WILTSHIRE MPs today welcomed Wiltshire Council’s decision to provide free meals for more than 8,000 vulnerable children during the school holidays.

More than 8,000 children eligible for free meals will benefit during the October half-term after Wiltshire Council agreed to ensure families struggling with food poverty in the county are supported.

The council's move follows pressure from the Liberal Democrats and Labour Party councillors who had urged the Tory-controlled council to provide the meals.

On Wednesday, a Labour Party motion in the House of Commons suggesting that schools should be responsible for supermarket vouchers instead of free school meals in school holidays through until next Easter was resoundingly defeated.

Chippenham MP Michelle Donelan, South West Wiltshire MP Dr Andrew Murrison, Devizes MP Danny Kruger and North Wiltshire MP James Gray were among those who voted against the motion and have since been criticised by LibDem and Labour opponents and some constituents.

Opponents say the Conservative Government has seriously under-estimated the strength of feeling, both locally and nationally, around the provision of free school meals for families who are struggling during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis.

Locally, the two opposition parties had called for the Tory-controlled Wiltshire Council to provide meals to the pupils who are currently on free school meals in Wiltshire. Council officers and members spent the weekend working on how to implement a scheme to provide the meals.

Miss Donelan said: “I fully support the council’s decision to provide meals to vulnerable children, local solutions are more effective especially in these unusual times.

“We have also seen a great community effort by our local businesses and groups who have stepped up to help too and should also be commended for their contributions to our community.

“At the height of the pandemic Wiltshire Council quickly mobilised to provide targeted and local support and financial assistance to families and businesses within the county. The Government enabled Wiltshire Council to do this by giving additional funding.

“The total additional Covid-19 funding for Wiltshire Council amounts to an astounding £34 million including £3 million of un-ringfenced funding announced last week.”

 South West Wiltshire MP Dr Andrew Murrison added: "I am very pleased that the Government has given £63 million to local authorities to support people through the current crisis.

"I am also very pleased that Wiltshire Council is to use its allocation to provide free school meals to vulnerable children."

James Gray MP welcomed the support, saying: “We are all facing tough times; and we must all do our bit to stop the virus and support those who need it most.

"The coronavirus outbreak has made the importance of good nutrition for children even clearer and I welcome the support offered by the Council to ensure that children do not go hungry during the October half term.

"I did not vote for the amendment in Parliament last week as I am hopeful that the Government will find an alternative solution through the benefits system rather than the educational one. I believe this is a great example of this work.

"Schools have enough on their plates as it is without adding this extra burden, and I know we need to look at other ways to tackle child poverty, including support through local councils.”

Danny Kruger, the MP for Devizes, said: "Under pressure from the footballer Marcus Rashford, the government extended the voucher scheme through the summer holidays. It ended when children returned to school in September. Now Labour are trying to revive the scheme for half term. 

"In the debate last week, Labour were unable to say when they thought the scheme should end. Should it run over Christmas? Next half term, the Easter holidays, next summer? The logic of Labour’s motion - hardly denied by them - is that the government should give supermarket vouchers to families on benefits forever. 

"Surely there is a better way to support low-income families? One of the unsung successes of this terrible year has been the Universal Credit system, which replaced the previous complicated, paper-based system of benefits. Three million people have enrolled on UC since the pandemic struck and the system has coped without a hitch. 

"UC giving out money, not schools giving out vouchers, is the right way to support families on low incomes. The Government has added £20 a week to UC, which will continue through half term, Christmas, the spring half term and the Easter holidays. They have also awarded £63 million to councils to help families with emergency welfare payments, including £500,000 for Wiltshire."

Cllr Ian Thorn, the LibDem Group leader on Wiltshire Council, also welcomed the decision, saying: "I am pleased that the enormous concerns of Wiltshire residents have finally won through on this critical issue.

"I hope that in future the Tory administration at Wiltshire Council will act before they are pushed."

Rachael Ross, chairwoman of the Devizes Constituency Labour Party, said: "There are no surprises in Danny Kruger MP’s article on free school meals. We do not believe however that his views are those of the majority of his constituents.

"This morning Wiltshire Council responded to pressure from political and community leaders, to continue free school meals during the school holiday. Danny Kruger disagrees and believes that child poverty is best tackled by charities alone.

"He does not believe that government should step up to support families at the financial cliff edge due to the pandemic. He voted against Labour’s proposal to extend free school meals and his Party ignores a huge national response led by Marcus Rashford’s campaign.

"This shows an extraordinary lack of compassion and will extend food poverty at a time of national crisis. The stark truth is that Devizes constituency has a large number of children in poverty: 16.3 per cent of our children.

"The UK is a wealthy nation yet over the last 10 years the percentage of children in poverty in the UK has risen to a third of all children, according to October’s report from the End Child Poverty coalition.  And that was before the pandemic which has since led to redundancy, business closure and housing evictions forcing more into poverty.

"The amazing offers of free school meals from our local businesses and community groups are heart warming and speak of a community bound by compassion and solidarity. It is also a strong signal that we believe our government and our MP is wrong. Yet again they have misread the public’s beliefs as they are blinded by their own ideology.

"His emotional language gives him away: the attempt to divide our community by claiming people who are working hard for their living are “enraged” by those who seek support from Universal Credit does - as he says in his column - “confirm the caricature of an administration that is heartless, mean and indifferent.”

Wiltshire Council is following in the footsteps of Birmingham City Council and Staffordshire County Council which have already pledged to provide the free school meals to vulnerable children.

Cllr Laura Mayes, Wiltshire Council's cabinet member for children, education and skills, said: “We know that many families are feeling the financial pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we want to do all we can to support them.

“We want to ensure that children do not go hungry during these school holidays and want to ensure that Wiltshire families know that they will be supported during these difficult times by putting these measures in place.

"Therefore, the council will be funding free meals during the October half term. This will be reviewed throughout the pandemic and we will continue to make sure that any child and family who needs help gets it.

"As we have done throughout, we will continue to work with our partners in the community and voluntary sector to make sure the needs of our residents are met at this unprecedented time.

"The work of our community groups has been, and continues to be, amazing and I must thank them for their tremendous support throughout the pandemic.

“If you are entitled to free school meals or universal credit and struggling to pay for food over half term, please contact the Wiltshire Wellbeing Hub for support.

Cllr Mayes added: “Everyone in Wiltshire needs to play their part to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We ask that people regularly wash hands, maintain social distancing and wear face coverings where appropriate. This is the best way to keep us all safe as much as possible and helps to prevent the spread of the virus."

For more information on how to claim, contact the Wiltshire Wellbeing Hub Team on wellbeinghub@wiltshire.gov.uk or call 0300 003 4576. The team is available Monday to Friday between 9am-5pm.