Free school meals are a sticking plaster over the problem of child poverty in Wales
Helen Mary Jones MS, Plaid Cymru Shadow Minister for the Economy and Tackling Poverty
If you’ve been following the news over the last week, you can’t have helped but notice the story about Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford causing a massive U-turn in Westminster policy over the free school meal debacle. The tireless campaigning of this sporting hero has seen the UK Government agree to an extension of the free school meals voucher scheme in England.
Here in Wales, our children already benefit from such a scheme, and in fact, Wales was the first UK nation to extend free school meals into the summer holidays. Because of this simple step, thousands of parents now don’t have the worry of what they are going to feed their children during the summer holidays, and of course, that’s welcome.
But talking about this as a “solution” may give us false impression. This does nothing to tackle the wider issue of child poverty. In fact, free schools meals are not the solution but the fact they are needed is a symptom of the problem. A meal for a child does not address the wider issue that 200,000 children in Wales live in relative poverty.
What’s more, this figure has remained unchanged for nearly a decade, despite the Welsh Government announcing in 2015 that it “had the ambition to make sure no child is living in poverty by 2020”. I will never understand why this ambition, and the targets and action plans that supported it were dropped. Free schools meals will take away some of the risk of children not eating in the holidays, but unless the root causes are addressed we will end up having to come up with mitigating measures time and time again. This is not good enough and we must do better.
Like many social injustices, the situation has been made all the starker by the coronavirus pandemic. As the world’s biggest economies have been sent into nose dive as everything is locked down in the hope of containing the spread, the coronavirus crisis has exposed how we have let down the most vulnerable members of our society.
Years of warnings about an underfunded and vulnerable NHS have been realised, and shortfalls in our education system have the potential to have long-lasting effects on children’s prospects. The coronavirus crisis has hit the poorest in our society the hardest.
Research from Turn2Us reveals that families with children are much more likely to have lost income as a result of Covid 19, with 71% of children living in families where at least one parent has had their employment affected. These figures indicate that child poverty is bound to rise even further and much faster if substantial intervention isn’t made.
As Wales passes its peak and lockdown measures begin to lift, we must ensure that we do not ‘go back to normal’, because normal was not good enough. We should not be in a situation where children go hungry, and we have to provide free school meals while the wider issue of child poverty remains unchanged for another decade. In order to build back better, we must prioritise tackling the injustices in our society, one of them being child poverty.
We must ensure that the extent of child poverty in Wales isn’t worsened the coronavirus crisis, but rather that it is seen as a golden opportunity to make bold changes to our society and the level of support our most vulnerable receive.
Changes in the UK wide social security system should also be demanded by the Welsh Government, and medium term we need to take control of that system ourselves.
The Joseph Roundtree Foundation and Save the Children have recently called on the UK Government to increase the child element of Universal and Tax Credits by £20 per week.
Going forward, concerns that have been raised by this crisis, including children’s hunger outside of school and the two child-limit to universal credit should be addressed on an ongoing basis.
These issues should spur us on to take bold action to tackle these societal inequalities. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales has described how the upheavals of two World Wars were previously precursors to major social, education and welfare reforms. This upheaval need a similar reaction. Many families have come into contact for the first time in recent weeks with the benefits system, and its many unfairnesses are being more widely understood.
There are many things we could do. For example we could provide free childcare to parents who are not working or who loose their jobs, to enable them to retrain and to find work. We could pay the people – mainly women, many of them mothers – who care for our vulnerable fellow citizens a real living wage. As the Bevan Foundation has suggested we could join up the many ways in which Welsh Government currently supports poor families to make these payments coherent and effective.
And we in Plaid Cymru have long called for the introduction of a Welsh child payment of £35 a week for all children in low-income families, which could lift 50,000 children out of poverty.
We should use this crisis as an opportunity to make further historic changes to rectify the multitude of inequalities.
If we don’t, we risk another whole generation of Welsh children in low-income families being left behind. And that’s not good enough.