Contrary to what some people have been saying, I have not voted to take free school meals from children. Supporting vulnerable children, families and individuals has been at the heart of all I have done at this challenging time.
I am fully committed to free school meals, and this Government has expanded the eligibility to more children than any other Government in over fifty years by offering a free school meal to every child in reception, year 1 and year 2, to those students from lower income eligible families in further education colleges and, most recently during the pandemic, to children of families on lower incomes with no recourse to public funds.
For over 100 years, free school meals have always focused on providing a hot meal during the school day as this helps children to learn. In the exceptional time when schools were closed to most students we continued to help them with either food packages or vouchers. Now schools are open, kitchens are open and children are again receiving free school meals at school, many schools are also providing parcels to those who are self isolating due to COVID-19.
Regarding school holidays, over the summer, our Holiday Activities and Food Programme helped up to 50,000 disadvantaged children with free healthy meals and enriching activities. For the past three years we have been running these programmes in various parts of the country. We know from these schemes that some families do need extra support especially in the long summer holiday, but it is not all the children on free school meals that need the support. Indeed even when free food and activities are offered the majority of eligible children on free school meals do not take them up.
I believe we must target support to those that need it most, and make sure that those families and children that need support can get it. This is why I have also worked with colleagues to establish the £63m local authority welfare assistance fund to provide essential food and other items to those that need it – a fund which will be active over this half-term holiday. Essex County Council has received £1,422,336.28 from this fund to distribute locally.
We also know that the best way to support families and children is through the welfare system, not through providing supermarket vouchers. This ensures that support is reliably delivered to those who need it most, when they need it most and in a way which allows families to spend it in the way which will help them best. The welfare system is set up to provide this direct support all the year round in a way in which schools are not. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have provided unprecedented support for those in need and boosted the Universal Credit standard allowance and Working Tax Credit by over £1,000 per year for the next 12 months. We also provided nearly £1 billion of additional support for renters affected by coronavirus, by increasing local housing allowance rates for housing benefit and universal credit. Through our income protection schemes we have so far protected 12 million jobs and people at a cost of almost £53 billion, which is testimony to the Government’s commitment to supporting those in need.
I can reassure you of this Government’s fundamental commitment to supporting children in low income households and the billions of pounds that we have dedicated to that end, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope that you will agree that this support is best directed through the welfare system, or through specific schemes that target those in most need, such as the local authority welfare assistance fund, which is why I did not support an extension of free school meals supermarket vouchers during the holidays.