Councillor Sean Woodcock, Leader of the Labour Group on Cherwell District Council
Councillor Sean Woodcock, Leader of the Labour Group on Cherwell District Council

Labour Groups across Oxfordshire have written to their fellow council leaders and the county’s conservative MPs, including Banbury constituency MP Victoria Prentis, in an appeal to their consciences.

In June, footballer Marcus Rashford successfully campaigned for the free school meals program for underprivileged children to be extended into the summer school holidays. There was substantial use of this scheme, and more than £380m in vouchers were redeemed, according to Ms. Prentis’s own reply to a constituent.

Backed by huge public support, Rashford lobbied for the scheme to be extended through this winter, in the face of the twin pressures of a resurgent coronavirus pandemic and the end of the Brexit transition period which are sure to affect the financial stability of many families.

Robert Halfon, the Conservative chair of the Commons education committee, said:

“If we acknowledge that children risk going hungry in term time by providing them with free school meals, despite the provision of universal credit and the other things that have been mentioned by the government, we know that they risk going hungry in the holidays too.”

However, the government voted down a motion to this effect introduced by Labour, apparently willing to block motions out of sheer spite rather than concede that their strip-welfare-to-the-bone ideology might be failing some of the most vulnerable citizens in our society. The same refusal to admit their policies fail those who need the most help seemingly drove the Conservative move on Cherwell District Council to neuter the Labour group’s Child Poverty motion earlier this summer.

Last week, all four Conservative Oxfordshire MPs voted with the government to block the Labour School Meals motion, despite public support and despite costing far less than the vast quantities funnelled to Conservative friends and donors under cover of pandemic spending, without oversight and frequently without the taxpayer seeing any return (even with implausible inefficiencies it is hard to see how food vouchers for hungry kids might be of less national benefit than, say, 50 million literally unusable face masks).

Despite Conservative MPs abdicating their responsibility to work for the benefit of their own constituents, businesses across Oxfordshire (many of which have struggled through the pandemic, dealing with unpredictable, eleventh hour, frequently impractical government guidance and inconsistent financial support themselves) have stepped up to offer meals in place of the blocked scheme.

It is not too late for Oxfordshire’s Conservative MPs to follow their conscience and vote with Labour in any further attempts to bring another Free School Meals motion before Parliament.

Local authorities also have the power to help, despite broken government funding promises, and Conservative-majority councils could follow the example of the Labour-led Oxford City Council.

This is what Labour across Oxfordshire is calling on Conservative councillors and MPs to consider.

The full text of the letter is as follows:

“We are proud of the way our communities, schools and businesses in Oxfordshire have reacted with such speed to plug the gap left by Boris Johnson’s Government not supporting free school meals during the holidays.

More than 10,000 children in our county rely on free school meals. This week Conservative MPs (including all of Oxfordshire’s Conservative MPs) voted to deny them, and other children across the country, access to much-needed food over this half term.

The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are already being felt; particularly on those with lowest incomes. Sadly the number of children requiring the support of free school meals is rising.

Local authorities in Oxfordshire are facing enormous challenges. A decade of cuts have left many services pared to the bone and forced councils to rely on other sources of income to support vital local services, many of which have also been impacted by the pandemic.

The Labour Council in Oxford City was already supporting children with a school meals voucher scheme and working with many local community groups to supply families with food over half term. However, other councils do not have such comprehensive plans in place. We can do more.

In Oxfordshire as around the country, we have seen many individuals and many local businesses (some struggling themselves during this time of economic hardship) step up to take the place of government who have so shamefully failed our children in need. We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has offered help. Thank you for your generosity.

National government may have abrogated their responsibility to feed our children, but we call on all our councils to step up.

Oxfordshire Labour leader Liz Brighouse has already written to the Conservative leader to ask Oxfordshire County Council to step up to the plate in the absence of government support.

As Labour leaders in councils across the County we call on the leaders of all Oxfordshire’s councils, and Conservative MPs in our county, to make feeding children our priority this half term, and follow the lead of Oxford City Council.

We also appeal to the Government to change its position and extend the free school meals support scheme through half term and prepare for the same at Christmas.

It is not right that here in Oxfordshire, children are going to go hungry over the school holiday.

Working together, across party lines and across district boundaries, councils in Oxfordshire can make sure that does not happen in spite of national government.

And it is not too late for national government, and local Conservative MPs, to change their mind. Let’s do the right thing, support our communities and local businesses who have shown they are willing and ready to help. So should we.”

Signatories of the Letter

  • Councillor Susan Brown, Leader of Oxford City Council
  • Councillor Liz Brighouse, Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Labour group on Oxfordshire County Council
  • Councillor Duncan Enright, Leader of the Labour & Co-operative group on West Oxfordshire District Council
  • Councillor Mocky Khan, Leader of the Labour group on South Oxfordshire District Council
  • Councillor Sean Woodcock, Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Labour group on Cherwell District Council
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