Ipswich MP: Suffolk Hardship Fund means no eligible youngster should go hungry
PUBLISHED: 09:29 30 October 2020 | UPDATED: 10:45 30 October 2020
It’s unsurprising that over the past week there’s been significant debate following the vote in Parliament not to extend free school meal vouchers over the autumn half term. Child food hunger and child poverty more generally are issues of immense importance and that inspire real passion.
Earlier this year, the Government took a step that no Government has ever taken to extend free school meal vouchers into the school holidays. When schools weren’t open, I believe this was necessary and I actively called for it. In June, I wrote publicly to the children’s minister calling for the vouchers to be extended over the summer holidays.
However, my view was that this was only ever a short-term approach for the period that our schools weren’t open. That’s why I ultimately voted with the Government not to extend free school meal vouchers into this half term and the holiday periods through to March 2021.
Would I have taken this decision if I believed that the support wasn’t there for kids eligible free school meals who need it the most? Absolutely not.
On October 1, Suffolk County Council established a Suffolk Hardship Fund to support the most hard-pressed local families following a significant contribution from the Government. In total there’s a pot of £1.5million to do this and the help isn’t just confined to food. This fund can be used to help with food and fuel vouchers, heating oil, school uniforms, essential furniture, white goods, you name it. There’s also a helpline for services like debt advice.
Bearing in mind that extending free school meal vouchers into the autumn half term nationwide would have cost around £20 million, a dedicated Suffolk fund of over £1 million is significant.
Since the onset of the pandemic the Government has also taken a range of other steps to support those who need the help the most such as increasing Universal Credit payments by £80 per month and providing £16 million to food charities.
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Earlier this week I went on BBC Radio Suffolk and it was pointed out to me that not everyone was aware of the Suffolk Hardship Fund. The vast majority of the money in the fund is still available for those who need it most, so if you know anyone who you think needs the support, please get them to contact me and I’ll put them in touch with the people who can help. This week me and my team have helped a number of my constituents gain support from the fund. I commend those restaurants and pubs who have provided meals, but the existence of the Suffolk Hardship Fund means that no youngster who is eligible for free school meals should have missed out this week.
A key issue though that has been raised this week has been what the long-term strategy is for stopping disadvantaged children from going hungry. While the Suffolk Hardship Fund is there now it will run out in the not too distant future and there clearly needs to be more support from the Government going forward.
This week, the prime minister alluded to further support packages and the Government’s ‘food tsar’, Henry Dimbleby (co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain), announced a number of proposals, the majority of which I believe should be embraced by the Government.
The centre piece proposal is to extend free school meals to an additional 1.5 million kids across the country. As it stands those kids who come from a household where income is below £7,400 qualify but the report proposes extending eligibility to all those in receipt of Universal Credit. I’d very much welcome this.
The report also proposes healthy food vouchers for pre-school children and a £500 million Holiday Activities and Food Programme. This summer there were 17 trials of the programme across the country and Suffolk was among them. In August I visited the Inspire Centre with the children’s minister on Lindbergh Road to see these activities in action. The programme provides engaging activities for kids whilst also providing them with lunch during the holidays.
The approach outlined by Henry Dimbleby would cost over £1 billion but it’s my strong belief that the Government should embrace the recommendations and that in doing so it could mark a game-changing moment for tackling child food poverty.
I’ve been contacted by a number of constituents after the vote last Wednesday and I’ve responded setting out clearly the reasons why I voted the way I did. The vast majority who’ve contacted me are genuinely concerned about the issue and simply want to know why I took the position I did. They are of course fully entitled to disagree with both how I voted and my reasoning for doing so. They’re also fully entitled to attend peaceful protests on the Cornhill to display their displeasure with me as their MP.
However, I completely reject some of the personal abuse and intimidation of some MPs we’ve seen around the country following the vote. I myself have been in contact with Suffolk Constabulary following a number of social media posts suggesting that some activists would be paying me a visit at my flat in Town.
It’s perfectly possible to adopt the very reasonable position that you disagree with your MP on this issue without seeking to hurl vile personal abuse at them and on occasion physically intimidate them. By doing so you do the campaign you purport to represent a disservice.
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