Newcastle MPs look back on October free school meals vote

Joe Molander talks to MPs in the weeks after the motion was voted down

Joe Molander
13th November 2020
Image: Wikimedia Commons
On 21 October, MPs voted down a Labour motion to extend direct government funding for free school meals into the school holidays until Easter 2021. Four Labour MPs with constituencies in and around Newcastle agreed to speak to The Courier about the decision.

Nick Brown – Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne East and the Opposition Chief Whip – opined that “It cannot be right that families are left hungry as a result of this government’s incompetent handling of the pandemic.”

“Under pressure from the Labour Party, the government committed to providing these children [who are eligible] with free school meals over the summer holidays.”

He explained that now the government “argue that it is not the role of schools to provide food during the holidays, despite the fact that this was their position a couple of months earlier.”

Brown also discusses the Conservative Party’s sizeable parliamentary majority of 78.

Alan Campbell – MP for Tynemouth and Opposition Deputy Chief Whip – put it like this: “If the government whips their MPs and they follow the whip then they usually win the vote, if not the argument.”

Chi Onwurah – MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central – grew up on free school meals.

“There’s more than 13 000 children on free school meals here in Newcastle,” she told The Courier, “and I didn’t feel the risk of them going hungry during half term and during the holidays wasn’t something that we as a civilised country – one of the richest countries in the world – should find acceptable.”

More than one MP mentions the cost. Onwurah explained that “we see how much the government is spending recklessly. It’s about £20 000 000 a week for the country for every week of free school meals, but they can’t spend that on hungry children?”

Catherine McKinnell – MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North – said “There is widespread support across the country for extending free school meals and the cost of doing so is a fraction of money the government are currently spending on consultants for Brexit.”

She explained “Poverty is not evitable. It’s a result of decisions by those in power. We’ve had a decade of austerity which has seen many schemes for lifting people out of poverty cut back and rising child poverty is the result.”

When asked about the mood amongst Labour MPs following the vote, Onwurah said “There’s a combination of outrage at the government, particularly at Tory MPs and particularly – I’ll say this – Tory MPs in the North where we have so much poverty, and a frustration that we’re not in the position to change this.”

John McCorry is the Chief Executive of Newcastle West End Foodbank, which tries to avoid politics. When asked if that’s getting harder– not just after this vote, but 10 years of austerity – he laughs and says “good question”.

McCorry explained he was grateful for local support for organisations like his, but still has concerns.

As winter approaches and families are forced to spend more on heating, there is less money for food. He discussed people coming off furlough and being unable to support themselves. He was worried lockdown would deter people from travelling to the churches or supermarkets where food is being distributed.

He explained “we need to address poverty in its fullest sense in this country”, adding that “it costs the country in the long run when these young people don’t have the opportunities that they should”.

Of the three contacted, no Conservative MPs returned The Courier’s request for interview. Ian Levy, MP for Blyth Valley, has been advised against interviews by the police, following abuse in the wake of his vote.

Levy instead sent The Courier a statement, explaining “the issue of free school meal provision in holidays clearly does need further debate and there is plenty of time ahead of Christmas to do that.”

“Debate does though have to take place in a reasonable manner whether it is in the House of Commons or on social media. In recent days, I have had threats of violence which have been distressing to myself, my family and to my staff. These have been reported to the police.”

The statement opines this was “politically motivated”, and mostly came “from people living outside of Blyth Valley”.

A Newcastle University student, who wishes to remain anonymous, volunteers with children across Blyth Valley. She has worked with young people who are at risk and who live with disabilities.

Speaking to The Courier, she explained “children are going to suffer as a direct result of the Commons vote.”

“A significant proportion of children in my area qualify for free school meals, including my family. The Tories were not popular in my area before this, so this will not be endearing them to us any time soon.”

The full interview with Alan Campbell is available here. The full interview with Catherine McKinnell is available here.

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons

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AUTHOR: Joe Molander
Head of Current Affairs and co-founder of The Toon Lampoon. Politics, interviews, satire and the Courier's leading authority on frosted tips. @JoeMolander on Twitter and full portfolio available on Muckrack.

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