All MPs get brutally attacked on social media but I’ve had more angry and abusive messages on Free School Meals than on anything else over the last decade, which shows how important it is to so many constituents and perhaps how much pent up frustration there is.
I too am frustrated that on an issue where everyone should be coming together like child poverty - without calling into question personal motives or integrity - that party politics shouldn’t be used to try and divide us.
So let me give the facts as I see them, give my views on concerns I’ve received so far- and then anyone who wants to criticise me can do so after seeing this.
How did you vote on Wednesday evening?
I voted for an amendment to the motion that said:
“That this House notes that schools are now fully operational following the COVID19 outbreak, and will continue to offer free school meals in term time; welcomes the substantial support provided by the government to children worth £550 million annually; further welcomes that this support has been bolstered by almost £53 billion worth of income protection schemes, and £9.3 billion of additional welfare payments; notes that eligible families have also been supported throughout lockdown through the receipt of meal vouchers worth £380 million while schools were partially closed, alongside the Holiday Activities and Food Fund; and further supports the government in its ongoing activities to support the most vulnerable children in society.”
No MP opposed this.
I did not vote for the Labour motion that called for the government “to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021 to prevent over a million children going hungry during this crisis.”
That motion did not pass.
Wasn’t this what Marcus Rashford called for?
Marcus Rashford called for free school meals in all holidays i.e. free holiday meals for school children
Why didn’t you support this?
Because I don’t believe that it is the duty of schools to be the welfare state in school holidays, and no-one has explained how it would work in practice. I do know it was really challenging for some schools to reach families in Gloucester during the lock down and they needed the help of wider communities to help. I’m afraid I do not agree that schools should stay open in the holidays to provide food, and there are real questions about how effective a voucher scheme is to families.
There is also a key principle here. Our country has never before provided food for children from the Government in the holidays, and we did so in the summer because of the practical impact on jobs and wages of many from the pandemic. This was an extraordinary reaction to an extraordinary situation when many businesses could not function. (In fact Labour turned down a proposal to do so when in government in 2007 during the last economic crisis).
But Labour’s motion only called for an extension until March 2021?
It did, but if the government agreed on what basis would it argue against a further extension - we may be living with the pandemic for a while to come.
So you’re against helping poor children in the school holidays?
No: the opposite. Which is why I’ve supported the £9million holiday activities programme this summer and the extension of the free school food programme to an extra 50,000 families - as well as the £1,000 a year per person increase to Universal Credit, and all the other measures in the £9 billion of additional welfare given this year to help families feed their children. That’s all quite apart from the £53 billion job support etc.
But don’t you think there will still be hungry children this winter despite all the extra welfare money?
Yes - which is where the community comes in. Rather than have Government programmes direct to families (vouchers, most likely) I believe that grassroots communities know best who is in real food poverty and needs help. And in Gloucester we know much better now who they are from the work done by street ambassadors / voluntary groups & charities. The many groups and individuals to whom I gave out Appreciation Awards in the summer showed that very clearly. Supporting those groups directly and indirectly is the best way to tackle food poverty, on top of a strong welfare system.
But have we the resources to help all the children whose families can’t afford to feed them in the school holidays?
The organiser of the Fair Shares SW scheme in Gloucester (Jennie Layhe) believes so, and I know that local charities like the Long Table, Gloucestershire Gateway Trust, The Club at Tuffley Park are playing their part supported by the Councils and grant funders. The government has provided extra money (£63 million) for local councils to help those who need help the most, and so I believe the combination of willing volunteers, local charities and some public money means that each community can look after its own food needs. The Government should not take over our own responsibilities as parents, families and communities: but it must provide the welfare.
But Labour says Universal Credit is rubbish and wants to abolish it?
They are making a big mistake and I suspect will do a u turn on this.
Universal Credit has, with a few teething problems, been a huge success in simplifying 6 previous benefits, putting everything online and therefore far more flexible and responsive to real situations and rewarding aspiration.
It has worked fantastically well during the pandemic and the paper driven system we inherited would have collapsed under the strain of millions of new applicants, as the system in Spain has.
The problem is not the billions of pounds your government has thrown at everything but that you just don’t care about the poor do you?
This is really what it’s about: a political campaign to make you feel emotionally that every Conservative MP is a heartless thug (and therefore you should never vote for me or us again). The vote was not on a Bill and it was not binding.
You can decide whether I fit the caricature. But I would not have spent so much time creating HaVinG (a charity designed to help alleviate poverty in our city), on countless casework for families across Gloucester or supporting community groups over the last decade if I didn’t care about poverty.
And I would not be as excited as I am about the work the government is doing to help us fund long term housing solutions for the homeless and rough sleepers if I wanted to be in a political party of callous thugs.
I passionately believe in what we do on free school meals and am proud that the coalition government I was part of extended that programme to free school meals for everyone in infant schools in 2014.
But I also believe it should not be the duty of the Government to provide free holiday meals except in an absolute emergency like when we were totally locked down. If we get there again then let’s consider it. But otherwise let our communities do what they’re best at - identifying those in great need and helping where needed with support from Government locally and nationally.
I hope that is helpful and clears up this issue. We need less social media attacks, less calling MPs ‘scum’ and more recognition that most of us want something similar and can disagree respectfully about the best way to deliver it.