The UK Parliament recently voted against extending a scheme that provided free meals for approximately 1.3 million children in England, and the majority of the country is (understandably) outraged. A significant amount of pressure is being thrown onto the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to reassess No 10’s decisions. What were the positives of the free school meal scheme? And why does discontinuing it mean that not only children will suffer in the long term?
The scheme is (or was) what it says it is, it provided disadvantaged children with free school meals. Ultimately, this scheme meant more than that, as more often than not the food provided is the only meal that these children would eat all day. Many restaurants, cafes and councils around London are stepping up to show their support by providing what they can from their services. Cafe-owner Kim Mahony Hargreaves who is providing a lunchbox for children in need told the BBC that “Some children wouldn’t even eat the food themselves but take it home for their families to share.”
Children of all ages, from nursery through to six form, living in households on income-related benefits were, until now, eligible to apply for the scheme. Eligibility varied between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland due to individual set of rules. However, claims made in England were eligible from households that earned a maximum income of £7,400 a year after tax, not including any benefits.
Due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, children have not been able to attend school at all. Half-term has just begun, which means again, no school. Studies show that 4.2 million children have been living in poverty in the UK between 2018 and 2019, 1.3 million of which reside in England, which is 30 per cent of children or nine in a regular classroom of 30. Furthermore, children from black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to be living in poverty with 46 per cent of children being from this group compared to the 26 per cent of children coming from white British families.
Even with these statistics in mind, the UK government refused to continue the scheme, leaving the children and their families in an uncertain situation, and leaving the rest of us to do our bit in changing the government’s mind.
Understandably, we are in a financial crisis thanks to the global pandemic, and it will probably get worse. However, the children affected by this new decision, who have no financial power and are effectively helpless to their circumstances are the next generation of decision makers. So why is their well being being compromised at all?
Senior Tory and conservative chairman of the Liaison Committee Sir Bernard Jenkin told Sky that “We have to admit we’ve misunderstood the mood of the country here… the public want to see the government taking a national lead on this, and I think the government will probably have to think again on that.” Sir Jenkin was absent from the vote on free school meals but admitted he would have supported the government’s position. The UK’s Labour Party has threatened to bring the issue back to the House of Commons if Johnson does not relent.
Meanwhile, using his social media platform and reach, footballer Marcus Rashford has led a viral campaign highlighting organisations that are providing food regardless of political response to the situation, sparking thousands of people to stand up and serve the cause, as well as a few of the Conservatives involved in the thick of the voting process.
Five Tory MPs rebelled, one of those being Robert Halfon, who called on Johnson to meet Rashford by telling the BBC that “It may be that they don’t agree with everything that Marcus Rashford is proposing, but it would give us a chance to come up with a long-term plan to combat child food hunger once and for all.”
Contrastingly, another conservative MP Selaine Saxby said in a since-deleted Facebook post that she hoped businesses who were giving away food for free “will not be seeking any further government support.”
Earlier this year, the UK government bowed to the pressure of Rashford’s campaign by extending the free meal voucher for the children that needed it throughout the summer holiday, but this time have refused to do so over the Christmas period and holidays after that. The government announced that it has given £63 million to councils for families that are facing financial difficulties due to the pandemic restrictions, as well as increasing the welfare support by £9.3 billion.
As the government continues to fumble with its jeopardising decisions, the community is going ahead with its own. Hundreds of cafes, restaurants and some local councils have since pledged to help feed children facing hardship during the October half-term, to which Rashford publicly responded that he “couldn’t be more proud to call myself British.” The petition on child food poverty approached 900,000 names over the weekend.
Izzi Seccombe, the conservative leader of a country council in Warwickshire told BBC Radio 4 that her share of the £63 million fund had already been spent, explaining that “We are going to be funding it ourselves ourselves now, because there isn’t money there to support it. We will be trying to find it from other sources.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News that he agreed “very strongly with the purpose of the campaign run by Marcus Rashford, I think we’re all inspired by the way that he’s led that campaign.” He continued, “And the purpose is that no child should go hungry and that’s right. The question is how we then fulfil that.”
How we fulfil that is the question we all need to answer now. There is no denying the importance of this issue, but there is more that can be done beyond the government’s walls. This is everybody’s problem, and children are not at the fault of their suffering. Helping those in need, especially now, is an obligation that (with or without the help of the UK government) we have to take into our own hands too.