Tony Lloyd MP: “Row over free school meals is unbelievable”

The row over free school meals is unbelievable. How a government can get itself into such a bad place is beyond me. Hungry children are not political footballs and those many people campaigning on the issue are not simply stooges of some anti-Tory plot. Marcus Rashford speaks movingly of his growing up experience. The Royal College of Paediatricians, the Children’s doctors professional body, talk about the impact of hunger and malnutrition on the growing child. Free school meals were introduced because hungry children don’t learn well in the short term and don’t develop as they should in the longer term. The cost to growing children and their families is a human cost they should not bear. But even for the cynical, the long term financial cost to society massively outweighs the cost of free school meals.

I understand that some Conservative MPs have been writing to constituents saying “We have a responsibility to our society to help people to live independently rather than being increasingly reliant on the state. If we extend free school meals to be all year round, we’re effectively handing over responsibility for feeding our kids from parents to the Government, and that is wrong.’’ That is rubbish. Too many parents can’t afford to feed their children. 56% of families in poverty and 7 in 10 of children living in poverty are in a working family. What is wrong is such low pay and benefits. In Greater Manchester, some families are now on 2/3rds of their minimum wage pay due to Covid restrictions.

Hunger is hunger and making sure no child goes hungry is a duty on society. Fortunately in Rochdale, our Council has announced a package of financial help so no child goes hungry. Even better, community groups and local businesses are delivering food parcels for the vulnerable. I’m proud of them all.

Labour’s debate in Parliament was heated: some comments being made by government supporting MPs were unacceptable (“crack cocaine and brothels,” said one). My neighbour and friend, Angela Rayner, was heard to mutter “scum” at one point. Perhaps not Parliamentary language but very much in the mood of the emails I’ve received. I’m told the Tory MP on the receiving end wanted an apology. I can only suggest that he looks in the media to see what people are thinking and any apology should be from him to the children of this country who need those free school meals.

This article was originally published in the Rochdale Observer on 31 October 2020.