Campaign response: Cancel Israel Apartheid Week - February 21
I am grateful to constituents for emailing in regarding the concerning presence of antisemitism on campus and the cancellation of Israel Apartheid Week.
Generally-speaking I am not a fan of the ‘cancel’ culture and believe that we need to afford individuals and groups the platform to speak their minds – for I am a strong believer of the freedom of speech and expression. The quote “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” comes to mind. I would never want to see anti-Israeli or worse still an anti-semitic group use the same tactics to argue for the cancelling of university events hosted by Jewish, pro-Israel groups, for instance.
That being said, I do believe that there should be reasonable limits to free speech, such as where there are genuine instances of hate speech or incitements to violence. The presence of antisemitism is a stain on society and a disgrace to civilisation. Racial hatred towards the Jewish people should not be allowed to persist today.
The continued singling out of the state of Israel for criticism without any reference to its Middle Eastern neighbours may well be a manifestation of underlying antisemitic sentiments, but in itself does not constitute antisemitism under the IHRA definition, as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance itself makes clear: “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
As a friend of the Jewish people and a supporter of state of Israel I remain unequivocal in my determination to do everything possible to root out antisemitism from society. To be very clear, I would vehemently disagree with any notion of ‘apartheid’ in Israel. But our preferred method of engagement should be through education and dialogue with those whom we disagree – although where things escalate and they are abusing or evening causing intentional harm to Jews we must look at addressing their antisemitic behaviour in a more robust way.
Universities are the best place for students to learn how to debate different ideas and opinions rigorously while respecting others’ value and dignity as human beings to equal measure. Therefore I am concerned that not all universities in the UK have adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and as such I will be seeking to speak to the Education Secretary to get an update on our work to encourage all universities to sign up to the IHRA definition.
Concerns about free school meals
I appreciate that this is an emotive and sensitive issue.
I want to make it clear that I do not dismiss the importance of ensuring that children and their families do not go hungry during this pandemic. The government has taken unprecedented steps to support individuals, families and businesses during this year. This has saved millions of jobs and thousands of businesses.
The vote on the Labour motion on 21st October was not about whether or not to support families but rather how to provide the right support to ensure families are able to feed their children. A great deal of attention has been given to what Parliament voted against. However, very little attention has been given to the motion that was actually passed by Parliament on that day, one which I supported, which reaffirmed the Government's commitment to provide targeted support to families throughout this pandemic.
This Government recognises the role of free school meals in ensuring pupils get a nutritious meal whilst in school, and I'm proud that this Government has expanded the eligibility of free school meals to a further 50,000 children, as well as expanding breakfast club programmes.
However, free school meals have only ever been intended to support eligible pupils attending school during term time. This has been the position under successive governments, including 13 years of Labour government who rejected extending free school meals outside of term times. The Government decided to extend free school meals during the summer holidays when schools had been generally closed during the lockdown. Since then, schools have reopened, and the vast majority of children are now back in school, benefiting from free school meals during the school term as before.
I fully agree that we need to help families that are struggling under the present circumstances. That is why the Government has increased Universal Credit by £20 a week – this means every family on Universal Credit has an extra £20 in their bank account every week (not just during school holidays) to aid in feeding the family. We have also increased the Local Housing Allowance to help low-income families with their rent, and since the start of the pandemic, given more than £63 million to Cornwall Council, £45 million of which has been un-ringfenced, and can be used in whichever way the council decides is best to support the people of Cornwall. Additionally, Cornwall Council was given £678,757 specifically for a ‘Hardship Fund’ in order to provide direct support to those who need it most.
I am pleased that Cornwall Council has now confirmed that it will be using some of this funding to provide meal vouchers for those who need them during the Christmas holiday. The council is best placed to be able to target this provision to the families who need it most.
I will continue to do all I can to secure the funding we need for the people of Cornwall including more for the Hardship Fund ahead of Christmas should it be required.
Thanks again for raising this important issue with me, and I hope my response assures you that whilst some may disagree with the approach the government is taking it is simply not true that we are not providing significant support for families during these challenging times. As the Prime Minister has stated, we will do all we can to ensure no child goes hungry this winter.
Over recent months my office has assisted thousands of local people by providing them with support and advice to ensure they have been able to access the support that is available. If you or anyone you know living within our constituency is facing difficulties or are concerned about their family going hungry, please get in touch with me as my office is here to help.