Extend free school meal vouchers over summer holiday, says senior Tory MP

The government’s national free school meal voucher scheme should be extended to cover the summer holidays, the chair of the Commons education committee has said.

Robert Halfon, a former Conservative education minister, has written to children’s minister Vicky Ford to express “huge concern” that the scheme will stop in mid-July.

It comes after food charity Sustain and the Good Law Project threatened to sue the government if it did not provide vouchers over the six-week summer break.

Downing Street confirmed on Thursday that the programme, which provides £15 weekly vouchers for every pupil eligible for means-tested free meals, will not run over the summer.

But ministers are under growing pressure to U-turn on their decision, amid concerns that holiday hunger could be exacerbated.

Based on 100 per cent take-up of the scheme by the 1.3 million pupils eligible for free meals, extending it over the six-week break would cost around £120 million. To put this in perspective, the annual schools budget currently stands at around £45 billion.

The voucher scheme was launched in late March, and was originally promoted as the government’s favoured method for schools to continue feeding eligible pupils during partial closures.

But the government changed its rhetoric on the scheme and attempted to paint it as a fallback following a litany of problems with the online ordering system, run by private firm Edenred.

The extent of the problems with the scheme were laid bare by a Schools Week investigation in April, which found the error-ridden system had left some families unable to afford food.

In his letter to Ford, Halfon said the government “must provide consistency for children and their families”.

“The free school meals voucher scheme has offered a lifeline to many families in difficult financial circumstances that have been exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19.

“We should continue to offer the vouchers to eligible pupils over the upcoming holidays, particularly if summer schools are implemented to support children with catch-up learning and pastoral care.”

Halfon pointed to data from the Food Foundation that shows food insecurity in households with children “has nearly doubled since the pandemic began”.

“The government’s furlough scheme is weakening, with the Chancellor’s recent announcement of changes to contributions coming into effect in August 2020, during the school holiday period,” he added.

The cost of providing lunches for children over the summer “will make things even harder for those already struggling, or could even push stretched budgets to breaking point”, he warned.

Even before the pandemic, the government was facing calls to step up its efforts to tackle holiday hunger.

The DfE ran a limited £2 million pilot of schemes to provide healthy food and activities during the 2018 summer holidays, and extended it last year to 11 local authority areas, with £9 million available.

Ford recently told MPs that the successful areas for this year’s scheme would be announced “shortly”.

However, for the third year in a row, the government’s efforts will be concentrated only in certain areas of the country, and with growing concerns that more school children will fall into poverty as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, there is a growing consensus that a wider approach is needed.

“Hunger has no respect for term-time dates,” said Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain.

“We have tried everything we can think of to secure every child’s right to food, yet this week the government said it has no plans to help the majority of vulnerable children over the summer. Taking legal action is a last resort, but the time has come.

“Hungry children in lockdown cannot march to Parliament to demand their rights, so this is why we’re speaking up with and for them.”