The Tories Must Rethink Their Free School Meals Policy - 160,000 Children In Need Will Lose Out

Families, already trying to survive on low incomes, will be made hundreds of pounds worse off
PA Wire/PA Images

Last month, the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, made a philosophical point during our debate on his government’s policy to reduce eligibility for free school meals. He said that: “the mere repetition of a falsehood does not make it into the truth.”

Although it was aimed at the Opposition, he rather gave away the Tories’ way of doing things since they came into power eight years ago.

Esther McVey provided a classic example in the very same debate. The Work and Pensions Secretary told the House of Commons that “no child who currently receives meals would lose their entitlement.”

It was a claim that a number of Tory MPs echoed, no doubt reading off a party script. We heard that “not a single child currently eligible for free school meals will lose them”, that “it is clear that no children currently in receipt of free school meals will have them taken away” and that “not one child in any school anywhere in our country, is going to lose the free school meal they currently receive.”

But their repetition doesn’t make any of it true.

The truth was revealed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies yesterday. They have found that 160,000 children currently eligible for free school meals would indeed lose their entitlement under the Tories’ plans.

In other words, 160,000 children may find themselves without a hot meal at any point in the day, despite having been eligible before Universal Credit was rolled out. This also means that their families, already trying to survive on low incomes, will be made hundreds of pounds worse off.

This is happening when real wages are falling, and when benefits are being frozen. People are struggling to make ends meet. Why are the Government ignoring this truth?

The Government preferred to simply repeat that there are 50,000 more children who will benefit from their policy, but now we know that figure masks the 160,000 who are losing out. No wonder the Tories have refused to publish the methodology behind their figures, despite being repeatedly asked by my colleagues and I to do so.

Sadly, this is unsurprising. Perhaps Ministers would have struggled to convince MPs to support the Government if they had told them the whole truth.

Even worse, they’ve had the audacity to accuse me, fellow Labour MPs and independent charities of scaremongering.

The Children’s Society found that the Tories’ plans could mean over a million children missing out on a free school meal in the future. However, rather than showing any contrition, Tory Ministers and backbenchers dismissed these findings with vitriol towards Labour MPs.

McVey cast off our concerns as “the same false alarms coming from the Shadow Cabinet”. She then spent an entire speech in the House of Commons protesting too much, dismissing the very argument that the IFS have now found to be accurate.

It gets worse reading the IFS findings in full: the Government’s failure to uprate the eligibility threshold in real terms will cause up to a hundred thousand children (who would be eligible today under the government’s own policy) simply falling through the cracks and losing their meals over the next few years.

We gave the Tories a chance to think again. They chose to make cheap attacks against us.

If they are finally able to start accepting the truth then they should do the following: change their disastrous policy; announce that they will make all children in families receiving Universal Credit eligible for free school meals; address the fall in eligibility and avoid the cliff-edge they have chosen to build into the system.

But first they must learn an important lesson: the mere repetition of a falsehood does not make it into the truth.


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