Food charity Sustain is warning it will take legal action against the Government if ministers do not rethink plans to end the scheme giving vouchers to families in place of school meals before the summer.
Lawyers for the charity and the Good Law Project have written to education secretary Gavin Williamson about their concerns that 1.3 million children and their families will be forced to go hungry in England during the summer holidays.
In response to March school closures amid the Covid-19 crisis the Government brought in a scheme giving £15 a week per child in supermarket vouchers to families who rely on free school meals during term time. The initiative was extended over half term and the Easter holiday after teaching unions and charities placed presure on the Government.
But a spokesperson for Boris Johnson said yesterday that the voucher scheme would not run over the summer, sparking anger among campaigners and concern among families who are facing lost income as a result of the crisis coupled with increased costs of children not at school.
— 🌈 Angela Rayner 🌈 (@AngelaRayner) June 4, 2020
Instead he suggested a £9m fund that supports holiday and meal clubs could be expanded – something charity Feeding Britain said only a few areas benefit from, and which Sustain said would help just 50,000, or 4 per cent, of the children entitled to free school meals.
Sustain demanded Williamson explain what plans he has to prevent families facing holiday hunger this summer – and said they would take the Government to court if the plans aren’t good enough.
“As the Secretary of State will know, at least 1.8 million claims have been made to Universal Credit since the pandemic began,” the letter to Williamson read. “There is little sign that the situation will reverse itself in time for the summer break. If anything, it is likely to deteriorate. Cash is being depleted, both by businesses (which leads to further job losses), and by individuals, whose savings are being used up, particularly for those whose outgoings (committed in a pre-COVID-19 world) no longer match their income”.
By the end of last month just 115,000 children were attending school, mostly kids with special educational needs, vulnerable children with social workers and the children of key works. The latter group are less likely to rely on free school meals as their parents are employed.
Hunger has no respect for term-time dates
Sustain chief executive Kath Dalmeny said: “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. Hundreds of thousands of children have gone without food and many food banks and local authorities have told us they cannot keep up with the avalanche of demand for emergency food aid.”
Earlier this week UK foodbanks reported record high demand in the first month following lockdown – with The Trussell Trust venues finding themselves nearly 90 per cent busier, and Independent Food Aid Network services seeing a 175 per cent surge in the number of people turning to them for help.
Dalmeny added: “Hunger has no respect for term-time dates. Throughout lockdown, Sustain and many others have repeatedly called on the Government to guarantee that vulnerable children get the food they need, including over the long summer holiday.
“We have tried everything we can think of to secure every child’s right to food, yet this week the Government said it has no plans to help the majority of vulnerable children over the summer. Taking legal action is a last resort, but the time has come.
“Hungry children in lockdown cannot march to Parliament to demand their rights, so this is why we’re speaking up – with and for them.”
The charities are crowdfunding for any legal proceedings they may decide to go ahead with. Nearly £3,500 has been raised in a day.
Andrew Forsey, national director of Feeding Britain, told HuffPost UK: “Absent from all the recent reports, around the government’s plans to help disadvantaged children over the summer holiday, has been any mention of how these plans will safeguard every child’s access to nutritious food.
Four days ago Lord Gardiner of Kimble, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State said: "We will work around the clock to ensure that nobody goes hungry as a result of this crisis.”
— Jo Maugham QC (@JolyonMaugham) June 5, 2020
“Now the voucher scheme is reaching its conclusion, we need the government to extend its holiday activities and food scheme across the whole country.
“That is the only remaining option for protecting every child from hunger and malnutrition.”
They want ministers to follow the example of the Welsh government who already said the weekly £19.50 per child funding to cover the loss of school meals would continue over summer.
Last week Human Rights Watch accused the UK Government of violating children’s right to food during the pandemic and forcing teachers to pay out of their own pockets to ensure families weren’t going hungry, all as a result of the “deeply flawed” existing voucher system.
The scheme did not kick off until nearly a fortnight after schools closed and kids lost access to the free meals, and many schools and families have been unable to access the electronic system since then.
Other families faced waits of several weeks to receive the vouchers then found they couldn’t use them in their local supermarkets once they arrived. And the programme is difficult to access for families without access to computers or whose English is limited.