Free school meals campaign catches out Conservative ministers – and reveals more governance issues.

TL:DR – Tories get skewered by an Opposition Day Debate motion on a subject that should really be a local government issue – if only local councils were not subject to such tight restrictions on raising their own revenue independent of ministers.

It’s not every day that a top flight footballer in his early 20s is featured in the FT on an issue of social justice. But this is exactly what happened to Marcus Rashford MBE.

“This summer, he launched a food poverty campaign so effective that it forced a policy U-turn from Boris Johnson” (The FT 18 Sept 2020).

But this is exactly what happened – and Mr Rashford got a deserved MBE for his troubles. In the world of Whitehall and Westminster, a number of crude stereotypes emerge when a Tory backbencher gets a gong or becomes one of the ‘Knights of the Shires’ as Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, now Chair of the Commons Liaison Committee became fairly recently. The unwritten ‘deal’ is that said MPs tone down their vocal criticism of their government’s flagship policies. (Or simply stay away from the national media altogether!) This group of MPs came in for intense scrutiny and criticism during the MPs expenses scandal. The recently-deceased Sir Peter Viggers will probably go down in history as the ‘Duck house MP’. Which when you consider what some of the more energised backbenchers have been achieving in more recent years, leaves me feeling somewhat numb given the opportunities that being an MP presents a politician in terms of achieving substantial things for wider society as well as their constituencies.

“Rashford for PM!”

As more than a few people online have called for.

…yet as Rashford posted himself, the issues of poverty and multiple deprivation, of which the provision of free school meals (that he himself was on when he was growing up) is a very complex issue and requires ministers to meet with campaigners and experts to figure out how to resolve this. A combination of his life experiences, a wise head on young shoulders, and also being very well advised (He’s at Manchester United Football Club – who know how to handle the media and politicians) meant that he has had ministers and their supporting MPs on the back foot all the way through this. Over the past few days he has been retweeting/reposting announcements from small firms all over the country offering free food to children of families struggling to feed them. At the same time he has been regularly publicising his petition to Parliament.

…which at the time of typing has over 850,000 signatures and should get well over a million before the month is out.

Labour table an innocuous opposition day motion, and ministers politically impale themselves on it.

As with MPs’ expenses, the politicians found out the hard way again that what might seem normal in Westminster – the opposition being defeated in a debate on a non-binding motion, can mean something very different to the general public when they find out about it. And this is exactly what happened when Labour tabled a motion on providing meals in school holidays for children in receipt of free school meals. Mr Rashford posted his views about it and it was picked up far outside the political media circles.

The concept of opposition day debates have been thrown into disrepute ever since Theresa May’s administration chose to ignore the results of defeats inflicted by Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench team. The large parliamentary majority enjoyed by Johnson’s administration means the results of the votes are now formalities. So when Labour tabled their motion on 21 Oct 2020, which read:

That this House calls on the Government to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021 to prevent over a million children going hungry during this crisis.Kate Green MP (Lab – Stretford & Urmston)

…It was a foregone conclusion that the Government would defeat it. The problem was that when the public heard that the Government had voted against the above and had won, they saw it as the Government voting to starve a million children to death. Their amendment to Labour’s motion, announced by Education Secretary, the disgraced former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, simply stated that the Government was providing free school meals in term time (which the law requires them to provide – and has done in one form or another since 1904) and listed other financial contributions made in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. (You can read his speech here).

“Why was it an innocuous motion?”

Simply because it did not compel the Government to do anything or lead to a change in an Act of Parliament or bring in/strike out regulations. Under the existing conventions which the past couple of governments have shot to pieces, if the House of Commons passes a motion that disagrees with what ministers are doing and calls on them to stop, the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ is that ministers change policy and stop what they are doing. The Government would have had a much easier ride/caused themselves far less damage if they had abstained from the vote, let it pass, and then simply respond with a series of holding responses saying ‘the issue is under consideration’.

The Government has lost control of this situation – which now has momentum and a dynamism all of its own.

The statistics quoted by Lewis Goodall of BBC Newsnight give an insight into why ministers are taking a political battering over this

That is *a lot* of children and families who are affected. Furthermore, the pandemic has forced the media and political spotlight onto those families living in poverty and in receipt of support such as free school meals for their children because many otherwise middle class families have found themselves in similar situations as the economy shut down.

“It is estimated that a million more may be eligible [for free school meals now]” Lewis Goodhall, 23 Oct 2020.

This brings in a whole host of other issues – including asking why the media and ministers are only giving this much more attention now rather than long before. The accusation being that because it’s middle class families in Tory-voting constituencies who are now complaining about it that ministers will listen. But the tone of the debate from ministers and their supporting MPs has been criticised by the Children’s Commissioner.

 

Again this case is not happening in isolation – the public is much more aware of what’s happening in politics because we are all affected by the rapid changes in the law in response to the spread of the Corona Virus.

This includes the arrangements for the extremely expensive Serco Test & Trace system, and other contracts signed by/on behalf of ministers that have bypassed normal procurement/tendering processes – resulting in firms with convenient political links getting eyewateringly expensive contracts. More and more reporters are now either unwilling or unable to stay quiet on what they are seeing in front of them.

And when the Daily Star tabloid starts featuring poor governance in headlines that only a tabloid newspaper can get away with, you know that the issue has broken out of the Westminster bubble.

Above – the council tax issues of the Prime Minister’s chief adviser Cummings.

Above – controversy with the awards of state honours.

The problem is the institutions of state have been so compromised by Johnson and his administration that even some of the most outrageous actions have been greeted with a shrug of the shoulders – as Matthew Parris explained in The Times.

Could the US General Election result change anything?

It could. And it could make things very difficult for Johnson.

Should a new Biden administration launch a significant investigation into everything to do with his predecessor, it wouldn’t surprise me of some of the lines of inquiry found their way all the way back to London.

 

 

 

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