Opinion: Failings in school meal voucher scheme need urgent action

MP for Hampstead and Kilburn Tulip Siddiq, '31 per cent of children who are entitled to free school

MP for Hampstead and Kilburn Tulip Siddiq, '31 per cent of children who are entitled to free school meals have not been getting any substitute since school closures'. - Credit: PA

While this crisis is first and foremost a public health one, the economic impact of the measures that have been taken to stop the spread of coronavirus have been devastating.

Unfortunately, we know that it is the poorest in society who are being hit hardest, with many of the lowest paid workers losing their jobs or having already low incomes reduced.

Family budgets are under huge pressure, and there are many children who are very sadly going hungry. According to the Food Foundation, one in five households with children have not been getting the food they need in recent weeks. I am seriously concerned that 31 per cent of children who are entitled to free school meals have not been getting any substitute since school closures. A free school meal is often the only proper meal that some children get all day, so, for many, missing out on their school meal will mean going without any food at all.

When schools closed for most children in March, the government quite rightly put in place support so that free school meals could continue to be provided to the 1.3 million children who are eligible. They also set up a national voucher scheme whereby parents can get a voucher for £15 a week to spend in participating supermarkets. I welcomed this crucial support, but there have been huge problems with the voucher scheme that have pushed many families further into poverty.

Free school meals are not something that children can afford to wait a few weeks for, yet it is taking many days and even weeks for some parents to retrieve their vouchers. When they or their schools try to raise issues with Edenred – the company delivering the voucher scheme – they are unable to get any response. Shockingly, 96pc of head teachers and school business leaders who were surveyed by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said they have had problems with the scheme.

Even when families are able to get vouchers in good time, they are facing difficulties redeeming them in shops. Many parents have felt stigmatised in front of their children or the community when vouchers have been refused at the till, or they are told very publicly that they have to spend the full value all at once. No family should have to go through this experience.

The system is also beset with a number of other issues. I raised these with the children’s minister at a meeting three weeks ago, where I was assured that the initial problems had been resolved and that the scheme was working well. This was clearly not the

Most Read

case. It is frankly unacceptable for such an important scheme to have so many failings, and I am urging the government to get a grip and sort this out as a matter of urgency.

Furthermore, the government has said it will not be providing vouchers during the May half term. It is a terrible mistake to take this crucial support away at a critical moment, and I am urging a rethink on this.

We know that many more children are becoming eligible as their parents lose income as a result of coronavirus.

Ministers must get a grip on the problems with free school meal vouchers so that children are not left to go hungry, and provide a wider range of support so that families with children do not bear the brunt of Covid-19’s economic impact.

Tulip Siddiq is MP for Hampstead and Kilburn.