Demand at food banks and child poverty charities in Ben Bradley’s constituency has doubled despite falling donations, with organisers describing the MP’s comments on free school meals as “disgusting”.
Bradley wrote a series of tweets on Friday explaining why he had voted against extending free school meals for deprived children during the holidays until Easter 2021. He wrote: “At one school in Mansfield 75% of kids have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. Their estate is the centre of the area’s crime.
“One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending FSM doesn’t reach these kids.”
Bradley then replied to a tweet in which another user said “£20 cash direct to a crack den and brothel really sounds like way forward with this one”, writing: “That’s what FSM vouchers in the summer effectively did …”
Labour MPs have called on Bradley, who later said the tweet had been “totally taken out of context”, to apologise.
At Sherwood Forest Foodbank, in Mansfield Woodhouse, demand for food parcels is “up to double” what it had been before the national lockdown in March, according to its client coordinator Jo Hays. She worries that when the government’s furlough scheme ends on 1 November, it could triple.
“We see people on the frontline who are coming to us and they’re not from a crack den or any of that. The majority of people we see is as a result of the government lockdown,” she said.
Hays, who said the pressure the food bank was under was “the worst we’ve seen” with families making up most new claimants, criticised Bradley’s stance as “misinformed”.
“It’s: ‘if you want to do better you’ve got to look after yourself’, but there’s no jobs and people are losing the ones they had,” she said. The MP’s apparent “vilifying of people in Mansfield on benefits” was “disgusting”.
On Wednesday, a satellite branch of the food bank will open at St Peter and St Paul’s church in Mansfield. The Sherwood Forest branch will have to stock both sites at a time when supplies are diminishing as the general public begins to feel the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis.
“We have got money in the bank, but that’s not going to last long if we don’t get any donations. The stock we’ve got would last about a month and a half or two months,” said Hays.
On Friday, Bradley invited Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford, who has spearheaded the campaign for the extension of free schools meals during holidays, to visit a school in the Nottinghamshire district to discuss “why FSM is not the right approach”.
But Clare Harding, headteacher at Asquith Primary School in Mansfield, pointed out that it was “ironic” that the MP had not shown up to a meeting with pupils from the school in Westminster in March, when her school was presented with a Kellogg’s award for its funded breakfast club.
While she agreed that a “long-term solution” needed to be found to address the root cases of poverty, she said “that won’t help the children who need feeding now”. She added: “I have had children steal food out of lunchboxes because they are hungry.”
During the national lockdown, the school ran a food bank for up to 25 families a week, and Harding said that this school year it had bought more school uniforms for deprived children than in previous years while the numbers of children receiving free school meals was rising.
Amanda Fisher, 50, who helps to run School’s Out for Summer Mansfield, which works with schools in the area to provide food vouchers to families with donations from the public, said demand there had doubled in the past four months.
The community organisation was providing for 200 children who had been flagged by their school for extra support in July, but the number has risen to 400. “Over Christmas we could be looking at 600-plus,” Fisher said.
She said delays to universal credit claims, job losses and zero-hours contracts were fuelling the demand.
“We’ve worked so hard as a group to not make these people feel ashamed that they have to come to us,” she said. “But [Bradley] has basically said these families that have got children on free school meals are not worthy.”
Fisher, who has been on benefits and has claimed free school meals for her own children in the past, said that when she first saw her MP’s Twitter tirade she had thought it was spam.
“I just cannot believe the actual mindset of this chap. He’s almost demonising children because of the circumstances that they might be in,” she said. “I’m absolutely appalled that he is my MP. He’s not a Mansfield lad, so that says it all.
“He’s been quite well-off through his childhood. He can’t even begin to imagine what these families are going through, I can, because I’ve been there.”
Among the schools the organisation is working with is St Edmund’s C of E primary school in Mansfield Woodhouse. The school also clashed with Bradley on Friday.
In a Facebook post, the school stated that his comments amounted to a “stigmatisation of working-class families” and that staff “know the truth about families who qualify for free school meals and it is nothing like what he suggests”.
In a response from his personal Facebook account, Bradley asked the school to “remove” the “partisan nonsense”, arguing that his comments had been taken out of context.