Dominic Raab says food poverty ‘breaks his heart’ – but rules out expansion of free school meals

Government wants to target only ‘most vulnerable’, says deputy PM

Realted video: Boris Johnson says ‘big bazooka’ cost of living package ‘won’t fix everything’

Dominic Raab said the story of a mother skipping meals to feed her son “breaks your heart” – but rejected calls to expand free school meals ahead of the summer holidays.

The deputy prime minister was grilled about the plight of Emma, forced to rejected her son’s request that she eat breakfast because he had not “seen you eat in days”.

“I read that story – it just breaks your heart and melts your heart,” Mr Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “And that’s why dealing with the cost of living challenge is so important.”

Asked again about families struggling to get enough to eat, the deputy PM said: “Look, I’ve got kids – I can’t imagine my children being in a position to say that to their mum.”

But the senior cabinet minister ruled out an expansion of the free school meals, following calls from teaching unions and charities to widen it out to all families on Universal Credit.

“I think the question fairly is whether applying free school meals to everyone on UC [Universal Credit] actually will target the most vulnerable in our society,” said Mr Raab.

The deputy PM added: “I’m not convinced it’s the most targeted way of dealing with the most vulnerable.”

Mr Raab said the government’s approach to helping those in hardship had been to “increase the money” put in the Household Support Fund – which allow councils to give out crisis payments or provide more to local charities.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has committed an extra £500m to the fund. Mr Raab also pointed to the £200m put into the holiday activities and food programme.

However, a group of 11 education groups said existing support was not enough, calling on ministers to make an “urgent” expansion so all children from families who receive universal credit are eligible.

The Department for Education states that those on universal credit must have an annual income of less than £7,400 to be eligible for free school meals.

Around 1.7 million children are currently eligible to receive free school meals, but the Food Foundation has estimated that 2.6 million children live in households that missed meals or struggled to access food.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, also said the existing holiday food scheme only covered part of the holidays and required children to attend activities.

Just 495,000 children on free school meals accessed food in the school holidays through the government-funded activity clubs last year, according to the recent independent National Food Strategy report.

Cost of Living: How to Get Help

The cost of living crisis has touched every corner of the UK, pushing families to the brink with rising food and fuel prices.

  • The Independent has asked experts to explain small ways you can stretch your money, including managing debt and obtaining items for free.
  • If you need to access a food bank, find your local council’s website using gov.uk and then use the local authority’s site to locate your nearest centre. The Trussell Trust, which runs many foodbanks, has a similar tool.
  • Citizens Advice provides free help to people in need. The organisation can help you find grants or benefits, or advise on rent, debt and budgeting.
  • If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

Labour’s shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy told The Independent: “It was so striking for me during the last few school holidays, when the government was refusing to keep free school meals going, how councils and businesses across the country stepped up and did it anyway.”

She added: “That’s communities coming together to level themselves up. Imagine what they could do with a government that backed them.”

Both Justine Greening, the former Tory education secretary, and Alan Johnson, ex-Labour education secretary, both backed the idea of expanding free school meals before the summer holiday.

As well as expanding eligibility, Ms Greening said the government should “put in place proper summer holiday provision and revisit the school meals funding that schools get to make sure it’s not eroded by inflation”.

Emma, a mum struggling to pay bills despite working three jobs, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that she had told son to put one bowl away after he had prepared two bowls of breakfast cereal.

“They’re not both for me, mum,” he said. “One of them’s for you because I haven’t seen you eat in days. At least I’ll know you’ve eaten today.”

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