The high-profile issue of Free School Meals in holiday time generated a considerable postbag. Politics is to choose and I believe that, given the extenuating circumstances of Covid and its financial implications for many, the Government should have continued direct, centrally funded, provision for this half term. I hope that a rethink will occur before Christmas. In politics, you have to pick your battles, and this is not one that the Government can win while Covid looms large.
In the Parliamentary vote I abstained, or as the websites have it ‘no vote recorded’. It sounds that I, couldn’t be bothered doesn’t it ‘no vote recorded’? However, an abstention does carry weight but it seems not everyone realises this so I thought it would be an useful explanation if I explained. When the Division Bell rings you can either vote Aye or No. Your vote is recorded in Hansard. Your colours are nailed firmly to the mast and it’s there for all to see. If you don’t want to vote or cannot vote (a doctor’s appointment or you are caring for a relative) you can be slipped or paired. Both are agreed by your Whips Office and there is a Pairing Whip in the Tory and Labour Parties. If you are slipped you do not vote because the Government thinks it has enough votes to win and can give the MP the time off. If you are Paired the Whips speak to each other ‘through the usual channels’ and agree that Mrs X (Tory) and Mr Y (Labour) won’t vote in a particular division thereby cancelling each other out i.e. one MP is taken off the tally of Government and Official Opposition. A proactive abstention (such as mine on Free School Meals) is a vote taken off the Government tally but with no cancelling out from the other side, so the Government’s vote drops without a counterbalance. So, an abstention such as mine is not a ‘couldn’t be bothered’ or ‘too busy’ or ‘didn’t care’ but a very firm message to the Whips of an MP’s thinking. Around 25 Tory colleagues abstained in a similar way. Hence, the Government’s majority was below the usual 80/90 mark.
My abstention followed lengthy conversations with my Whip and the Education Secretary where I made the case that the policy we followed over the summer should be continued. My subsequent abstention said to the Front Bench: if there is another vote, prior to Christmas, on the same issue, I am more than likely to vote against the Government if the Government’s position has not evolved.
Many in North Dorset are retired and/or many in North Dorset are financially comfortable so the issue of Free School Meals is not necessarily their dominant daily concern. The beauty of our surroundings temptingly leads observers to thinking everything in the North Dorset garden is rosy. I know it isn’t. There is disadvantage right across the constituency, in every town and village. It’s not clustered in one area so it’s sometimes hard to spot. Covid is, for many, increasing it. Free School Meals, in and out of termtime, are important to many of our neighbours and friends. For their sake, and at this time, we need to get the policy right. I will do all I can to ensure that that happens.