‘Early help system is needed’ says MP on school meals vote
After an “empty dinner plates” protest took place near to the constituency office of Congleton’s Conservative MP Fiona Bruce following her vote against an extension of free school meals into holidays, she said the Government had provided “billions of pounds” during the pandemic to protect families and livelihoods, adding that more structured support was needed for those in difficulty.
She said she believes families “need help to halt the intergenerational transmission of problems and that “a well-functioning, early help system” was required “in which health, education, family support, relationship support, and other support for families are integrated and seamless so that no child or family falls through the cracks”.
On Monday, more than 60 empty “dinner plates” appeared near Mrs Bruce’s constituency office at Riverside, Congleton, in a protest against her Government's decision not to support Labour's motion calling for more funding to make sure children did not go hungry during the half-term break.
It took place as many pubs, cafes and restaurants in east Cheshire offered to provide free lunch packs to children this week on the back of the Commons vote last Wednesday and as support grew further for Manchester United player Marcus Rashford's campaign calling for an extension of free school meals into school holidays at a time when the furlough period comes to an end for many working parents who could be facing redundancy or who have already lost their jobs.
Monday's empty plates protest was organised by Jo Dale, a Labour town councillor in Alsager who said she did it in a personal capacity.
The paper plates were tied to railings alongside Mountbatten Way in Congleton as she was unable to get closer to Mrs Bruce's office due to covid restrictions.
On many of the plates Mrs Dale had written quotes from world leaders about hunger.
Pope Francis had said: “You pray for the hungry, then you feed them. This is how prayer works.”
Another plate featured the words of Nelson Mandela: “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice,” while the words of Mr Rashford appeared an another plate: “It's time to level up once and for all.”
Many eateries in Congleton, Alsager, Sandbach and beyond have all been preparing free lunch packs this week while on Friday Cheshire East Council said it would be offering financial support to make sure children were fed during half-term.
Speaking on Monday, Mrs Dale said: “The community response has been incredible. I set up a group in Alsager where people could say if they wanted to help out with providing food for children during half-term and it's been overwhelming the amount of messages I had from people offering to help.
“But it's also tough times for people like them. Businesses are really having a tough time and it's absolutely terrific that they have offered to help - but they shouldn't have to do it.
“This isn't about charity, it's social justice and it should be a given that people should be supported and it's an absolute disgrace that the Government has not extended free school medals into the half-term holiday.”
Mrs Dale described the funding needed to extend free school meals into the holidays as “a drop in the ocean”.
“It's for vulnerable children and extending the provision into the holidays is a no-brainer. The Government should have made the right decision in an instant.”
In her response to the backlash against her Government following the Commons vote, Mrs Bruce said: “As this tragic pandemic evolves, the Government is constantly reviewing the support needed by families and ministers will have, I am sure, as I have, listened carefully to concerns expressed this week.
“In my view, as part of the Government's response, as well as providing immediate financial help, particularly over Christmas, it needs to provide much more structured sustainable support for families in difficulty. Like rolling out across the country the Holiday Activity and Food Programme (HAF), the pilot of which I welcomed in the House of Commons over a year ago; this has provided Government funding for 50,000 disadvantaged children in 17 local authorities, for not just healthy food but also wraparound support to include enriching activities, an opportunity to catch up educationally and engaging the whole family, providing or linking them up with wider help as needed, including with local community groups on issues such as debt counselling, nutritional advice or health and wellbeing concerns. This HAF Programme should now be scaled up across the country - it is estimated it could support a million children and their families.”
Ms Bruce added: “Families need help to halt the intergenerational transmission of problems. We need a well-functioning, early help system in which health, education, family support, relationship support, and other support for families are integrated and seamless so that no child or family falls through the cracks. At the heart of that system should be somewhere that people can connect with to get the help they need. That should be the Family Hub.”
This week, the Chronicle was inundated with letters from residents condemning their local MPs' decisions.
Conservative MP for Macclesfield David Rutley, whose constituency covers some rural areas near Congleton, also voted against Labour's motion. The Chronicle asked him to comment but he had not responded by deadline yesterday (Wednesday).
Referring to Mr Rutley's decision not to vote in support of Labour's motion, Basil Jeuda, of Macclesfield, said: “Many people will now be counting the days to Christmas, but we wonder just how many days it will be before we see a smiling David Rutley visiting a local food bank and attempting to show the compassion that he has so visibly failed to show last week.” In another letter to the Chron, John Arnold said: “One has to wonder what passes for compassion or morals in the Conservative Party.
“In the free school meals Opposition motion, our constituency MP Fiona Bruce voted against poor children being fed.”
Mr Arnold added: “Money is bleeding out of our Government faster than anyone can keep track of and it's flowing into the pockets of Tory party members and donors. But they can't spare any cash to feed poor children.
“I hope we'll see Mrs Bruce explain why she believes that those kids don't deserve to eat.”
A Dr Smith, of Congleton, said: “On 21st October last week, our MP, Fiona Bruce has shown her true colours again, voting 'no' to free school meals for the most vulnerable children in our society while they are on school holidays. Did I not read somewhere... 'Suffer the little children to come unto me'? Shame on you, Fiona Bruce. Shame on you!”
However Matt Wood, of Sandbach, suggested that Mr Rashford's salary at Old Trafford should be used to help pay for free school meals.
“Indeed, just Mr Rashford's PAYE contribution to free meals would amount to about £100,000 a week at the 50% rate,” said Mr Wood.
Mrs Dale praised Cheshire East Council which is providing free school meal vouchers during this week's school holiday.
She said: “Cheshire East stepped into the breach and it's fantastic that they did - but they shouldn't have to.
“Child hunger is real and is in our community. Because we live in an affluent area people do not get that. More than 20% of children in the Congleton constituency are in poverty.”
In a statement on Friday announcing that Cheshire East was stepping in to help families struggling to feed their children during the holiday, Coun Kathryn Flavell, the Labour and Independent controlled authority's Cabinet member for children and families, also thanked the “fantastic support” in the community.
She said: “Cheshire East Council is committed to helping our most vulnerable children and families and we are always at the end of the phone for anyone who is in a crisis.
“Our children's social care team and family support service continue to work tirelessly to support those who need our help during the current pandemic.
“We are fortunate to have fantastic communities in Cheshire East from businesses, schools, town and parish councils and the community, voluntary and faith sector who are all working with us to support the most vulnerable in our borough, and I thank them for all they are doing to respond to the recent Government announcement regarding free school meals.
“If anyone finds themselves in a crisis over half term, we have arrangements in place to provide supermarket vouchers, so please contact our social care and early help teams either via your named support worker or calling 0300 123 5012.”
Sue Helliwell, a Conservative town councillor in Alsager who stressed she was not speaking on behalf of the town council, said: “I have written to Fiona Bruce MP saying that I hope the Government will be supporting families, especially as Christmas is approaching. Christmas is a time for peace and goodwill. Cheshire East Council has recently been allocated £2.58m from central government. The funding has not been ring-fenced so it means that Cheshire East Council has the ability to determine how to spend the additional funding in order to best protect public health, local vulnerable people and the running of vital services. Cheshire East Council has decided it will support vulnerable children and their families in October half-term.”
A post by Stock at the Pavilion, the restaurant overlooking Congleton Park, began "End child hunger!" adding: "With the recent refusal to extend free school meals for next week's half-term (which staggers be-lief) Stock have partnered with local businesswomen Sonia Bate and An-drea Mason from Edit Development to offer a free food parcel to any family facing hardship right now."
Stock said the parcels, available throughout the half-term week, "will contain enough food to give you and your kiddies lunch for the week plus some extra".
The parcels included bread, cheese, ham, fruit, crisps and biscuits.
The restaurant added: "We know that life is hard but remember...you are not alone, your community has your back!"