With COVID-19 starting to bite, the government made the decision back in March that schools had to close and that all exams were cancelled. This decision was supported by most at the time, with schools remaining mostly closed until the end of term, in July. Low-income parents – many of whom had been furloughed or lost their jobs – had the new challenge of how to provide for their children moving into the summer months, when the free school meals programme usually ends.
Throughout term time, the government funds free meals for students from low-income families, ensuring that the most vulnerable children in the United Kingdom are able to access sufficient nutrition to sustain their education, often where disabled parents or single-parent households prevent them from receiving such meals at home. The programme currently supports 2.2 million young people in UK schools, a figure which has only risen during the Coronavirus pandemic.
As of April 2020, the National Minimum Wage for those over 25 is at £8.75 an hour, and for those aged 21 and 24, £8.20 per hour; a 25-year-old full-time worker on the minimum wage would earn £350 per week. With Covid-19 forcing many out of work, particularly in hospitality where many are more likely to be from low-income households, the additional childcare burden and absence of school meals left many more children vulnerable.
Furloughed workers were able to typically receive 80% of their salary from the government, with employers topping up the rest, although there is significant evidence that this system was abused and that many workers were not receiving their equivalent full wages, or even receiving their wages at all. This left many families and households – who were often in already precarious positions – even more vulnerable, with children from such households being the most vulnerable.
With the summer impending, the government were made aware of the potential damage that this could do for young people. A figure of £120 million was quoted for providing free school meals throughout the summer months to all children who were eligible for the programme. In order to receive free school meals, children must be from a household where the annual income is below £7,400 after-tax, excluding any benefits.
Despite pressure from children’s organisations and groups across the UK, speaking of the damage to children who might go without proper nutrition for the summer months, the government rejected the idea of extending the programme through the summer.
This was until Premier League Footballer, Marcus Rashford, took up the fight and took on the government. The Manchester United and England winger grew up in Wythenshawe, in the city he still plays his football, coming from a low-income family himself. In an interview back in June, he spoke of how his mother would struggle to feed the family, despite planning and budgeting, with Rashford recalling that he would often be hungry in his childhood. He spoke of how many families in a similar position, or more difficult, often find it impossible to feed their families.
Rashford penned an open letter to the government in June, urging them to reverse their decision and extend free school meals through summer 2020, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson later reversing the government’s decision and launching the COVID Summer Food Fund.
This was a major win for the 22-year old, and he continued his campaigning after the government decision by partnering with supermarkets to form a new child poverty task force. His continued work in tackling child poverty in the United Kingdom saw him awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Manchester and an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Yet despite the decision back in June, the government have announced recently that they do not intend to continue paying for free school meals for vulnerable children through the 2020-21 Christmas holidays, despite the fact that the United Kingdom is seemingly entering a second wave and that there is expected to be a spike in unemployment when the furlough scheme ends in 10 days’ time.
The new government scheme to replace furlough means that workers that have been unable to go to work due to further lockdown measures will receive 66% of their usual income, meaning that a full-time worker on the minimum wage will lose approximately £100 per week. The effective minimum wage will be £5.78 an hour, tipping many households and vulnerable children into poverty, making it likely that many more will go hungry in the coming months.
This means that it is likely that not only will be many of the lowest income families be more vulnerable throughout the winter period, but countless more will tip into poverty and struggle to put food on the table, despite many of these families being in work prior to the pandemic.
Although the government do not plan to continue the scheme through the winter, the Labour Party proposed a motion in parliament to vote on whether to extend the programme, with the opposition writing to Conservative backbench MPs to encourage them to break with the party whip and vote in favour of the free school meals vote. This was after Rashford had started a petition – which has received more than 300,000 signatures – to extend the scheme through Christmas.
Earlier in the day, Marcus Rashford had tweeted that he would be “paying close attention” to the vote in parliament today, “and [paying attention] to those who are willing to turn a blind eye to the needs of our most vulnerable children, 2.2M of them who currently qualify for Free School Meals.”
Rashford continued in a Twitter thread by talking of a “drop in income” for 32% of families in the United Kindom and of a 75% attainment gap between “those disadvantaged and those who are better off”.
Yet his comments were not taken kindly by some Conservative MPs, with Mansfield MP, Ben Bradley, and Wycombe MP, Steve Baker, both attacking the footballer on Twitter.
Both spoke of fiscal responsibility preventing the government from spending the estimated £80-100 million that it would cost to fund free school meals throughout the winter. This is despite the government having spent £210 billion on Coronavirus relief as of September, meaning the cost of extending the programme is around 0.04% of the total money that has currently spent on Coronavirus relief.
In a quote tweet reply to Rashford, Ben Bradley stated;
“Gov has lots of responsibilities: supporting the vulnerable, helping people to help themselves, balancing the books. Not as simple as you to make out Marcus. Extending FSM to sch hols passes responsibility for feeding kids away from parents, to the State. It increases dependency.”
Marcus Rashford responded by stating how helping vulnerable children is not just, morally, the right thing to do, but spoke in language that Bradley and Baker might favour, economics;
“Ben, the economy already pays a high price for child hunger. If children were fed properly you would increase educational attainment and boost life chances. @KelloggsUKI calculated we would spend at least £5.2M a year on lost teaching hours as teachers are caring for hungry kids.”
“And for a more humane response, since March, 32% of families have suffered a drop in income. Nearly 1 million have fallen off the payroll. This is not dependency, this a cry for help. There are no jobs!! 250% increase in food poverty and rising. Nobody said this was simple…”
Steve Baker, the Brexiteer former under Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and current chair of the European Reform Group (a major Brexit supporting research group within the Conservative Party) took a similar line to attack Rashford by stating that “not destroying the currency with excessive QE [Quantitiative Easing] is also one of our duties” as politicians. The pound has lost 20% of its value since the Brexit vote, as of 2019; Baker’s support for the currency mattered less then.
Research produced by Labour suggests that almost a million children living in areas in England that are subject to Tier Two and Three Coronavirus restrictions will lose access to free school meals over the holidays. This is even before the end of furlough, which will undoubtedly drag many more families below the poverty line.