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Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

With over six thousand children eligible for free school meals in Blackpool North & Cleveleys, tackling food poverty – whether during the school holidays or more generally – is extremely important. It is the ultimate example in politics of where people cry “something” must be done. However, in our topsy-turvy, helter-skelter Parliamentary trench warfare, these issues very quickly morph into one side arguing “anything” should be done if they can paint the other in a poor light.

No-one should have been surprised at either the criticism which came our way (even those like me who abstained in protest) after the free school meals debate, nor the voluntary movement that stepped into the gap as a manifestation of popular disapproval.

If the question was whether the disruption the pandemic had caused, which led to the extension of provision over school holidays in the first place, had sufficiently returned to normality (with schools and school kitchens open again) to go back to not having free school meals, then the answer was no, especially as areas like this entered the instability of Tier Three once more.

A lack of empathy in some comments meant most people’s takeaway is that we want to abolish free school meals altogether, which is a shame given we extended them to sixth forms and introduced universal infant free school meals.

We sort of had advance warning of the storm. A similar debate had occurred that led to us expanding the scheme over the summer holidays. We had a period when we could have developed policies to ensure that the right support reaches the right children and, most importantly, in the right manner to have the impact required. We would have been able to introduce a genuine, long-lasting change in support which would endure beyond merely extending a voucher scheme (that Labour were critical of previously) every time we had a school holiday.

The summer holiday support cost some £120 million extra. At the same time, we invested some £5.7 billion more in a Universal Credit uplift, and a further £1 billion in increasing local housing allowance. It is also worth noting that eligibility for universal credit covers far more children than the much narrower eligibility for free school meals does.

All of this extra money is supporting the financial resilience of many families in my constituency at a time of real and growing insecurity due to the devastating impact on Blackpool’s hospitality sector when it went into Tier 3. And yes, it’s right to look at things in the round and ask how we make that money work harder.

As a first step, we need the bare minimum of a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support scheme. It is important for children to retain a link with an outside body during the longer summer break when child neglect as well as food poverty can increase as school supervision and support decreases. Such a scheme would also diminish the risk of them losing some of the learning that they have acquired during the academic year.

But this issue illustrates our wider challenge on social policy. Our life chances agenda gets put to one side, we fail to extinguish our burning injustices, because “something else” always comes along. Instead, we don’t just need to build back better with economic policy, but use the challenges of the pandemic to address social concerns too.

The policy chief of the Leader of the Opposition, Claire Ainsley, observed, in her previous role with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, that “strong families able to withstand the shocks of personal change and external pressures such as job loss are vital”.

She was clear, as I am, that strong families matter. We need to return a sense of agency and autonomy to the lives of some of the most disadvantaged in society—people who have had their ability to make choices about how their lives are structured taken away from them by systems that they have not designed. I am talking about choices that most of us take for granted.

Politics is not something that we should do to people; it is something that we do with people.

We keep on trying. Our heart is in the right place. A 2015 manifesto focused on life chances. A new Prime Minister talking about burning injustices as she entered Downing Street. A 2019 election victory whose foundation is a whole new demographic cohort of supporters.

But we put all this to one side because something else “more important” comes along to deflect us. We are, I fear, fast reaching a point, to quote Keith Joseph from back in 1997, where our policies and performance no longer match the analysis and principles on which millions have backed us in past general elections.

Strivers, Battlers, Just About Managings litter recent political history. We find ourselves starting to segment the group, divide it up into smaller groups, or add other suddenly-important groups to the wider group. This is perhaps unsurprising in a society which is more individualistic than ever before, and where people’s identities are no longer rooted simply in class or social status – indeed where their identities are ever more rooted in their immediate community.

Essentially, we are identifying a broad group hitherto ignored by the elite, and demonstrating we care through a constant narrative, underpinned by policy justifying that narrative.

Ainsley, who I referred to earlier, describes this group as being on average or below incomes, in poverty probably one year in three – a “precariat”, in that they struggle to maintain let alone improve their socio-economic status. Almost exclusively reliant on public services (and engaging with them on a more frequent basis), renting privately with often unstable tenancies, exposed to volatile market forces in an insecure working environment – we may think their world is somehow not a Tory world.

But they also value family, fairness, hard work, decency and orderly structure – the Tory double helix. They are a group who feel politics has not worked for them and their interests for many years, under governments of all political parties. This is compounded by their view that their children are likely to fare less well than they did, and feel their status endangered by the ‘hourglass’ economy.

How do we tackle decreasing social mobility and the slow decline of in-work progression for those on lower pay rates? Our language focuses on improving social mobility, and we lament it is not increasing. But we never discuss how it might be diminishing and how downward mobility, like grains of sand in the hourglass economy, is actually more likely for many in the “precariat” or second generation immigrants. Ainsley cites one study of low paid workers suggested only one in six would climb out of their low paid roles over the course of a decade.

For Conservatives, at the heart of these issues is not just the challenges above, but also how to protect people not from bad decisions they may sometimes make, but rather the structures that aggravate the penalty paid for poor decisions, which can sometimes tip people over into extreme poverty when the unexpected occurs.

Then there is the larger question of how we reconnect communities to the wider economic health of the nation, and give them a stake in future growth by ending their relative isolation from many of the beneficial consequences of wider government policy.

For all that, the Government must move much more quickly to fill what has now become a policy vacuum. Free school meals is an issue which has cut through. Departments deserve credit for thinking around the issue – the building blocks are there from the DfE’s Holiday Hunger Pilots, to DEFRA’s National Food Strategy to DHSC’s work on improving take up of Healthy Start Vouchers.

I’ve written before on ConservativeHome about how department silo thinking means cross-departmental issues, however important they are, struggle to get momentum. What could be more critical right now alongside restarting economic growth than tackling some of the fundamental structural challenges that would diminish food poverty?

Failure to do so will just lead to technocratic-sounding, misguided-but-benevolent Labour policies around an emblematic “right to food” set out in legislation or a big-brother National Food Service. The lessons since 1945 are that if we Conservatives don’t get it right, someone else will try, and get it wrong.

51 comments for: Paul Maynard: Our political problem with free school meals isn’t happening by accident. We are failing to focus on life chances.

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