The leader of Wirral Council has opened up about her own difficult childhood in a heartfelt plea to the government to u-turn on free school meals.

Cllr Janette Williamson slammed the decision to deprive the poorest children of free school meals during this week’s October half-term.

Writing in a personal capacity, rather than expressing the view of the local authority, Cllr Williamson said: “When I was eight my dad died. From then until I left school I regularly- and gratefully - received free school meals.

“My mum juggled a number of poorly paid part-time jobs to keep a roof over our heads until she became a nurse when I was 16.

“To see the Conservative government vote to remove the vital lifeline of free meals for children in need over half-term sickens me to the core.

“The justification from their MPs is that these errant parents must be taught how to budget properly and that they would spend their vouchers on alcohol, drugs and brothels. This is a low point in politics.”

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The Labour councillor explained why the issue was particularly important in Wirral, a borough in which a great deal of poverty exists.

Cllr Williamson continued: “The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated earlier this year that one in eight working families are in poverty. Families, by the government's own admission, are doing the right thing. Yet they cannot pay their bills or keep their heads above water.

“In 2019, 17.7% of children lived in low-income poverty in Wirral. That equates to 10,687 children affected by poverty, and 16,512 people [who] used Wirral Foodbank, with a 25% increase in single parents using it.

“We are the sixth richest country in the world. We are a country of enormous affluence but 21% of this country's wealth is concentrated in the hands of 1% of the population. Where is the trickling down of this wealth that we were promised by successive Conservative governments?”

The Liscard member also reflected on the fantastic community spirit displayed since the free school meals policy was confirmed.

As the ECHO reported last week, huge numbers of small food businesses in Wirral chose to step in and provide free school meals over half-term week themselves.

The council has also intervened by supplying grant funding to community groups to make sure children do not go hungry during the October break.

Cllr Williamson added: “To have hungry children in our country is deeply distressing. Parents who are unable to feed their children do not lack moral fibre, they have been let down by the system.

“They have been let down by ten years of austerity and poor quality, low paid work which is now being made worse by Covid. The Free School Meals debate has shone a spotlight on the myth that people can work their way out of poverty.

“I want to personally thank all of the business and community groups who have come together and are working with the council for the good of Wirral.

"They exemplify compassion and a collective responsibility, something clearly lacking in this Conservative government.

“I therefore call on the government to reverse their policy of refusing free school meals during the school holidays, and I call on all Wirral councillors, including the Conservatives, to do the right thing and lobby the government to change the law immediately.”

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Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr show, the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said things were different now compared to the summer when free school meals were provided by the government.

Mr Lewis, the Conservative MP for Great Yarmouth, said the majority of schools are now open and the government had increased Universal Credit as well as giving £63m to local authorities.

He said: "We've put the uplift into universal credit, just over £1,000 a year. But also very specifically we've put £63m into local authorities to support and help people in hardship.

"We've put that support in there and I think that's the right way to do it because the schools aren't open [during half-term week] so it's making sure that the welfare system can put the support in, targeted where it's needed most."