Outcry over decision to end free school meals voucher scheme in July

Patrick Butler Social policy editor
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Campaigners have threatened to take the government to court over its decision not to extend its free school meals voucher system for low-income families over the summer holiday period.

The national voucher scheme, which is worth £15 a week to recipients, was introduced in March to help poorer families feed their children when schools were closed under lockdown measures.

But ministers announced on Thursday that it would not run during the summer holidays, adding that the government had “always been clear” that the voucher scheme would come to an end when schools close in July.

Sustain, a food charity and the Good Law Project, a not-for-profit membership organisation, said that if an adequate alternative plan was not put forward in the next few days they would take legal action to reverse the decision in order to protect more than 1 million children at risk of holiday hunger

Kath Dalmeny, the chief executive of Sustain, said hunger had no respect for term dates, adding: “Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we have heard more and more stories of families with children struggling to put food on the table due to having too little money. The situation has got worse as parents lose jobs and income.”

Jolyon Maugham QC, director of Good Law Project said: “Millions of families across the country still face financial hardship because of the pandemic. Yet the government still has not come up with a decent plan to ensure kids don’t go hungry. If they don’t, we will take formal legal action.”

Responding to the government announcement, Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the General Education Union, tweeted:

The families of about 1.3 million children in England who are on free school meals qualify for the voucher scheme, which was criticised after some parents waited weeks for them to arrive and others were unable to use them in supermarkets. The Department for Education (DfE) said £129m has been spent on the scheme so far.

About 5 million people in households with children have struggled to put food on the table each day during the coronavirus crisis, while a third of children on free school meals did not have adequate alternative options, according to estimates by the Food Foundation thinktank.

The DfE hinted it may expand an existing programme of summer holiday activities and food for children from low-income families run by charities, though it could provide no further details. The programme covers just 50,000 young people in 17 local authorities in England.

The Welsh government has announced it will continue to provide £19.50 per child per week funding to enable councils to provide free school meal equivalents throughout the summer.

The UK government has changed tack on vouchers before, originally saying it said the scheme would not run during the Easter holidays. It changed its mind after an outcry by schools and parents. Vouchers were also available during the summer half-term.

Andrew Forsey, the chief executive of Feeding Britain, a charity which operates holiday hunger schemes, said with the summer holidays just weeks away ministers would need to explain quickly how they would fund and organise an expansion of the current arrangements given the scale of demand.

He said: “Ideally we’d wish for every family to have adequate funds for food but as that is not going to happen anytime soon we’ll have to formulate as effective response as we can. We are confident we could make a good fist of it.”