Southwark Council commits to free school meals during half-term as pressure mounts on government to u-turn

Katherine Johnston (24 October, 2020)

'It’s the decision that the government should have made, but they have failed so we are stepping up'

36319Food donations at Pembroke House during lockdown in April

Southwark Council has committed to paying for free school meals during the holiday as it joins a wave of local authorities backing footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign.

Labour-run Tooley Street has already funded free school meals during term time since 2010. 

On Friday, council leader Kieron Williams announced: “We will fund school meals this half term.

“It’s the decision that the government should have made yesterday, but they have failed so we are stepping up. 

“We want to end child poverty and will do all that we can to keep our families strong.” 

Jasmine Ali, deputy leader and cabinet member for children, young people and schools, added: “We are joining forces with Marcus Rashford and other cash-strapped councils across London to demand this government supports families through this dreadful pandemic and reinstate free school meals over the holiday period.”

This week the government voted against extending free school meal provision throughout the holidays – including over Christmas – despite the impact of tier 2 and 3 lockdowns and rising unemployment.  Just five Conservative MPs broke rank to back the motion; tabled by Labour. 

More than 800,000 have signed Rashford’s petition to end child food poverty. The campaign calls on the government to expand free school meals to all under-16s where a parent or guardian is in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefit, provide meals and activities during all holidays, and increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers to at least £4.25 per week. 

Hundreds of organisations across the UK are now stepping in and providing support.  Although the majority of councils to commit to the funding are Labour-run, some Conservative authorities have also pledged they will meet the cost. One MP has quit her role as parliamentary private secretary in protest at the Tories’ decision not to extend the voucher scheme.

During the debate, Neil Coyle addressed the House of Commons and highlighted organisations in Southwark helping children at risk of food poverty.

Organisations have popped up in response to COVID, such as the mutual aid groups, and existing organisations such as Burgess Sports and Pembroke House have extended their activities to help feed families,” he told MPs.

“They all deserve community gratitude, but they have worked so hard because the government have created and then ignored the need for help — a government headed by a man who apparently cries himself to sleep because he is now receiving only £150,000 a year. Well, boo hoo!

“I want to end by talking about a real injustice. This year, children have largely, thankfully, escaped the worst health effects of COVID, but they have not been spared the economic impact on their parents.”

Coyle says in his constituency alone unemployment has jumped by 5,000 – and 24,000 have been furloughed at some point during the pandemic.

He ended his speech invoking Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations“In the little world in which children have their existence, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.”

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