Why I oppose free school meals for all
Hefin David, Labour MS for Caerphilly
Contrary to popular belief, the period between the start of recess and the September return is not a perpetual Summer holiday for politicians. While the time is not as hectic, it involves ongoing casework, meetings with constituents and opportunities to look in depth at issues going on in your area. The reduced pace also provides time to think and reflect on the term just passed.
I took a week off at the beginning of August to spend some invaluable time with my children on holiday. Inevitably we talked about the return to school and their plans and hopes for their new term. My youngest daughter said to me, ‘Daddy, please can I have packed lunches every day. I don’t like school dinners.’
As well as the usual considerations of responsible parenting, you can imagine that my thoughts turned to free school meals. I was proud to support the Welsh Government’s policy during the Fifth Senedd and the start of the Sixth, of providing school meals to those who needed them during school holidays.
Then came the Welsh Government’s ‘partnership agreement’ with Plaid Cymru that provides a stable administration.
As my Senedd colleague Mike Hedges reminds me, it is an agreement between the Government and Plaid. As a backbencher, I was not party to it and, although I believe it gives Plaid power without responsibility, it is a function of a proportional electoral system to which I am passionately committed.
Most of the policies within the partnership agreement are innocuous and supported by all Labour members. The only one I had reservations about was the bid to provide ‘universal’ free school meals for primary school pupils.
The policy only applies to term time and the costs associated have drawn in funding that could have been spread through the whole school year to provide meals to those who had no other means. In these difficult times, it ended the opportunity to provide free meals to the most vulnerable families all year round, including holidays.
I have no doubt that Mark Drakeford entered into this commitment because he fundamentally and in principle, rightly, believes in the concept of universalism. This approach removes stigma, encourages community equality and is the foundation of the NHS. The First Minister is the most honourable, thoroughly decent of politicians and comes to politics for only the best reasons. It is no wonder that he readily agreed to include it in the partnership agreement with Plaid.
Equally, as a Labour backbencher, I would not be doing my job if I did not publicly profess my misgivings with the policy. The First Minister does not agree with my analysis- he has told me so directly- but in a democracy it is vital that this does not prevent me expressing my view. I hope he will not look upon me too harshly for doing so.
The policy came about because of a concerted campaign by Plaid in advance of the 2021 Senedd election. Their objective was to paint the Welsh Government as somehow neglectful and uncaring. The tactics involved several Senedd motions calling for the ‘universal’ policy and then using the names of Labour politicians who voted against the motion in Facebook posts in their communities.
It had zero electoral impact but the basic and sanctimonious attacks led to me and many colleagues receiving abuse from those who chose to believe it.
In reality, the ‘universalism’ was an illusion. A policy that only operates during term time is no such thing. That aside, it always leads me to one key question.
Why am I, a parent on a Senedd Member’s salary, getting free school meals for my two daughters when we can’t afford to pay for the meals during holiday time for those who need them? At the simplest level, I would happily forego the privilege if it meant funds could be redirected.
Politics is not so simple and it must be considered whether an element of means testing may be more costly that simply providing to all. But that is why I am calling for a review. My priority is that food is given to children who are in families with little other means. I was delighted that Caerphilly Council agreed, using money from their reserves, to cover the cost of the meals during this Summer holiday. They cannot do that indefinitely.
My call is to Plaid Cymru. Rather than get into unedifying social media battles about who cares the most, agree to get back to the table and review this element of the partnership agreement. I say that with no political hostility. Simply, is there room to introduce some cap during term time, so that money can be found to provide meals during holidays?
In the meantime, I’ll be packing sandwiches for my daughters at least once a week as a compromise with them over school dinners. I think compromise is a good approach to parenting. It’s a good approach to politics too.
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