Free school meals over school holidays

Many constituents have contacted me regarding last week’s vote in relation to free school meals, so I wanted to set out my views on this issue and what happened last week. 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.  

Parents can generally claim free school meals for their children if they are on out of work benefits, income support or claiming Universal Credit/child tax credit and earning (on UC) under £7640 a year.

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.

The issue is how best to help families during school holidays, and aside from the exceptional time earlier this year, no Government, even during recessions, has considered that trying to use schools as a second welfare system for those already in receipt of benefits is an effective way to proceed. Free school meals are far from an accurate assessment of who is in need and also suffer from some of those in need not taking them up.

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 £20 a week (over £1,000 for 2020/21). This increase has a total annual cost of around £6.6 billion. This means that many of the families entitled to Free School meals are receiving more welfare support this year unlike many other families whose income has been affected by the pandemic.

In order to target support to those that need it most, and make sure that those families and children that need support can get it, 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. Derbyshire County Council has received £808,262 from this fund to distribute locally.

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. This crisis has highlighted issues that need to be tackled. As a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee I have been  working on the changes needed in the welfare system and to support for those looking for a new job – you can see reports on the response to the Coronavirus crisis and reforms to Universal Credit here – https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/164/work-and-pensions-committee/publications/ .

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.

If you would like to discuss this further or if you need any help, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me by emailing  nigel.mills.mp@parliament.uk