Robert Halfon MP

The conservative case for extending free school meals

The conservative case for extending free school meals
(Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)
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What do Conservatives care about? First, high-quality education and academic attainment. Second, value for money for the taxpayer. Third, (unless you are an arch-libertarian) recognition that the battle that must be won is not between big government or small government, but good government.

Combating child hunger should, therefore, be a cause that all Conservatives can embrace. That should include the temporary extension of free school meals over the holidays while (and only while) the economic impacts of the pandemic continue to be felt. That’s why I voted against the government on Wednesday evening in favour of the proposal.

First, on academic attainment, we know that children who regularly eat breakfast achieve, on average, two higher GSCE grades than children who don’t. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has also shown that children in schools with breakfast clubs made two months additional academic progress over the course of a year compared to their peers with no breakfast provision. According to Kellogg’s (not an organisation normally associated with the far left), the grip of hunger could potentially cost the English economy at least £5.2 million a year through lost teaching time spent on dealing with the needs of hungry pupils.

Given all these facts, it should be a no-brainer to any Conservative that having a long-term plan to combat child food insecurity should be a priority for the Prime Minister and the Department for Education.

Some have tried to argue that the footballer Marcus Rashford, who has been central to driving this campaign, is somehow virtue signalling. He is someone who experienced hunger as a child, having relied on food banks and the generosity of neighbours growing up. Albeit a Manchester United player now, he really does represent the grassroots and is a passionate advocate for this cause.

Actually, it is often the big businesses, sitting on task forces and the like, who virtue signal about the state of food insecurity in the UK. They are the ones who could do a lot, lot more to provide financial support, unsold food or match funding for government schemes.

On offering value for money, there are a number of existing schemes to tackle food insecurity, spanning the governmental departments. However, the lack of any long-term strategy means these are disparate and often operate with cash-guzzling inefficiencies. In September, for example, just 47 per cent of eligible mothers were receiving Healthy Start vouchers, which help young pregnant women and mothers on benefits pay for essentials. We could transform this abysmal uptake by simply getting rid of the archaic bureaucracy around enrolment (registering for Healthy Start vouchers requires printing, completing and posting a paper form) and digitising the programme. Much of this is not rocket science. This is the kind of inefficiency that every good Conservative is against.

So how, ask those who are rightly concerned about the public finances, are we supposed to pay for all this? I was not a great fan of the so-called ‘Coca-Cola tax’, the levy introduced in 2018 on sugary drinks. It disproportionally affects those on lower incomes who may simply want to buy the occasional sugary treat for their kids. But it also generates a revenue of around £340 million each year. Given that money was supposed to be hypothecated for healthy living initiatives to begin with, why not use it to fund hunger reduction programmes? That way, no one has to ask the taxpayer for any more money.

Many have argued that it should be up to parents alone to provide meals for their children. Of course it's their responsibility. And while a few renege on this, could you really stand in front of a single mother of three I spoke to recently and tell her that she should be denied temporary help and her children left to go hungry by the state? A woman who had been working in hotels for 18 years — paying into the system — before being made redundant thanks to the pandemic?

At the same time, we need a much deeper strategy for supporting troubled families. This starts with early intervention. There must be proper thinking about policies like the one championed by the MP Fiona Bruce, who has proposed so-called family hubs where children can prepare for school and parents can get support. We should also look at introducing proper data collection from the moment babies are born, as done by Manchester City Council, to assess children’s development and intervene if families are likely to fall into difficulties.

Of course, it will be argued, as the government has done, that Universal Credit covers all these things. However, as the House of Lords Select Committee on Food’s report 'Hungry for Change' highlighted, the cost of buying and preparing meals in line with the government’s own 'Eatwell Guide' is not even considered in the calculations for welfare assistance. A study commissioned by Public Health England estimated that achieving this standard would eat up well over half of the £343 average monthly allowance under Universal Credit for a single adult under 25. This doesn’t leave much for covering other household expenses.

What mystifies me is that no Conservative opposed the furlough scheme which, while of course I support, is in essence a welfare benefit to employers — it just doesn’t come from the DWP. And no Conservative opposed the Eat Out to Help Out scheme — again, another form of welfare relief to businesses. So, if benefits are acceptable for businesses during the pandemic then surely we should provide welfare in the form of breakfast clubs, holiday activities and free school meals to children?

Dealing with child hunger should not be a left-wing issue. Far from it. This is about increasing academic attainment in schools, ensuring that every child has the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity, and providing real value for money to the taxpayer.