Government should trust parents with direct cash for free school meals – Labour

Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent
·4-min read

The Government should trust parents and give them cash directly for free school meals instead of vouchers, Labour has demanded.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green has called on ministers to come up with a long-term solution after images showing poor quality food parcels were widely shared on social media.

Home Secretary Priti Patel became the latest Government minister to condemn the “appalling” free school meal hampers delivered to families during school closures amid the latest lockdown, while footballer Marcus Rashford has called for an urgent review of the Government’s free school meals policy.

The Government’s national supermarket voucher scheme for families eligible for free school meals will reopen on Monday.

But Labour is calling for families to receive the money directly, rather than through vouchers or parcels, to ensure parents can choose the food.

They say this would ensure parents receive the full value of their entitlement.

Ms Green said: “Ministers are claiming to be disgusted by the images of woefully inadequate food parcels, while blaming individual companies and proposing no long-term solution.

“The Government should put its trust in parents by giving them the money for free school meals to ensure their children are not going hungry.”

Labour has suggested that families should receive £15 a week for each child eligible for free school meals directly through the benefits system.

Jonathan Reynolds, shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “Children going hungry while schools are closed to most children, has been yet another failing of a Government that keeps letting families down.

“Our social security system should be a safety net but it has far too many holes in it. Giving cash directly to families would support parents in making the best choices on how to look after their children during an unprecedented crisis.”

The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) is also calling for the Government to switch to direct cash payments to families eligible for free school meals.

CPAG chief executive Alison Garnham said their research found that parents “appreciated the freedom to shop locally in their usual places” to buy food.

“When receiving cash they have also said that they welcomed the lack of stigma it brought – every shop takes cash and everyone knows how it works,” she added.

On Thursday, England and Manchester United striker Rashford joined with TV chefs Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the actress Dame Emma Thompson to press ministers to develop a strategy which could help end child food poverty.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, backed by more than 40 NGOs, charities and education leaders, they welcomed the “robustness” of his response to the “inadequate” meal parcels being provided by some private companies, but said it was the right time to “step back and review the policy in more depth”.

“This review would provide the Government with the opportunity to future-proof its policy on school food, and to carefully consider how best to support low-income children and families in the aftermath of the pandemic,” they said.

“Now, at a time when children have missed months of in-school learning and the pandemic has reminded us of the importance of our health, this is a vital next step.”

Earlier, Ms Patel said action should be taken against the food provider which compiled “appalling” free school meal parcels for families.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and children’s minister Vicky Ford met several food caterers and suppliers on Wednesday to discuss free school meals provisions.

The National Education Union (NEU) has criticised the Government’s scheme to offer free food to struggling families via councils over February half-term.

The Department for Education guidance says schools do not need to provide parcels or vouchers during the break as families eligible for free school meals will be supported through the Government’s Covid Winter Grant Scheme.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said switching to an alternative system with councils was an “unnecessary logistical nightmare”.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has called on the Government to provide food vouchers to eligible families during February half-term.