How do we identify the families most in need this winter?
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Like many others, I welcomed last weekend’s announcement about the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, Holiday Activities and Food Programme and Healthy Start Scheme, writes Ipswich MP Tom Hunt.
Early next month a £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme will be distributed to councils up and down the country. I found out this week, having raised the matter in the House of Commons Chamber, that Suffolk will be receiving around £2 million of this fund and it will last until the end of March.
The grants will be provided to those children and families who need the support the most over the next few challenging winter months, 80% of which will be ringfenced for support with food and bills.
The Holiday Activities and Food Programme is being extended across the country at the cost of up to £220 million and will ensure that all children will receive a healthy and nutritious lunch over next year’s Easter, Summer and Christmas holidays as well as benefiting from enriching activities.
And Healthy Start Scheme payments will be increased from £3.10 per week to £4.25 per week. These vouchers are provided to pregnant women or those with children under the age of four who are on a low income or in receipt of benefits and allows them to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.
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All in all this package of support amounts to just shy of £400 million and amounts to one of the most ambitious and generous support packages of its type ever.
Two of these actions flow directly from the National Food Strategy that was commissioned by the Government in June 2019 and its part 1 report that was published this July.
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This summer Suffolk was one of 17 areas to benefit from the Holiday Activity and Food Programme as part of a pilot before the decision was made to extend it across the whole country. This August I visited the Inspire Centre on Lindbergh Road with the Children’s Minister Vicky Ford MP to see the scheme in action.
During the visit the Children’s Minister explained to me how it was her ambition for the scheme to be extended nationwide and we also discussed the National Food Strategy.
The reason I mention all of this is to dispel the view propagated by some that what was announced by the Government on Sunday was somehow quickly cobbled together following the vote on whether to extend free school meal vouchers into the autumn half term and the public criticism that followed. This was categorially not the case.
It’s also not the case that this was a “U-turn”. A U-turn would have been the Government going back on its decision not to simply extend free school vouchers into the holidays now that school are open again. Clearly this isn’t what the Government have done.
What the Government have actually done is bring forward a package of support that is far more wide ranging, generous and holistic than what would have been delivered by simply extending free school meal vouchers into the holidays up to March.
To put it in perspective, the cost of extending free school meal vouchers into the autumn half term across the whole country would have been £20 million and doing it for two weeks over Christmas would have been £40 million. Between early December and March, Suffolk alone will be getting £2 million from the Covid Winter Grant Scheme.
And of course one of the real benefits of this grant scheme is that help isn’t just confined to food, it covers bills as well.
But as I said in Parliament earlier this week, the challenge over the next few weeks will be to raise awareness of the Covid Winter Grant Scheme and start identifying those people and families who need the support the most. I’m sure most people will welcome this extra funding, but it will mean little if it doesn’t get out efficiently to those who need the help.
Our local authorities will already have a good idea of who many of these families are, however bearing in mind the pandemic that we’re currently living through and the way in which family finances have been hit, it’s almost certain that the list of those who need help will be far greater than usual.
Therefore it’s of paramount importance that our local authorities work closely with local charities, community groups and our schools to raise awareness of the support available ahead of the grants’ launch early next month.
As the local MP I plan to hold a number of meetings over the coming days and weeks to understand more fully how these grants will be distributed and I will also be seeking assurances that our local authorities are prepared to receive the funds and provide the support as quickly as possible to all those who need it.
As I’ve said in a previous column, the Suffolk Hardship Fund (Suffolk Advice and Support Services) has been there and continues to be there for those who need support. It was there for those families who over the autumn half term had concerns about their ability to put food on the table following the decision not to extend the free school meal vouchers. However, I think the profile and awareness of this fund has not been as great as it could have been and this must not be the case with the Covid Winter Grant Scheme.
The package of support announced by the Government last weekend is one of the most generous support packages of its type ever provided but it must deliver on the ground for my constituents who need the help the most.
I would encourage any constituents of mine who have any questions about what the Government have announced to get in touch with me.