Sioned Williams AS, llefarydd Plaid Cymru ar Gyfiawnder Cymdeithasol a Chydraddoldeb, yn ysgrifennu am gydraddoldeb economaidd, tlodi plant a phrydau ysgol am ddim

Cyhoeddwyd yr erthygl hon yn y adran 'Education Wales' y 'Western Mail' ddydd Iau 22 Gorffennaf 2021

The unprecedented impact of COVID has held a mirror up to our society. What we see in the reflection is not only the impact of the last difficult months on everyone, but also the difference that arises from economic inequality. 

And the picture that we see is not a new one, either. It is tragically familiar.

There is no denying that Wales is facing a poverty crisis that is deepening with the imminent withdrawal of the £20 uplift in Universal Credit and the ending of the furlough scheme. The time to act is now.

Last week in the Senedd, Plaid Cymru called again for the extension of the eligibility criteria for free school meals in Wales. The Welsh Labour government refused. In the days that followed, Labour politicians from Government Ministers and newly elected Members of the Senedd to county and town councillors, were posting and tweeting their party's wholly unconvincing reasons for opposing the Plaid Cymru motion.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 39 per cent of children will be living in poverty by the end of the year, and a recent study by Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) found that over half of children living below the UK poverty line miss out on Free School Meals (FSM) mainly because their parents are in low-paid jobs which take them over the eligibility threshold.

This is an illogical and counterintuitive system – it means that families on universal credit who are in low-paid work are being punished by having their free school meal provision removed; children shouldn’t go without food because their parents have an income which brings them just above an arbitrary threshold, but doesn’t anywhere near lift them out of poverty.

In fact, the CPAG notes how this system means that “families can end up worse off if their earnings increase, as they lose out on free school meals worth over £400 per child per year, and remain trapped in poverty. Missing out on free school meals also means missing out on other benefits such as the Pupil Development Grant - Access (PDG-A) which helps families buy school uniform, equipment and sports kit.”

The system means that a huge number of those families who are still living in poverty, despite being in work don’t have access to FSM. It means that over 70,000 of the 129,000 school-age children living in poverty in Wales are missing put on a daily hot meal. The Welsh Labour Government's own review of Child Poverty, obtained by Plaid Cymru through a Freedom of Information request, has reached the same conclusion, and yet FSM provision has not been extended.

Plaid Cymru has long been calling on the Welsh Government to extend free school meals to children in all families receiving Universal Credit, to lift as many children as possible out of poverty. The Wales Anti-Poverty Coalition has also been making similar calls – it recently published a letter signed by ten anti-poverty organisations calling on the new Welsh Government to make expanding free school meals a priority.

The Plaid Cymru motion proposed removing that income threshold, and making permanent the extension of eligibility to children of families who are denied access to benefits by the cruel No Recourse to Public Funds policy. It also called for the publishing of a timeline for the phased implementation of universal free school meals to guarantee all school pupils a nutritious, locally sourced school meal.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission submitted recommendations to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in November 2020 that the Welsh Government should consider providing universal free school meals or, at a minimum, extend eligibility to all children living in poverty.

The argument repeatedly presented by Labour politicians at all levels following last week's vote was that such a policy is too costly. That argument frankly doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

The costs directly associated with expanding provision of FSM to all children who are in receipt of Universal Credit are relatively modest. Policy in Practice estimate that the additional revenue cost is £10.5m, a mere 0.06 per cent of the Welsh Government’s total revenue budget for 2020/21. 

But such an argument is also an entirely inappropriate one to make.

Report after report has highlighted how poverty restricts the life chances of children, how it can harm them physically and mentally, and can create a chain that is difficult to break for generations in respect of health problems, lack of economic and educational opportunities, and personal and social difficulties.

Children that go hungry are far more likely to suffer from anxiety and severe stress, and there are proven links between hunger in early life, depression, and suicidal episodes, as well as the likelihood of developing chronic illnesses such as asthma.

The other argument reeled out by Labour during and after the debate was that the call to establish a roadmap towards universal free school meals would include pupils in private schools, although it was made clear throughout that this was an entirely false claim -  Welsh Government through Local Authorities, do not fund private schools. It was also an odd stance to take by the party who has introduced universal free prescriptions and bus passes and who are committed to trialling UBI. Where's the consistency in that?

Free school meals have a clear positive effect on poverty and economic equality, on the wellbeing of pupils, as well as on educational attainment and productivity - after all, how can a learner concentrate at school if they are hungry? 

Failing to ensure children are fed is not an acceptable stance to hold in 2021 Wales. It does not fit the narrative of establishing a better Wales in the aftermath of the pandemic, nor does it fit with the allegedly socialist values of a Welsh Labour Government.