Debate over free school meals to help vulnerable children like ‘something out of Oliver Twist’

The debate over extending the free school meals scheme to help vulnerable children over the holidays is like “something out of Oliver Twist,” the Children’s Commissioner for England has said.

Anne Longfield said she had been “horrified and really disappointed” by recent debates which resulted in a Labour motion to extend the scheme being defeated by 261 votes to 322.

“We’re a wealthy country, it’s 2020,” she told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.

“To have a debate about whether we should make sure that hungry and vulnerable children have enough to eat is something that is strikingly similar to something we’d expect to see in chapters of Oliver Twist – a novel published in the 19th century.

“Let’s stop the divisive and distracting conversation, and let’s start focusing.

Ms Longfield said the UK welfare system “needs to work better” and that levels of child poverty had been increasing as the coronavirus crisis continued.

She added that the issue needed to move from being a discussion to “something that is real”.

“I think we all have to agree that there’s a problem,” she said.

“There’s a problem with children going hungry in this country and there’s a problem with children in poverty, and we need now, knowing that, to focus on what the solution is.

“This isn’t going to go away.

“I’m told the PM understands this, I’m told there are people around him having positive discussions about this.

“I want this to move from something that is a possibility and a discussion, to something that is real and the clock is ticking.”

Responding to a tweet by Conservative MP Ben Bradley, which appeared to agree with a comment suggesting some meal vouchers went direct to “a crack den and a brothel”, Ms Longfield said the remarks were “deeply disrespectful”.

“If there are children living in dangerous situations in his constituency, he should be calling the local authority and social services to make sure those children get help rather than going onto Twitter to talk about it,” she said.

Ms Longfield said the comment was “another distraction” from the problem of child poverty and added that more support was needed for children’s learning – such as laptops and internet access – as well as improved mental health services.

“(Youth mental health) is getting worse because of the pandemic,” she said.

“I want to see a really robust response from Government in their spending review. I want to see a mental health councillor in every school.

“It should be part and parcel of life for kids so they can get the help when they need it.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2020, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) The Children’s Commissioner.