Why is the government expending so much political capital on refusing to extend free school meals over this half term, Christmas and the Easter break next year?
Extending free school meals over the summer holiday cost around £20m per week, so the cost – in the context of a pandemic response estimated at £210bn – is negligible. Many senior Conservative politicians are now pressing the government to extend free school meals, with the Commons liaison committee chair, Bernard Jenkin, accusing it of “misunderstanding the mood” of the country. And a formidable and popular campaigner in footballer Marcus Rashford – who himself relied on free school meals when growing up – is gaining momentum for his cause from businesses, charities and councils (including Tory ones) around the country.
The government has already experienced the political embarrassment of a U-turn on this issue, when it agreed to provide food vouchers for children over the summer holiday. Why repeat such an unpopular decision on something so morally and financially straightforward?
The Conservative MP for Mansfield, Ben Bradley, has been asked to explain his comments opposing the policy, which included the claim that extending free school meals to holidays “passes responsibility for feeding kids away from parents to the state” and “increases dependency”.
It is this worldview that explains the government’s reluctance to fund a policy that would otherwise be an open goal: the fundamental belief that undernourished children are a result of their parents’ failure to manage their finances.
Holiday hunger is not a new campaign issue. Food poverty campaigners and charities have for years been pushing the government to address the situation of children going hungry during their breaks from school, a problem which is also associated with reduced educational attainment during term time.
It is clear that concessions on vouchers during the holidays will make it difficult for ministers to prevent such campaigns – which have developed extraordinary momentum during the pandemic – ahead of each upcoming school holiday. This is why ministers have put so much emphasis on the £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit and why Tory backbenchers opposed to food vouchers are raising the possibility of uprating benefits to respond to the issue.
All of this adds up to a warped view of poverty – the notion that families can simply budget their way out of it. To believe this, it’s necessary to ignore one of the most significant facts about the UK economy: its record levels of in-work poverty. Despite years of rising employment, one in eight workers now lives in poverty. Over a third of Universal Credit claimants before the pandemic were in employment. Of the children living in poverty, 70 per cent are from a working family.
These figures will only become more stark as the economic effects of the pandemic become more pronounced. More than half of people using food banks have never used them before, and three million new people have begun claiming Universal Credit.
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It is true as ministers and Tory backbenchers have pointed out, that the “structural” issue of child poverty cannot simply be solved by vouchers. But if these people genuinely believed that council funding was the way to prevent children going without food, they would not have slashed council budgets by more than half over the last decade. And it is hard to believe that the same government that designed Universal Credit – a system proven to push working people further into poverty – understands the problem of in-work poverty.
When neither work nor the welfare system pays, there is no way for individual families to lift themselves out of hardship. The Tories are not only misunderstanding the country’s mood, but poverty itself.