Education (Provisions of Meals) Act 1906*
In 1906 welfare was the ‘workhouse’ which the impoverished voluntarily entered, because it was preferable to starvation. Millions of people lived just above this poverty level. They were the working poor who couldn’t guarantee their children would eat every day. Extremely low wages and insecure employment meant they had no savings and lived ‘hand to mouth’.
Children who are hungry can’t concentrate on their lessons. The newly formed Labour party and the Liberal government of 1906 combined to rectify this problem. Legislation permitted local authorities to provide school meals from local taxation. An amazing 14 million children were benefiting by 1914.
This Act was ground-breaking social legislation. The working poor simply couldn’t fulfil their parental duty regardless of good intentions. Since 1906 Britain’s welfare system has become very sophisticated supports people from ‘cradle to grave’. So are free school meals an anomaly now?
The Marcus Rashford Anomaly
Marcus Rashford is campaigning to extend ‘school’ meals to non-school days. This anomaly creates a new category of welfare provision. Rashford is actually campaigning for an increase in current levels of welfare payments. By focusing on school meals, he unwittingly conceals this point.
Nonetheless he struck an immediate public chord where his emotional argument seemed irrefutable. Boris Johnson refused Rashford’s demand for meals during the 2020 summer holidays but ‘U’ turned under public pressure. Rashford returned to the campaigning point for the October and Christmas holidays and once again was turned down by Johnson. Labour forced a parliamentary debate, which they lost to the Conservative party. Johnson then reversed policy again and declared that meals would be provided over the Christmas period.**
Johnson’s ‘U’ turns are extraordinarily inept. During the debate, LibDem MP Tim Farron said,
“the holiday periods are always a difficulty—whether or not there is a pandemic—for those children from families on free school meals? They always need that support, and that should be something we are doing irrespective of the pandemic.” ***
Farron’s argument relates to an underfunded welfare system (see Addendum). Johnson’s problem is ‘mission creep’. Any concession becomes the precursor of further commitments. Rashford has framed the problem in a binary way: Do we accept children going hungry at Christmas or not? Johnson found it impossible to answer Yes. He caved in. Tragically Rashford has made things worse. He’s encouraged sticking plaster welfare completely losing sight of the bigger picture.
Marcus Rashford’s engagement with an underfunded welfare system meant he suffered emotional stress, hearing his mother weeping when he went to bed hungry. His selfless and self-effacing persona is attractive and his message is straightforward. Nonetheless the core challenge isn’t as he’s identified. Current welfare payments are inadequate for civilised life in Britain in 2020. This is the core truth of Rashford’s campaign.
Addendum: Feckless or inadequate parents
A counter argument is that no matter how high the benefits are some parents will fail to care for their children. Here is an extreme example,
“…..[Mansfield] Tory MP Ben Bradley has claimed that free school meals vouchers are “effectively” a handout to a crack den and brothel.”*
Bradley makes a significant error here. He has identified a social services safeguarding problem with children living in a criminal family, missing Rashford’s point. Rashford is campaigning for funding for hungry children who would be fed if their parents had sufficient resources to do so. These are different categories of intervention.
* For a short summary see school meals act 1906 (intriguing-history.com)
**For Johnson’s final ‘U’ turn see Marcus Rashford celebrates as Boris Johnson agrees to provide free school meals in ANOTHER u-turn | Daily Mail Online
*** For the parliamentary debate see Selected Quotes: The Free School Meals Debate 21st October 2020 | Odeboyz’s Blog (oedeboyz.com) From which this quote comes.