Thu, 22 Oct 2020
Newbury MP Laura Farris has voted against a motion to extend free school meals to low income families.
The Labour Party motion calling for free meals to be extended over school holidays until next Easter was rejected by 322 votes to 261, a majority of 61.
Five Conservative MPs voted against the Government.
Manchester United and England forward Marcus Rashford has been leading the campaign to extend free school meals, and was a made an MBE for his work on the issue.
Mrs Farris said she had supported Rashford's campaign in the summer, but voted with the Government last night for three reasons.
She said: "The situation in October is different as all children in West Berkshire are now back in school and receiving normal lessons and – for those who are eligible – free school meals during term time.
"Second, I have also been in close contact with council leaders about the issue. They are in receipt of a substantial 'Emergency Grant for Food and Essential Supplies' as well as a Hardship Fund, both of which have been provided by central Government to meet the unique challenges arising from the pandemic."
Mrs Farris said that the funding had been allocated to support struggling families and would include more than food.
She said that there were emergency funds available for council tax relief, to help with utilities, and the provision of white goods, which came to more than the amount that would have been available through free school meal vouchers.
Mrs Farris said that the uplift to Universal Credit of £20 per week (£1040 per year) had also influenced her decision.
She said: "I accept that this is a small sum but it does at least help all struggling families with extra for their weekly food budget.
"Child poverty is a really important issue to me. It is something I was directly involved with when I worked as a board member of a group of primary schools in London and Berkshire and would not have cast my vote the way I did tonight if I did not feel there were equal forms of financial support available for children living here."
Mrs Farris said the difference between the Conservative vote and other parties was not about the need to support vulnerable children, but the method of using direct free school meal vouchers, council-allocated funds and Universal Credit.
Responding to Mrs Farris' Parliamentary spokesman for the West Berkshire Liberal Democrats, Lee Dillon, said: "I don't care what vehicle the Government use to make sure that children don't go hungry.
"Whether that's the free school meal vouchers programme, or additional benefits through existing schemes such as Universal Credit, or a bespoke scheme for the school holidays during Covid, but the free school meal scheme is already well understood and established and would be the quickest way to help.
"But what's clear is that low income families have been hit, like we all have with Covid, who probably don't have the savings to fall back on and desperately need help.
"In a civilised society the fact that the Government aren't willing to step up and make sure that children don't go hungry shows how wrong their priorities are.
"They seem to be borrowing money left, right and centre when it suits their political needs but when it comes to feeding children from low income families, that seems to be a bridge too far for them.
"We have seen increasing uses of food banks before Covid and the stress put on them during Covid, and this is a really practical way of the Government to be able to help people.
"My ward is a deprived area in West Berkshire. As a local councillor I'm aware of families struggling in my ward and Laura knows of constituents who will be struggling.
"And yet, she voted the way she did last night. I don't think that's the moderate Conservatism that the people of Newbury voted for."