Dean Russell MP speaks in Free School Meals motion


Thank you for all the feedback on the Free School Meal debate. I do understand the strength of feeling on this matter and if I felt that children were not being supported I would have voted differently. I chose to speak in the debate yesterday specifically because I knew it would be a contentious issue and wanted my constituents to hear my view directly.

I want to be clear that the Opposition Day motion yesterday was not binding and voting for or against such motions does not affect Government policy. Over recent months they have been used to generate headlines and create divisive discourse which has clearly been the case when looking at social media on this topic. So, to be absolutely clear I did not vote to end Free School Meals for children. They have always been provided at school during term time and will continue to be.

As you will hear or read in my speech (transcript below) I pointed out that the debate on this sensitive issue needs to be guided by the facts, which I have outlined below.

We rightly extended FSM in March as the vast majority of pupils were instructed not to attend school during term time. Therefore, it was the correct decision to supply over £380 million worth of supermarket vouchers to ensure that children were properly fed.

It is now the case that pupils are back in the classroom, and those eligible for free school meals are getting that provision once again, in their school setting. I do not believe just extending FSM to cover the school holidays is a correct long-term solution to tackling food inequality and food poverty, to me it is a sticking plaster and not a solution. As a member of the APPG on National Food Strategy this is something incredibly important to me.

I think it is important to note that children who are eligible for free school meals will continue to receive this provision if they are required to self-isolate. Schools have been asked to work with their caterers to provide food parcels for those required to stay at home. Over £550 million a year is spent in England through the National Funding Formula to ensure that disadvantaged children benefit from Free School Meals, a provision which has been in place for more decades.

The Government is quite rightly doing a lot to help support the most vulnerable. On top of expanding Free School Meals, expenditure of Universal Credit has been increased by £9.3 billion, meaning the average household have seen an annual increase of more than £1000. £53 billion has been spent on Furlough protecting 12 million jobs. Local Authorities have received a share of £63 million to get food and other essentials to those most in need. The Government has also invested money into Summer Activity Clubs and school breakfast clubs as well.

In other words, I voted with good conscious because I know the incredible measures the Government is going to in ensuring children across our society are supported. I have seen the impact of this first-hand but also accept there is still much more to do. I will continue to share my learnings from volunteering on the front line with Ministers across Government to ensure the most vulnerable in society are supported.

As always, If you would like to discuss this or any other matter important to you please do contact me as usual on dean.russell.mp@parliament.uk.

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Any debate discussing children is rightly emotive. We must protect them, we must nurture them and we must support them. The question is: how do we do that most effectively? In this debate, we have heard highly charged arguments, which, if listened to in isolation, without reference to the actual facts, would cause any of us to fear for the next generation. But as my namesake, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, once stated:

“The degree of one’s emotions varies inversely with one’s knowledge of the facts.”

The real facts are that throughout this pandemic, this Government have been actively supporting vulnerable children, doing the right thing at the right time. At the start of the pandemic, it was right that unprecedented measures on free school meals were taken. In that time, children’s lives were blurred between home and school, but now schools have opened back up fully to all pupils and more targeted support can be provided.

Let us not forget the facts of this debate. First, we are not ending free school meals. We are returning to the way that it has always been under successive Governments, ​yet we are also providing an ever more focused approach to support, so that we can reach every child who needs a helping hand. I am conscious in these debates—especially ones such as this—that there can be number fatigue, with statistics and billions thrown here and there, but the facts are the facts, and it is this Government who have increased universal credit by £1,000 this year for families and delivered £63 million in additional funding for councils to provide emergency assistance to families with food essentials and meals. We strengthened welfare support, adding £9 billion into the welfare system this year, not to mention the billions in furlough schemes, business support and a multitude of other packages to charities, individuals and families to help them to put food on tables across the country. I could go on, but the facts are the facts. To round off my speech with one more quotation, as Aldous Huxley once stated:

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

The facts are that the Government have been ensuring targeted support for vulnerable children, both now and into the future, ensuring that the right support reaches the right children at the right time.

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