Monday 19th October Every week brings its challenges, but this has been the most challenging. It is a beautiful morning as I head towards Westminster with the trees full of autumn colour, but that is also a reminder though that winter is on its way and it is going to be tough for so many families.
The opposition have decided to change their mind about the topic of this weeks “opposition day motion” which they had originally said would be on health matters. It is now to be a debate on whether children should receive free school meals over the holiday. I am fully committed to free school meals, in fact since becoming children’s minister I have enlarged the group of children that can claim the meals by more than any minister since the 1940s. As well as providing food, a hot meal at school helps children learn and achieve. However, in the hundred year history of free school meals they have always been a term time offer since schools are closed in the holidays.
No children should go hungry. We know that some children struggle for food over the holidays and especially in the long summer holiday, but it is not all children on free school meals, we know other families (such as those with younger children) and individuals are also struggling.
As regular readers of this column will know, this is why I worked with other ministers to set up the Local Authority Welfare Assistance Fund during the pandemic to enable them to provide food and other essentials locally to those who need it at this time. In Essex, this is being used to run holiday programs for those children who need extra support and give grants to families via organisations such as the local citizens advice bureau, local foodbanks and the Essex Wellbeing Service. Readers will also know that I’ve championed the Holidays Activities and Food project which provides food, childcare and activities to those in the most deprived areas. Even in these areas the majority of families do not take up this offer, but some do. Should I support another supermarket voucher to all children on free school meals - including those who don’t need this extra voucher – or continue to work to target real food and real practical support to those who do need it most? There are no easy decisions, but I do believe that we should support those who need it most.
I spend the day meeting with officials on food, meeting the Head of the Maintained Nursery School organisation and working on the review of the Special Educational Needs system before joining colleagues for votes in the House of Commons. There is good news that another £1 billion is being granted to Local Authorities to provide local assistance during Covid.
Tuesday 20th October I wake up to the very sad news that one of my dear Chelmsford friends has lost her father to Covid overnight. It is such an awful disease.
I join a large group of MPs taking part in a debate on support for Children and Families during Covid. There is a security scare, so the sniffer dogs and armed police have to check out Westminster Hall before we are allowed in. During the debate I speak about our support for children in care, care leavers, disabled children, family hubs and free school meals. I join other ministers for a cross government call on helping to reduce the cost of living and supporting those with disabilities. I’m keen to start a civil service internship program for young people with disabilities similar to our one for care leavers. I speak to many colleagues about Free School Meals, they are pleased to hear about the local government welfare assistance.
Wednesday 21st October Many internal meetings and discussions with colleagues before going to the Chamber for the debate on free school meals in the holidays. It is a heated debate, with many on our benches saying that we must support the most vulnerable, pointing to the huge increase we have put into job and welfare support as well as targeted support. The opposition are saying that we don’t support any free school meals which is clearly untrue. The mood from the opposition is very aggressive, one of the Labour front bench is reprimanded by the Speaker for using unparliamentary language as she yells abuse at a new MP. It is late when the vote comes but the majority support the proposal to keep investing in supporting welfare benefits, protecting jobs and making sure children get supported locally through the local grants that have been given. Social media erupts into abuse.
Thursday 22nd October I meet the Chief Social Worker to discuss how to help reduce the backlog in the family courts, there are proposals to reduce the number of cases related to children being taken to court for example for fostering decisions, I don’t want more children to be put at risk. My weekly stocktake with officials working on vulnerable children matters is full of complex decisions and planning for months ahead. I join a training course for ministers – the first since I started this job six months ago and very helpful. I catch up with the Public Health Minister and Chief Nurse especially to discuss support for families of new babies. I spend much of the day also supporting some of the MPs who have received death threats and other vile messages – why is it so often young women who are targeted.
Friday 23rd October I am in Westminster again, as ministers take it in turn to be available when the House sits on Fridays. I spend most of the day returning emails on our vote this week and have a long and helpful meeting with all the children’s charities; Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, Action for Children, the National Children’s Bureau and the NSPCC. We discuss winter planning and the work they are all doing to support vulnerable children, much of which is being supported by direct government grants at this time. Essex County Council contact me to let me know that they will be using the additional funds we gave them to make sure that the most vulnerable children get access to holiday clubs and food this half term as well as continued grants to go out though food banks and other local organisations. This is exactly the targeted support that is needed at this very challenging time.