Why Boris Johnson’s Excuses About Free School Meals Don’t Add Up

The prime minister claims billions has been invested for children – but will that money actually reach those in need?

In a political row as emotive as the free school meals saga, it’s little wonder the Tories – who voted overwhelmingly against extending the voucher scheme – are desperate to justify their position. 

Facing a barrage of criticism, and an extraordinary community effort in opposition to the move, the PM and his ministers have insisted that free school meals outside of term time are not a good solution. 

Billions of pounds, they say, have already been put into councils and the welfare system to help systemically prevent child hunger – despite the surging demand at food banks. 

Speaking on Monday, Boris Johnson said: “We don’t want to see children going hungry this winter, this Christmas, certainly not as a result of any inattention by this government – and you are not going to see that.

“We will do everything in our power to make sure that no kid, no child goes hungry this winter during the holidays. That’s obviously something we care about very much.” 

He continued: “We support the local councils – indeed we fund the local councils and many of the organisations that are helping in this period – but we are also uplifting Universal Credit by £1,000 and we think that is one of the best ways you can help families in this tough time.”

But this isn’t new money, and there are concerns it won’t reach the children who really need it. Here are three of the Tories’ claims about their support system, and the reasons they might not stand up to scrutiny. 

The £63m given to local authorities by government 

Open Image Modal
Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

One of the key defences used by the government to justify voting against feeding hungry children is that they’ve actually already spent loads already. 

Alongside injecting billions into the welfare system (more on that later), Johnson and his fellow Tories have referenced an additional £63m announced for local authorities in June to help those “struggling financially as a result of coronavirus”. 

The Local Authority Emergency Assistance Grant for Food and Essential Supplies applies only to households in England and – as the title suggests – is designed explicitly to help them afford food and essentials. 

Free school meals are not mentioned at all in the government’s guidance to local authorities, and there is no suggestion that the fund is intended to prevent child hunger in the school holidays. 

In fact, the words “child” or “children” only appear once – when the guidance states: “If families are receiving food vouchers for children through the Covid Summer Food Fund, this should be taken into account, and you should avoid duplicating provision.”

Perhaps more significantly, the guidance also stated on a page last updated on August 4: “The government anticipates that most of the funding will be spent within 12 weeks.” Twelve weeks after June 11 ended in August – and even if we assume the statement was intended to be correct as of August 4, that 12 weeks was over on Tuesday

The fund was criticised by experts even at the time of its announcement for failing to go far enough to protect vulnerable children – especially considering the drastic cuts to local welfare schemes under years of Conservative rule. 

Sam Royston, director of policy at The Children’s Society, said in June that the required funding was actually £250m, adding: “Local welfare schemes have been gradually eroded, with one in seven local authorities now offering no scheme at all.

“Our recent research found spending on emergency financial support has fallen by £250m compared to support provided through predecessor schemes in 2010, with 63% of councils cutting spending between 2015 and 2019.”

The £1,000-a-year uplift in Universal Credit 

Another favoured statistic offered by Tories is the £6.5bn “financial injection” into the welfare system, to cope with the soaring demand for Universal Credit as the job market was decimated by Covid-19. 

There’s no breakdown available of where exactly that money has gone throughout the crisis, but in a May statement given by work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey, it was noted that 10,000 laptops had been deployed to help department staff work from home and a new job-search site had been set up. 

Coffey said: “I think it is worth reminding the House of our financial injection of over £6.5bn into the welfare system so it can act as a safety net for the poorest in society.”

Part of this fund has financed an “uplift” in Universal Credit – £20 a week, or around £1,000 a year – to support the growing number of families struggling through Covid-19, especially as lockdowns severely disrupt key industries such as hospitality.

But that £20 a week is nearly matched by the £15-a-week value of free school meals cards, so if the government intended it to pay for food during the school holidays then it hasn’t left much else to cover all the other costs of the pandemic for those receiving Universal Credit.

Announcing it in March, Sunak said: “I know that people are worried about losing their jobs. About not being able to pay the rent or the mortgage. About not having enough set by for food and bills,” which suggested it was meant to cover more than just lunches for children. Consider too that the government thought it necessary to find free school meals during the summer holidays, ie on top of the Universal Credit uplift it now says is sufficient.

Incidentally, analysis of the support package carried out by the Resolution Foundation has revealed that there are no plans to extend it beyond April 2021, meaning some six million of the UK’s poorest households will suffer an income loss of £1,000.

The UK’s Covid support is “the most generous in Europe” (perhaps even the world) 

MPs, ministers and even the PM have taken to describing the UK as a world-leader when it comes to Covid-19 financial support. 

Boris Johnson recently claimed there is “no country in Europe” that has equalled the UK’s financial response to the pandemic – a line of argument that has inevitably made an appearance in the scramble to defend the decision not to extend the voucher scheme. 

The day after the motion appeared in the Commons former health secretary Jeremy Hunt told Sky news that the government had already provided significant financial support  – adding that the UK had been “the most generous country anywhere in Europe, possibly the world”. 

But this isn’t true. The National reported earlier in October that – according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – both wage and business support is much stronger in other European nations such as Germany and Italy. 

Looking globally, when considering extra spending as a percentage of GDP, Britain also falls behind Australia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and the US.