Since the start of the COVID 19 crisis the government has introduced a number of important measures to support people and businesses, which have so far required an additional £200billion in funding. Such a large increase in public spending has been necessary but is also unprecedented in peacetime. The furlough and job support schemes provided incomes to people who otherwise would have been put out of work. COVID business loans have made it possible for some companies to survive that would otherwise have had to close for good.
In April the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak announced that there would be an additional increase in Universal Credit for this year of £20 per week, so worth over £1,000 a year to claimants. In the summer the government also created an emergency grant fund to help local councils make discretionary payments to people facing real hardship who were unable to afford food and other essentials. Kent was awarded over £1.6milion and this scheme is being run by Kent Together, an organisation led by the County Council working in partnership with our local district and borough councils.
This week there has been a big focus on one particular area of government support, and that is the provision of free school meals during school holidays. During the national lockdown the government created a new scheme of free school meal vouchers, worth £15 per week per child, which could be spent by families that qualified for them on food and groceries. Until this year, no government had ever funded free school meals during school holidays. This was brought in as a temporary measure recognising the exceptional situation that the COVID pandemic had created. I and many others argued for this to continue over the summer holidays until the schools returned in September, and the government listened and agreed to fund this.
For this half term the government decided that it wouldn’t continue with the scheme, but on Monday Kent County Council announced it would provide £15 food vouchers to replace free school meals for this holiday, using the funding it had received for Kent Together. You can apply for these, or other support from Kent Together by calling their helpline on 03000 41 92 92.
There are wider issues that need to be addressed to ensure all children are healthy and well fed. I don’t believe that free school meal vouchers on their own provide a long-term solution. This could come though, for example, by expanding on some of the excellent work from the government backed pilot schemes for school holiday activities and food clubs. However, until we have such a scheme in place I understand that the holiday provision of free school meals provides some certainty for families at this time. I will vote in Parliament to support their use, or the creation of a new scheme of at least equal value, for the Christmas holidays.
Finally, I would like to thank the footballer Marcus Rashford for his compassion in raising this issue and that of food poverty in general, and also all the local organisations who offered to provide meals for children this week.