Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:57 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Labour, Leeds East 8:57 pm, 18th January 2021

This debate on free school meals cannot be separated from the earlier one on universal credit, because both prompt the question: why are over 14 million people living in poverty in the sixth richest country on earth? This endemic poverty is the result of a broken model and an ideological choice—one that the Conservative party chooses to make. Poverty has soared in this crisis, and the Government choose not to do all they can to tackle it, just as they made the choice to impoverish families with a decade of austerity.

The school food parcels fiasco highlights so much that is wrong with the system. It shows that when services are privatised and outsourced, profit is put first. How else can we explain Government guidelines that mean a £15 food parcel leaves kids with just £5-worth of food, with the vast majority going to the private companies? This is food literally taken from a child’s mouth, while the CEO of the company responsible for those shocking food parcels is paid £4.7 million per year—280 times more than its dinner ladies. It does not have to be this way. Leeds City Council gives proper food parcels to children by keeping the services in-house—public services run for the public good.

The food parcel scandal also shows that the Conservative party’s contempt for people in poverty knows no bounds. My party wants to see cash instead of food parcels going to families. The Conservatives disagree. They do not trust people in poverty to do what is best for their children. As a Conservative MP once disgracefully put it, the money could go direct to “a crack den” or “a brothel”.

But people are not in poverty because of a character failing, or because they do not work hard. People are in poverty because the broken economic model cannot provide them with a job that pays enough to live on, and because the Government refuse them the services they deserve. They include the tens of thousands of children in my region waiting for laptops so that they can work online. These kids deserve a proper chance in life. Their futures are not worth less than those of the children at the elite private schools that many members of the Cabinet attended, but the Government act like they are.

Finally, my party stood at the last election on a manifesto pledging both free broadband for the whole country and free school meals for all primary school children. Such policies are needed now more than ever. If this crisis has shown us anything, it is that the social safety net is broken. It is time to move back to a universal model.