Tory mayor Ben Houchen: “The Government is wrong and should reverse its decision on free school meals”

THE Government is wrong and should reverse its decision on free school meals, Tees Valley Conservative mayor Ben Houchen has said.

In a comment posted to his Facebook, he said: “I’m not going to let party politics get in the way of doing what is right, and that is making sure children in Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool do not go hungry during the school holidays.

“I’ve always said that we can only ever be as prosperous as the least fortunate in our communities. If we want our area to improve then we need to make it a place where everyone can succeed. That’s easier said than done and given the crisis we’re in it is even more difficult.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. Businesses are struggling and we’re seeing people lose their jobs – especially those who are lowest paid. In a time of major crisis it’s obvious that we should support our most vulnerable children and I think the Government is wrong not to extend this scheme into the October half-term, but I am not an MP. I do not have a say in this, but I am using the powers I have at my disposal and I’m proud to be funding this amazing scheme with Middlesbrough Foundation. A project that will feed 2,000 of the most vulnerable children in our area.

“This is only part of a much wider movement, where we have seen people and businesses across our area step up and do their bit, despite being in difficult circumstances themselves and I hope the Government reconsiders their decision.”

The mayor has backed a scheme by the charity arm of Middlesbrough Football Club to help deliver food parcels and feed vulnerable school children across the Tees Valley.

The MFC Foundation is providing 1,000 food parcels for distribution across the region and Mr Houchen has provided £15,000 worth of funding to increase the offerings in the parcels, providing more food to children in need.

Mr Houchen visited the Riverside Stadium today (Monday) to help package up the food parcels and get them ready to be delivered to children across the region.

The MFC Foundation launched their new initiative last week with Boro striker Ashley Fletcher leading the campaign and he is hoping local businesses will provide support for the scheme.

Over £25,000 was raised in a matter of hours for the campaign, which has already been backed by the likes of Warburtons and Greggs.

He is following in the footsteps of his former Manchester United team-mate Marcus Rashford in urging people to show support in the battle against child poverty.

Mr Fletcher said: “The support we’ve had has been absolutely amazing.

“The Foundation were already committing to providing 1,000 meals, but this has gone way beyond that now, and it’s fantastic the way people have come together to help in this way.

“This isn’t a problem that will vanish overnight. We want to help families right across the region, and make a real difference, and the support we’ve had so far has been overwhelming.”

Helena Bowman, Head of MFC Foundation, said: “We have been overwhelmed by the response since we launched this appeal on Friday afternoon. We are really grateful for the donation from Ben and the Combined Authority and it was great to see Ben pitching in with the rest of us this morning.

“This is further proof, as if we needed it, about how many good people and thoughtful organisations we have in this area.

“These are tough times for everybody, but we draw strength from adversity in the knowledge that everyone is doing so much for each other.

“Here at the Foundation we have never stopped and we never will. As long as we are able to help, we will.”

Labour candidate for Tees Valley metro Mayor, Jessie Joe Jacobs, has said she is deeply disappointed it has taken a mass public outcry for the Tees Valley Mayor to begin to talk about child poverty, and says his intervention today looks politically motivated after mass opposition towards his party’s decision around ending free school meals.

Jessie Joe Jacobs, former CEO of the charity ‘A Way Out’, which specialises in helping families out of poverty, said: “Whilst I am pleased that pressure from the Labour party to help our most vulnerable children has moved him to act; it is disappointing that it has taken a public outcry and risk of his own position before he has even mentioned child poverty. This looks to me like a politically motivated move and this makes me angry.

“The Tees Valley has seen the highest growth of child poverty nationally since he became mayor and some of the highest overall poverty levels in the country. He has never spoken about this until today and even accused Labour of talking Teesside down when we have tried to raise these issues. 

“Whilst running A Way Out Charity, I worked with children who were feeding themselves on 10p crisps, and it’s heart-breaking. Reducing child poverty across the Tees Valley is going to be one of my top priorities should I become Mayor. I do this, not because it is popular but because it is right. I will continue my efforts to help our most vulnerable children and young people and I am thankful to all those across the Tees Valley who join me in this action. 

“My hope now is that the mayor will continue to address child poverty and work with me to get the rates down.” 

Every penny received will go directly to provide food parcels for the region. Anyone wishing to support the campaign can donate money to the MFC Foundation appeal or text to donate.

Text FREESCHOOLMEALS 5 to 70460 to donate £5. Texts cost £5 plus one standard rate message.

Text FREESCHOOLMEALS 10 to 70460 to donate £10. Texts cost £10 plus one standard rate message.

Text FREESCHOOLMEALS 15 to 70460 to donate £15. Texts cost £15 plus one standard rate message.

Donations can also be made online at uk.virginmoneygiving.com/charity-web/charity/finalCharityHomepage.action?charityId=1009508

The Northern Echo | Teesside