As someone who successfully campaigned to expand the number of children eligible for school meals, when the Liberal Democrats extended eligibility to free school meals for all infant school children, you can be reassured that I and my party are committed to this.
Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has shone a spotlight on the issue of child hunger. But this is not a new problem, and it will not go away even when we finally beat this virus. We need the Government to commit to practical and long-term measures, to stop any child going hungry, on any day of the year.
Each year as the school holidays approach, many parents dread the fact they will have to find an extra £30-40 per week to buy meals for their children which are usually provided free at school. With further local and national lockdowns rumoured, parents now also have to worry about how their child will access a free school meal if their school has to close.
Foodbank usage has already soared during the pandemic. Our experience in Kingston saw many more people relying on foodbanks. So this is without doubt both a local and national problem, which must be addressed.
Last week, an Opposition Motion was brought to the House of Commons, which stated:
“That this House calls on the Government to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021 to prevent over a million children going hungry during this crisis.”
I strongly support that motion, and Liberal Democrat MPs voted in favour of it.
Regrettably, due to prior diary commitments, I was always going to be unable to attend the afternoon and evening votes in Parliament that day.
On such occasions, the longstanding practice for MPs across parties has been to see if you can be “paired” with a Government Minister – so they also don’t attend and don’t vote. This is what I did. This means that our votes effectively cancel each other out by this “pairing”.
This means that I did NOT abstain, but instead showed my support for the motion – and my opposition to this Government’s policy on free school meals – through being “paired” with as Conservative Minister who would have voted against the motion.
This longstanding practice of “pairing” has always been seen, by all parties, as a practical way of ensuring that a MP who unavoidably cannot be present is able to make sure his or her absence does not affect the outcome of the vote.
I and my party continue to campaign for the Government to do what is right – and to give councils and schools the money to provide free school meals in the school holidays.
Moreover, I am proud that - with the Conservative Government continuing to fail to do what is right - locally Lib Dem-run Kingston Council has stepped in to ensure that no child will be left hungry this half-term.
First, arrangements have now been put in place by the Liberal Democrat administration in charge of Kingston Council to ensure the most vulnerable families are able to access food vouchers during this half-term, despite the very short notice. Parents whose children have a social worker or are receiving support from the borough’s children’s services department may be eligible for assistance.
Second, other families impacted by the coronavirus pandemic can also request assistance through the Kingston Stronger Together support hub.
Further details on eligibility and how to access the scheme are available via the Council's partner – Achieving for Children.
Third, Kingston Council wants to ensure everyone who is eligible for free school meals can enjoy them over the Christmas holidays too, and is actively working now to make that happen, given there is more time to plan for the Christmas holidays.
Cllr Diane White, Portfolio Holder for Education, said, "In light of the Government's vote against providing our most vulnerable children with free school meals over the school holidays, I'm proud that Lib Dem-run Kingston Council is about to step in and make this contribution towards reducing holiday hunger."
The Liberal Democrats will continue to call for a plan to tackle child hunger - both during the pandemic and afterwards - and we will hold the Government to account on such an important matter.