I fully appreciate the strength of feeling regarding this important issue. The Government is focused on supporting the most vulnerable children and social justice has been at the absolute heart of every decision that the Government have taken to help the people of this country get through this pandemic and subsequent lockdown together. We are all concerned for families that are struggling, especially children who have missed out on their education and the benefits of their school structure, including many children on FSM.
At the start of the pandemic, extraordinary measures were put in place to help vulnerable children, including extending FSM whilst schools were largely closed, remaining open to those most vulnerable. In total, over the period March to September £380 million worth of food vouchers were redeemed. However, now schools have reopened, those eligible can once again receive meals in their school setting. The Government have also extended FSM to all young children aged 4-7 automatically through the universal infant FSM entitlement scheme.
The extension of FSM over the summer holidays was in response to the unprecedented situation bought on by lockdown and the pandemic. As I'm sure you are aware, this was never intended to be a long term solution given the extra costs and logistical impacts of providing meals over school holidays. In many cases school staff had to be brought in over this period to provide meals and in some cases, extra staff were required to help to distribute food to children’s households.
In other circumstances, food vouchers were offered and done so based upon the assumption that they will be used solely for this purpose. At present, there is no way of monitoring this system which is necessary as I am aware from reports in other parts of the country that schools, supermarkets and parents have raised concerns that the vouchers were not always used to provide food.
During the holiday period support is always available to those who need it most. The Government provide a robust safety net, which can help the most vulnerable families cope with the extra pressures over school holidays. For the last three years the Government have supported disadvantaged children through our Holiday Activities and Food programme. This summer, the £9 million programme supported around 50,000 children across 17 local authority areas with free healthy meals as well as enriching activities. This year alone each organisation involved delivered at least four weeks of free activities and healthy food during July and August. The Government know that the long summer break is the time when families most welcome support, but more importantly it is when children will most benefit from engaging activities, so they return to school ready to learn in September.
This year the Government also provided a further £11.8 million to extend our successful Breakfast Club programme, supporting schools in disadvantaged areas.
On top of delivering Free School Meals to those pupils most in need, the Government also provide free school milk to those eligible, and the school fruit and vegetable scheme has also restarted now schools have returned.
The Government recognises that FSM is an important tool to support the most vulnerable children during their education. However, our support packages are focused on all aspects of living, including food, childcare and continued support for those who need it most. We have increased our overall support in key benefits such as Universal Credit which has been boosted by over £1,000 this year as part of a £9.3 billion increase to the welfare system. This means the average household has seen an annual increase of £1,040 which is more than £20 a week. Councils have been given a further £63 million to help those families most in need. As a result of this increased Government funding, 20 Councils have said they will continue to give vulnerable families food vouchers and support these families on an individual basis. Others, such as Essex County Council, are working with Active Essex to extend their Holiday Hunger Programme, which will see more than 1000 children provided with free food and activities. They are also launching the Half Term Emergency Fund, which will provide grants of up to £2,500 to food banks and other organisations to ensure they have enough supplies to cover the half term.
I am fully aware of the positive impact schemes like these can have, growing up in Knowsley, just outside Liverpool, many of my friends received the support of FSM and I know how much of a difference this made to them and their parents. No one in Government came into politics to make life harder for people, quite the opposite, however, we must also ensure the policies we introduce are having the intended impacts and reaching those who need them most. As the pandemic continues to evolve, the Government will remain open to additional support measures based on the needs of families who require extra support at the time.