Opponents round on MP after her free school meals vote
Critics of Staffordshire Moorlands MP Karen Bradley have accused her of being “out of touch” after she voted against a motion that would see free school meals extended into half term and the Christmas holidays.
The motion, tabled by the Labour Party, would have allowed for £15-a-week food vouchers to be given to 1.4m disadvantaged children in England over the holidays until Easter 2021.
In defending their decisions to vote down the motion last Wednesday, many Tory MPs have referred to a £63m allocation from the Government to local authorities that could be used to fund free school meals.
Staffordshire County Council has since announced that it will give £15 vouchers to up to 18,000 pupils in low-income families for use over the half-term break. Mrs Bradley has said that she was “pleased” it is doing so.
When the Chronicle asked her why she voted against the motion, she sent the following statement: “The whole House unanimously agreed with the motion: That this House notes that schools are now fully operational following the covid-19 outbreak, and will continue to offer free school meals in term time; welcomes the substantial support provided by the Government to children worth £550m annually; further welcomes that this support has been bolstered by almost £53bn worth of income protection schemes, and £9.3bn of additional welfare payments; notes that eligible families have also been supported throughout lockdown through the receipt of meal vouchers worth £380m while schools were partially closed, alongside the Holiday Activities and Food Fund; and further supports the Government in its ongoing activities to help the most vulnerable children in society.”
Her statement added: “I am pleased that Staffordshire County Council is using some of the additional money it has received to support vulnerable families over the half term and I am working on behalf of my constituents to make sure that Government policy reflects the needs of Moorlanders.”
Conservative County Coun Ian Lawson, who represents Biddulph North, was critical of the fact that the motion had been brought to the House of Commons in the first place and called it “an attempt at stirring” on the part of the Labour Party.
He said: “Local authorities have just been given more than £60m for the very issue of feeding children during the holidays, so I can't see what the problem is. As Boris Johnson has said time and time again, 'no one is going to starve while I am in power', so I am sorry but I think the motion brought by Labour was just an attempt at stirring - they're making a mountain out of a molehill.
“I think it's just a bit of publicity for the Labour Party. It has been made political, but it shouldn't be when children are involved. Staffordshire County Council is well prepared and it will look after the schools.”
Jill Salt, a Labour councillor representing Biddulph East, works as a teacher in the county and said that she has witnessed the effects of poverty on her students.
“We're not living in normal times at the moment with covid so parents are even more skint than they were before,” she said. “It was a very mean-spirited thing to vote against the motion, but it doesn't surprise me that Karen Bradley did.
“She should know that she has got two of the most deprived wards in Great Britain in her constituency.
“She will say in her reasoning that the Government has given money to local councils - that's all good, but councils can't continue to be responsible for free school meals.
“Lots of my students live in low income families. I came across a young adult in a previous job who was working in a chip shop and would give all the money she earned to her parents - they were both addicts.
“This girl had a difficult home life, she couldn't even have a shower, and in the end the school started giving her food parcels. That was one of the most severe cases I have seen.
“In general, teenagers struggle to talk about poverty because they are quite proud.”
Her colleague, Labour Coun Nigel Yates, was also unhappy at the Government's decision.
Coun Yates, who represents Biddulph West, said: “The thing about free school meals is that the need for them does not disappear during holidays, and it's not beyond the wit of man to extend the provision. As much as it was an Opposition motion, it was one of those things where you sort of expected the House to accept it, but that wasn't the case.
“Karen Bradley voted against it, that stinks, and it seems that the Conservative MPs have been whipped quite aggressively on this motion. They're not in touch with the sensibilities of society.”
Labour Coun Charlotte Atkins, the leader of the Opposition at Staffordshire Moorlands District Council and the constituency's former Labour representative at Westminster, said: “To vote down a measure that is just trying to feed vulnerable children demonstrated how detached Karen and other MPs are from the communities that they serve. I think the debate exposed Conservative MPs to be completely heartless, bombastic and devoid of empathy.
“I don't think they have any idea how important the £15 voucher is to people on the edge of poverty. They will argue that local authorities have got the money to pay for this, but at the same time there are local authorities that are warning the Government that they will have to file for bankruptcy.”
Labour Coun Darren Price, who stood against Mrs Bradley at the general election last year, also expressed frustration at last week's vote.
In a letter to the Chronicle, he said: “I cannot comprehend the moral compass of someone who could vote in such a way. No child should go hungry - that should be a given. Had I been elected instead of Karen last December, I would have backed the motion.
“While charity should not have to step in to replace the responsibility of the state, the efforts of local organisations such as Biddulph Youth and Community Zone and the Green Tree House Cafe should not go without mention here.
“The work that they and others are doing to support people in need is wonderful. Difficult situations such as the one we are all facing now with this dreadful virus truly bring out the best in people but sadly as the actions of Mrs Bradley show, it can also bring out the worst.”