Government criticised for refusing to continue national free school meals voucher scheme over summer break

Original article written by Amy Gibbons for Tes on June 5, 2020.

The government has been threatened with legal action if it fails to extend free school meals (FSM) provision over the summer holidays.

Lawyers acting on behalf of food charity Sustain and campaign group the Good Law Project are seeking “urgent clarification” about what action the government will take to address “holiday hunger” during the summer months.

The government announced yesterday that it would not be continuing its national free school meals voucher scheme over the summer break.

Instead, it said it will run a programme of holiday activities and food for 50,000 children from low-income families, which is a continuation of the scheme it ran last summer.

The campaigners say these 50,000 children account for just 4 per cent of those eligible for free school meals in England.

In a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, the lawyers acting on behalf of the charity and campaign group have called for the Department for Education (DfE) to extend its national free school meals voucher scheme beyond 21 June – when the contract with supplier Edenred is set to expire – and to offer free school meals provision over the summer period.

If it fails to do so, they have threatened to bring a judicial review of the decision.

Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee, has also urged the DfE to reconsider its decision to discontinue the scheme, arguing that free school meals are needed over the summer as families will struggle with reduced furlough payments and redundancy, and “all stats show well-fed children mean better learning”.

The letter to Mr Williamson states: “In the circumstances, and in light of the fact the Edenred contract will otherwise come to an end on 21 June and the summer holidays are less than seven weeks away, we invite you to confirm by 4pm on 11 June 2020 that (a) the voucher regime for FSM will be extended for those schools who need it until the end of the summer term and (b) FSM will be made available to eligible children over the forthcoming summer holidays.”

It continues: “Should we not receive a response to this letter or a decision in relation to either (a) or (b) (or both) by the deadline set out above we shall have no choice but to treat the secretary of state as having made a negative decision and commence the formal litigation process prescribed by the Judicial Review Protocol. These are decisions that, for obvious reasons, cannot be delayed any further.”

The government has previously done U-turns on its decisions not to extend the voucher scheme over the May half-term and Easter breaks.

Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said: “No child should go hungry in what is one of the richest nations on earth. It really is that simple.

“The government acknowledged this when it introduced the food voucher scheme to ensure kids eligible for free school meals were fed when schools closed for lockdown.

“Nothing has got better since the scheme was introduced. Millions of families across the country still face financial hardship because of the pandemic.

“Yet the government still has not come up with a decent plan to ensure kids don’t go hungry. If they don’t, we will take formal legal action.”

Susanna Kempe, chair of the Laidlaw Schools Trust, which runs seven academies in the north east of England, added: “Because the government’s Edenred voucher scheme wasn’t in place when lockdown began, we bought vouchers directly from supermarkets to give to our families so that children did not go hungry.

“Because when it was in place, it still took three weeks to work, we gave emergency food parcels to members of our community who needed them. 

“It is shameful that it has become the job of schools to ensure that children do not go hungry. The government can, and should, do better.”

The prime minister’s official spokesman said yesterday: “The voucher scheme will not run over the summer.

“A £9 million holiday activities and food programme will offer activities and meals to thousands of disadvantaged children during the summer break.

“We are keeping this scheme under review to consider whether it needs to be extended further.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “As schools open more widely, and their kitchens reopen, we expect schools to make food parcels available for collection or delivery for any children that are eligible for free school meals who are not yet able to return to school.

“Where this is not possible, schools can continue to offer vouchers to eligible pupils.

“The national voucher scheme will not run during the summer holidays.”

Amy Gibbons for Tes.