On Wednesday, I was one of 5 Conservative MPs to vote in favour of an Opposition motion to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021. I thought it would be useful to set out why I voted the way I did, what the Government position is, and what the next steps could be.
Let us start with the situation we find ourselves in currently. The ongoing pandemic has had a heavy impact on many across Teignbridge, bringing with it significant economic difficulties. Back in January, the number of pupils in the constituency eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) was 1,629. This figure will have almost certainly gone up, irrespective of factoring in the Government amending eligibility criteria in order to widen access due to Covid-19 and the precarious position that many people find themselves in due to employment uncertainty.
Added to this, 35% of workers in the Newton Abbot constituency have been furloughed at some point since March, that’s approximately 14,000 jobs and others have lost their jobs. This will almost certainly have a knock-on impact on the ability of some to be able to feed their families. As I have said elsewhere, extraordinary times require extraordinary solutions. That is why I voted for the motion on Wednesday. It was the right thing to do. And I have been heartened to see so many businesses and councils stepping up to the plate to do just that.
However, we should not forget that the Government has already taken significant action to make sure children and their families do not go hungry during this pandemic. This has included extending free school meals support to those eligible when schools were partially closed, increasing universal credit by £20 a week, funding councils to provide emergency food assistance to families, and allocating £63 million to councils for families in hardship.
The national free school meals voucher scheme saw over £380 million worth of voucher codes redeemed into supermarket e-gift cards by schools and families with over 20,000 schools placing orders. Ministers have also deployed HM Treasury to support families through this difficult period with almost £53 billion worth of income protection schemes, and £9.3 billion of additional welfare payments.
Going forward however, we do have a much bigger and broader responsibility - to give our children a future in which they can thrive and make the most of the opportunities life brings them. Being well fed and healthy are clearly an important and necessary base line. But we must do more. Education and aspiration are crucially important.
Much work still has to be done assessing how we enable current school generations to both bridge the education gap created by Covid, and achieve fulfilling jobs and successful careers. Here in the South West we have a huge opportunity for new careers in green technology, in medicine and social care – both of which must become well paid and well respected careers.
Hospitality and Tourism are struggling right now, but there will be a great opportunity in a growth market as so called “staycations” in Britain become more popular, particularly visits to the South West. It will look and feel different, visitors sense of and need for personal space will be more pronounced. So now is the time to think big about what that new offering might be. Maybe Devon could have its own Eden project - but based on animal wildlife rather than botanical beauty.
The key is to focus on delivering the best life chances possible for our children. We must not only feed them, ensure good physical and mental health, educate them – but help them aspire so they can not only see opportunities – but take them. And for that I shall continue to campaign.
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