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School Holidays (Meals and Activities) Bill

Volume 634: debated on Friday 19 January 2018

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I thank those who, through the usual channels, have ensured that we got a debate today. I have never been more pleased with their activities and with what they have shown us over the last few hours.

The case for the Bill has been made in the country and, as I told the Minister, I intend to be brief. People do not want to hear me; they want to hear him. First, however, I will take a couple of minutes to outline the need for this Bill. In one way it is shocking that a Bill to ensure school meals and fun during school holidays—particularly for the poorest children—is being presented today. I also feel some pride, however, because I see in the Public Gallery people from my constituency who, like many volunteers around the country, have played a huge part in ensuring that children who would otherwise go hungry are fed.

The lesson of that massive example of activity is that the task now is beyond what the voluntary sector can do and the challenge is therefore passed to the Government. I hope that the Minister will take up that challenge in two ways. The Bill seeks to initiate a number of pilots around the country, sponsored by the Government, so that the first moral principle of social action—that we should do something for people who are suffering now—is met. However, we also want the Government—and us as legislators—to learn from that experience and to undertake research activities so that we can see what is the best way to deliver these programmes, with the help of the voluntary sector and, above all, what the impact is of such programmes on children’s weight—weight is often lost during the school holidays—and on their ability to maintain the educational advancements achieved during the school term.

This is a historic opportunity, and the first time for more than 100 years that this House has discussed a school meals Bill. As I said, it is not me that people want to hear but the Minister, so I am happy to end my speech now.

Will you, Madam Deputy Speaker, pass on our birthday wishes to Mr Speaker, as I understand it is his birthday today?

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) on promoting this Bill and making such a clear case for change. As a new Minister, I hope that I am able to emulate his exemplary and tireless commitment to improving outcomes for disadvantaged families, and I wholeheartedly applaud his ongoing efforts in this area.

Let me set out what this Government have done to tackle poverty and disadvantage. Last April, the Government published their “Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families” strategy, which focused on measures that tackle the root causes of poverty and improve children’s welfare. Tackling poverty, and its root causes, is a key priority for this Government, and we know that for most people work represents the best route out of poverty. Unemployment has not been lower since 1975, and the proportion of workless households is at its lowest since records began. Our welfare reforms are working. Let me give an example. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation has shown that our national living wage lifted 300,000 out of low pay last year. That is the biggest uplift out of the lowest bracket since 1970.

We recognise, however, that there is more to do, and the Government are committed to delivering a country that works for everyone. I am, therefore, keen to work with the right hon. Gentleman and other stakeholders to help the most disadvantaged pupils to have access to activities and healthy meals during school holidays. That has the dual benefit of ensuring that children have access to healthy food and enabling them to gain skills and experiences that can unlock future opportunities.

My Department’s breakfast clubs programme is one area in which we are already exploring how we can tackle that issue. The programme will not only expand breakfast clubs in at least 1,500 disadvantaged schools; it will also promote innovation through projects that focus on addressing access and delivery barriers and improving the health and education outcomes of disadvantaged children. I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must look at how best to ensure that the most disadvantaged pupils have access to activities and healthy meals during the school holidays.

I am, therefore, pleased to confirm today that the Government will launch research, as the right hon. Gentleman has requested, into how best to ensure that more children from disadvantaged families benefit from healthy meals and enrichment activities during the holidays, including through targeted pilots. The programme will include engagement with stakeholders and will enable us to assess the impact of Government intervention.

Where I differ with the right hon. Gentleman is in his belief that primary legislation is required to address the issue. I do not believe that that is the case. Moreover, it would not be sensible to impose a duty on local authorities to deliver such provision until we have more evidence about the scale of the issue, the most effective ways of tackling it, and, of course, the costs and burdens associated with doing so.

The Government therefore oppose this private Member’s Bill. However, as I have already confirmed, the Government will support the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal to investigate the best way to ensure that the most disadvantaged children have access to activities and healthy meals in the school holidays. The research programme will include funding for a targeted pilot programme, as he and I have discussed. That will allow the Government to consider if and how they should intervene in the long term. That programme of work will focus on the best and most cost-effective ways to address the issue, with an emphasis on securing the best possible value for money.

We will ensure that we do that by maximising the use of existing resources and focusing on targeting those areas in greatest need, building on the good work that is already under way in many local communities. However, only once the findings from the evaluation are available will it be possible to reach an informed view about next steps. We will want to consider these findings carefully, taking account of value for money. Before we have the evidence, it would not be right for me to make any commitment today to further action, either in terms of introducing a national policy or placing a duty on local authorities to offer such provision along the lines proposed by the right hon. Gentleman’s Bill.

I entirely understand why the Minister does not want to go down a primary legislative route, but the main aim of the Bill was to invite the Government to match the extraordinary efforts of the voluntary sector and undertake their own pilots. Equally important, however, is the research side. We need to understand what is the best way of delivering this service to poorer children, and also to understand the educational consequences of such a programme. I hope that, in the not too distant future, we shall be ready to greet the Minister when he rises to introduce his own Bill based on the pilots and the research. As he knows, there is massive support for my Bill on both sides of the House, not least his own side.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for dealing with this issue through an evidence-led strategy. He agrees with the Government that we need to conduct the research and the pilots in order to understand what is happening.

I can give some evidence of Conservative support for this work. How will the pilots be selected? Will it be done on a local authority basis?

It is early days. We are currently considering how we will conduct the research, and when we have conducted that research we will, hopefully, be able to tell the House how we will conduct the pilots.

I am grateful to the Minister for announcing at least some progress. Will the pilots involve looking into how the sugar tax could be used to help to feed children during the holidays?

We have secured funds for the research and the pilots. The hon. Lady will know that the sugar tax has been committed to many other matters in the Department that are equally important.

I will make some more headway first. Then I will take a few more interventions.

To reach an informed decision, we will work across Government. We will begin immediately to carry out rapid research, along with further stakeholder engagement. That will enable us to learn from those who are already active in the field about how to achieve the most positive outcomes. I am keen to work in partnership with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead to drive that forward, and I will be most grateful for his continued support and expertise. We will, in particular, look to colleagues in Wales, who are already offering “food and fun” holiday schemes, and to the teams who have evaluated them. We will learn lessons from similar schemes elsewhere. There are, for example, the opportunity areas, six more of which we have launched today. We will also consider how to build on breakfast club provision. Drawing on the learning from the research and engagement, we will set out our plans for the research, including the pilot programme, later in 2018.

Will the pilots take place this year? In Hull we are already trying to plan for a scheme to be in place in the summer, and it would be nice to know whether we could apply for funds to conduct one of the pilots.

We will begin the research immediately. The difficulty with beginning the pilots in the holidays this year is the procurement process, but I want to begin them as soon as possible.

I want to make a little more headway.

It is important for any provision to take account of local need, so we will seek to ensure that our approach can respond to a variety of circumstances and contexts. For example, we will aim to cover rural as well as urban areas, to work with different types of schools and across educational phases, and to ensure that provision can be accessed by children with special educational needs and disabilities. We will build links with and between local partners by, for instance, assisting voluntary and community sector organisations to work collaboratively with schools to achieve those aims.

Will the Government also use research from pilots that the voluntary sector led last year, when 10,500 meals were served in my constituency?

I would very much like to see that research. We will both collate research already done and commission new research. We want to get this right.

The research programme will begin immediately and will include some initial work in the 2018 summer holidays followed by further piloting in the 2019 Easter and summer holidays. The Government work will investigate how to provide a balanced, enriched programme for the most disadvantaged school-age pupils.

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 27 April.