‘I have been genuinely enormously torn’ - MP’s 1,000 word letter reveals why he voted against free school meal extension

North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker. Picture: Supplied by Duncan Baker

North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker. Picture: Supplied by Duncan Baker - Credit: Archant

A Norfolk MP has explained why he voted against a bid to extend free school meals to children during half term.

Duncan Baker, north Norfolk MP. Picture: Stuart Anderson

Duncan Baker, north Norfolk MP. Picture: Stuart Anderson - Credit: Archant

The campaign has received extensive attention after being backed by Marcus Rashford MBE, a footballer for Manchester United and England.

Conservative MPs who voted against the extension have been subjected to a raft of criticism from campaigners and opposition MPs.

Thousands of child health specialists have also signed a petition expressing their shock at the decision.

After being asked by a constituent why he voted against Labour’s motion, north Norfolk MP Duncan Baker wrote a 1,000-word letter explaining his reasons.

Duncan Baker, north Norfolk MP. Picture: Stuart Anderson

Duncan Baker, north Norfolk MP. Picture: Stuart Anderson - Credit: Archant

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In the letter, Mr Baker said he has been “genuinely enormously torn over” the decision to vote down the extension, and had debated the issue at length with colleagues.

He told this paper that he has since been in contact with Norfolk County Council to discuss how its £1.015m fund is addressing this issue.

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The constituent who wrote the letter to Mr Baker, who did not want to be named, said: “I decided to write to Duncan for him to share his view on why he voted the way he did.

“I was hoping his response would make things clearer but if social media is anything to go by it has fuelled the fire.

“I feel transparency is very important here and hope that the end result will be that no single child will go hungry.”

The letter in full:

Thank you for taking the time to write to me on a topic which I know has caused concern not just in Norfolk but throughout the country.

This has been something I have been genuinely enormously torn over. I had spoken to ministers Vicky Ford, Victoria Prentis, many colleagues and had significant conversations with the whips at just how unhappy I was with the government’s position.

As you may be aware, the situation stems from the opposition day debate on free school meals. Labour wanted them provided outside of school until next Easter. There was a motion tabled in the name of the opposition and an amendment tabled by the government.

First of all we need to recognise that the government has given generously during the Covid-19 pandemic to support our most vulnerable children and I welcome that we will continue to offer free school meals in term time.

I think we should acknowledge the Government’s substantial support package to children (this is worth £550million annually and that this has been bolstered by income support protections worth £53billion and £9.3billion of additional welfare payments). During lockdown and school closures, meal vouchers worth £380million supported families and children through unprecedented challenges. I actually felt wholeheartedly that we should continue to support our most vulnerable children in society until the Easter holidays in 2021, but only decided not vote against the government once I had fully established the complexity of the situation.

The motion tabled by the opposition called on the government to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021. While a non-binding vote it does send an important message that we must take reasonable steps and necessary support for children and families. But extending vouchers in my view is not the right way to help the most vulnerable, there are better ways to do this as I will explain.

Since being elected, I have visited local food banks in north Norfolk to understand the pressures local people are under and during this pandemic I have spoken to major supermarket retailers to lobby their support to accept the free school meal vouchers. It is an issue I have spoken to the DWP about and I know there are many children in my constituency who rely on free school meals. Child poverty needs properly tackling and a short term fix with vouchers is not the right way to do this.

During the unprecedented time at the start of the pandemic, it was right that extraordinary measures on free school meals were taken and I supported this wholeheartedly. No government has ever funded provision of free school meals to children during school holidays as provision for free school meals is ordinarily term time only. But it was right to do so. We all want to do what we can to alleviate child food poverty and I am very pleased the Government acted and met the needs of eligible children to ensure they could still receive free school meals over the summer.

During the Easter and half term holidays the Department for Education met the costs of the national voucher scheme to provide free school meals for eligible pupils. This was the right action to take and I welcome that in recognition of the unprecedented situation facing parents this summer, the new Covid Summer Food Fund was launched. A £9 million summer holiday activities and food programme also ran over the summer, offering activities and meals to thousands of disadvantaged children.

Through the Covid Summer Food Fund, schools could support eligible pupils with a £90 voucher to cover the six-week holiday period. Where a school’s holiday lasted seven weeks, the voucher amount could be increased to £105.

But schools are now back and on the June 11, £63 million was announced by the government to be distributed to local authorities across England to help them support households who are struggling to make ends meet due to the pandemic.

This includes cash payments and food vouchers too. This safety net ensures that we can continue to support the most vulnerable children in society and those children most in need are well-nourished regardless of the difficult circumstances they are facing.

£1,015,631 has been given until the end of October 2020 in Norfolk and covers half term. In effect we are providing for those who most need the support. BUT this is not enough in my view and by talking to the Ministers I understand that we will be providing additional support but targeted to provide for the most vulnerable. That is the better way to do this, not through FSM, where we know the money is not always spent specifically on the children. It is a sad fact that vouchers don’t always get fully spent on the children with healthy nutritious meals. It is better that we ensure there is proper targeted local intervention so children get the direct help they need. We also need to make sure that there is funding for breakfast clubs and associated clubs to ensure this need is met.

This I believe is what the government is doing. We will bring forward targeted local intervention, not vouchers or food boxes but specific support to where it is most needed. We must recognise that the state has spent around £300bn fighting the pandemic so far and the Universal Credit increase by £1,040 per eligible person has been a lifeline to so many.

It is drawing all this package of welfare together, recognising that there is absolutely a local fund for those that outside of the school time have got a safety net and that we will tackle food poverty properly with specific intervention that this is better than extending vouchers for another six months.

Even if you disagree with me, I hope you can see that there is an enormous amount of support for those most vulnerable. I took a great deal of time and effort to consider what we had done so far, what we were doing and what we would do, in the way I voted. I have said publicly if you know anyone who needs help because their children are going hungry, they must get in touch as there is a scheme available which I can support people with as outlined above.

Yours sincerely,

Duncan Baker MP

Member of Parliament for North Norfolk

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