THE LABOUR Party voted against extending free school meals for Welsh pupils on Wednesday this week (Feb 24).
In a vote on a Plaid Cymru motion that sought to extend eligibility for free school meals due to the Covid pandemic, Labour members voted as a block to reject the proposal.
The Conservatives supported the Plaid Cymru motion.
Plaid wanted unallocated money in the draft 2021-22 budget to expand free school meal eligibility criteria to include all children in families in receipt of universal credit or equivalent benefit and any child in a family with no recourse to public funds.
Speaking to the motion, Sian Gwenllian, Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Education Minister said: “As a matter of principle, every child should receive free school meals.
“To get to that point, we need planning and to do so in a phased way.
“The first step is to start to include the 70,000 children living below the poverty line in Wales.”
The cost of expanding school meals to all children in families in receipt of universal credit, would be between £33 million and £101 million—the lowest figure if only one child in every family were to take advantage, and the highest if three were to do so.
Ms Gwenllian continued: “Wales provides fewer cooked free school meals to its children at the moment than any other nation within the UK.”
Speaking for the Conservatives, Shadow Education Minister Suzy Davies MS, said although Conservative support for Plaid Cymru was ‘touch and go’: “We agreed that any underspent budget this year should be targeted in a temporary way to help families in receipt of universal credit. There are families in receipt of universal credit for the first time because COVID has robbed them of their jobs, and who will remain on universal credit for the foreseeable part of the coming year because they cannot find work or better-paid work.”
Kirsty Williams, Wales’ Education Minister, responded: “We would still need to find hundreds of millions of pounds for future years. To be clear, that means cuts in other areas. I of course recognise the importance of free school meals in supporting children and families.”
However, Mrs Williams added: “I can therefore confirm that we will consider making formal amendments to this complex piece of legislation once the impact of COVID-19 has eased.”
By that time, Kirsty Williams will not only no longer be Education Minister, but she also won’t be a Member of the Senedd.
The motion was rejected by 31 votes to 20, without a single Labour Senedd Member voting in favour.
Some protesting voices against the Labour Welsh Government’s stance on Free School Meal provision have come from within the Labour Party.
Cynon Valley MP Beth Winter called on the Welsh Government ahead of the debate to extend the eligibility criteria.
Plaid Cymru Shadow Minister for the Economy, Helen Mary Jones MS said: “Ending child hunger in Wales is possible with the right political will, but that will seems to be missing within the Labour Welsh Government.
“Cash is available in the draft budget to include the 70,000 children in Wales who are living under the poverty line and are currently not eligible. It is a bitter blow to these children and their families that the Labour Government doesn’t see this as a priority and voted against our motion to extend the eligibility criteria of Free School Meals to include children most in need.
“They have, under pressure from Plaid Cymru and anti-poverty organisations agreed to review eligibility criteria, but no date for the end of that review is given. And in the meantime, these children are still going hungry.
“A compassionate government would ensure that children’s basic needs are met, and to that end, a Plaid Cymru government will make sure that none of these children go hungry in school by implementing free school meals for every school pupil, first by extending eligibility for all children whose families receive Universal Credit.”