Late last year I interviewed campaigners ahead of a Senedd vote on a motion to extend the eligibility criteria for free school meals in Wales.

The motion was tabled by Plaid Cymru but inspired by campaigning from Cardiff People’s Assembly Against Austerity and other local community groups, including Black Lives Matter.

When I asked Adam Johannes, one of the campaign leaders, what had compelled him to kick off the campaign, he expressed frustration with the way that Welsh Government policy was perceived during footballer Marcus Rashford’s months-long battle to keep England’s impoverished children fed during school holidays.

“Because the Welsh Government have a holiday hunger programme, I think a lot of people thought the situation is okay in Wales, everything’s fine in Wales,” Mr Johannes told me at the time.

“I think people have this impression that Wales is one of the best in the UK on this, but actually research by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) argues that Wales is actually the worst country in the UK for the provision of free school meals.”

In October, the Welsh Government had proudly shown off praise from Rashford, following their announcement that free school meals would be provided in Wales through every school holiday until the end of Easter this year. The policy was, of course, the right decision.

Unfortunately, Adam’s claims about the Welsh Government’s wider free school meal provision were by most accounts correct.

As it stands, children in Wales are only entitled to free school meals if their household is on Universal Credit and has an annual income of £7,400 or lower.

The same is true of England and Scotland, however both countries provide universal free school meals to infant school children, where Wales does not.

Taking these criteria into account, a CPAG analysis last year found that over half of the 129,000 children living below the poverty line in Wales were not eligible for a free school dinner.

With most impoverished children living in households where at least one person works, they said, struggling families would see their entitlement vanish as soon as they picked up more hours at work.

The Plaid Cymru motion proposed removing that income threshold, and permanently extending eligibility to children affected by the harsh No Recourse to Public Funds policy, which bars people with a certain immigration status from accessing benefits and social housing.

It also proposed that the government work on a timeline to phase in universal free school meals, meaning that all children, regardless of income, would have the option to eat for free.

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This again took its lead from the People’s Assembly campaign, which pointed to countries like Finland, where the policy has enjoyed success for decades. As it turned out, all parties but Plaid voted down the motion in December.

I remember being baffled. Passing the motion would not have meant immediately implementing the policy, just strongly signalling the desired direction of travel; ahead of an election, and given that the issue of child hunger was very much at the forefront of people’s minds, it seemed an odd choice for Labour in particular.

Though the party cited cost concerns, I assumed that, at least in part, the party just didn’t want to give Plaid Cymru a win at that moment.

The issue came up again in February this year, when Plaid MS for Arfon Sian Gwenllian proposed directing any unallocated Covid funding in the 2021 draft budget towards expanding free school meal provision.

The proposal was again defeated, but this time the Welsh Conservatives voted in favour, and Labour MS Alun Davies publicly complained that his party was on the “wrong side” of the debate (despite voting against the idea himself).

Writing for The National not long after this time, I interviewed Kim, a mother living in North Wales who said she’d been regularly skipping meals to meet her children’s school uniform costs.

I spoke to poverty researchers for the article, who told me that parents were often unable to access the Pupil Development Grant, which provides financial aid for uniform costs, because they had to first be eligible for free school meals. One squeeze seemed to trigger another.

Coming into the present (sort of), last Wednesday saw yet another vote on the same motion, with Labour and the Conservatives voting against and the Senedd’s only Liberal Democrat, Jane Dodds, voting with Plaid Cymru in favour.

Again, costs were cited. The new Labour rep for my home constituency, and Leanne Wood’s replacement, Buffy Williams, explained her vote in a Facebook post shortly afterwards.

“Plaid Cymru called for all children in Wales to receive free school meals, including those in private schools,” she said.

“The motion also called for children from all families who receive universal credit to be eligible for free school meals…I couldn't vote for the motion without knowing exactly how much this would cost and where the additional funds would come from.”

The first point was false. It had been made clear that private schools would not be included.

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The second and more consistent claim about cost concerns might also be built on shaky ground. A Policy in Practice report earlier this year put the cost of feeding all children from Welsh Universal Credit households at £10.5 million – if correct, this would amount to just 0.054 per cent of the Welsh Government’s total revenue budget of £19.2 billion.

Research by the Bevan Foundation too, suggests that some council officers believe loosening the eligibility criteria could cut down on time and administrative costs.

Indeed, it has long been suggested that the time and money necessary to carry out means-testing (e.g. deciding eligibility criteria, designing and printing forms, processing applications and so on) negates any theoretical savings that might have been made, while also putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of those that need support (gathering evidence of their income and household costs, for example).

I’ll be honest – I’m not an economist (gasp), so perhaps I’m just missing something here, but Welsh Labour’s obstinate opposition to this policy thus far seems to me a very odd hill to die on.

The party’s currently conducting a “review” of the eligibility criteria, to be concluded later this year.

But when I think of the data we’ve seen this year – that one in four children of Welsh keyworkers are living in poverty, that living-costs are rising while the income of low-earners continues to fall, that council tax arrears have risen to a more than twenty-year high, that 80,000 Welsh households have already been told to leave their home – as well as the wealth of research that has already taken place -  the prospect of yet another review, which will no doubt have its own share of costs, fills me with dread.

In the meantime, families will still struggle. I doubt they’ll take much comfort from knowing that a review into whether feeding their children is fiscally prudent is underway.

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