Dear Gavin Williamson,
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the lives of all children and young people in this country, but especially children in low-income families without public funding (NRPF).
These families rely on their friends and family – who are also suffering themselves – to provide much-needed assistance to charity and other programmes, but many of these sources of aid have been inaccessible or completely overloaded during the crisis.
I welcome your department ‘s decision in April to expand free school meals to children in certain NRPF families. A positive move would make a meaningful difference to these families by offering a crucial lifeline during a, particularly difficult time.
Nonetheless, I am deeply worried about the Government’s decision to avoid supplying these children with free school meals in the near future.
With its initial decision to expand free school meals, the Government has taken a positive step in acknowledging that the exclusion of NRPF families from the welfare system means that they are especially vulnerable to disasters and at a substantially higher risk of severe poverty. It is nothing new; the COVID-19 pandemic clearly revealed the precarity of everyday life for thousands of NRPF households, where the absence of a safety net leaves only one tragedy away from catastrophe.
No matter where the next few months take us, this fundamental reality is not going to change. In the meantime, the consequences of this crisis will continue to be felt for years to come. While much effort is being made to ensure that children will not fall behind, without access to free school meals, many children in NRPF families may face half a year of missed learning in empty stomachs, at a time when they might already be struggling to cope with the mental and emotional aftershocks of lockdown.
The condition of the NRPF has a disproportionate effect on black and minority ethnic children, locking them into poverty and reducing their potential. I recognise that for many children, their free school meal is the only nutritious meal of their day – but the progress the Government has made in expanding this important lifeline to NRPF families will be lost unless you make this move permanent.
I urge you to give these families clarification before they return to school in September by ensuring that they will continue to be eligible for free school meals – absolutely and indefinitely. In addition, the Government must expand the eligibility of free school meals to include certain groups of NRPF households, including underage children, who are especially vulnerable to poverty and abuse.
I fully endorse the proposal of the recently published National Food Policy – Part 1 to provide a ‘nutritional safety net’ for children in disadvantaged households, including by expanding free school meals to all families on a universal credit basis. However, the Government must ensure that children in poverty, without the use of public funds, do have access to these meals, regardless of the immigration status of their parents.
The coming school year will be a huge challenge for any child, but whether a child is able to eat and learn should not depend on the status of their parents. The Government must not allow any child living in poverty to be left behind at such a pivotal moment in their lives – now and in the future.
Thank you for your attention to these important issues.
William Nicholas Gomes
Human Rights Activist and Freelance Journalist
York, United Kingdom