Families could afford to feed children even if they shopped at M&S, council leader says

Families could still afford to feed their children over half term even if they shopped at Marks and Spencer's for food due to welfare increases, a council leader has said.

Mike Bird, the Conservative leader of Walsall Council
Mike Bird, the Conservative leader of Walsall Council

Walsall Council leader Mike Bird said parents could buy "three meals for £7" and could feed a child on "relatively" small amounts of money amid a £20 Universal Credit increase.

Councillor Bird, who has previously said that families in Walsall suffer from food poverty because they have more children than they can afford, said there was no money left to fund free schools meals – and hit out at Labour for using it as a "political football".

His comments on BBC5 Live prompted backlash from people on social media who claimed the council leader was calling for poorer families to shop at M&S.

Councillor Bird, who said the cost of funding free school meals was around £213,510 per week, told the Express & Star: "People are getting an extra £20 a week on Universal Credit and even if they went to M&S, which is supposed to be one of the most expensive [shops], they could still afford to feed their children.

"We have a crisis number for the people of Walsall and anyone can ring that number if they're in need – and money will be offered for food, for electricity, and we do that 365 days a year.

"Marcus Rashford has thrown the ball onto the pitch and Labour have kicked it around to support their own political goals. It's not like half term came out of the blue – parents have been given an extra £20 to look after their families on top of what they receive. It's a no-brainer."

More on this story:

A debate had been started after MPs voted against a Labour motion to back Manchester United and England forward Marcus Rashford scheme to extend free school meals for all holidays until next summer.

The council leader said he received an email concerning free school meals on Friday night from a member of the public who asked whether Walsall Council would be funding them.

Mr Bird replied to the email with one word – "No" – in reply which sparked strong criticism with one person saying the councillor had "broke the code of conduct".

The Conservative leader has since contacting to the leader of the Labour and Lib Dem parties on the council, Councillor Aftab Nawaz and Councillor Ian Shires, over the issue.

He said: "It is a popular and easy move for the Labour Party to lampoon the Government on this matter when in truth it has done quite a lot to alleviate child hunger already.

"As I have said earlier, this vote was not the way to deal with the problem and Labour politicians honestly know it. I believe honestly that is the job of the welfare system which has, quite rightly, been given additional resources to do just that."

'Support is already there'

Councillor Bird said approving the request – which they couldn't do due to having no funds available – would lead to calls to fund meals over Christmas, Easter and the six-week summer holiday.

He said there had been 6,255 food parcel requests, 1,902 requests for help with shopping, 1,899 welfare calls, 1,117 prescription food requests and 1,519 other types of help amid the pandemic.

"Local support for disadvantaged children and their families is constant and consistent for 365 days a year – that is why I do not support funding free school meals for children in the holidays; because it is being done already in a much better way," he said.

Councillor Bird added: "I also find it sad that a proud political party like the Labour Party, that arguably has achieved some good things for our nation in the past has resorted to using children for it’s own political ends.

"The man at the top may have changed but sadly the philosophy and nastiness of the Corbyn-Momentum years has yet to change."

In January Councillor Bird said that one factor causing hardship to families in parts of Walsall was the number of children they had.

He said that in areas such as Palfrey, where child poverty is higher than other parts of the borough, families tended to have larger families which they couldn’t afford.

The council leader said anyone family in need could contact the Walsall Crisis Support Service, which launched in 2013, to help people and families on a low income.

The service includes a referral to food banks – through a food vouchers referral handled by the Black Country Food Bank and The Trussell Trust – at no cost to the authority.

Anyone in need should call the crisis support service by emailing Housingandwelfaresupport@walsall.gov.uk or calling 01922 652250.

Top Stories

More from the Express & Star

UK & International News