PM urged to 'swallow his pride' over FSM holiday refusal

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Map shame: As PM Boris Johnson refuses to back down on his decision not to fund free school meals during school holidays, a new interactive map shows just how many councils, charities and businesses have stepped in to offer free meals to those in need

School leaders and teachers have urged Boris Johnson to “swallow his pride” and back down over his refusal to provide free school meals (FSM) during school holidays.

The government and many Conservative MPs have been hit by a backlash from food poverty campaigners – including footballer Marcus Rashford – after voting against Labour Party proposals to extend FSM provision to cover the October half-term.

A petition launched by Mr Rashford calling for FSM provision to continue during school holidays has now gained more than one million signatures. Up from around 300,000 this time last week.

Latterly, an increasingly desperate Mr Johnson has tried to argue that the government £63m emergency funding to councils, unveiled in June, could cover FSM holiday provision. Ministers have also argued that the £20 weekly increase to Universal Credit, introduced in April to support families during the pandemic, will help cover food costs.

However, campaigners say this funding will be nowhere near enough, including the Local Government Association (LGA), which said this week that demand has outstripped the £63m hardship fund.

Research from the Food Foundation in September found that 14 per cent of UK families have suffered from moderate or severe food insecurity in the last six months – affecting an estimated 2.3 million children.

Food Foundation data also shows a dramatic spike in FSM registrations this term, with as many as 900,000 children aged eight and above having been newly registered for FSM since September.

Furthermore, in June, Headteacher Update reported research showing that 43 per cent of families claiming Universal Credit or Child Tax Credits had already cut back on food because of the lockdown.

The financial impact of the pandemic is set to push more families into poverty, too. Already in March, the latest household income statistics (for 2018/19) showed that 4.2 million children (around 30 per cent of all UK children) now live below the poverty line, with 72 per cent of these living in working families.

And research from the Children’s Society published last week suggests that an estimated 885,000 children are living in non-FSM families where parents are struggling to cover the costs of feeding their children during a school day.

This week, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he was “dismayed” by the government’s “continued refusal to extend FSM provision”.

He continued: “It is perfectly obvious that the Covid emergency has increased both the extent and depth of poverty among families and that many more children are at risk of holiday hunger.

“This issue has shone a light on the hardship faced by many families not only now but in normal times. It is shameful that in a wealthy nation likes ours, holiday hunger is a fact of life for far too many children. In the longer term, the government must do more to tackle child poverty, and a good starting point would be to extend FSM provision to holiday periods on a permanent basis.”

This week, Marcus Rashford’s Child Food Poverty Taskforce has published a map showing the areas across the country where businesses, community organisations and councils have announced that they will step in to provide free meals to vulnerable children this half-term.

Among the councils which have decided to provide FSM, Sutton Council in London launched a support package covering children aged 0 to 17 who have a social worker or those living in emergency housing. Community Action Sutton, meanwhile, has been providing food parcels for low income families.

The LGA, which represents the majority of England’s local authorities, said that demand for emergency hardship funding has outstripped the government’s £63m funding for councils and that the funding was intended to cover much more than food poverty at any rate.

Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s Resources Board, said: “Short-term hardship funding provided by the government this summer helped councils try and provide much-needed crisis support to all households – including those without children – struggling to afford food but also fuel and other essentials.

“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. This is increasingly difficult as they continue to face rising costs of providing services – such as adult social care, protecting children and housing rough sleepers – and income losses as a result of the pandemic.

“As many households are likely to be economically vulnerable for some time to come, it is vital that the government restores local welfare funding so councils can provide preventative support to all households who need it.”

Mr Barton added: “The fact that we have seen such an outpouring of help from businesses, charities and local authorities over the past few days to fill the void left by the government is fantastic news and we are incredibly grateful to all concerned. But this should never have been necessary and the government must swallow its pride, reverse course, and guarantee FSM provision during holiday periods throughout the Covid emergency.”

It comes as the National Education Union (NEU) has written an open letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, calling upon him to act now to ensure FSM are providing during the Christmas holiday period.

Signed by joint general secretaries Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, the letter states: “We urge you to look again at the issue of free meals for school holidays in England and to confirm FSMs for the Christmas holidays, as in Wales and Scotland.

“There still remains in place a postcode lottery for the more than one million children facing food insecurity; many will come back to school hungry, malnourished and anxious. The government has pledged to ensure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds aren't left behind – but a lack of regular, dependable nutritious meals has a huge impact on learning, self-confidence and students’ engagement with school.

“(Our) members are witnessing the negative impacts of hunger and malnutrition: if a child hasn’t eaten, they cannot concentrate, learn or fulfil their potential. This connects very directly to whether children and teenagers learn well.

“We urge you to commit to tackling holiday hunger by providing FSM during school holidays to all children whose families are eligible for Universal Credit.”

As well as FSM holiday provision, Mr Rashford’s petition is also calling for FSM to be expanded to cover all children to the age of 16 living in households on Universal Credit.


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