More than a thousand councillors across England have written to the government calling for free school meals (FSM) to be provided over the half-term and summer breaks, after ministers said there were no plans to fund them during the forthcoming holidays.
At Easter, vouchers were made available at the last minute to help support the most disadvantaged families and the councillors warned they would now face “holiday hunger” as the Covid-19 crisis continues.
Ordinarily FSM are only provided during term time, but the government made an exception last month because of the unprecedented levels of disruption and uncertainty facing schools and parents.
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Councillors are calling for greater support for local authorities to help vulnerable families and have urged the government to extend its food voucher scheme to those eligible for FSM during future holidays.
The letter, addressed to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said: “As you will know, holiday hunger is an issue for many families and we would like your assurances that families eligible for FSM will be given food vouchers to sustain them during the summer holidays. We believe that this should become a permanent fixture within our school system, so no child need go hungry during the school holidays again.”
Councillors also raised wider concerns about vulnerable children hidden from view during the lockdown and rising levels of domestic violence. “We would ask that the government continue to work with local authorities and schools to ensure vulnerable children do not ‘slip through the net’ and the necessary financial support is available to councils to support families fleeing domestic violence,” the letter said.
Earlier this week the children’s minister, Vicky Ford, responding to a parliamentary question, said the government had no plans to extend the scheme into future holiday periods, but the situation would be kept under review.
The government’s FSM voucher scheme, administered by the French-owned company Edenred, has been widely criticised by headteachers who have struggled to access the scheme and parents who have suffered long delays before receiving their vouchers.
Tulip Siddiq, the shadow minister for children and early years, said: “Many more children are going hungry in this crisis, so this is absolutely not the time to be withdrawing support for free school meals.
“There have been huge admin problems with the free school meal voucher scheme which we have been urging ministers to sort out, but it is a terrible mistake to take this crucial support away at a critical moment.”
Lawyers representing three children, whose mother is a care worker for older people, have launched a legal challenge against the exclusion of children from low-income families from the FSM scheme.
Following an earlier legal challenge, the government was forced to extend FSM eligibility to families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) due to their immigration status, including those who are permitted to work.
Ministers now face a further challenge over a decision to set the earnings threshold at £7,400 per year, far lower than that set for other families eligible for the same support, excluding working families on a low income who are unable to access welfare benefits, including carers and NHS staff on the minimum wage.
Rachel Etheridge, a solicitor at Matthew Gold and Company, said: “Capping earnings at the equivalent for a family in receipt of means-tested benefits disregards the fact that NRPF households will not be able to supplement their income with means-tested benefits and will therefore be left surviving on much less than their counterparts who are able to claim benefits.”
Schools in England were closed on 20 March to all pupils, except children of key workers and pupils classed as vulnerable to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Keeping vulnerable children safe is our priority, which is why we have kept school places open for these children and are giving councils more than £3.2bn of additional funding to support services, including children’s social care. The government has also announced £76m in support for vulnerable people, including those in danger from domestic abuse”.
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