Thank you to those who have taken the time to contact me about this issue.
I would like to start by making clear that I welcome the action that was taken to ensure that eligible children were still able to get free school meals during the period of partial school closures and over the summer holidays.
The Government is committed to ensuring that young people have the support and opportunities to succeed for the future, which includes providing those eligible a nutritious lunchtime meal to support learning, concentration and achievement in school. The Department of Education spends over £550 million a year in England, through the National Funding Formula, to ensure that disadvantaged children benefit from this important provision.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic - while schools were largely closed during lockdown – the Government provided substantial additional funding to eligible families through the National Voucher Scheme. Further to this, eligibility for free school meals was temporarily extended to children from families with no recourse to public funds, an arrangement that we are continuing whilst we undertake a review.
The vast majority of pupils are now back in school, and kitchens are open to provide healthy, nutritious meal options to all children, including those eligible for Free School Meals. The Government has put additional guidance in place to ensure we support eligible free school meal pupils who are having to self-isolate during term-time, asking schools to work with their caterers to provide food parcels for those required to stay at home.
However, Free School Meals have only ever been intended to support eligible pupils attending school during term-time, and the Government think it is important that these arrangements return. The Department of Education believes that the best way to support families outside of term-time is through the Universal Credit system - which has been increased by £1,000 for families this year, benefitting 4 million households - rather than the Government subsidising meals for families in their own homes.
School leaders have worked incredibly hard during this pandemic and it is not sustainable to also ask them to provide food or undertake additional action when they are closed for the holidays. Such action would bring an additional cost of around £20 million for each school holiday week and create new and significant organisational workforce burdens on the vast majority of schools.
It is also important to remember that £63 million of additional funding has been provided to councils across the country to help them support families facing financial difficulties, ensuring help is there for those most in need.
This was to be used at the discretion of local authorities to support people who are struggling to afford food and other essentials due to COVID-19. The funding was allocated at the start of August and was expected to last 12 weeks, so would cover the period of the October half term.
There is no one size fits all approach to this issue and the government feel that local authorities are best placed to provide appropriate support to their local community.
Gloucestershire County Council received £558,726.49 through the Local Authority Emergency Assistance Grant and have now confirmed that every child in Gloucestershire who is entitled to a free school meal, will be helped this half-term. Parents and carers simply need give their child’s name and a food voucher code, that can be used at local shops and the big supermarkets, will be sent direct to their mobile. Details on how to apply can be found here. Anyone who can’t access the information online can call 01452 328518.
On top of delivering Free school meals to those pupils in most need, the Government has also provided free school milk to those eligible, and the school fruit and vegetable scheme has also restarted now schools have returned.
There has also been a lot of interest in the subsidised meals served on the Parliamentary Estate. Catering services for the House of Commons are provided by an in-house team who do not provide a subsidised service in the commercial sense of the word. Some venues make a profit, referred to as contribution because it contributes to reducing overall costs. In other venues, the cost of providing the service does exceed the income received in sales due to the irregular hours and unpredictability of parliamentary business. The contribution or cost of each venue is calculated by subtracting the food and operational costs from the catering sales. Rather than a subsidy, the House monitors the contribution or cost of each catering venue, which include cafeterias, dining rooms, restaurants and bars. Prices of food and drink are regularly benchmarked against appropriate external comparators.
I hope this has clarified the situation but if you have any additional questions please get in touch and a member of my team would be happy to help.