IN THE 1888 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, one entry read: “For Wales, see England.”
Today, when it comes to sensible and progressive policies, perhaps we should say: “For England, see Wales.”
With only limited legislative powers and almost no independent financial resources of its own, the National Assembly of Wales has shown the way in such areas as free hospital parking and admission to museums, student grants, a children’s commissioner, a ban on physical punishment of children, regulation of agricultural wages, nationalisation of railway services and a time-limited national lockdown to break the circuit of Covid-19 transmission.
On October 15, the Labour government in Cardiff and its Lib Dem Education Minister confirmed that it was making £11 million available to local councils to fund free school meal provision to eligible pupils during all school holidays up to and including Easter 2021.
That was not a pain-free decision, because the money will have to be found from existing budgets for education and elsewhere.
A few days later, the SNP government in Edinburgh followed suit but with a slightly lower allocation of £10m.
The rationale for such steps is obvious. Children in households on benefits, with a low wage or no wage at all, or in families where wage-earners are losing hours or jobs, are among the most vulnerable of all in our capitalist society.
For many of them, school dinners provide the one nutritious meal a day that is guaranteed in almost all circumstances. That need does not end with the school term.
Furthermore, a succession of studies has established beyond dispute that healthy nutrition plays a major role in the ability of children to participate in and benefit from their studies.
Not surprisingly, the demand for free school meals is rising alongside unemployment and as household incomes fall.
Already, one-and-half-million children qualify for free school meals and the Food Foundation think tank estimates that this will increase very quickly to more than two million — more than a quarter of the school population in Britain.
Yet at the time of going to press today, the Tory government in London was continuing to reject appeals to provide free school holiday meals to needy children in England.
This is despite the growing clamour from opposition parties, the teaching unions, local education authorities, anti-poverty campaigners, the Children’s Commissioner for England, a famous football player and some Tory MPs.
There will have to be a central government climbdown. Issuing lunch vouchers will not be enough.
Wherever Covid-19 restrictions permit, all school canteens should be opened during the holidays for hot meals to all pupils in need, with eligibility redefined more generously to take account of the pandemic.
Where the necessary lockdown rules apply, arrangements should be made to deliver hot meals on request to children’s homes.
Britain is a modern, wealthy, technologically advanced union of countries. Can a society make any more invaluable an investment in its future?
If we can afford to blow more than £100bn on a new generation of weapons of mass murder, we can afford the comparatively petty cash required to feed the coming generation of wealth-creating workers.
Perhaps the Labour opposition should begin making this very point.
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