Free School Meals: Summer Holidays

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:56 pm on 16th June 2020.

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Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury 4:56 pm, 16th June 2020

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. I do not agree that the Government have failed, but I do agree that it is desirable that we provide free school meals, and I hope that she has understood that that is the tenor of my speech this afternoon.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s Department made arrangements for vulnerable children to attend school, but we know that take-up has been relatively low. Arrangements were made for children to learn from home, but the evidence suggests, certainly from heads in my constituency, that this has been quite patchy. Although the Government took unprecedented steps in relation to domestic abuse, the truth is that we do not really know what happens behind closed doors. None of this is a criticism of the Government. The lockdown was an imperative and it was right that schools closed when they did, but in my view it underscores the urgency of prioritising the needs of particularly vulnerable children going forward, and I see continuing to fund free school meals during the holidays as a fundamental part of this.

To turn to my final point, I think that the provision of free school meals places a value on many of those parents whom, historically, we have not really valued enough. I think of my children’s friends at schools they have attended, who have received direct support from the Government, either in the form of the pupil premium or through free school meals. Those children’s parents have been cleaners, bus drivers or hospital porters—what we now call frontline staff, but even six months ago we might not have used that term about a cleaner. They are people who have been doing low-paid and sometimes, in the context of covid-19, dangerous work. That is my experience of one school in one city, but I think that we can transpose those families’ stories across the country.

I know that when the summer holidays come, they are challenging at the best of times, particularly for families on low incomes, and particularly when you do not have the resources of perhaps grandparents to pick up the slack of childcare or camps in the usual way. In my view, it is right that we get on the front foot by providing direct support for families like that at this exceptional time.