Tackling poverty and its causes is rightly a top priority for this government and indeed the cornerstone of the “levelling up” agenda that I and my Conservative colleagues stood on in last year’s election.
Twelve months on and we find ourselves battling the first global pandemic in a hundred years. We’re in a public health and economic crisis and millions of people in our Capital and up and down the UK have endured the toughest year they will probably ever face in their lifetime. Every day I am listening and speaking to people and businesses who despair for the future.
And the government is acting. We’ve stepped in with support and help for people’s jobs and livelihoods on a level never seen before. Many billions of pounds have been spent on the furlough scheme, topping up Universal Credit, and helping vulnerable families through local authorities.
I understand the anger and emotion caused by last week’s debate and Commons vote on the provision of the free school meals voucher scheme (FSM) during the October half term holiday. The main crux of the debate was not a disagreement over whether to support families and specifically children in need but HOW we can help them - particularly during this difficult time.
As the system currently stands, a family who used to be on a low income, and whose children qualified for the voucher scheme, still do so even if the household income improves.
For example, a parent in the Smith family may take on a new qualification and find a job paying £50,000. Her children still qualify for FSM, because having previously been on a low income, that funding follows them throughout their time at school. Compare that to say, the Patel family, whose main breadwinner is self-employed and was earning £25,000 a year until the pandemic. Their children do not qualify for FSM. The breadwinner’s industry has been hit hard and she is now earning less than half of what they did before, meaning they are struggling to pay the mortgage and other bills. If we just rolled out the free school meals voucher scheme as Labour proposed in their debate, the Smith family will receive help despite earning a good income and not having experienced hardship due to COVID. The self-employed Patel family who is genuinely struggling on a drastically reduced income would receive nothing. I cannot see how this is fair or workable. We disagree with the Labour Party’s approach on this. Instead, we are helping families facing financial hardship and food poverty by funding local authorities, as well as charities and community groups, to provide direct support rather than a blanket national approach.
Not a single MP voted against helping families and children last week. I voted to do it in a more direct, respectful and individual way that will reach more of the families who need it.