Lords delay Dickensian changes to free school meals, but they must be overturned

Approximately 30% of children live in relative poverty in the UK, and for most of these, school meals are the only way in which they get a hot meal each day. However, under proposals voted through by the Conservatives last week, which children get Free school meals will be changing in line with the controversial Universal Credit system.

With 1.3 million children claiming free school meals, there is clearly an issue in Britain with child poverty, and we can all agree that for such a developed country this is a disgrace. Under new plans, The Children’s Society and The Labour Party claim that “over a million children will be without a hot meal in schools”.

Under the new proposal, those earning over £7,400 from work and on Universal Credit, your child won’t be entitled to FSM if they’re in Year 3 or above. But by this definition, the government is effectively saying that if you are earning even one penny over the means test threshold (£7,401), you aren’t in poverty and you can afford to feed your child. This, to put it lightly, is atrocious.

With the cost of living increasing, and real wages going backwards, many people who has a household income of £25,000 per year are struggling to cope, let alone £7,400. For example, the Minimum Income Calculator shows that a couple with two primary school age children need to be earning £19,230 per year EACH to have a decent standard of living. Yet the government argue that if you’re earning over £7,400 per year, you don’t need your child to have free school meals. This is nothing short of a disgrace. The reform is yet another example of a Tory government that simply does not understand poverty.

The Government estimate that if earning “around the threshold of £7,400” and on Universal Credit, families would have a total household income of between £18,000 and £24,000 when benefits are taken into account. But with the aforementioned Minimum Income Calculator statistics, its clear that earning in the government estimated amounts per year from benefits and work simply isn’t enough to live comfortably. And once again, it must be emphasised that if you earn £8,000 for example, and are on universal credit, you aren’t going to be eligible for FSM.

So what can we take from this? Well, clearly, less children will be receiving FSM in the future, and this could have a devastating effect on their education and lives as a whole. It’s a known fact that during childhood, proper nutrition is important to academic success. If a child isn’t eating enough, they will struggle in school and in their normal home life as a whole. Free School Meals offer them the chance to eat a hot meal in school and combat malnourishment caused by poverty. The Conservatives clearly don’t care about this.

The Labour party were desperate for these plans to go ahead, this meant the Tory party needed further support. The solution, buying of the DUP. Promising that Northern Ireland would be excluded from the proposals so they got the bill through the Commons. This is, in my view, political corruption, and while not punishable in any way by parliament, it should be by the electorate. So many children in the future will be adversely affected by these horrific changed, and we must fight them. Winning the vote by 312 to 254, the Labour annulment failed, much to the displeasure of the  Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, who promised to “continue to campaign for free school meals for the poorest children”. The fact the DUP knew that doing this was wrong, evident by the fact the initiative will not go ahead in Northern Ireland, yet voted for it anyway is disgusting.

I recently wrote to my local MP, Conservative Whip David Rutley, and his response back was simply an attack on the Labour Party, not a justification of the new policy. Claiming that Labour have lied about the policy and that no children will lose FSM in the future, Mr Rutley was insistent that this policy would be beneficial, inserting the claim that 50,000 more children will be eligible for FSM in the future. While this may be true to an extent, we have a rising population so naturally, with more people going into a state of poverty, and his party failing to combat this, of course more children will need to be eligible for FSM in the future.

On 20th March however, the government was dealt a damaging blow, when a motion proposed by Labour Peer Steve Bassam urging the government to halt the changes to its Free School Meals policy, and this motion was won by 167-160 votes. While having no complete power over government policy, this shows that even the Lords don’t agree with the policy. The lack of coverage of this by the Mainstream Media is disappointing, as not only is this a crucial blow for the government, but it also shows that the Lords have some relevance after all.

While they should be a fully elected body, the fact they’ve rebelled against the government shows that they can have a purpose. Obviously, they haven’t stopped the government on this issue, they at least have the chance to influence and stop them from putting forward such a disastrous policy.

The debate on Free School Meals is one that must not be brushed under the carpet. We have a duty to help our vulnerable children in poverty, and the governments careless and thoughtless policy will only serve to damage the lives of these children and indeed, their families, even further. We must stand up and fight the government on this issue or else face the most vulnerable group in society suffering even further.

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James Barber

Labour Party Candidate for Broken Cross and Upton in the 2019 Cheshire East Council Elections & Youth Officer for Macclesfield Constituency Labour Party.

James Barber has 16 posts and counting. See all posts by James Barber

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