Since the government voted down Labour’s proposal to provide free school meals throughout the school holidays, various sources in Oxford have responded, both in favour and in opposition of the decision.
Local government has been split. All four of Oxfordshire’s Tory MPs voted against the extension, while Labour MP for Oxford East, Anneliese Dodds, and Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, Layla Moran voted in favour.
The Conservative MP Robert Courts of Witney defended his decision, saying: “The Government has provided £9.3 billion extra to help those most in need during the pandemic. An additional £63 million has also been made available to local authorities to ensure that targeted support is available to those needing help with food and other essential.
“Free school meals have always been meant for term time and the best, most sustainable way to support families outside of term time is through Universal Credit.”
Victoria Prentis, MP for Banbury and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Food, said: “I am not blind to the challenges many children and families are currently facing. […] Schools have worked tirelessly during the pandemic. It is neither reasonable nor sustainable to ask them to continue to provide food for pupils outside of term time.”
A senior Labour councillor from Banbury, Sean Woodcock, has criticised Ms Prentice, suggesting that 2,092 children in the Bicester and Banbury constituency are at risk of going hungry.
Anneliese Dodds said: “No child should go hungry over the holidays. I am deeply disappointed that the Government blocked the action needed to prevent this.” Layla Moran shared the sentiment, saying in Parliament that the extension should have been “a no-brainer.”
Oxford’s Lord Mayor, Craig Simmons, tweeted that, “About 3,500 school children in Oxford are eligible for free school meals. I have asked what can be done in Oxford City to help outside of term time.” So far, Oxford City Council have announced that they are providing vouchers of up to £15 per child over half term.
The City Council told Cherwell: “Support mechanisms are in place to help vulnerable families, and these have been targeted at those who need it most. Oxfordshire’s councils have a strong track record of delivery through third-sector partners and these links shone through during the lockdown period earlier this year.”
Councillor Marie Tidball told Cherwell: “The brinkmanship of the Conservative government in stubbornly refusing to support the extension of free school meals over half-term and Christmas is creating fear and anxiety amongst children and families who receive them.”
Over 30 councils across England including Liverpool, Greater Manchester, Rotheram, and some London boroughs have pledged to provide free school meals during the holidays.
According to the House of Commons Library, 10,127 children across the county were known to be eligible for free school meals in January 2020. When asked how the vote was likely to affect these children, Oxford Mutual Aid, a local community support charity established during the pandemic, told Cherwell that the decision “is disastrous for families.”
They already deliver more than 100 food parcels and over 750 cooked meals per week and receive up to five emergency food parcel requests every day. They predict this number will rise.
They added: “Although this policy will have a hugely negative impact on the community, it is also cause for people to come together and support each other.”
Many local charities and businesses have stepped forward to provide aid to these children. Oxford Mutual Aid, for example, has partnered with local independent school, St Edwards, along with local restaurant, Taste Tibet, to provide free meals to those in need. Similar initiatives have opened up across the county, including the Deli-licious coffee shop, Mission Burrito, and PHO in central Oxford.
Image credit to David Iliff/ License: CC BY-SA 3.0