I shall focus my remarks on free school meals, because the public simply do not understand why struggling families are having to fight the Government again and again on this issue. Last week alone, there were two such fights: first, on the appalling-quality food packages that were sent out for children in place of free school meals, and secondly, on the Government’s instruction to schools not to provide free school meals during the February half-term, which left families confused and anxious about whether and how they would be able to access this lifeline.
In my constituency of St Albans, children in at least one primary school got boxes of food from HCL—Hertfordshire Catering Ltd—a preferred provider of Hertfordshire County Council. In that box, for a week, were just 10 items, including bread, baked beans, carrots, tomatoes and baking potatoes. There was a tin of tuna and two slices of processed cheese, but they were no good for the child who is dairy and fish intolerant. According to the guidance, there should also have been sweetcorn, yoghurts, apples, oranges, biscuits and a muffin, but they were not there. The public are sick of this Schrödinger’s school meals policy.
A few months ago, some Conservative MPs argued against extending free school meal provision to the holidays on the basis that it was the responsibility of struggling parents to feed their children, but in Hertfordshire, the Conservative-run county council is, so far, refusing to give parents responsibility for buying their own food, leaving them at the mercy of contractors who are dishing out half-empty boxes.
Let us not forget how many children living in poverty still do not get a free school meal at all, including children who would be eligible but have no recourse to public funds, and those kids whose parents are in receipt of universal credit. If the Government were serious about improving child nutrition and helping the families who are struggling the most, they would look at this issue again.
Liberal Democrats are proud of our track record on free school meals. In England, free school meals were a Liberal Democrat policy introduced by the coalition Government. Last autumn, Wales, which has a Liberal Democrat Education Minister, was the first UK nation to ensure that pupils received free school meals over the summer holidays, and it quickly delivered IT kit for the most disadvantaged pupils. Liberal Democrats are now calling on the Government for a “No ifs, no buts” long- term commitment on free school meals. Whether a child is in school or at home, during term time or holidays, every child in poverty who needs a decent meal a day should get one.