THE incumbent leader of Plaid Cymru Leanne Wood has challenged First Minister Carwyn Jones on changes in accessibility to free school meal provision in Wales and the ‘taking’ of £15 million from educational investment.
Statistics from the Bevan Foundation show that changes in eligibility rules with the introduction of universal credit, would leave 55,000 children with no meal at school.
The foundation has stated that a family earning 60% of the median wage would be defined as living in poverty. According to a recent report in the Guardian the UK median wage is £28,677. On that basis a family on less than £17,206.2 would be deemed to be living in poverty.
At First Minister’s Questions at the Senedd on Tuesday (Sep 18) Leanne Wood addressed the first minister and said: “A lack of ambition, taking the easy way out and under matter of fairness, were all phrases used to describe your governments refusal to introduce universal free school dinners for infants. Those are words from your current Cabinet Secretary for education.
“You now plan to restrict the number of eligible children even further. Do you think that it can be described as a matter of fairness that if your household has a net income of £7,401 the Welsh Government will cut your free school meal support?”
The First Minister replied in brief: “The consultation has just ended on this. We will look at the responses of that consultation and develop our policy accordingly.”
Turning her attentions to what she perceived as Labour’s failings and checking Labour’s financial management Leanne Wood said: “Your poverty of ambition is exacerbating the poverty of our pupils , You are instituting a policy here that is harsher than the Tory Westminster Government’s.
Just one year after a prominent promise on page 38 of the Labour manifesto which read ‘we will introduce free school meals for all primary school children’. You are about to break that promise. The Welsh Government received £15 million extra in funding due to the introduction of free school meals in England and this has funded the Schools Challenge Cymru Scheme the scheme which closed in July of 2017. So can you tell us what is this extra £15 million now going to be spent on?”
Slightly diverting from the question the First Minister cited Labour’s record on investment in schools. He said: “The reality is it wasn’t really extra money, we were already providing free school breakfast, we were already providing free school meals in our schools, that is something we funded ourselves. We got that consequential that money along with any other consequential’s that arrive will form part of the budget and its development If you look at our educational system, we see schools being built all across Wales. I saw two only last week. Good results at GCSE and A-level the development of an all Wales curriculum. I don’t believe that we are letting out children down at all, we are seeing more investment than ever and the educational system is going from strength to strength.”
Sticking to her guns and pursuing the First Minister on the question of children going without meals in Welsh schools Leanne Wood said: “I’m asking you about food in children’s mouths, not about school buildings. The take up of free breakfasts remains low and experts from the Bevan Foundation and the Children’s Society and the Food Foundation have all highlighted the need for universal school meals. Free school breakfasts do not preclude the Welsh Government from offering free school meals.
“The children, young person and education committee confirm that you have taken 15 million pounds from educational investment, you are snatching away money from children’s futures and soon you will be snatching away their school dinners as well.
Of course the chaos of universal credit and the affect of austerity is going to make life harder for families right across Wales. 55,000 children living in poverty will not be eligible for free school meals under your proposals. That’s more stigma, more hunger, more food banks. If enacted the Labour Liberal Democrats would have imposed the most regressive free school meal policy in the whole of UK. That is a point that has made by the Bevan Foundation who along with the Children’s Society are calling for you all to think again. Do you agree with the experts that free school meals deliver better health, welfare and educational outcomes, or do you believe this investment in our children isn’t worth it?”
The First Minister repeated part of a previous response saying: “The leader of Plaid Cymru seems to believe that we do not have free school meals in Wales, we do, we have free school breakfasts. That point is glossed over.
“Secondly we are providing an extra £10 million a year between 2019/20 to 2022/23 providing free school meals that’s despite having no additional funding from the UK government.
“Of course we would like to be more generous but we need to see the election of a Labour government in London to see that happen. The reality is she couldn’t be more generous. Plaid Cymru haven’t got more money hidden in a stash somewhere. We need to see a government across the whole of the UK that is committed to fairness, committed to social justice and committed to opportunity as we are here in Wales.”