GMB union Free School Meals Campaign

We are fighting back as a union and are campaigning for example in Northern Ireland this week for the politicians to look at changing from provision of sandwiches to hot meals for school children in the province.

4 November 2020

The Free School Meals Campaign. Hunger and GMB union politics

There has been a massive and welcome backlash against Tory intransigence over the issue of Free School Meals, with social media and much of the mainstream media questioning the decision to vote down a motion to provide for children in England during school holidays.

A brilliant cartoon was doing the rounds with PM Boris Johnson as a goalie throwing the ball against Marcus Rashford and the rebound flying into the net. Of course, the FSM initiative came from the young Manchester United player with the petition backing his campaign attaining over 1Million signatures. And of course, the own goal came from Boris Johnson and his Tory cronies who voted down the move.

To be clear the petition says: “Government should support vulnerable children and end child poverty by implementing three recommendations from the National Food Strategy to expand access to Free School Meals, provide meals and activities during  holidays to stop holiday hunger and increase the value of and expand the Healthy Start scheme. Covid19 has been tough on us all but Government should ensure children don’t pay the price.”

The Free School Meals campaign wants to:

Expand free school meals to all under-16s where a family is in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent benefit.

Provide meals and activities during all holidays.

Increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers to at least £4.25 per week and expand the scheme.

The size of public support for the petition forced a debate at parliament and that is where the truth was outed. At a time when the Trussell Trust announced an increase in demand of 81% for emergency food parcels we witnessed political responses that will live on in history. In defending the government position Tory MP Ben Bradley suggested the campaign was looking for a sticking plaster not a solution and referred to crack dens and prostitutes in Mansfield as part of his dismissal of the motion. While his sidekick Alun Cairns Tory MP for Vale of Glamorgan called it “a Labour stunt”, David Morris the tory MP for Morecambe actually said: “I am looking out of my window and don’t see people starving in Morecambe. This is nothing but a cynical ploy”.

A Southport café banned Tory MP Damien Moore from crossing its threshold, for voting against the motion. Compare all this with the real world, where we have cafes and restaurants across the country providing food to people in need. We don’t want charity donations to be the future but at this time it is a good thing you would think. Hmmm. Some Tory MP called Selaine Saxby went public to express her concerns that she sincerely hoped these businesses would not be claiming financial support for furloughs etc from her government.

Meanwhile we had a different response from Labour, when hard pressed Liverpool City Council announced they would be providing FSM replacement vouchers scores of other councils have activated half term food schemes. Football fans rallied around to kick off a quick boycott campaign against Pay Per View matches on TV calling for fans to divert the money to foodbanks. Liverpool fans raised an astonishing £128,000 while other clubs like Burnley, Newcastle and Leeds did their bit. The Merseyside and Manchester Fans for Foodbanks along with West Ham also raised their game increasing the amount of food delivered to foodbanks and charities across the country.

One of the most impressive arguments made in the parliamentary debate on the subject was by West Derby Labour MP Ian Byrne. He invited the Tories to come and speak and listen to his old workmates among the black hackney taxi ranks on Lime Street for a true education of what is happening in northern cities. He demanded fair funding for the regions, so councils can support the communities in need. A demand we totally support.

Ian hit home the argument that job support for those in furlough needed to be at least 80%, something that the Tories refused to countenance at the time for everywhere north of Watford Gap. He highlighted the work the GMB is doing in campaigning against poverty impact and for what our Regional Secretary Paul McCarthy rightly called out “the existence of so many foodbanks are down to austerity policies and it is getting worse.”

We are aware of the huge amounts of money being given to companies like SERCO and Deloitte McKinsey (£180 million in their case), sums that would be better distributed to NHS services for track and trace and still have money over to cover the cost of free school meals.

We are fighting back as a union and are campaigning for example in Northern Ireland this week for the politicians to look at changing from provision of sandwiches to hot meals for school children in the province. We are looking for our politicians to join in this battle and so far, we are delighted with the political fightback by Labour in our region. However, Andy Burnham and Manchester politicians need to ensure the councils there do the right thing and not accept the tory mantra that they are providing enough financial support for local authorities. This is a battleground against austerity and hunger and a government mismanaging everything they touch.

Neil Smith

Political Officer

GMB North West & Irish Region

GMB North West & Irish Region