By Jamie O’Dell
In responding to comments on a mildly tone-deaf Instagram post about her lunch, Stroud MP Siobhan Baillie spoke out on Monday about her decision to abstain on Labour’s opposition day amendment on free school meals last week.
This defence was repeated in the Stroud News and Journal and came as more than 100 empty plates were placed outside her office by locals angered by her decision not to vote on the amendment, despite previously claiming to ‘fully support’ Marcus Rashford’s campaign.
Baillie’s defence was certainly better put-together than attempts from other Conservative MPs to explain their positions recently, with some ludicrously claiming that Free School Meal vouchers were being channelled into ‘crack dens and brothels’ or being directly exchanged for drugs.
Not asserting that drug dealers across England would soon be swapping Class A drugs for a packet of Babybel is, however, a low bar to meet, and Baillie’s response is similarly riddled with contradictions and hypocrisy.
Baillie’s first point is that she does still support Rashford’s ‘brilliant’ campaign, but that Labour’s ‘attempt to assert that school meal vouchers were the only mechanism to help vulnerable people receive food during the Covid pandemic this half term’, with the alternative being starvation, is ‘completely untrue’. She went on to argue that the welfare system and money provided to local councils is already sufficient.
For broader context, this statement comes after a decade of huge cuts to local authorities. Between 2010-11 and 2017-18 there was a 49.1% real-term reduction in government funding for local authorities. According to the Local Government Association, “demand for support from households facing financial hardship as a result of COVID-19 has outstripped this funding now and councils are having to find money from stretched budgets to top this up”.
So, the finances of Stroud District Council are already extremely tight despite the short-term hardship funding provided by the government. The Council estimating that they will lose £2.7 million in income as a result of the pandemic whilst incurring an addition £1 million in additional expenditure to support the local community.
It is also worth pointing out here that while many like Baillie have pointed out how local councils have been given money to pay for free school meals, the £63 million emergency assistance fund paid out in the summer only went to upper-tier councils, such as Gloucestershire County Council. Districts like Stroud didn’t see any of this money.
Baillie then states that a short-term approach to holiday meals “will not create the change we need for children”, and that meals could be tied to extra-curricular activities. This seems to ignore the urgency of the crisis so many face and aims to kick attempts to feed hungry kids into the long grass. We’re all for providing children with more extra-curricular activities, which were ironically cut back hugely by Conservative austerity, but for now let’s just make sure they’re fed in the ‘short-term’.
Baillie then seeks to shift the blame onto the Labour, Green and Lib Dem-run District Council by arguing that she ‘regularly met’ with the council and local political party leaders. “Despite now (sic) the opposition parties now claiming concerns, at no stage have they asked me to speak to the government about half term holiday meal support.”
Now, we know Baillie isn’t from the Stroud area, but is it too much to ask for parliament’s representative in Stroud to at least recognise when there is an issue here without relying on others to tell her? It’s unreasonable to expect local council leaders to have the ability to predict that the government wouldn’t support 1.4 million children nationally – 1,560 of them in Stroud – to eat during a worsening pandemic.
Charities, businesses and the council have done an incredible job to ensure that almost all of these 1,560 children will have access to food this half-term, but they shouldn’t be forced into the position of having to do so.
Lastly, Baillie reiterates her assertion that the way forward now is ‘long-term and meaningful change’ and that for this reason she has ‘joined the All Party Parliamentary Group for the National Food Strategy’.
This grossly ignores the dramatic rises in child hunger that have already taken place under ten years of Conservative leadership and further marginalises the issue of kids going hungry in the here and now.
Her statement also smacks of hypocrisy because the government – less than two weeks ago – rejected a House of Lords Amendment to the Trade and Agriculture Bill which would have required it to produce a ‘National Food Strategy’ each year to present to parliament. You can’t claim to want to work towards a policy while silently ignoring the fact that the government you support has blocked attempts to do so.
The government has buried its head in the sand in regards to food policy for nine years. Even now, the author of part one of the government’s National Food Strategy report, which focuses upon responding to the challenges of Covid-19, Henry Dimbleby, spoke on BBC Radio 4 yesterday arguing for the government to provide food vouchers over the holidays.
It is clear that Baillie is uncomfortable with the government’s position on Free School Meals. However, doubling down and producing a tone-deaf explanation that seeks to dodge, deflect and frankly deny any responsibility is not how to respond. The phrase ‘when you’re in a hole, stop digging’ springs to mind.
With that said, it’s heartening to see the response of so many people across Stroud keen to ensure that every child has the right to food, demonstrating the power of community solidarity. In the face of a government lacking either compassion and competency, the importance of this solidarity is stark.
Featured image: Polly Stratton