Suffolk MPs back government to reject free school meals extension

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt warned of using the term "institutionally racist". Picture: PARLIAMENT LIVE TV

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt warned of using the term "institutionally racist". Picture: PARLIAMENT LIVE TV - Credit: Archant

Six of Suffolk’s seven Conservative MPs voted against an opposition motion that would have continued to offer free meals to children during school holidays until next year.

The motion was put down by Labour after the campaign by England footballer Marcus Rashford to highlight the problem of food poverty for many children.

The Manchester United player urged politicians to “unite” to protect the most vulnerable children and vowed to continue campaigning, writing on Twitter: “For as long as they don’t have a voice, they will have mine.”

He released a statement after Labour’s motion, which called for the scheme to be extended over school holidays until Easter 2021, was defeated by 261 votes to 322 – a majority of 61.

Downing Street ruled out performing a late U-turn ahead of the vote, with Boris Johnson also telling Prime Minister’s Questions: “We support kids on low incomes in school and we will continue to do so.

“But the most important thing is to keep them in school and not tear off into another national lockdown taking them out of school. We will continue to use the benefits system and all the systems of income to support children throughout the holidays as well.”

MORE: Labour calls on Suffolk MPs to back free school meals extensionThe only Suffolk MP not to vote against the bill was Central Suffolk and North Ipswich member Dr Dan Poulter who was given leave of absence by government whips.

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt said the government should find a better way of helping disadvantaged children than just extending school meals to holiday periods.

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He said: “I backed this move when it was first proposed for the summer holidays, but we really should look at something more than just extending free school meals to holiday periods until March. We should look at extending this support through Universal Credit to ensure it carries on.”

Bury St Edmunds MP and junior health minister Jo Churchill said: “As a former school governor I am acutely aware of the importance of good nutritional free school meals, however we are now in a different situation compared to the summer, with children back at school.

“We are however committed to ensuring there is a safety net for every child. The opposition amendment would only provide a temporary measure, whereas we will ensure that those most in need are supported by injecting an extra £9bn into our welfare system this year alongside a £63 million funding package for councils to provide emergency assistance to families with food, essentials and meals.”

Suffolk Coastal MP Dr Therese Coffey summed up for the government in the debate in her role as Work and Pensions Secretary and said that issues had changed since the summer when the government did a u-turn and decided to continue supplying free meals to children.

She said work was now concentrating on areas with higher Covid-19 rates and more restrictions. But she said extra funds had been made available to those in greatest need – and these could be accessed through local councils.

South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge said that it had always been seen that schools had a duty to feed children while they were on the premises – but that it should be a family responsibility during school holidays.

There was extra support available now through Universal Credit and job creation schemes to try to ease the pressures on families.

Waveney MP Peter Aldous added: “This year the Government extended free school meals over the summer holiday because most children hadn’t been in school since March and families had been meeting the extra costs of this. This autumn, 99% of children are back in school and have therefore been benefiting from free school meals during term time, as normal.

“The motion did not offer a long-term solution to the problem of child poverty and the Government are taking steps to ensure that there is a responsive and effective welfare system that will enable families to manage their household budgets. There is still work to be done on this and I’m lobbying Government and feeding back to them the concerns that constituents are bringing to my attention.

“Since the start of the pandemic, the Government has added over £9 billion to the welfare system, including increasing Universal Credit by £1,000 a year, increasing the Local Housing Allowance and creating a £180m fund to help struggling families with their rent, creating a £62m fund for councils to use for local welfare assistance and awarding £16m to food charities.”

Colchester MP Will Quince is also minister for welfare delivery. He praised Marcus Rashford’s campaign but said other measures had been brought in: “As the Minister for Welfare Delivery, I have worked to improve our welfare system and make it more generous.

“We have introduced a £9 bn cash injection into our welfare system since the coronavirus outbreak, including an increase to the Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit basic element by over £1,000 this year – equating to an additional £86.67 per month on top of the planned annual uprating.

“Around 2.5 million households can benefit from this additional funding, as will anyone who becomes unemployed or whose earnings decrease under the impact of coronavirus.”

Five Conservative MPs, including the chair of the Education Committee Robert Halfon, did vote with Labour to support the provision of free meals for children.

They were: Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne), Robert Halfon (Harlow), Jason McCartney (Colne Valley), Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) and Holly Mumby-Croft (Scunthorpe).

Several cabinet ministers, including Home Secretary and Witham MP Priti Patel, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, and Overseas Trade Secretary Liz Truss were also away from the House of Commons and did not vote.