MP’s re-heated excuses over free school meals

Empty plate protests are taking off nationally. These were left outside the Southend offices of Tory MP Sir David Arness. Photo credit: Aston Line, Southend West Labour Party
Empty plate protests are taking off nationally. These were left outside the Southend offices of Tory MP Sir David Arness. Photo credit: Aston Line, Southend West Labour Party

When Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner called a Tory MP ‘scum’ it was a gift to a party that likes to jump on any opportunity to play the victim. So it is with Lewes Conservative MP Maria Caulfield, who voted to oppose an opposition motion to extend free meals into the school holidays – but then says she is misunderstood.

Despite the categoric vote, and conscious of the weight of public opinion against her, Caulfield claims thatfree school meals is an issue that she has“always campaigned for, voted for and which I strongly support”.

There is little evidence of this. Her voice was noticeably absent in the Commons debate that preceded the vote last week.

What is on record is Caulfield’s voting history on other aspects of welfare and benefits. Of the 32 times she voted on such issues every single one was a vote against any increase. For someone who claimed in a Facebook post on October 22 that her ‘priority is helping those most in need’ she has voted 32 times out of 32 not to help them.

This recent vote makes that 33.

Caulfield wants to reassure us that“despite the headlines, the Government did not vote to end free school meals or vote against extending them to school holidays.“

But despite her claim, Caulfield and the government absolutely, categorically and unambiguously did vote against the motion.

Shifting her ground, Caulfield goes on to claim that“the vote this week was specifically on the voucher system … we voted to continue providing free school meals but change the voucher system during school holidays to instead paying parents the money directly via their universal credit with £1,000 extra a year.”

But in mentioning Universal Credit along with the voucher system Caulfield is conflating two unrelated things. She would have been wise to have left it there.

She states that “as a replacement for the voucher scheme the government introduced a £1,000 a year extra UC payment on a weekly payment basis.”

However, the voucher scheme was announced around the 31 March, the extra Universal Credit payments were announced around the 20 March. Caulfield claims that the extra UC payments were set up to replace something that had not even been announced at that point.

In a Facebook post she lists other sources of funding the government has made available during the crisis, but as YouGov makes clear, that funding will sit alongside other support, not replace it.

Caulfield concludes that “this week I didn’t vote to scrap free school meals, I voted to end the voucher scheme and instead support giving extra money to parents via Universal credit instead.”

These words are carefully chosen, but it is her use of the word ‘instead’ which reveals the lie at the heart of what she is saying. The extra Universal Credit and money to councils is not ‘instead’ of free school meals: it is in addition to it, and I don’t believe that Caulfield would not know this.

Once again she is arguing against a point that no one has made and assuming the role of victim. The implication of her repeated insistence that she did not vote to scrap free school meals is that she is being unfairly treated.

She could argue that we can’t afford these meals, that it’s the parents’ responsibility, or that these families have already had lots of help. But instead she opts for a clumsy series of half-truths, misdirection, and outright lies.

I don’t doubt that when Caulfield says she cares about the vulnerable in society she genuinely means it. But what’s clear about her is that she will almost never go against the party line and if it comes to cutting benefits, well, she’ll do it.

Caulfield is a Conservative first and foremost and the party for her is always right. Perhaps that’s an admirable trait, and presumably Conservative voters would approve. But the Lewes MP represents the public at large, and irrespective of our political affiliation we deserve an MP who speaks openly, without obfuscation and misdirection, and who has the courage to tell us the truth even when it presents her in a light she does not find particularly flattering.

Lewes District Council has shared a list of organisations providing free meals locally. See their Facebook page. They include local football clubs as well as pubs – the Hampden Arms, and Kings Head – and a number of community centres and cafes.

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