Scotland’s most powerful politicians have been accused of “flagrant duplicity” after failing to turn up for a crunch vote on free school meals.
Both First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Greens leader Patrick Harvie – her governing coalition partner at Holyrood – didn’t even bother voting.
They had the opportunity to support groundbreaking legislation that would have ensured every pupil at primary and secondary schools had access to a meal if they wanted one.
Teaching leaders have warned the measure should be an “urgent priority” as the cost-of-living crisis leaves thousands of children going hungry.
But instead of backing it, Sturgeon chose to launch her £20million independence referendum drive for a “better vision” for Scotland.
Harvie and his Green MSPs, meanwhile, stand accused of abandoning a key election manifesto pledge in order not to upset the SNP after going into coalition following the 2021 Scottish election.
In an unprecedented intervention, the head of the Scottish Trades Union Congress – which campaigned tirelessly for the policy – has accused the Scottish Government of the deceitful abandonment of impoverished children.
General secretary Roz Foyer said: “This week political leaders in the Scottish Parliament have engaged in an act of flagrant duplicity, leaving children throughout the country in entirely avoidable poverty and hunger.
“Our Food For Thought campaign seeks to end the injustice of child hunger, rolling out universal free school meals to all throughout primary and secondary school.
“Families across Scotland are at the cutting edge of the worst cost-of-living crisis seen for generations. Despite the progress made, this week could have been a real turning point against poverty. We cannot possibly make Scotland the ‘best place in the world to grow up’ whilst children go hungry at night.
“It’s hugely disappointing that the Scottish Government chose to reject the amendments from Monica Lennon within the Good Food Nation Bill. Child hunger is a political choice. We need to see the political will to fix it.”
Leading charities including Children 1st, Child Poverty Action Group, Poverty Alliance, Trussell Trust and One Parent Families Scotland have all backed universal free school meals and warned of dire consequences for young people if the plea is ignored.
Labour, the Lib Dems and Conservatives at Holyrood all backed an amendment to the Scottish Government’s Good Food Nation Bill – estimated to be deliverable for £14million – that could have written the policy into law. But it failed to pass because of SNP and Green opposition.
Larry Flanagan, head of the EIS teaching union, has warned that older children entitled to a free meal refuse them because of the stigma, something universal provision would tackle.
He confirmed pupils were regularly attending school hungry because their parents can’t afford food shopping and insisted free school meals should be an “urgent priority” for the Scottish Government.
Rocketing inflation has placed the issue at the top of the agenda both in Scotland and at Westminster, where the Conservative government faces similar demands to tackle food poverty in schools.
As things stand, just primary one to five pupils get free meals in Scotland.
Labour MSP Monica Lennon said: “It is incredibly disheartening that the First Minister and Greens leader couldn’t even be bothered to vote.
“They have let down a generation of young people and their refusal to even cast a vote suggests they know that only too well.
“It is shameful that Green and SNP MSPs who did turn up voted against this move. They came up with all sorts of shameful excuses in the days before the vote – claiming private school children and home school pupils were the problem.
“All of these issues could be easily overcome and they know that. The truth is they lacked the political will to take action.
“With every passing day, children are going hungry. It is not to late for the Scottish Government to do the right thing by Scotland’s young people and deliver free meals to all pupils.
“If the First Minister really wants to be judged on her record on education, this is her chance to have a lasting legacy. Instead, she seems determined to obsess on the constitution while having precious little to show for her years in power on social justice.”
Sturgeon was joined by SNP ministers Kate Forbes, Keith Brown, Richard Lochhead and Màiri McAllan in failing to vote on Tuesday, despite having the ability to do so remotely from any location. Mairi Gougeon, who led the Good Food Nation Bill, was one of 57 SNP MSPs who voted against Lennon’s amendment, while seven failed to vote.
All of the Green MSPs voted against it – apart from Harvie, who failed to vote.
That’s despite comments from Harvie in 2020 when he tweeted: “Food is a human right… Free school meals are the absolute least we should provide.”
Meanwhile, the party’s education spokesman Ross Greer accused Conservative leader Douglas Ross of being a “coward” in 2020 for failing to vote for free meals for primary school children, after speaking in support.
Almost all Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem MSPs backed free school meals. During a debate about the bill in Holyrood, Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: “The Scottish Government have shown themselves absolutely disinterested in taking steps to deal with the hunger and starvation that is happening here and now in Scotland.”
She urged MSPs to “look to their conscience”.
Instead of voting, Sturgeon spent the day unveiling what she called a “refreshed” case for independence.
Just hours before the food vote, she told a press conference in Edinburgh – with Patrick Harvie at her side – that her government had an “indisputable mandate” for a second independence referendum. The FM said it was now time to set out “a different and better vision” for Scotland.
However, Lennon added: “The First Minister had an opportunity to deliver a better vision for Scotland immediately by instructing her
obedient MSPs to vote for this simple measure to tackle food poverty in children. She chose not to take it.”
Sunday Mail opinion: A better vision? Just put kids first
If Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie believe there is a genuine argument against universal free school meals, they should make it.
Perhaps they think it is unaffordable – that it would place an unfair burden on taxpayers.
Saying so would betray their much-vaunted social justice credentials at a time when the poorest families face a horrifying battle to keep their heads above water – but at least it would be honest.
Instead, both leaders have hid behind lame excuses and then failed to even bother turning up for a key vote that could have delivered the policy.
Sturgeon was too busy launching a referendum drive for a “better vision” for Scotland to deliver a better vision for children right now with the stroke of a pen.
The FM has, to her credit, pioneered free meals for primary one to five pupils.
But this only serves to highlight the principle young people shouldn’t be going hungry – and that school is the obvious place to intervene.
Why then should secondary pupils be excluded in the most important developmental years of their life? This has echoes of the “Margaret Thatcher milk snatcher” scandal.
Harvie’s party explicitly backed free school meals in an election manifesto commitment before the 2021 Scottish election. Comparisons to the Lib Dems’ disastrous U-turn on university tuition fees at Westminster are not misplaced.
Standing side by side with Sturgeon during her independence campaign launch, he has placed a power-sharing agreement with the SNP above principle. It is unlikely to be forgotten.
Strong leadership is about taking tough decisions and being able to explain and stand by them.
Neither Sturgeon nor Harvie are delivering that for innocent young victims of a cost-of-living crisis that is only going to get worse.