Boris Johnson’s Conservative government voted down an extension to free school meals over academic holidays until Easter 2021 last night, 322 — 261. With Labour having tabled the vote, five Conservative MPs voted in favour of the extension, while Children’s Minister Vicky Ford voted against it; one of the five voters in favour, Caroline Ansell, resigned this morning. The vote will leave English children as the only group in Great Britain without an extension to their free school meal provision during the novel coronavirus pandemic, after Wales and Scotland voted in favour of an extension.
The provision of free school meals during the pandemic has been fraught. Pressure — led by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford — forced the government into a u-turn on its initial decision not to extend the vouchers over the summer holidays. In recent days, Rashford has again put pressure on the government to force the debate on the extension that has now been voted down.
In the early stages of the pandemic, the free school meal scheme itself creaked under the exponential increase in food poverty lockdown occasioned. Parents reported vouchers not working at tills; vouchers only applying to a limited number of supermarkets and convenience stores. Like much of the government’s COVID-19 response, the scheme was outsourced to a private contractor Edenred, entitling each child to £15 in vouchers per week.
The basic thought process behind not putting the £157 million that would extend the scheme into budget is that struggling parents have alternatives. Those alternatives are Universal Credit and food banks. The first two weeks of national coronavirus lockdown saw those food banks experience unprecedented demand, with the Trussell Trust issuing 50,000 parcels in a week. A new report from the trust forecasts a 61 percent increase on current food parcel uptake from October to December 2020, and concludes that the response should not be for the public to give food banks more food, or donate to food charities like FareShare. It concludes that the response should entail the government spending £250 million on welfare systems in local authorities.
That’s the link between the practical thought process and the ideological thought process in government, which takes its most ugly form in comments about “lazy parents” with flat screen TVs and tweets “advising” that potatoes cost less than chips, preparing one meal is a demonstration that food poverty is “just idleness,” and the hungry can “forage for apples.” The ideological thought process is that the state should not directly feed hungry children; parents should, no matter how their lives are impacted by other policies from the state. The ideological thought process says that food banks and food charities should exist to take up government slack.
This thought process has had a long-term impact on food poverty in Britain. A 2019 report on the “state of hunger in Britain,” also from the Trussell Trust, credited the previous ten years for a 74 percent rise in food bank use across the country. The Conservative government was in power for all ten of those years. In the run-up to the 2019 general election, Labour put reducing food bank use by half in its first year in power in its manifesto for that election. Now, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the existing problem while making a new one: the Trussell Trust’s latest report says that 50 percent of people using food banks in 2020 had never had to use one before.