Contrary to what has been reported, I and my colleagues have not voted to take free school meals from children. Supporting vulnerable children, families and individuals has been at the heart of the Government’s response at this challenging time and it is an approach which I wholeheartedly support.
Both I and the Government remain fully committed to free school meals. I am proud that during the past 10 years, Conservatives in government have – far from taking away free school meals – in fact expanded the eligibility to more children than any other Government in over fifty years. We have done this by delivering a free school meal to every child in reception, year 1 and year 2, to those students from lower income eligible families in further education colleges. Most recently during the Covid-19 pandemic, this provision was also extended to children of families on lower incomes who have no recourse to public funds.
However, with most schools now back to normal, we must continue to find ways to ensure children do not go hungry. Extra steps have been needed during the pandemic to help families in Rugby and Bulkington, including over holiday periods. Furthermore, the Government is carefully considering how best to implement the three policy proposals put forward by Marcus Rashford's taskforce in Part 1 of the National Food Strategy.
It is important to remember that Free School Meals are intended to support children while they are in school, and the overwhelming majority of schools have now reopened. During the holidays, there must be a robust safety net for families which can help them cope with the extra pressures of coronavirus. That is why at the start of the pandemic, key benefits were boosted by over £1,000 per year for 12 months, part of a £9.3bn increase to the welfare safety net.
Government has also acted to target support to those that need it most, and make sure that those families and children that need support can get it. This has been done through the £63m local authority welfare assistance fund to provide essential food and other items to those that need it – a fund which will be active over this half-term holiday. Warwickshire County Council has received £520,000 from this fund to distribute locally.
It is my belief that the best way to support families and children is through the welfare system, not through providing supermarket vouchers as some have suggested. This ensures that support is reliably delivered to those who need it most, when they need it most and in a way which allows families to spend it in the way which will best help them. The welfare system is set up to provide this direct support all the year round in a way in which schools are not.
I also pay tribute to the work of Rugby Borough Council and Warwickshire County Council who have ensured that support provided by Government has been distributed to families locally who are most in need. I am continuing to work closely with our local councils to ensure that local residents get the support that they need.