I am pleased to tell you that the Government’s existing support will be bolstered, in view of another extended lockdown. This has been a challenging time for many, and families have been hit hard by the pandemic. The Government have now extended the successful Holiday Activities and Food programme by up to £220 million, as well as funding a £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme, we are making sure families get the help they need.
This is a much greater investment than just extending free school meals and will add to existing protection already in place to ensure local families get the help they need if they are struggling as a result of Coronavirus. It builds on the £63 million already provided to councils this year to assist those struggling to buy food and essentials.
As I said previously, I strongly believe support should be targeted to the most disadvantaged children who need it most. I believe it much better to focus resources on existing schemes such as the Holiday Activities and Food programme, targeted at the most disadvantaged children. These activities ensure than not only does food reach those children most in need but ensures families can get access to additional services and support.
This is a far better answer to the problems we face than a general addition to free school meals. This solution is targeted at the families who need it most providing them with much wider support, instead of applying a weaker solution to a larger cohort.
I hope this assures you that this Government is active in supporting those in need.
23.10.2020: Free school meals vote
Firstly, because there has been some confusion about this from several people who have contacted me on this subject, I must set out what the vote on free school meals was.
The motion was a non-binding “statement of intent” moved by the opposition, and if it passed it would not have put anything into law, it was designed to score a political point rather than giving an accurate reflection of the current situation. The specific policy proposed was the provision of free school meals to children who currently are eligible to receive them, during non-term time up to Easter 2021.
I strongly believe support should be targeted to the most disadvantaged children who need it most, this policy would not have done that. I believe it much better to focus resources on existing schemes such as the Holiday Activities and Food programme, targeted at 50,000 of the most disadvantaged children with free meals and enriching activities. These activities ensure than not only does food reach those children most in need but ensures families can also be provided with access to additional services and support.
During the pandemic to ensure the support reaches those families most in need a £63million local authority welfare assistance fund has been created, allowing local councils to provide essential food and other items to those who need them. Stoke-on-Trent City Council specifically has received £401,561.04 to help the most vulnerable who need this additional support at this time.
It is also important to outline what additional support already exists for families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Universal Credit has received a £20pw boost for all recipients, meaning that vulnerable families have more money to get them through this period.
This is on top of Child Benefit, which this year will be up to £1,800 per year for a family with two children. Additionally, through the NHS the Government provides “Healthy start” vouchers, aimed at new parents and allowing them to receive free food including fresh vegetables, vitamins, milk, and tinned pulses.
I have seen several people suggest we voted against free school meals, this is not the case. We did not vote on the provision of free school meals during term time. Under this Government the number of children eligible has increased dramatically. Every child in reception, year 1 and year 2 as well as those pupils and students from lower income families in schools and colleges are now entitled to free school meals. 1.3 million eligible children are now receiving free school meals, more than ever before.
Earlier this year, the Government agreed to provide school meals during the holidays. At that time, the country was in a full lockdown and existing schemes had yet to take full effect. Now we have a much different situation, the country is far more open and functioning, and we have well-targeted support systems firmly in place.
I therefore believe, with all the existing support in place, I was right to oppose what was a very general and imprecise, politically motivated motion.