Free School Meals: Summer Holidays

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:29 pm on 16th June 2020.

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Photo of Tonia Antoniazzi Tonia Antoniazzi Labour, Gower 5:29 pm, 16th June 2020

I want to speak in this debate today not just as a proud Welsh Labour MP but as a former teacher and a single parent.

We once again find ourselves in a position where a high-profile campaign has forced an embarrassing U-turn from this Government—a U-turn that will benefit thousands of children from some of the most disadvantaged homes. I want to echo the sentiments of my colleagues in recognising the work and dedication of Marcus Rashford in forcing this change of policy. He is exactly the kind of role model I want for my son—even though my son is a Man City fan—and for all the children in my constituency of Gower and in Wales.

I started my teaching career in the autumn of 1997 at Standish Community High School in Wigan. I saw at first hand the impact that a Labour Government had on lifting children out of poverty. When I later returned to teach in Wales, it was obvious that the wellbeing of pupils was at the forefront of the decisions made by the Welsh Government. I am proud that making sure that all children in my school did not start the day hungry was a priority for the headteacher and governing body of Bryngwyn School in Llanelli, where I last taught. They were inclusive, caring, and looking to provide for all pupils who came into their care. This is not something new in Wales. But until today’s screeching U-turn from this Government, children in England would have been losing out on support that they desperately needed. I am proud that kids in receipt of free school meals in Wales will always have that support from a Welsh Labour Government.

The challenges faced by these children and their families across the UK during the holidays are many: the cost of extra meals, finding free extra activities, and worrying about not being able to afford the uniform or the right shoes, school bag and equipment. I know that feeling of dread very well. It is not just parents of children on free school meals who need help and support—it is also working parents on low incomes, single parents, and all those recently affected by covid-19.

Since becoming an MP, I have focused in my community on supporting parents and children in Gower over the summer period. My office and I, like many Welsh Labour MPs, have run schemes to recycle uniforms for local schools, put together back-to-school bags, and made and distributed packed lunches over the summer holidays. We work together with the Welsh Labour Government and Labour-led Swansea City Council, who make huge contributions every year to helping families in Gower and across Swansea. We create and give that extra support for those families, and it goes beyond just free school meals. It is also very pertinent to note that the level of support in Wales is significantly higher than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. An allowance of £19.50 per child, per week, is £4.50 more than in England and up to £9.50 more than in some Scottish council areas. This can make a huge difference to these families and to the feeling of worth of these children.

But what message does it give to our children when the Secretary of State for Transport said this morning that there are more important things than feeding schoolchildren, or when the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions tweets Marcus Rashford making a flippant comment and then attempts to correct it, while other Conservative Members demean Marcus’s own personal life experiences and the experiences of others like him? The lack of empathy and inability to relate to the problems families are facing across this country is endemic among Conservative Members. Really, how can a Government be so tone-deaf to an entire country? There are Members in this House who will have known the challenge of putting food on the table. Many of us are driven by our own life experiences to help people—to pull them up the ladder and not to push them down.

I would like the Government to recognise what the Welsh Labour Government have put in place. On that point, I am proud that a Labour Government in Wales are committed to prioritising the wellbeing of our future generations. Although I am pleased that the Government have reversed their position, it does prompt the question, why did they not think our kids were worth it before?