At the heart of the debate around free school meals in England is the question: the government funded them in the summer holidays, so why not in the October and Christmas breaks?
That question was put to cabinet minister Brandon Lewis yesterday. He said “a couple of things have changed” since the summer: many more kids are now back in school, the government has increased universal credit by £1,000 a year, and councils have received a £63 million “hardship fund”. Boris Johnson made almost identical comments today.
Five days later, on 16 June, the government said it would provide food vouchers to all eligible children in England over the summer holidays. The move was itself a u-turn following pressure from footballer Marcus Rashford and opposition parties.
So we’re left with a confusing picture. In June, the government felt that, despite the universal credit uplift and the £63 million for councils it had already announced, it still needed to step in and fund school meals over the summer break.
But now in October, ministers say those very same policies are the reason they don’t need to extend the scheme to the autumn and winter holidays.
And it appears councils have already used up much of the £63 million they were promised in June.
They received the money – which was not exclusively earmarked for child hunger, but was to be spent on a range of issues at their discretion – on 10 July. The government said on 4 August that it “anticipate[d] that most of the funding will be spent within 12 weeks”. So it’s reasonable to assume that most or all of it will be gone by the end of this week.
In that context, it’s even stranger that ministers are right now citing the council hardship fund as a reason not to take further action over half term and Christmas.
Councillor Richard Watts, who is chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board and also the Labour leader of Islington council, said today: “Demand for support from households facing financial hardship as a result of Covid-19 has outstripped this funding now and councils are having to find money from stretched budgets to top it up.”
The Department for Education suggested to FactCheck that part of the reason for funding school meals in the summer was because the holiday is longer than others.
A government spokesperson told FactCheck:
“This government has expanded eligibility for free school meals to more children than any other in decades. We have provided free school meals when schools were partially closed, increasing welfare support by £9.3bn, and giving councils £63 million for families facing financial difficulties. We also provided vouchers through the Covid Summer Food Fund, in addition to the Holiday Activities and Food Programme.
“Now that the vast majority of pupils are back in school and over 99 per cent of schools have been open every week since term began, kitchens are able to provide healthy, nutritious meals to all children, including those eligible for free school meals.”
It’s worth saying that this row is particular to England.
The Scottish government has made £10m available to councils to continue to fund meals through to Easter next year – and those that provided them over the October half term can apply to be reimbursed.
The Welsh government also pledged to cover every school holiday until spring 2021. The Northern Ireland executive has provided payments for the extended half-term break.