Saturday 24 October 2020 / 11:11 PM Education / Kate Green

Labour threatens new Commons vote on free school meals

Labour has made it clear that it will force another Commons vote on the extension of free school meals over the holidays if the government does not change its policy before the Christmas recess.

In a letter to Gavin Williamson, Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green said “Labour will not give up on the fight to ensure that no child goes to bed hungry.”

The move follows a Commons vote last Wednesday when the Conservatives rejected a Labour motion that would have seen free school meals extended over the school holidays, a measure that would have benefitted over 1.4 million children and their families.

Green has called for Gavin Williamson, as well as Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, to meet with the Child Food Poverty Taskforce set up by Marcus Rashford, to discuss their proposals.

In her letter, Green condemned the “dangerous and stigmatising rhetoric” used by Conservative MPs in recent days. She criticised Ben Bradley MP for a tweet in which he supported the claim that the provision of free school meal vouchers in summer amounted to £20 cash direct to a crack den and a brothel”, and expressed concern at Selaine Saxby, MP for North Devon, who criticised businesses in her area for providing free meals over the holidays.

The intervention comes as Labour increases the pressure on the Conservatives to make tackling child poverty a national priority. The last Labour government set clear targets to end child poverty by 2020, but in the last year it has risen, with projections that it will continue to rise as a result of the pandemic. In the last General Election the Resolution Foundation warned that the Conservative manifesto could see child poverty reach record highs.

The text of Kate Green’s letter to Gavin Williamson reads:

Dear Gavin,

In 2020, child poverty in this country was supposed to come to an end.

The last Labour government previously made a legally binding commitment to see child poverty end by 2020. The time that Labour spent in office saw a huge decline in child poverty, the result of a cross-government effort to end the scourge of child poverty.

But, sadly, on a day when child poverty should have come to an end, there will be over 4 million children across the country who wake up in poverty. The majority of them are the children of working parents, struggling because their jobs do not pay enough to make ends meet, because housing is too expensive and too insecure, and because of the billions of pounds cut form our social safety net since your Party took office in 2010.

After the last Labour government oversaw a huge reduction in levels of child poverty, successive Conservative governments have implemented policies that have caused child poverty to rise. If you do not change course as a matter of urgency the number of children growing up in poverty will reach a record high.

On Wednesday, Labour proposed a small measure that would have helped many of these families. We proposed a motion in Parliament that would have extended free school meals over the school holidays, to support the families struggling to make ends meet in this pandemic. Unfortunately, you and over 300 of your Conservative colleagues voted against this measure.

This would have supported over 1.4 million children and their families, at a time when so many are concerned about losing their jobs, seeing their income fall, and not being able to put food on the table for their families.

There is still time to change approach, but the government must act quickly. If you change your policy now, we can ensure that no child goes to bed hungry on Christmas Day. Labour will not give up on the fight to ensure that no child goes to bed hungry, and if you do not change course we will bring this issue back to the House of Commons before Christmas.

I am sure that, like me, you welcome the work done by Marcus Rashford and the Child Food Poverty Taskforce to shine a light on this hugely important issue. I urge you, the Prime Minister, and the Chancellor to get around the table with them as a matter of urgency, to discuss their proposals, and to ensure that ending child poverty, and ensuring no child goes to bed hungry, is a priority of this government. I will be making the same offer to them on behalf of myself and the Leader of the Labour Party.

But beyond the practical, policy steps needed to end child poverty, it is important that politicians of all parties have a genuine understanding of these issues, rooted in the facts and in compassion for those struggling to make ends meet. That is why I have been deeply concerned by the comments made by a number of Conservative Members of Parliament in recent days, which show a dangerous misunderstanding of the huge challenges of children growing up in poverty. The stigmatising and dangerous rhetoric we have seen from too many of your colleagues.

In a tweet that has since been deleted, Ben Bradley, Conservative MP for Mansfield, appeared to endorse the idea that the provision of free school meals over the summer, a government policy that I welcomed and supported, amounted to “£20 cash direct to a crack den and brothel.” Mr Bradley’s tweet shows a dangerous misunderstanding of both the reality faced by parents who struggle to make ends meet, and of the government’s own policy.

Indeed in the House of Commons Mr Bradley raised this exact concern to you, and you made it clear that the vouchers could only be used to purchase food. I hope you will urgently correct his misunderstanding of this policy.

Selaine Saxby, Conservative MP for North Devon, has criticised businesses in her own constituency for offering free school meals over the holidays, saying that she “very much hope[s] they will not be seeking any further government support.”

I was shocked to see a Conservative Member of Parliament seek to attack local businesses for trying to do what was right for their community. I hope that you will congratulate every business who is taking this step, something that the Prime Minister’s spokesperson seemed unfortunately unable to do.

I have repeatedly raised concerns with you that children and their families have been an afterthought for this government throughout the pandemic, and your Party’s vote on Wednesday confirmed my fears.

Now, thanks to the incredible effort of Marcus Rashford, of local councils and businesses, the Labour government in Wales, and campaigners across the country, the challenges of families struggling to make ends meet, and children growing up in poverty, have become a national priority.

This is a rare opportunity for everyone, in Westminster and across the country, to come together and end the great evil of child poverty. Because this is about so much more than a single issue or policy, it is about saying to the millions of children who grow up worrying that they will go to bed hungry, or the parents worried that they have to choose between feeding their children or heating their home, that they matter, that their concerns are the concerns of their government.

Child poverty was rising before this pandemic, and if nothing is done it will continue to rise. This cannot happen. This must now be a turning point, when all parties commit themselves to the end of child poverty.

I urge you to do the right thing, to do what the last Labour government did, and make ending child poverty a priority for this government. It is only by focusing relentlessly on these issues that we will make Britain the best place to grow up in.

Taking action on child poverty is not just about putting food on the table, or paying the bills, it is about making the life, talents, and aspirations of every child matter, and giving them the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

I hope that you will meet with the Child Food Poverty Taskforce and reverse your position on free school meals. But beyond that, you must rededicate this government to tackling the scourge of child poverty. I promise that you will have my support if you choose to do so  

Yours sincerely,

Kate Green MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Education