POLITICS
10/06/2020 13:27 BST | Updated 10/06/2020 15:31 BST

Boris Johnson's Pledge Of £63m For Vulnerable Families Not Enough, Says Labour

PM's coronavirus support fund is only half what is needed to cover the loss of free school meal vouchers during summer, sources say.

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Boris Johnson has promised £63m of welfare assistance for local authorities to help the most vulnerable families through the coronavirus crisis.

The prime minister has refused to extend school meal vouchers into the summer holidays despite charities and teaching unions calling for him to continue the £15-a-week food subsidy for 1.3m pupils after English schools officially break up in July.

But he insisted the government has “put its arms around the people of this country” as he announced the fresh funding, which councils will be able to use at their discretion to help those in need.

Labour sources however said that £63m only goes half way in covering the loss of free school meals, which would cost £115m.

At prime minister’s questions, Labour leader Keir Starmer urged Johnson to extend the national voucher scheme to ensure free meals over the summer for vulnerable children or risk “further inequality” in England.

Johnson replied: “We don’t normally continue with free school meals over the summer holidays but we’re also aware of the particular difficulties faced by vulnerable families.

“That’s why we’re announcing a further £63m of local welfare assistance to be used by local authorities at their discretion to help the most vulnerable families.”

Downing Street later said the funding would add to existing support mechanisms available to local authorities.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “It’s an additional £63m and it’s for local authorities to spend it will allow them to step in to provide discretionary financial help to those families who are facing hardship to allow them to pay for food or other necessities.

“Local authorities already have existing mechanisms in place to provide this support to those who need it and they’ve set up those systems in a way that best suits their local communities.

“We believe they’ll be best placed to know how to use this money.

“For example some of things could include food vouchers or cash payments.

“It’s an approach to build on existing infrastructure and can be specifically targeted at a local level, for those who are in need.” 

Ministers have dropped plans for all primary schools to return before summer and refused to promise that all secondary and primary pupils would return by September, leading to warnings that disadvantaged pupils face a “tsunami” of anxiety and inequality unless urgent action is taken to provide summer schools or other support.

Starmer said the UK was now an “outlier” compared to other countries in returning children to school, telling the Commons: “It’s no good the prime minister flailing around trying to blame others.”

He said the PM did not consult relevant parties or have scientific backing when he made his announcement on reopening schools in May, also saying: “It’s time he took responsibility for his own failings. This mess was completely avoidable. The consequences are stark.”

Starmer also called on Johnson to back his plans for a national taskforce to look at the return of pupils to schools.

But the PM seized on the fact that many Labour councils and teaching unions had refused to open schools on safety grounds.

“Last week he (Starmer) was telling the House that it was not yet safe for kids to go back to school, this week he’s saying that not enough kids are going back to school,” Johnson said. 

“I really think he needs to make up his mind.”

Johnson also attacked Starmer’s background as a senior lawyer, quipping: “One brief one day, another brief the next, I understand how the legal profession works.”