Today at Prime Minister’s Questions Theresa May spectacularly failed to answer a straightforward question about free school meals, using the question instead as an opportunity for a party political broadcast.
Ruth George, Labour MP for High Peak, had asked Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions on 28 March about changes to the eligibility for free school meals. She had to ask her question twice, being overwhelmed the first time by braying from the Tory benches, but when she was finally able to be heard, she asked [21:52]:
I was asking about families earning just £145 a week not receiving school dinners for their children whilst members of this House earning ten times their sum are subject to subsidised catering from the taxpayer.
At the moment, all children whose families receive Universal Credit are entitled to free school meals. However, from 1 April, the government is introducing an earnings threshold of £7,400/year (£142 a week). Any families earning more than that will not be eligible for free school meals, although those who are already receiving them will continue to do so.
The Children’s Society has described this policy as ‘a huge step backwards’ and points out that when Universal Credit is fully rolled out, one million children in poverty will be missing out on a free school meal.
They have also pointed out that up 280,000 low-income working families could be caught in a poverty trap because of the new policy. If they increase their earnings above £7,400, they will lose free school meals worth £400 a year for each child. For many families, earning more will actually mean having less money.
Theresa May stood up to answer George’s question. First, she tried to deflect by saying [22:56]:
I hope she was not implying in her question that anybody who is currently in receipt of a free school meal will have that taken away from them because they will not. They will not.
But from that point, she ignored the question of why MPs are subsidised by the taxpayer but not poor children altogether, and instead launched into full party political broadcast mode whilst wagging her finger sternly:
And she talks about changes that are happening next week. Yes, we will actually see pensioners getting a boost to their pension next week, families, 31 million taxpayers will get an income tax cut and two million people living on the national living wage will get a pay rise. That’s Conservatives delivering for everyone.
PM would not answer why families in poverty on just £145 a week will have to find over £10pw for each of their children to eat a nutritious school dinner; whilst MPs who earn over 10 times as much enjoy subsidised catering #pmqs
— Ruth George (@RuthGeorge6) March 28, 2018
And that was that. Not a word about the one million children who will lose out under the new policy; not a word about why MPs should have subsidised meals but poor children shouldn’t.
Theresa May had clearly decided that going on the attack was a better strategy than trying to defend the indefensible.
You can watch the exchange below: