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Should the government provide school dinners during holidays?

A majority of MPs just voted 'no'.

The Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford is campaigning for an extension of the current free school meal scheme to help combat child poverty in the UK. At the moment, the poorest kids are entitled to a daily meal while school is in session, but receive nothing during the holidays. Marcus wants that to change. He successfully got the government to fund the scheme in England over the summer break, but last week a majority of UK MPs voted against doing the same for the autumn and winter holidays.

Their opposition to the scheme seems to have three main strands. The first involves the purpose of the state, or what governments are for. Ever heard people talk about a preference for a “small(er) state” or “big(ger) government”? They’re alluding to a debate about whether the government should stick to doing the minimum amount of stuff needed to keep society ticking along - enforcing law and order, say - or whether they should intervene quite significantly in our lives in the hope of making it better. That intervention generally takes the form of more public goods and services such as pensions and the NHS. The MPs who voted against the free lunches were all Conservatives. Conservatives tend to be more towards the small-state side of the equation. They are therefore less likely to see ensuring hungry kids are fed as the job of the government. Instead, they believe responsibility lies with the parents.

The second strand is slightly different. It concedes that the government is responsible for child hunger, but says free school meals aren’t the right solution. Several MPs have pointed to the government’s Universal Credit system as an already-existing safeguard that ensures all parents can feed their kids. However, critics say Universal Credit is too stingy or difficult to get hold of. Others are worried that because it takes the form of a cash transfer to the parents there’s no way to ensure it goes on feeding the kids rather than, say, non-essential items for the adults.

The third strand both accepts the government’s responsibility for hungry kids and acknowledges the possibility that Universal Credit doesn’t go far enough, but says that the scheme simply comes with too high a cost to accept. Funding holiday meals for the rest of the year is estimated to carry a price tag of £20 million. Most government money comes from taxes or taking out debt (which is then paid back with tax money). Adopting new projects could therefore result in tax rises, and bigger bills for individuals or businesses. Alternatively, the money could be taken from elsewhere in the budget, but that would mean foregoing whatever the money was originally intended to be spent on.

People who disagree with this stance may take the position that it’s right that some people in society chip in more to help the most vulnerable, especially as taxes could be targeted at the wealthiest. Others point out that as the £20 million pales in comparison to some of the other project the government has adopted, including the Eat Out to Help Out scheme (£522 million) and Track and Trace (£12 billion), the government could find the money if it really wanted to.

Read our explainer on: what governments should pay for.

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