Another week, another self-inflicted crisis. After spending tens of millions on PPE that doesn’t work and more than ten billion on a test and trace system that doesn’t work this government has drawn the line – it won’t support hungry children. They’ll pay for food of course – two months ago, the Treasury spent hundreds of millions on Eat Out to Help Out (as well as a bit on the personalised “Rishi” branding) – but today they can’t find £20m for free school meals this half-term.
A competent government would have seen this coming. At a time when we are supposed to all be in this together, it should be perfectly obvious to anyone that supporting children living in poverty should be at the top of the list. Instead, we have had the appalling spectacle of Conservative MPs out on the airwaves smearing those children and their families to protect the government. Utterly shameful.
And yet, some of what we have seen in the last week has been the very best of this country. Marcus Rashford has been heroic – and so have the businesses, community groups and councils that have stepped in to fill the gap. We’ve seen local pubs and restaurants – themselves taking an absolute hammering from coronavirus – offering meals to those in need, we’ve seen some big businesses do their bit, and I’m proud to say we’ve seen Labour Councils across the country stand up for their communities too.
But let’s be clear what’s going on here. This is all in spite of government action – not because of it. There are no financial incentives here, no additional government funding, just people under pressure feeling obliged to help children living in poverty get a decent meal in the holidays.
That’s why I was so surprised to hear Matt Hancock claim that his government has always thought the best route to supporting hungry children is through councils. This is just not true. The government hasn’t given local authorities any funding to pay for free school meals. Never discussed it, never suggested it, never given a penny. The £63m hardship fund that the government announced in June and that Hancock now claims to have been a secret plan to feed children was never anything to do with free school meals – and has been spent many times over on emergency support since then anyway. In fact, the government has never come close to meeting its pledge to financially support councils to do “whatever it takes” to address the additional costs of Coronavirus. In spite of their promise to give local authorities everything they need, we are currently £6bn in the red thanks to lost income and greater costs on things like PPE and social care thanks to the crisis. That’s a £6bn shortfall this year alone, on top of the £16bn cut from government funding for councils since 2010.
Let’s remember where we were even before the virus hit. Social care is in crisis largely because of the chronic government underfunding of local authorities. Libraries, leisure centres and children services have faced a decade of cutbacks and closures. It’s getting harder and harder just to fund the basics of council work from bin collections to potholes to streetlights.
And yet still, under all this pressure – and knowing full well that acting now means finding yet more difficult cuts elsewhere – councils up and down the country have felt obliged to act. They have seen the moral disgrace of one of the richest countries in the world leaving children to go hungry in the depths of the worst crisis since the Second World War, and they have done everything they can to step in.
My own council in Newcastle is helping to coordinate the many fantastic offers made by local businesses and community groups, and providing packed lunches to families that need them with the help of brilliant volunteers from the Toon Army. Across the country, dozens of Labour councils have stepped up to offer support although many simply can’t afford it. Even Labour district councils like Stevenage and Basildon, who don’t have responsibility for schools and didn’t receive a single penny of the £63m hardship fund have stepped in to help local children. I’m proud to see how many councils have stepped up – but funding these meals is the job of government.
It’s time for this incompetent government to stop looking for someone else to blame and start doing what its paid for. We face the most serious challenges we have seen in generations, yet this government seems entirely incapable of serious thought. We need a working test and trace system, we need a proper plan to protect jobs and support incomes under new lockdown restrictions, and we need a government that has the basic decency to appreciate that when times are particularly tough, we have to work even harder to protect the most vulnerable.
So my message to this government is simple – forget the political games, and remember what this country is supposed to stand for. Do your job, feed our children, and fix the dreadful mess you are making of this crisis.
Nick Forbes is leader of LGA Labour and Newcastle City Council