ON Wednesday this week the Commons rejected a Labour motion calling for families on Universal Credit to be given supermarket vouchers during half term and school holidays, to reflect the free lunches their children receive during school time.

There is a good case for this, and the Government accepted the need for vouchers when schools were closed in the summer term, and then extended the scheme through the summer holidays.

However, the Government’s view, which I share, is that universal welfare is best delivered through the welfare system, not by schools; and targeted welfare (ie for those in most need, whose circumstances are often very complicated) is best delivered by a combination of local government and local communities.

That is why I opposed Labour’s proposal for a blanket entitlement delivered through schools; why I am pleased Government has put more money into Universal Credit and funded local government to provide emergency welfare; and why I am so grateful and impressed with the response of the community (catering businesses and charities) in Wiltshire who have stepped forward to offer free meals to families in crisis this half term.

This is a really important and emotive topic and I understand why so many people are up in arms about it. Many families across the country are struggling to get by. Benefits provide hardly enough money to live on, and for some people they do not provide enough.

The problem is that generous, unconditional, universal benefit entitlements trap people in dependency on the state, and rightly enrage people who are working hard for themselves. That’s why I believe in a more flexible, community-led approach to welfare.

I made a short speech in the debate on Wednesday. I also spoke about the issue, and our local response, in an interview with BBC Radio Wiltshire.

The radio interview also covered agriculture. Yesterday a convoy of tractors drove through Marlborough in protest at the Government’s (and my) rejection of an amendment to the Agriculture Bill, backed by the National Farmers Union, which would have banned all food imports not made to the same production standards that UK farmers are required to meet.

This sounds sensible - until you remember that the UK has the highest production standards in the world, and that the amendment would therefore have stopped all imports from anywhere (and all exports, as trade is reciprocal).

Instead of a blanket ban on imports not made to British standards, we need a ban on imported food made in ways that are unsafe or simply unacceptable, like chlorinated chicken which is and will remain illegal; recognition of other countries’ quality assurance schemes (like our ‘Red Tractor’ system), and tariffs on imported food made using cost-cutting techniques we can’t use here, to protect our farmers from unfair competition.

The two issues - free school meals and the farming debate - confirm the cliche that government is complicated. Simple, moral-sounding proposals for a blanket approach (free food for poor children! No cheap nasty food imports!) have to be countered with somewhat plodding attention to complex realities. It is easy for us to be caricatured as heartless, mean and indifferent. In fact, we are trying to do the right thing with the responsibility entrusted to us.

In other news, on Tuesday I opened a debate in Westminster Hall, the Commons’ second chamber, on support for families during Covid-19. I argued that, as well as responding to the crisis many families find themselves in right now, we need to think about the conditions for success - how to support family stability, and help people live and work in a way that strengthens family life, not puts intolerable strain on it.

I spent Thursday at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, as part of the series of visits and briefings arranged by the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme.

For some reason we have to wear army uniform for this and we also had the questionable pleasure of learning some parade-ground drill under the authority of a Sergeant Major whose voice could be heard in the next county.

At one point, while being shown around the glorious Old College building, a horse climbed the front stairs into the hall. This is a tradition of the passing-out parade for new officers. It was a marvellous day and a reminder of the pride we rightly take in our armed forces.