Child food poverty: the UK government’s refusal to extend the free school meals scheme

Robert Wilcox

In the summer, it took a public campaign by Manchester United forward, Marcus Rashford, to force the government into providing free school meal vouchers to children from low-income households during the holidays. Commenting on the government’s U-turn, Boris Johnson, betraying not the slightest hint of shame, stated that “we have to understand the pressure that families are under right now”. Last Wednesday – with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging on and families under mounting pressure – Conservative MPs voted overwhelmingly against a motion to extend the free school meals scheme until Easter 2021. As a direct result of this vote, 1.4 million children are at risk of going hungry.

Stating the obvious, which is no reason to leave it unsaid, we are not here concerned with a country that has had its food supplies interrupted by natural disaster or war. This is the government of the world’s sixth largest economy, supported by the vast majority of Conservative MPs (only five rebelled), making a deliberate policy choice to not ensure that children have access to adequate food during a pandemic which has resulted in many parents finding themselves on reduced incomes or out of work entirely.

In recent years, food bank usage has rapidly increased following the rollout of Universal Credit, the Conservatives’ flagship social security scheme. According to research by the Trussell Trust, the demand for food banks increases in an area the longer Universal Credit has been in operation there. This has been accompanied by highly distressing reports from teachers of their students rummaging through dustbins in search of food. Quite clearly, the scheme is failing the very people it should be helping. But it is this scheme that Conservative MPs are touting as the way forward even now, when households are under further financial strain due to the pandemic. Those MPs are wilfully dismissing the reality; their social security scheme makes households worse off, to the extent that they have difficulty in putting food on the table.  

Remarks made by Conservative MPs regarding free school meals go a long way towards explaining their unwillingness to do more for struggling households, revealing alarming degrees of cynicism, hypocrisy and prejudice. Ben Bradley MP has argued that extending the scheme “increases dependency” on the state. Jeremy Hunt MP believes that the motion was merely “designed to embarrass the government”. Brendan Clarke-Smith MP, when interviewed, asked “where is the slick PR campaign encouraging absent parents to take some responsibility for their children?”. In a Facebook post, Selaine Saxby MP responded to the news that various businesses have pledged to feed children for free by stating that “I am delighted our local businesses have bounced back so much after lockdown they are able to give away food for free, and very much hope they will not be seeking any further government support”.

The arguments they raise are fallacious and desperate, in the latter case even sarcastic. The irony that it is taxpayers who fund MPs’ expenses, and spend nearly £60,000 each week subsidising their three-course meals, appears to have been lost on Conservative MPs. They prefer to peddle a narrative of parents shirking their responsibility to their children. Even if one accepts this warped narrative, then surely that is all the more reason to help those children? A voucher, specifically for supermarket use, would at least provide the means to ensure that additional food comes into the household. Of course, the reality for most children who are entitled to free school meals is that their parents, far from shirking their responsibility, are doing all they can to provide for their children. For myriad reasons however, such as redundancy, loss of income, ill-health (both physical and mental), they find themselves unable to do so. The onus is on us, as a society, to do everything we can to help. To suggest otherwise is to defend the indefensible. No child should be left hungry, no matter what the circumstances.

There are certain issues where it should never be necessary to invoke the law, where the demands of morality leave no equivocation over the action that must be taken. This is surely one of them. Yet, for the benefit of government ministers who may need reminding, whilst there is no specific provision in domestic legislation, the right to adequate food is found in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11(2) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights points out, the right to adequate food does not mean that a government is responsible for distributing food to everyone free-of-charge. But what it does mean is that a government must establish and maintain conditions which, as the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explains, ensure that “every man, woman and child … has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement”. Clearly, the government has opted not to safeguard this right for children and, as experience has taught us, the fact that this is inconsistent with international law will be of little concern.

It is, therefore, down to us to pressure the government into making another U-turn. Local councils and various business may have pledged to do all they can, and both the Welsh and Scottish governments have stated their intentions to extend the free school meals scheme. But no child should fall through the gap and be left hungry. Please write to your MP now about this issue (tips on how you can do so can be found here) and/or sign this petition

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