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Child Food Poverty

Volume 600: debated on Friday 16 October 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Margot James.)

I thank my colleagues who have kindly stayed behind on a Friday afternoon for this important debate.

I wish to speak on an issue that is close to my heart and of great consequence for my constituents and many thousands of children and families across our country—the hidden horror of holiday hunger in the United Kingdom. It is not uncommon to have disagreements across the House—each of us has come to this place with strong beliefs and a mandate to pursue them—but there is one thing on which I hope we can all agree. It is a simple question the answer to which serves as a barometer of our progress towards creating a fair society: are our children going hungry? It might be easy to ask, but the answer is hard to bear. In the 21st century in a civilised society such as ours, there are certain social and health issues that should have been confined to the history books, such as rickets, malnutrition, and starvation, but, unbelievably, in communities across the country, health and education professionals are seeing the impact of these things daily.

In my constituency, in Stoke-on-Trent North and in Kidsgrove, 31% of children are living in poverty. One third of our children are born into families living hand to mouth, struggling to make ends meet, pay the bills and feed the kids. The Government’s new index of multiple deprivation makes clear the scale of the problem. Stoke-on-Trent is ranked as the 13th most deprived authority out of 326. In one secondary school in my constituency, 52% of pupils qualify for free school meals.

Even these statistics do not do justice to the terrible reality of poverty in my city and our country today. The situation is bad enough during term time. Stories have reached me of children fainting in school on a Monday morning because they have not eaten since the Friday before. Others are surviving on little more than a packet of crisps a day. For these children, their school meal can often be the only hot meal they get. It has long been understood by all parties in the House that many families struggle to afford to pay for school meals during term time. In fact, free school meals were first introduced in 1906 and remain an established part of our education system over a century later.

But lunch is just one meal, and many schools have gone even further in their attempts to ensure our children are well fed, with breakfast and after school clubs becoming more and more common. Teachers recognise the clear link between hunger and concentration in the classroom, and who with a heart could ignore a hungry child in front of them? These projects make a huge difference and ensure that our most vulnerable children are receiving the nutrition they need during term time. Last week, the Prime Minister said we needed to do more to nurture the educational attainment of our young people. He was speaking of the dangers of truancy to our children’s aspiration, and he had a point, but if our children are not coming to school well fed and ready to learn, their presence alone will not be enough to bridge this divide in outcomes.

The issue is even worse when our children are not at school. What happens to our kids when school is out and the holidays loom? How can we expect them to achieve their potential when they are returning to school in September malnourished? Let us not be in any doubt—that is exactly what is happening at present.

The statistics are stark. A recent report by Kellogg’s on isolation and hunger in the school holidays found that a third of parents skipped a meal so their kids could eat during the school holidays. Six out of 10 parents with household incomes of less than £25,000 said they were not always able to afford to buy food outside term time. For households with incomes of less than £15,000, that figure rises to a staggering 73%. We must never forget that behind each of these statistics is a child, a parent and a family.

The impact of holiday hunger can be seen elsewhere, too, as in the increase in food bank usage during the school holidays. In 2014, the Trussell Trust saw food bank usage in August increase by 21% compared with the same time in June, before the holidays began. These problems are exacerbated by the hidden costs of school holidays. Lone parents are particularly hard hit, with a 2014 survey indicating that 29% had reduced their working hours to look after their children during the school holidays, and 22% had taken unpaid leave.

The trends are only getting worse. Disgracefully, child poverty is set to rise, not fall, in the next five years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that 3.5 million children, which is one in four—let me repeat that: one in four of our children—will be living in absolute poverty by the end of this Parliament.

This crisis is not just a tragedy in its own right, as it is having a major impact on educational attainment, which threatens critically to undermine social mobility in our country. Teachers say that if a child arrives at school hungry, they will lose one hour of learning time a day. If a child arrives at school hungry just once a week, they will lose over eight weeks of learning over their primary school life—70% of a full school term because they are hungry.

It should come as no surprise to hear that if a child comes to school hungry and malnourished, they are never going to achieve their full potential. Concentration, behaviour, the ability to learn—all these are affected if a child is not receiving the sustenance needed to get through the day.

To be candid, not enough research is available about the impact on attainment for limited periods of malnutrition —a situation we very much need to rectify. We do know, however, that for those suffering from severe malnutrition, a lack of concentration is the least of their worries. Organisations such as Save the Children have produced comprehensive reports detailing how long-term malnutrition causes devastating and irreversible damage to children globally. I would like to take this opportunity to extrapolate the findings to this situation.

A lack of nutritious food, combined with illness and infection, leads to a condition known as “stunting” in which children’s bodies and brains do not develop properly. Stunting has a real and demonstrable impact on a child’s mental development, which in turn affects relative IQ and the ability to learn. The link between childhood malnutrition and future attainment has also been identified. Stunted children are predicted to earn on average 20% less than their healthy counterparts.

We cannot start to narrow the gap in pupil attainment until we recognise the gulf in opportunity between our poorest students and the rest. Nor can we expect teachers, even great teachers, to keep a child’s development on track without dealing with these structural inequalities. We cannot pretend that inspiration can overcome starvation.

The repercussions of holiday hunger resonate far beyond the classroom. There is increasing evidence that many students backslide academically during school holidays. A 2014 report by The Times Educational Supplement reported that 77% of primary school leaders and 60% of secondary school leaders had concerns about summer learning loss among their pupils. This regression is far more pronounced in our poorest and most vulnerable communities—and that, too, should come as no surprise because the issues are not solely related to food, but touch on wider social inequalities.

For parents struggling to put food on the table during the school holidays, finding the money to provide their children with the programmes and activities that occupy their more privileged counterparts is an impossible dream. For these kids—the kids I see in my constituency, week in, week out—the summer holiday is not some childhood idyll of splash pools and camping trips. It is not a chance to explore or create. It is boredom, hunger and isolation. That is why I am asking the Government to work with us and begin taking positive steps to tackle the problem of holiday hunger in our country.

We need to do that holistically, and thankfully we do not need to start from scratch. Up and down the country, we have seen examples of local, community-focused projects that are attempting to provide children with the nutrition they need outside term time. In my constituency, several schools run summer programmes funded through the pupil premium, but they are sadly limited to two of the seven weeks. In other parts of the United Kingdom, we see projects such as the one run by the M32 group in Stretford, an out-of-school club that fed an average of 100 kids a day over four weeks this summer, and the summer play scheme set up by Kirklees Neighbourhood Housing, which worked with other agencies to provide activities for young people. The provision of healthy meals was the cornerstone of that scheme.

In Stoke-on-Trent, we have schools and community groups that are willing and able to work with me, and with the Government, to ensure that our kids are being fed during the school holidays. The local food bank is seeking to make links with the Cinnamon Network’s MakeLunch project, which provides lunches for children who otherwise would not have them during the school holidays. The will is there; what is lacking is the financial support to get local pilot schemes off the ground so that they can start to tackle the problem.

What amazes me is that we have ignored this issue for so long while other countries have recognised that they have a basic responsibility to feed their communities. In the United States, not only is holiday hunger nationally recognised as a serious issue, but the measures to alleviate it are federally funded. It is time for the UK Government to step up, acknowledge the scale of the problem, and work with stakeholders to develop a framework for ending child food poverty, in term and out.

In recent days, the Government have been quick to dismiss these issues as having somehow been brought about by the families themselves, or as the inevitable consequence of “'tough decisions”. Far from making tough choices, however, the Government are taking the easy option in this regard, and it is the most vulnerable who bear the brunt. Ignorance or looking the other way is not an excuse. It is easy to stand here, in the middle of a palace, and denounce the poor as feckless. It is easy to pontificate, from a position of comfort and security, about the failings of those at the bottom. It is easy—all too easy—to say that if people cannot afford to eat, it must be because they are not working hard enough or not spending their money wisely enough, or even that they should not have had kids in the first place. We know better than that. We know that the majority of children living in poverty today are in working households. We know that 43% of children in poverty are living with two parents, one of whom is employed. We know that a Government who talk of making work pay are stripping tax credits from those who need them most.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful and compelling speech. More than 10,000 children in my constituency face steep reductions in their tax credit support next year. Does my hon. Friend agree that in the light of the impending withdrawal of that support, the measures that she recommends are more important and urgent than ever?

I could not agree more. In my own constituency, 10,800 young students will be affected by the cuts.

My hon. Friend is making an intensely powerful and very timely speech. The London borough of Ealing, like many other boroughs, set up summer play schemes, which were initially intended to provide entertainment, amusement and healthy exercise for young people during the summer holidays. Now we have to provide hot food, but when our budget is cut by £96 million over the next four years, we may not be able to sustain that. Will my hon. Friend please urge the Minister—whom I know to be a decent, humane man—to recognise the impact of local government cuts on these essential services?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. We have yet to see the impact of wider cuts on local government, but I cannot imagine that it will make the present position better.

Following the proposed tax credit changes, a single parent with two kids who works 16 hours a week on the minimum wage will be £460 a year worse off. A couple with two kids, when one parent is earning the national average, will be down two grand a year.

We know that what is really holding children back in constituencies like mine and those of my hon. Friends is not a lack of will, or talent, or perseverance; it is a lack of opportunity, a lack of support, and a lack of hope for a better future. That is the challenge that our children face. It is a challenge that could be met if only the helping hand of Government is extended to them, and that is what I am asking the Government to do today. I am asking them to begin to take concrete steps to address the issue of child food poverty in school holidays. So I ask the Minister to meet the holiday hunger taskforce as a matter of urgency to discuss the detail of this issue, to free up innovation funding for local trials beginning in the worst affected areas, and to develop best practice in holiday provision, and, of course, I offer Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove as the perfect constituency for an initial pilot. Finally, I ask the Minister to support further research into the impact of holiday hunger here in the UK, particularly on learning loss among vulnerable students.

This issue is simply too important to be a party political football, but it is also an immediate challenge to our very definition of responsible and caring Government, so we need actions, not words. Let us meet to get something done so our children are well fed, well educated and able to fulfil their potential.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and Kidsgrove on securing this debate. We have not met, but we are quite close neighbours and it is good to have another representative from our area speaking so passionately about an extremely important subject, which she rightly emphasised should exercise all our minds. We should be working as closely together as we possibly can to come up with the right solutions to all the problems society can throw at us, such as those she raises in this debate.

I think we can all agree that no child should go hungry. Like the hon. Lady, I have seen, both in my personal and professional life before politics, what can happen to children when that takes place, so I am in no doubt about the need for good nutrition and the vital role it plays in children’s development and health.

The Government want to give every child, regardless of background, the very best start in life. That approach is at the heart of our reforms to school meals. We have made real progress towards ensuring that all children are eating good, healthy food, which in turn will help them to concentrate in the classroom and support the healthy lifestyle we want to see.

The hon. Lady rightly pointed out that there is some developing research in this area, but considering how long this has been discussed—over many decades—there is still a paucity of research and that will need to be addressed so we can better understand the potential links between nutrition and educational attainment. I want to start by setting out the work being done by my Department to tackle this issue and we will then talk a little more widely about Government action in this area.

We published the school food plan, developed by independent food experts drawing on the views of teachers, cooks, caterers, nutritionists, parents, charities and volunteers. This has led to a practical action plan that is increasing the quality and take-up of school meals—which has been a long-standing problem—developing a whole-school food culture and exciting children about good food and cooking so that they can lead healthy lives.

As part of that plan, we have revised the school food standards so that they are easier for schools to understand and implement. They allow school cooks more creative freedom to adapt to the preferences of the children at their school, source seasonal or local food, take advantage of price fluctuations, or create dishes that suit their particular talents. Importantly, parents will more easily be able to know if the food served to their children meets the standards. Most crucially, they restrict unhealthy foods to ensure our children eat well.

I took the time to read the Kellogg’s report and it was interesting. One point it made is that although more money is being spent on food, the nutritional value is going down by virtue of the poor choices being made by parents for their children. We also need to tackle that, so children are eating nutritious meals.

I thank the Minister for giving way; that is a convention not always observed in these debates. What is his view on the growing numbers of machines selling junk food? The name escapes me—

Thank you. The number of vending machines in schools and hospitals seems to be growing. What is the Minister’s view on that?

We have set out in the school food plan a clear objective to make as much home-grown nutritious food available to children as possible. I am not going to gainsay the position of other Ministers in the Department of Health and elsewhere who have responsibility for these areas, but we need to look carefully at the proliferation of vending machines to ensure that there is no exploitation going on and that they are not undermining the overall principle that we have set out in the school food plan and the school food standards.

We have also reformed the national curriculum to include new content on food, nutrition and healthy eating and on how to cook a whole repertoire of dishes. For the first time, learning about food is statutory for every pupil up to the age of 14. The school fruit and vegetable scheme provides a daily piece of fruit or a vegetable on school days to key stage 1 children—typically aged four to six—in primary schools and nurseries attached to eligible primary schools in England. We have also extended the right to free meals during term time to include disadvantaged students in further education as well as children from low income families in schools.

More widely, our ambition for disadvantaged pupils to be successful during their school years and to achieve the highest possible levels of educational attainment is at the centre of our education reform programme. That is why we are committed to raising the bar among disadvantaged pupils as part of pushing up standards for everyone, so that no pupil is left behind. This is built on the knowledge of how important educational attainment is for improving their life chances.

The Wolf report, which was commissioned by the last Government, showed that English and maths skills were vital for labour market entry and continued to have a significant impact on career progression and pay. That is why we are committed to ensuring that more poor pupils achieve excellent grades at GCSE, attend the very best universities or go on to an apprenticeship that will lead to their gaining skilled employment, so that every child, regardless of their background, has an education that allows them to realise their full potential. Our reforms are working. More young people have got into work in the last year in this country than in the rest of the EU put together, and there are more than 1 million more pupils in England in good or outstanding schools than there were in 2010, with the attainment gap narrowing in the process.

As I said earlier, it is not just the Department for Education that has a vested interest in ensuring that all children, irrespective of their background, are protected from or lifted out of a childhood spent in poverty, including food poverty. That is why this Government want to work to eliminate child poverty, as did the last Labour Government, and to improve the life chances of every child. Our new approach, set out in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, will incentivise the Government to focus on tackling the root causes of child poverty, not just the symptoms. Our new statutory life chances measures will drive continued clear action on work and education. This will make the biggest difference to disadvantaged children, now and in the future.

In reaching for that goal, we know that work is the best route out of poverty. Research shows us that around 75% of poor children living in families where both parents move into full employment leave poverty altogether. Economic growth and employment offer the best route to giving people a better future and to reducing poverty. As we have seen in the past year, we now have the fastest growth of any major advanced economy.

Thank you very much for giving way, Minister. I am grateful for your time and your commitment to this issue, now and previously. One of my concerns is that you have not talked about what happens during the school holidays. The Kellogg’s report is obviously incredibly important, but this is about the impact of malnutrition during the school holidays on children’s attainment when they come back to school. I agree with you that, traditionally, employment would be—

Order. I allowed the hon. Lady to get away with it three times, but on the fourth time I have to tell her that she should use the word “you” only to address the Chair. If she means the Minister, she should refer to “the Minister” or “the hon. Gentleman”.

I apologise. I am still claiming new status.

Will the Minister please give us some clarification on what action we can now take to draw a line in the sand and work together to tackle the specific issue of holiday hunger?

The hon. Lady is right to challenge me to move on to that aspect of this debate, and I intend to do so, once I have set out the underlying principles that the Government have in order to tackle poverty at its source by bearing down on its root causes. They help us to start to pull together exactly how we should respond to any of the issues she has raised on what happens in the school holidays for some children.

Employment is up by more than 2 million since the 2010 election, and the number of children growing up in workless households is at a record low—it has decreased by 480,000 since 2010. Household incomes will be higher in 2015 than in 2010. In the summer Budget, the Government announced that a new national living wage of £7.20 an hour will be introduced, giving full-time low-paid workers an extra £20 a week when it is introduced in April. The hon. Lady rightly reminds us, however, that times are still tough for many families, and it would be wrong to deny that some deep-rooted problems leading to children being in food poverty need to be tackled. As the all-party group on hunger and food poverty has found, the reasons behind demands for emergency food assistance are complex and frequently overlapping. We need to understand better how we start to unravel that, so we can address it in the best way possible. The work of civil society and faith groups to support vulnerable people has been immensely impressive, and I would like to take this opportunity to recognise the valuable contribution of all those involved.

Perhaps the greatest frustration for all of us is that as a country we have enough food to feed us all—there is enough food to go around—and so it is wrong that anyone should go hungry at the same time as surplus food is going to waste. Food waste must be tackled—that has to be part of the solution—and surplus food must be redistributed. That is why the Government have taken action to ensure that more surplus food is redistributed to people before being put to any other use. The Waste and Resources Action Programme has published research, guiding principles and good practice case studies to help industry take action. Building further on that work, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Minister for Civil Society have brought together key players from retail, food manufacturing and redistribution organisations to agree new actions to further increase levels of food redistribution, so that people who need it can access it. A working group is driving that forward—to waste less and redistribute more.

I am sorry, but I am short of time and I have to keep going.

We are also taking action to help families with their food costs specifically, for example, through the Department of Health’s Healthy Start scheme, which provides nutritional support for pregnant women, new mothers and low income families throughout the UK. Healthy Start is helping half a million families buy milk, fruit and fresh and frozen vegetables. The hon. Lady also highlighted a number of other schemes going on up and down the country, and I have taken time to look at those. The National Housing Consortium, in particular, has been helping lead many of those initiatives. I welcome that work that is going on, and I would be happy to ensure that the Minister responsible has a chance to consider them as well, together with the other requests that the hon. Lady made towards the end of her speech, so that we can see this as a joint venture to tackle what we know to be a real part of pervading societal problems for far too long. Although I believe the work the Government are doing to tackle the root causes of poverty will help alleviate many of those issues, we still need to look carefully at how it affects different communities in different parts of the country, so that we can be more creative and innovative about how we respond to it, so that as few children as possible ever find themselves in that position in the future —we hope none will.

The Government have put in place a long-term plan for economic growth, to raise living standards for all, and that plan is working; we were the fastest-growing major advanced economy in 2014, wages are rising at the fastest rate in a decade, employment has risen by 2 million since 2010 and the number of children in workless families has fallen to a record low.

In schools, we have introduced measures that will ensure that children are offered more nutritious and appetising meals, which will improve their health and development. We know that we have 1 million more children being taught in good and outstanding schools, and we have raised the bar for achieving for all children no matter what their background, so that their performance will match and exceed that of their peers in the highest-performing countries across the world, giving them the best possible chance of securing rewarding further education and employment.

We should never dilute our determination to tackle child poverty in all its forms. I have set out a range of actions in this short debate. The Government are taking action to reduce poverty and to give children, wherever they live, a better and healthier future. As we see changes in our society, we need to ensure that we do not shy away from problems, complex as some of them may be, and that we are open about them. As someone who has seen what happens when things go horribly wrong and children have ended up in need, I am as determined as the hon. Lady to ensure that we as politicians lead on this issue and that many more children do not suffer the consequences of our doing nothing.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.