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Free School Meals (Automatic Registration of Eligible Children)

Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2015

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide local authorities with the duties and powers required to identify and automatically register all children eligible for free school meals; to provide for an opt-out where the family wishes; and for connected purposes.

I grew up, as you did, Mr Speaker, and as did everyone in the House, in a world in which the term “progress” did not need to speak its name. It was the assumption of all of us that things could only get better. That was true not only in this Chamber and in the country but in every western society. I view the world that I grew up in rather like a train journey. The train had different compartments that reflected our social classes, particularly in England. There was a first-class compartment, as well as second, third and fourth-class compartments. The crucial thing about the train journey, however, was that we were all on board and all heading towards a better tomorrow. In the past decade or so, the last carriage, the fourth-class carriage containing the poor, has become detached from the train journey that the rest of us are on. That is happening not only here but in every western country, and it is illustrated by the rise of food banks.

Last night, in each of our constituencies, a large number of children went to bed hungry and took that hunger to school with them today. To her credit, the Secretary of State for Education is concerned about this, and about the number of children who appear to be eligible for free school meals but are getting no hot meal at the beginning of the day. She has a taskforce that is trying to spread good practice, but we all know how long it can sometimes take for good practice to be spread.

Bernard Shaw, being Irish, did not have a great deal of time for us English, except that England gave him a good standard of living. He said that if the English were promoted from inferno to paradise, they would still gather round and talk about the good old days. There is something in our culture that resists the spread of good practice. The reasons why those children go to school hungry are moderately complicated to unravel. Clearly, at the bottom of our society, there is an increase in the number of low-paid jobs, and the wages from those low-paid jobs are uncertain. The all-party parliamentary group on hunger has identified problems with benefit delivery. There are also problems—let’s face it—of families who lead such chaotic lives that they let their children go to school hungry when they have the resources to do otherwise. Some families do not do that, but clearly some families do.

The Bill takes the campaign against hunger a stage further. It will compel local authorities to use their housing benefit data to counter hunger by identifying, first of all, the 160,000 children who are eligible for free school dinners but who, for some reason, do not claim. On average, that means that, in each of our constituencies, 250 children go hungry who probably do not need to do so.

The last Government linked the school premium to eligibility for free school meals. Equally importantly, therefore, the Bill will mean that £211 million follows those 160,000 children into our schools, so schools will be better able to cope with hunger and better able to integrate those children on school trips with other children.

Mr Speaker, your office tells me that, should the House grant me leave to introduce the Bill, Second Reading is not until 22 January, but already a record number of Members—126 Members from both sides of the House with all kinds of opinion—wish the Bill to proceed. Of course, it is in the power of the Secretary of State to beat the Bill and seek the powers herself. That move would not by itself bring a happy and more prosperous Christmas to those children, but it would form a basis so that, come the new year, there will be fewer hungry children in Britain than there are today.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Frank Field, John Glen, Mr Philip Hollobone, Alison McGovern, Andrew Bridgen, Peter Kyle, Wes Streeting, Sir Nicholas Soames, Ms Karen Buck, Stella Creasy, Heidi Allen and Mr Christopher Chope present the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 January, and to be printed (Bill 109).