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Opinion

Why I oppose free school meals for all

16 Aug 2023 5 minute read
Free school meals

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.

Universalism

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.

Means testing

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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Gareth Westacott
Gareth Westacott
7 months ago

‘Why I opposes ….’? Did you ever go to school?! 🤣

Y Cymro
Y Cymro
7 months ago

If you mean you are opposed to meals going to children with parents who can afford to pay is one thing. Although the same could be said of those high earners who receive child benefit. Should they be excluded even though they pay their taxes is a debate for another day?. I can recall as a child where those who qualified for free school meals were stigmatised thanks to the hateful cynical Conservative government ploy.. I’ll explain. My parents weren’t rich. In fact. I too could have qualified for free school meals but chose not to after my experience watching… Read more »

Arthur Owen
Arthur Owen
7 months ago
Reply to  Y Cymro

I am 77 years old and as a child I went toYsgol Brynrefail,Llanrug a numder of years I was there I received free school meals.I never felt any stigma about this.I was not always popular with the school authorities,but about this matter there was no prejudice.

Gary H
Gary H
7 months ago

HD at it again. He really doesn’t like Plaid, does he? Why doesn’t he just do the obvious thing as a well-heeled AM and give the kids’ daily dinner cost to his local food bank. He might even gain some votes… but on second thoughts, ler’s hope not!

Richard
Richard
7 months ago

Mr David may well have a point regarding the usual top down ,one size fits all Labour way of doing things – well intentioned or not but he would be listened to far more if he did not use these social / community issues in his regular “ crusade “ against Plaid.

Dr John Ball
Dr John Ball
7 months ago

I’m sure the readers of Nation Cymru would like to know that in Denmark and Finland free school meals (and heavily subsidised college meals) are available for ALL children, ALL year round.
Of course these are independent small European nations which – ironically, are economically successful and rich.
Somewhat destroys HD’s argument.

Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie
7 months ago
Reply to  Dr John Ball

Yep! Nice to hear about the rest of civilisation, Dr John!

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 months ago

Always interesting when a Labour person accuses others of being “sanctimonious.” Did I say “interesting”? Hypocritical. That’s more like it.

Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie
7 months ago

I have a contrary view on ‘USFM’ coming out in these pages tomorrow. Following on there will be another article on Saturday on the same subject from a frontline Primary teacher, who is a good Twitter friend. We both deal not with internal politicking but the real issues Hefin hardly touches. I will present some substantial UK arguments as well as the Welsh picture, together with evidence and estimates about outcomes from USFM. I go further and advocate for secondary schools to be included. Alison, who actually teaches children…., counters my ‘evidence’with her huge in-school experience and presents a rejoinder… Read more »

Michael Picken
Michael Picken
7 months ago

Hefin David could try asking Sir Keir Starmer whether it is right for Labour to support wasting 100s of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on HS2 rail to nowhere new or replacing Trident nuclear weapons that cannot be used, rather than releasing the peanuts that it would cost the Senedd or Scottish Parliament to pay for the free meals ALL YEAR ROUND for primary school kids that their voters want? Socialism is meant to be the language of priorities, right?

David Smith
7 months ago

In response to those challenging the benefits of Welsh Governments universal approach to Free School Meal’s this BMJ article says: “A concerning number of children are experiencing food insecurity in families with higher/professional levels of education who are likely to be above the eligibility threshold for FSM” https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/12/6/e059047

Geraint
Geraint
7 months ago

Take free school meals out of the statement and replace it with free prescriptions. Then take Hefin David out of the article and replace it with many of the Tory press releases against free prescriptions and you can see very clearly the poor thinking behind this article.

Steve Woods
Steve Woods
7 months ago

You ain’t no socialist, bruv!

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