At an extraordinary meeting of Hertfordshire County Council today (17 Nov) we have been debating why both the government and our county council were prepared to abandon the children in Hertfordshire who usually receive free school meals so that no provision was made to feed them during the school holidays.
Belatedly, and having been forced kicking and screaming by a 23 year old footballer, Marcus Rashford, the government finally caved in and announced further funding for this on 8 November. While I am pleased this will enable schemes to be in place for both food and holiday activities for the Christmas and Easter holidays and half terms (although no commitment to Summer holidays yet), the fact that this was ever a matter of debate, and had to be fought for so hard, is simply astonishing. We live in the sixth wealthiest country in the world, we are in the middle of a pandemic which is exacerbating the terrible consequences of child poverty, the evidence of the impact on children of not eating a healthy diet is undisputed. In spite of this in the House of Commons on 22nd October, 322 Conservative MPs voted overwhelmingly against holiday provision. Hertfordshire County Council having postponed any action pending the outcome of that vote, did not take any action as a result of it, leaving it to Stevenage Council and our voluntary organisations to make provision for the October half term for families in need.
For over 50 years Stevenage Council Play service has provided positive activities for our young people in the school holidays and after school. Our play and neighbourhood teams rapidly mobilised on 22nd October, following the vote in the House of Commons against holiday provision, to provide food and activity packs in the half term week to those families in need. We delivered these in our neighbourhoods so people did not have to incur travel expenses, and we delivered them direct to the homes of the most vulnerable families. There are over 2300 children in Stevenage who receive free school meals, I hope we never again have to fight for weeks on end to convince those in government, and the county council who hold the county-wide responsibility for our young people’s welfare, that making sure children do not go hungry in the school holidays is an absolutely top priority.
Sharon Taylor, OBE, BA (Hons): Leader, Stevenage Borough Council