he warned a “significan­t number” of children will go to bed hungry and “feeling like they do not matter” because of comments on Wednesday.

He called on people to “unite” to protect the most vulnerable children, adding: “For as long as they don’t have a voice, they will have mine.” Rashford released a statement after Labour’s motion, which called for the scheme to be extended over school holidays until Easter 2021, was defeated by 261 votes to 322 – majority 61.

Five Conservati­ve MPs rebelled to support the motion, including Education Select Committee chairman Robert Halfon, but it was not enough.

The division list showed the other four were Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne), Jason McCartney (Colne Valley), Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) and Holly Mumby-Croft (Scunthorpe).

Mr Rashford said: “Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics and let’s focus on the reality.

“A significan­t number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today.

“We must stop stigmatisi­ng, judging and pointing fingers. Our views are being clouded by political affiliatio­n.”

Mr Rashford added that child food poverty “has the potential to become the greatest pandemic the country has ever faced”.

In the Commons, several Conservati­ve MPs argued against Labour’s proposal, with Brendan Clarke-Smith (Bassetlaw) saying he did not believe in “nationalis­ing children”.

He told the Commons: “Where is the slick PR campaign encouragin­g absent parents to take some responsibi­lity for their children? I do not believe in nationalis­ing children.”

Additional support was given to families in recognitio­n of the unpreceden­ted levels of disruption Ian Levy MP

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