The government's free schools meal fiasco reveals the Conservative Party's greatest weakness

Ministers claim there is “no money” for another extension to free school meals in England, but this is not a question of affordability. It is one of priorities

October 22, 2020
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The England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford did not hold back on Wednesday night, after MPs voted down plans to extend free school meals in England over the half term and Christmas holidays. Children would go to bed “not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter”, he told his 3.5 million Twitter followers. “This is not politics, this is humanity.”

The next morning Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, suggested that his criticisms were “unfair”. The government was standing “shoulder to shoulder” with people on low incomes, he insisted on the Today programme. “What doesn’t help is for the motives of either side to be impugned. We think there’s a different way to help those people and our motivation is just as valid as his.”

That may be true but the government is so inconsistent and confused that it is hard to understand what is driving its decisions. Just four months ago ministers performed a U-turn and agreed to fund free school meals over the summer to the poorest pupils, so it is illogical not to extend the same provision now. Children who were hungry then will be just as ravenous over Christmas. In fact, an extra 900,000 pupils have applied for free school meals since the pandemic struck so the need is greater than ever.

Malthouse claimed that families should be relying on the welfare system to feed their children—but as Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the Commons Education Committee who supported the Labour motion, told MPs: “If we acknowledge that children risk going hungry in term time by providing them with free school meals despite the provision of universal credit... we know that they risk going hungry in the holidays too.” Between January and September 2020, he said, the food bank in his Harlow constituency gave out 118 tonnes of food—nearly double the tonnage of last year—and nationally, 32 per cent of households have experienced a drop in income since late March.

Almost two million children have been affected by food insecurity in the same period, according to the Food Foundation, and 2 per cent of adults said they had skipped meals entirely. The government insists that families on universal credit have been given an extra £20 a week during the coronavirus crisis—but the Chancellor has already announced that this uplift will be withdrawn in the spring, creating more uncertainty and mixed messages.

Ministers claim there is “no money” for another extension to free school meals but this is not a question of affordability, it is one of priorities. In Scotland and Wales ministers have promised to fund free school meals up to Easter. The Chancellor has found the money to fund extra support for jobs and workers hit by Covid restrictions in tier 2 areas after a backlash from business.

It was confirmed this week that pensions will rise by 2 per cent above inflation next April at a time when real working age incomes are falling. That triple lock policy will cost about £1.5 billion in the coming year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Giving food vouchers to the poorest pupils over the holidays would cost around £20 million a week—or £60 million for the half term and Christmas breaks. The government spent £522 million on encouraging people to Eat Out to Help Out, but apparently cannot find a tenth of that to stop children going hungry. It is a choice to spend the money on pensioners and pizza parlours, not the poor.

That says something about the government’s values. Earlier this month Rashford was awarded an MBE for his services to vulnerable children. This week a Tory MP, Brendan Clarke-Smith, attacked “celebrity virtue signalling on Twitter” while another, Ben Bradley, said that “ever-extending freebies” such as free school meals was a “sticking plaster solution” that “increases dependency” on the state.  The footballer’s response could not have been more dignified: “I don’t have the education of a politician, many on Twitter have made that clear today,” he told his critics. “But I have a social education, having lived through this.” The striker scored into an open goal.

The free school meals row risks being yet another political disaster for the Prime Minister. One senior Conservative, Caroline Ansell, resigned her role as government aide in order to vote against the government. “In these unprecedented times I am very concerned to be doing all we can to help lower income families and their children who are really struggling due to the impact of the virus,” she explained.

The Tories’ greatest political weakness is being seen as the “party of the rich”. As the former Cabinet minister Lord Willetts once admitted, the Conservatives are always in danger of being perceived to understand “the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” Now they are penny-pinching over £60 million for hungry children and £50 million for Manchester. That will not go down well in the “red wall” seats that lent their voters to Boris Johnson at the last election.

In March, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak promised to do “whatever it takes” to help people and businesses get through the crisis. “We want to look back on this time and remember how we thought first of others and acted with decency,” he told MPs. No doubt, as Malthouse said, ministers have good motives but the government will be judged not on words but on deeds.