Labour’s motion was defeated by 322 votes to 261 in the House of Commons last week (Wednesday October 21).
It called for the extension of free school meal vouchers into the holidays until Easter 2021 for families in receipt of Universal Credit or an equivalent benefit.
Conservative Gillian Keegan, who is the government’s minister for skills and apprenticeships, voted against the motion.
She pointed out how at the start of the pandemic, measures were put in place to help vulnerable children, including extending FSMs while schools were largely closed, while the extension over the summer holidays was ‘in response to the unprecedented situation bought on by lockdown and the pandemic’.
She went on to say this was never intended to be a long-term solution given the extra costs and logistical impacts, and said she was aware of reports in other parts of the country of schools, supermarkets and parents raising concerns that vouchers were not always used to provide food.
Mrs Keegan also highlighted the government’s holiday activities and food programme and further funding for its breakfast club scheme.
She added: “The Government recognises that FSM is an important tool to support the most vulnerable children during their education. However, our support packages are focused on all aspects of living, including food, childcare and continued support for those who need it most.
“We have increased our overall support in key benefits such as Universal Credit which has been boosted by over £1,000 this year as part of a £9.3 billion increase to the welfare system.”
Both Chichester’s Lib Dems and Labour have criticised the government for voting down the motion and called for support in West Sussex to stop children from going hungry.
Adrian Moss, leader of the Lib Dem Group at Chichester District Council, has written to the authority’s Conservative leader Eileen Lintill asking them to work alongside West Sussex County Council to provide support in the coming weeks to the families who rely on free school meals.
He said: “We believe that through a combination of funds available and the district council’s existing program we can step in with speed to provide an effective solution to support those hardest hit in these challenging times.
“Our colleagues on West Sussex County Council are already in discussions with their leadership to see how this can happen but it will need the support and contribution from local district and borough councils to show full leadership across West Sussex. Chichester can lead and must lead here.”
Meanwhile Labour district councillors Kevin Hughes and Sarah Lishman said they were ‘appalled but not surprised’ at the government’s refusal to continue free school meals throughout the holidays and criticised Mrs Keegan’s stance on the issue.
They added: “Fortunately for some of the affected families, a great many people in our country recognise the cruelty and lack of compassion that are the hallmark of this morally bankrupt government. These people and municipal leaders have stepped in where the government has stepped aside, ensuring that children do not go hungry.”
They said it was not too late to reverse the decision and urged Mrs Keegan to put pressure in the government to change tack.