Why our children need our help, with word from Jonathan Ashworth MP

“The system isn’t built for families like mine to succeed” – Marcus Rashford, MBE  

In 2019 alone, 1.9 million school children claimed free school meals in England, accounting for 15% of state school pupils in the country. The scheme is accessible for students in nursery through to sixth form/college and is allocated depending on the Household’s yearly income. It is available for those in England, Scotland and Wales with a household income of less than £7,400, and in Northern Ireland, is accessible for those with a household income of less than £14,000. Since national lockdown began in March, free school meals have cost the Government £129 million, as they funded the scheme in half term and over the Easter holidays.

The issue of funding arose in the lead up to the summer holidays this year. The Government rejected the possibility of continuing the scheme throughout the holiday, which caused a national outcry. The possibility of being able to provide food for children in the midst of a global pandemic for some was a task they just couldn’t meet. The campaign reached headlines as Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford became the face of the battle. Rashford began fighting for the children he felt he once was, as he spoke candidly about his own upbringing, benefitting from free school meals himself. Rashford explained how the scheme helped him achieve all he has and explained the importance of the scheme to young vulnerable people and their families. The Government originally rejected the scheme, highlighting that the FSM scheme was created for term time alone. However, due to the pressure from Rashford and his nationwide campaign, the Government decided to make a U-turn. The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson explained their decision by saying that “owing to the COVID-19 pandemic the Prime Minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer. To reflect this we will be providing a summer food fund. This will provide food vouchers covering the six-week holiday period. This is a specific measure to reflect the unique circumstances of the pandemic.” Furthermore, he did clarify that “the scheme will not continue beyond the Summer, and those eligible will be those who already qualify for free school meals.” The Government spent over £120 million over the Summer holidays on the scheme, but one could argue that all the money in World is worth it if it is aiding disadvantaged children. This additional funding meant that for those who are struggling financially, not helped by the pandemic can feed their children.

As the COVID-19 situation has remained relatively similar to September time, it may have since then deteriorated, the idea of the scheme solely running throughout term time after the Summer wouldn’t be enough, as families are still struggling and Christmas is getting ever closer. Despite life seeming to be returning to normality back in July, people were still not all back at work, businesses have closed for good, thus leading to the loss of jobs. People believed that the scheme needed to be extended throughout the Christmas holidays, to feed the children relying on the meals within term time. Marcus Rashford once again led the campaign, in the belief that the Government would mirror the U turn of the Summer, but the aim being that a U turn would not be needed, as they would chose to extend the scheme based on the need for it. However, due to 322 Conservative MP’s, this will not currently be happening.

MP’s rejected the plea to extend free school meals over the Christmas holidays by 322 to 262, unlike Wales, where the Welsh Government voted to extend the scheme. All but 5 Conservative MP’s who voted, voted against the plea, whilst the opposition voted solely to extend the scheme. The Conservatives said that extending the scheme “increases dependency on the state and the costs could contribute to destroying the currency.” In response to this vote, Rashford said that “a significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today.” This was where the outcry began, and one could argue rightly so.  

When the results were revealed there was an immediate response of anger from the Public. The often-divided nation seemed to put their differences aside to defend the rights of young school children across the country, who will now be going hungry at Christmas time. For the same MP’s who voted against providing for the young people in our country, receive £25 per day of food credit, paid by the taxpayer. One individual who voted against the scheme was the chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has now been banned entry from his local pub “The Mill” in Yorkshire, along with other local MP’s after the vote showing the anger felt by people up and down the country. The Pub owner labelled them as “disgusting,” and has began taking action to try help the families in need themselves. They have began delivering over 100 cooked meals to local struggling families. This kind act is not an alien one, people have shown solidarity across the whole country, doing all they can to help those in need. McDonalds have promised to provide one million meals across the country to those in need, and cafés and restaurants have followed suit, advertising for families to access free meals from them in the holidays. The Daily Mirror reacted by using the title “so cruel” naming the Conservative MP’s who voted against it.  

Conservative MP Caroline Ansell was one of the five who voted to extend the scheme, differing from the view of their party, and she then made the decision to quit her party over this subject. Ansell said that “I am very concerned to be doing all we can to help lower – income families and their children who are struggling due to the impact of the virus.” Ansell made clear that she did not feel that that the scheme is a “long term solution,” however did continue to say that “I could not in all conscience ignore the belief.” Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition immediately promised to push forward another vote, with aim of encouraging the Government to make another U turn similar to the situation in the Summer.  

Rashford and his scheme has received nationwide support from individuals around the country and also influential figures. Support from celebrities include ex footballer Gary Lineker, who ignored the BBC’s impartiality guidelines by saying that “yesterday they voted against helping to feed our hungriest children during a pandemic, never thought I’d tweet that.” Part of people’s outrage stemmed from he fact that it was only in August of this year that the Government funded the “Eat out to help out scheme” which they paid millions for, suggesting that sourcing the finances isn’t the issue, but the lack of will to help is. Actor Robert Lindsay said that “amidst all the current madness they actually arranged to have a vote. A vote! For #freeschoolmeals and they voted against it.” Chris Martin of Coldplay thanked Rashford for a “fantastic campaign” and continued to say that “if you’re a UK resident please add your voice”, lobbying the general public to join the campaign. Singer-songwriter Louis Tomlinson tweeted “Watching what Marcus Rashford is doing is incredible. Please do take the time to sign it if you live in the UK, our children are the future”, talking about his petition.

Despite the extreme reaction from around the country, the Government have so far made no signs of making a U turn. The Environmental secretary George Eustice says that the Government has “taken a view that free school meals are for term time.” This justification did not have the desired effect as the idea that children can struggle to eat as it may not be “term time” seems both immoral and unjust. One could argue that regardless of the time of year, our Government has a responsibility to protect those in our society, and that includes the youngest members. Similarly, Matt Hancock says that despite the vote result, he is “inspired” by the actions of Marcus Rashford. I take the time now to ask what inspiration will do, will it help the children who will not be able to eat whilst we celebrate Christmas dinner with our household? Will the inspiration help the parents working multiple jobs, with difficult hours simply in the attempt to make ends meet? I saw a tweet this morning where a user posted a photo of her two young songs eating from a donation box. Her tweet read “Two happy boys going to be going to bed with a full belly tonight! Lost my job, barely make ends meet, moved from an emergency temporary house to a permanent house. Thank you @spireites [ a local charity] and @marcusrashford for making sure no child goes hungry with your campaign.” I take the time to ask once again whether this individual will find Matt Hancock’s “inspiration” helpful.

We asked local MP Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Health Secretary, for a comment addressing this matter:

As my colleague, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, said when opening the debate “The truth is that we should not be having this debate at all.”

Sadly, in 2020, we did have the debate on whether children should hungry during school holidays. But at least on Wednesday 21 October the Government had the opportunity to do the right thing and ensure that children who receive Free School Meals (FSMs) would continue do so over the holidays until Easter next year.

Despite pressure from some if its own MPs, many charities, the Labour Party and, of course, Marcus Rashford who had forced the Government into a U-turn earlier in the year, the Government did not do the right thing.

Instead of announcing in the House of Commons that the Government would ensure that nearly 1.5 million children eligible for FSMs in England would receive them over the holidays, the Secretary of State for Education defended the Government’s decision not to do this and forced a vote.

The debate, and vote, was on whether the House of Commons would call on the Government to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021. Needless to say this was a very heated debate and towards the end the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions even said that “social justice has been at the absolute heart of every decision that the Government have taken to help the people of this country get through this pandemic together.”

The vote was lost by 322 to 261 votes.

So where is the social justice that will see over 11,000 children in the City where you are students go hungry during the Christmas holidays, February half-term and the Easter holidays?

One child going to bed hungry, or suffering from hunger pains during the day, is one child too many.

But on 21 October the Government decided that not only the11,000 plus children in Leicester that are eligible for FSMs, but nearly 1.5 million children in England, will now face the risk of going hungry during their holidays.

Jonathan Ashworth – Member of Parliament for Leicester South & Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Jonathan’s comments speak volumes, 11000 children is a dangerously high number across the whole of England, but just in one city is terrifying. As a nation, we must place political differences aside and fight together for the children of this country. The fight is not over, far from it. Marcus Rashford’s campaign will continue and we must help. As long as there are starving children in one of the wealthiest countries in the World in 2020, we all must take responsibility. We all have work to do.

To help please view these organizations, or seek your local foodbank:

  • Feeding Britain 
  • Help The Hungry 
  • Kitchen Social 
  • A Plate For London 
  • The Trussell Trust 

We asked Neil O’ Brien, Conservative MP for Harborough, Oadby and Wigston, for a comment, but received no response. 

Maddie Daly is a first year English student at University of Leicester, with a paticular interest in politics + society. You can find her on Instagram here: @maddiedaly

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