Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:36 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford 8:36 pm, 18th January 2021

I appreciate that we are living in unusual times, but we should not forget that not once did Labour provide free school lunches for children when schools were not open. Not once did they provide free lunches for three to four-year-olds. It took a Conservative Government to ensure that that happened.

The Opposition motion asks for children to receive the full value of free school meals, yet nobody is arguing against that. Of course, some of the food parcels we have seen are not sufficient. Some have been excellent, but for some reason we have seen less coverage of those. They need to provide for a proper lunch for a child who needs it. That is not in dispute. Neither is the fact that we need to take action. There is no dispute that we need to help families at this time. The difference is how we support them.

What is really needed here is practical support for families who are having difficulties at this time. Handouts without support simply propagate dependency. We need to be empowering families to assist themselves, not chaining them to an overreliance on the state. We need to provide choice. That is why our package of support aims to do that for schools: the choice of a parcel of food or a voucher; the choice over which caterer to use; the choice of a local or national voucher. We have given £170 million to local authorities to provide targeted support to families who need it through the winter support fund. Even more is going to local authorities to support holiday programmes. This gives local authorities the ability to provide assistance not just to children eligible for free school lunches, but to families who have just missed out on eligibility for them or for struggling families who have children who have not started school yet. Nothing in the Opposition motion makes any mention of those people, yet they are very much a consideration for us. Over Christmas, we ensured that there was targeted support for children and families. That policy worked. The approach can be used again during the February half-term, with confidence that it will be a success.

The other part of the Opposition motion relates to laptops and other devices. Providing 1.3 million new laptops and tablets empowers families to help their children to learn when they otherwise would not. Thousands have been distributed in my constituency, with over 1,000 to one trust alone. No child should miss out on an education and this huge effort has helped to ensure that children do not miss out. There are hardly any other countries in the world that have provided more laptops to schoolchildren during this time than we have.

We can say that we have assisted children with both school lunches and technology. We have helped them probably more than any other country. There will always be more demanded of us. We will never reach the state where somebody says, “That’s enough, you can stop now.” But what we have provided and will continue to provide is a package of measures that provides empowerment, choice and assistance for thousands of children, and that should be fully recognised.