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Largan column: 'I care deeply about tackling food poverty'

In his latest column, High Peak MP Robert Largan discusses his stance on the issues of free school meal vouchers and food poverty.

This week, there has been a lot of discussion (and quite a bit of misinformation) about Free School Meal vouchers. 

During this debate, there has been a lot of heat and not much light, so I thought it would be helpful to set out some facts, clear up some misconceptions and set out where I stand on this issue. 

As someone who went to my local comprehensive in Manchester, this is an issue I take extremely seriously. Food poverty is a really serious issue and the Government has a responsibility to address it. Nobody wants to see any child go hungry. 

Marcus Rashford has rightly been vocal on this issue, speaking passionately about his own experience growing up in Manchester, on free school meals. It has been very disappointing to see some people criticising Marcus Rashford. He has conducted himself with remarkable dignity and campaigned very effectively on an issue he cares about deeply. More than that, he is an excellent role model and the personal charity work he has done has made a huge difference to a huge number of people. 

He has been an active supporter of the food charity, FareShare, which during lockdown delivered 25 tonnes of food to seven charities and community groups in the High Peak, serving an average of 1,318 people per week: enough to create over 60,379 meals for the hardest hit by the pandemic. Over the summer, I visited FareShare’s depot in Manchester, to learn more about their work and to thank them for everything they’ve done for vulnerable people in the High Peak. 

People on all sides of the political divide recognise the serious challenge of food poverty and agree that action is needed. We only disagree on the best way of helping people. 

Despite some misinformation being put out there, it is important to stress that there are no changes to free school meals. Free school meals continue to be served to over 1 million children every school day. Indeed, the Government have actually significantly extended free school meal eligibility to a further 50,000 children and expanded programmes like breakfast clubs, which play a really important role in narrowing educational inequalities. 

The vote in Parliament last week was nothing to do with free school meals. It was a non-binding “Opposition Day” motion related to the temporary free school voucher scheme, which was introduced as a temporary measure earlier this year to provide support to children who qualify for free school meals while schools were closed due to the national lockdown. 

A few months ago, I was one of the first Conservative MPs to call for the Government to listen to campaigners like Marcus Rashford and extend the temporary voucher scheme over the summer holidays, given the unprecedented situation we faced with schools having been closed for months. But we also need to remember that this was a temporary measure during lockdown. The last Labour Government rejected the idea of a permanent voucher scheme as well, as it is not the most effective way of targeting support outside of term time. 

During, the pandemic the Government have increased support for the most vulnerable in a large number of different ways, including an emergency increase to Universal Credit by £1,000 per year (which works out at £20 per week), increasing the Local Housing Allowance and creating a £180m fund to help struggling families with their rent. We've also awarded £16m to help food charities run extra targeted support. FareShare are one of the excellent charities that have received Government funding. 

The Government have also given our local councils even more funding to help provide local targeted welfare assistance, this includes over £800,000 to Derbyshire County Council specifically to help those struggling to afford food and essential supplies. Conservative-run Derbyshire Council have responded in a number of targeted and innovative ways, including offering food boxes to parents, supporting holiday hunger clubs and giving substantial funding directly to local charities. 

This more targeted approach works and I fully support it. But there is still a lot more that needs to be done. 

I recently met with the Education Secretary to discuss the need for a long term solution to provide more support for the most vulnerable children during school holidays and made it clear that, if we were ever forced into another full lockdown (and I sincerely hope that we do not have to do so) then I believe the temporary Free School Meal voucher scheme would need to be reintroduced immediately. 

I care deeply about tackling food poverty and will continue to fight for our area. Since being elected, my office has taken up over 13,000 individual cases on behalf of local people, helping the most vulnerable get through this crisis. If you need help, please do not hesitate to contact me on mail@robertlargan.co.uk or by calling my office on 01663 769 779 or coming along to one of my weekly help and advice surgeries. I am here to help.


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