Kirk calls for cash payments for struggling families during the coronavirus epidemic

The Church of Scotland has joined with child poverty campaigners across the country to highlight the plight of families who rely on free school meals, as Scottish schools close today (Friday 20 March) due to the COVID-19 crisis.

In an open letter to the First Minister, a coalition made up of churches, child poverty organisations, economics groups and University professors expressed the need for direct cash payments for low income families who will be directly affected when children can no longer be fed for free at school.

Around 240,000 children are officially recognised as living in poverty in Scotland.

The letter published by the Child Poverty Action Group Scotland said:

“With children having to stay at home from next week, the additional cost of providing lunch will be a significant, and in many cases unmanageable, financial pressure on families. Low income families are already struggling to make ends meet and free school meals play a vital role in relieving pressure on family budgets.”

It further states that the most effective way to protect those having to deal with the loss of free school meals is to make direct cash payments to these families as a “dignified response, respectful of human rights and avoiding any potential stigma.”

This is just one of the many pressures that families are set to face as measures taken to control the spread of the coronavirus continue, and the campaign group added that this urgent action needs to be part of a far wider package to support families and children.

Yesterday (Thursday 19 March), Education secretary John Swinney said that the challenge posed by coronavirus was “without precedent”, adding that the Scottish Government were following the latest scientific advice which suggested closing schools would be an effective response to the virus.

Schools are likely to remain closed until the summer holidays and Scottish exams have been cancelled for the first time in history.

A £70 million ‘food fund’ has been announced by the Scottish Government as part of a £350 million emergency package aimed at supporting those most affected by the pandemic.

The open letter was signed on behalf of the Church of Scotland by Very Rev Dr Susan Brown, Convener of the Faith Impact Forum, and also by Sheila Gordon, Director of Children and Family Services at CrossReach.

The letter in full

Dear First Minister,

We are writing to you as a matter of urgency regarding the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on low income families, and specifically the imminent impact of school closures on children currently receiving free school meals. As you are aware, free school lunches can save a family with two children over £20 a week. With children having to stay at home from next week, the additional cost of providing lunch will be a significant, and in many cases unmanageable, financial pressure on families. Low income families are already struggling to make ends meet and free school meals play a vital role in relieving pressure on family budgets.

Building on the welcome support announced today by the Cabinet Secretary for Communities, we believe the most effective way to protect families from the additional pressure that loss of free school meals will create will be to make cash payments to families currently in receipt of free school meals.

We believe support in the face of the COVID-19 crisis must be provided in a way that gives families the choice and agency to meet their family's needs in this exceptional time. A cash payment in lieu of free school meals would be a dignified response, respectful of human rights and avoiding any potential stigma.

We believe there are various legal and payment mechanisms that should be explored to enable this to happen using the information and payment mechanisms currently used to register for free school meals and make school clothing grant payment, and the legal powers available to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. We would be very happy to discuss what approach would work most effectively; though there is an over-riding need for fast measures to be put in place.

We are keenly aware that this is just one of the many pressures families will face in the forthcoming weeks and that a cash payment in lieu of free school meals will need to be part of a far wider package to support families and protect children's wellbeing. However, we urge you to work together with local government to deliver this specific cash payment to support families with the additional cost of lunch during the period of school closure.

Yours sincerely,

  • John Dickie, Director of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland
  • Satwat Rehman, Director, One Parent Families Scotland
  • Sally Witcher, CEO, Inclusion Scotland
  • Peter Kelly, Director, Poverty Alliance
  • Emma Revie, Chief Executive, Trussell Trust
  • Most Rev Mark Strange, Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church
  • Derek Mitchell, Chief Executive, Citizens Advice Scotland
  • Jim McCormick, Associate Director for Scotland, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
  • Martin Crewe, Director, Barnado's Scotland
  • Very Rev Dr Susan Brown, Convener of the Faith Impact Forum, the Church of Scotland
  • Larry Flanagan, General Secretary, Educational Institute of Scotland
  • Claire Telfer, Head of Scotland, Save the Children
  • Mary Glasgow, Chief Executive, Children First
  • Jackie Brock, Chief Executive, Children in Scotland
  • Jamie Livingstone, Head of Oxfam Scotland
  • Bishop Nolan, President of Justice and Peace Scotland
  • Pete Ritchie, Executive Director, Nourish Scotland
  • Professor Ian Welsh OBE, Chief Executive, Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE)
  • Dr Neil Henery, Director, Camphill Scotland
  • Sally Ann Kelly, Chief Executive, Aberlour Child Care Trust
  • Norman Kerr, Director, Energy Action Scotland
  • Paul Carberry, National Director, Action for Children
  • Eileen Prior, Executive Director, Connect
  • Joanna Murphy, Chair, National Parent Forum of Scotland
  • Rev Dr David A Pickering, Moderator of The United Reformed Church National Synod of Scotland
  • Shaben Begum, Director, SIAA
  • Dr. Marsha Scott, Chief Executive Officer, Scottish Women’s Aid
  • Jane Brumpton, Chief Executive, Early Years Scotland
  • Frank Mosson, Bureau Manager, Bridgeton Citizens Advice Bureau
  • Easterhouse Housing & Regeneration Alliance
  • Tim Frew, Chief Executive, Youthlink Scotland
  • Juliet Harris, Director, Together Scotland
  • Sheila Gordon, Director – Children & Family Services, CrossReach
  • Douglas Guest, Acting Director for Scotland, Home-Start UK Scotland
  • Graeme McAlister, Chief Executive, Scottish Childminding Association
  • Marguerite Hunter Blair, Chief Executive, Play Scotland
  • Kate Wimpress, Chair, SURF - Scotland's Regeneration Forum
  • Craig Samuel, NAWRA
  • Kirsten Cook, Affordable Warmth Team Manager, Changeworks
  • Anne Meikle, Scottish Women's Budget Group
  • Jimmy Wilson, CEO, FARE
  • Susan Archibald Disability Rights Activist, Archibald Foundation
  • Marie Ward, Cranhill Development Trust
  • Bernard Harris, Professor of Social Policy, University of Strathclyde
  • Prof. Stephen Sinclair, Scottish Poverty & Inequality Research Unit
  • Adrian Sinfield, Professor Emeritus of Social Policy, University of Edinburgh
  • Prof Morag Treanor, Heriot-Watt University
  • Professor Nick Watson, University of Glasgow
  • Dr Serena Pattaro, University of Glasgow
  • Dr Ruth Patrick, University of York
  • Dr Hayley Bennett, University of Edinburgh
  • Sharon Wright, University of Edinburgh
  • Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Director, Institute for Social Policy, Housing, and Equalities Research, Heriot-Watt University
  • Kat Smith, Professor of Public Health Policy, University of Strathclyde
  • Professor Mark Stephens, Director, The Urban Institute, Heriot-Watt University
  • Professor Glen Bramley, Professor of Urban Studies, Heriot-Watt University
  • Dr Jenny Wood, Research Associate, Heriot-Watt University
  • Angela O’Hagan, WISE Centre for Economic Justice at Glasgow Caledonian University