Supporting the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children during the Covid-19 pandemic is a grave responsibility and one I take very seriously. It was a great shame therefore that this vital issue has been crowded out through a focus on a single solution – vouchers over the school holidays. Last week Parliament passed a resolution which has my full support because it goes beyond simply holiday vouchers – with free school meals during term time, almost £53 billion of income protection schemes, £9 billion of additional welfare payments, and a Holiday Activities and Food Fund to support disadvantaged kids.
Tremendous work has been undertaken by councils, schools, charities and Government to support disadvantaged children during the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, local and national support has been provided to support those most in need, including children in poorer households this half term. Government has provided over £140 million of additional Covid funding direct to Kent County Council and Dover District Council since the pandemic hit, including for half term support. Both councils are working hard to ensure that help and support gets to where it is needed.
As the Member of Parliament during the first lockdown I intervened to help local families access the new vouchers in term time and holidays. It was a fantastic fast response to the national crisis. But, as with any new scheme, it wasn’t perfect. While the majority of people did say they had a good experience, that wasn’t the case for thousands of poorer families nationwide who experienced problems, including some families in Dover & Deal.
Before the pandemic hit the Government commissioned an independent expert report on a National Food Strategy. Its work includes food poverty, health and obesity, food quality and food security. Their first recommendations came out over the summer and considered the impact of COVID. The National Food Strategy Report did not recommend the extension of the food stamps or food vouchers into the summer holidays of 2021. Instead, they recommended the extension of the Holiday Activity and Food programme for children in receipt of free school meals. This was reflected in the Parliamentary resolution which passed, not the one tabled by the opposition party. School holiday activity programmes support the whole family, and their benefits are broader than a voucher scheme.
I agree with the National Food Strategy report’s findings that “the best way to tackle food poverty is to tackle poverty. The way to do that is to have a strong economy alongside a benefits system”. There is an essential role for emergency support, alongside everyday regular support to those in most need.
As we move from half term, work is underway to decide the best way to support children over Christmas. Whether holiday clubs, vouchers or extra welfare payments, I will continue to make the case for supporting children most in need in our community this Christmas.