I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Report of the Children’s Future Food inquiry.
The children’s future food inquiry has for the past year listened to young people tell us about their experiences of food insecurity. The result is the children’s #Right2Food charter, which was launched two weeks ago in Westminster with Dame Emma Thompson, who has done a fantastic job as the inquiry’s ambassador.
I pay particular tribute to Lindsay Graham, who has been running holiday hunger schemes and lobbying for a long time—she was the inspiration behind this—the Food Foundation, which did a lot of the work, and particularly the young ambassadors, whose involvement was absolutely fantastic. A number of other Members present were members of the panel, as was I, so I do not want to take up too much time. It is important that they contribute, particularly as some of them were more involved than I was, so I will try to be relatively brief.
I will start by underlining the scale of the problem, which led us to feel the need to do the inquiry. One in three children in the UK—4.1 million—live in relative poverty, and the number living in absolute poverty has increased. UNICEF estimates that 2.5 million of those children live in food insecurity, meaning that at times their families cannot afford to put food on the table or cannot buy the full variety of foods needed for a healthy diet. The Food Foundation, using UNICEF data, says that the UK has the highest percentage in the European Union of children under 15 living in a severely food insecure household, which we ought to be deeply ashamed of as a country.
Hunger has an impact on children’s mental and physical health; it affects their attainment at school, their attendance and their behaviour if they are too tired, too hungry or exist on a diet of junk food. Severe obesity at ages 10 to 11 is at its highest level since records began—I heard that we now have more obese 11-year-olds than the United States. Almost one in five children are obese by the time they start primary school, and one in three by the time they start secondary school. Typically, the most deprived areas have double the rate of childhood obesity compared with the least deprived, and one and a half times the rate of underweight children. It hits both ways; it is about malnutrition and obesity.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which served on the inquiry panel, recently published an update to its 2017 “State of Child Health” report. Two years on, it highlights grave concern that no progress has been made on reducing child poverty and inequality in the UK. We cannot tackle these health problems, particularly childhood obesity, without tackling child food poverty.
Evidence for the children’s future food inquiry was gathered from workshops with nearly 400 children in 13 different locations across the UK. It also included an academic review of child food insecurity, polling of young people, more than 100 submissions from people working with children, a UK-wide policy review and a secondary analysis of Government data on the affordability of a healthy diet. Children told the inquiry how debilitating constant hunger can be and how it affects their ability to concentrate in class. There were children who had been forced to shoplift, scavenge or barter, just so that they could eat.
Since securing the debate, I have been contacted by a number of people who wanted to add to the information that the inquiry was given. One new teacher emailed me and told me of giving Christmas dinner to
“a suspected severely neglected child”
“also has many learning difficulties. I have never seen a child eat his food so quickly (the term ‘wolf it down’ does not compare to what I saw). I asked him why he was eating it so quickly and he said that he hadn’t had a meal this big in days. It was not a grand-sized meal in the slightest. Once he had completed eating the Christmas dinner, he pulled out one of those plastic Chinese takeaway boxes with the remnants of some broken-up crisps (they looked like Doritos) and he asked if he could then eat them. I said he had just eaten a full meal and was he still hungry—he said yes, he was and that he didn’t know it was Christmas dinner day, and that they would have been his lunch.”
The teacher goes on to say:
“It’s awful the situation we are seeing. It cannot go on any longer.”
Parliament’s digital engagement programme has done a brilliant job of reaching out to people for comments using social media and has sent me a list of responses. Some are from people personally affected by food poverty while others are from people working at food banks, teachers or headteachers at schools, or people involved in trying to help families. Many of the responses highlight problems with the benefits system, particularly work capability assessments and sanctions, and especially the roll-out of universal credit. One respondent working in family law said
“families are poorer today than I have ever seen”.
Another, who volunteers at a food bank, said
“this problem seems to be escalating at an alarming rate”,
and that they are
“seeing a massive increase in referrals since the introduction of universal credit in the area”.
Many of those experiencing food poverty were in employment. Some spoke of the particular difficulty in catering for special diets—for example if their children were gluten intolerant; a child with autism who had to have a special diet was mentioned—and others spoke of having to choose between heating and eating. Laura said:
“It has been the worst of times. Sat at home, considering if I should top up gas and electric; but then if I do, what will myself, my partner and my 2-year-old little boy eat? What is the use of having gas with no food to cook? But what is the use of having food but no gas?”
Another respondent who is in ill health with respiratory and arthritic illness, so has to keep the house warm, said:
“Our food budget is the only variable I’m able to hold back on. We feed a family of four on £100 a month”.
A woman from Reading said that she and her young daughter
“are literally being fed by mum”.
She has a full-time job, but after taxes and childcare she takes home £30, which goes on travel to work. Sarah, a grandmother, says:
“I have become broke with debt trying to bail my daughter and grandchildren out.”
The children’s future food inquiry has five key asks, as set out in the children’s #Right2Food charter. First, we ask for the healthy lunch guarantee. Children said that the £2.30 free school meal credit was not enough to afford healthier lunches or to cover breakfast if they did not get it at home. The Minister was at the launch with Emma Thompson and the children ambassadors, so he will have heard a lot of this. Today we heard from Citizens UK that children on free school meals lose out on £65 million a year because they are not given change if they buy a meal that comes under that daily limit; the money is kept by meal providers at the end of the day, rather than being given back to the child to roll over and spend the next day.
Our inquiry found that 23% of children who are not eligible for free school meals—because their household income is deemed just that bit too high, or because they have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status—go without lunch because they cannot afford it. Many families of children who have no recourse to public funds who approached their local authority for section 17 support were refused. Some schools step in and pay for the child’s meals, but some, particularly in areas of high immigration, cannot afford to do so. We heard that packed lunches are often much less healthy than a cooked meal; just 1% of school packed lunches meet school food standards. I think the example that stuck in all our minds was that of the child whose packed lunch apparently consisted of just two cold fish fingers.
Many families struggle to feed children over the school holidays. The lost value of free school meals in the 13 weeks of holidays is approximately £150 per child, which is a lot of money for parents on low incomes to find, especially if they have more than one child. The inquiry makes a number of recommendations; it is quite detailed, and I am sure that other panel members will go into detail on some of the other recommendations, so I will outline only a few of them.
The inquiry recommends: providing free nursery meals to children who are entitled to free childcare, and introducing mandatory food standards in all nurseries, as in Northern Ireland; increasing the offer of free school meals to a wider group of children, including migrant and undocumented children without recourse to public funds; expanding the school fruit and vegetable scheme so that all children can benefit; and supporting holiday provision. Many of the details of the places that were successful in applying for this year’s Holiday hunger pilots were announced earlier today. We are disappointed that Bristol did not qualify, which I will mention again later.
Secondly, we ask for the healthy food minimum, which is about supporting parents and carers to put healthy food on the table. The inquiry recommends expanding the Healthy Start voucher scheme. At the moment it reaches only a third of young children living in poverty, and the voucher is worth only £3.10 a week, which I understand has not been adjusted since 2009. It is not index-linked, and it is not aligned with the Government’s own estimates of the cost of fruit and vegetables, so clearly something needs to be done to ensure that it is meaningful.
We also need to look at housing. Nearly 2% of households in England live with children in private rented accommodation that fails to meet the decent homes standard. Families in bed and breakfast, such as those supported under section 17, will not have access to cooking facilities. Even in other rented accommodation, there can be limited access to such facilities or cooking equipment, or families cannot afford gas or electricity.
Thirdly, we are calling for a new, independent children’s food watchdog, the role of which would include monitoring and inspection of school and nursery meals, development of a national menu designed by young people to meet school food standards, and looking at the school eating environment. I was surprised by the extent to which that came up during in the inquiry. Children, particularly in secondary schools, said that they were being rushed during lunchtimes, did not have time to finish their meals and were being forced to go back to the classroom having not finished eating. Such things could easily be looked at. Also, the Government still have not introduced their healthy rating scheme, which they promised in their childhood obesity plan would be introduced by September 2017. I hope that the Minister will update us on that.
The fourth ask of the children’s #Right2Food charter is headlined “Health before profits”. It is about prioritising children’s health before the profits of those big business that try to sell them junk food. We know what a pervasive effect they can have. That would include stopping marketing aimed at children on packaging, such as breakfast cereals with cartoon characters; ending promotions of unhealthy foods and replacing them with health warnings; and tackling the marketing of junk food on television.
People in many quarters are calling for a 9 pm watershed, because we know that a lot of children do not watch only CBeebies or wherever the children’s TV programmes are; they are watching reality TV shows and programmes at 7 and 8 o’clock at night. A watershed of 9 o’clock is therefore proposed, so that 59% of food and drink adverts shown during family viewing time would be banned from children’s TV. That shows how children are exposed to all those adverts banned on children’s TV but not at times when the whole family is watching a programme.
On fast food outlets near schools, I know that a lot of places are looking at exclusion zones—the standard is about 400 metres, but a lot are considering 800 metres. One of the suggestions was to increase business rates for fast food outlets near schools, using the funding to support food education and extended school day projects.
Fifthly, “Stop the stigma” is about ensuring that children who experience food insecurity and have to have free school meals do not feel ashamed about that. One of the things that stuck in my mind when talking to some pupils was that their school had a free salad bar. The idea was that the children could spend their money on the unhealthy food or go to the free salad bar, but there was a stigma attached—people were seen as only going to the salad bar because they were poor, not because they wanted healthy food. We need to look at that.
Talk about that ask included renaming free school meals as the school meal allowance, increasing the allowance to at least £4 per day, and allowing it to be carried over, as I said. Another recommendation was banning water being sold in schools. It is shocking that some school dining halls do not have water fountains. If children were thirsty, they had to spend what little they had—£2.30—on bottled water. The plastic alone means that such bottles should not be there, but the fact that a school cannot provide free tap water is pretty shocking. Also, poverty-proofing our schools would ensure that all children may take part in activities such as cooking, and those on free school meals should be kept anonymous.
I want to draw to a close soon, but I will first say a few things about what we are doing in my city with the Feeding Bristol pilot, which was set up a couple of years ago and stems from the Feeding Britain project that came out of the all-party group on hunger and food poverty and the work of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). We had a breakfast club initiative, in phase 1 of which we provided free food to 15 schools in high need. That was led by the chief executive of FareShare, which, as the Minister knows, takes in surplus food to distribute it to people in need. In phase 2, which will start later this year, we will target a further 20 schools in high need, increasing the nutritional value of the food distributed and offering it for free to about 30 to 50 children per school. Also under the auspices of Feeding Bristol, for the Christmas just gone FareShare distributed 56 free hampers across four children’s centres for those in most need.
We are also setting up FOOD—Food On Our Doorstep—clubs, based on a Manchester membership-type model, which is funded by Family Action. Two clubs will launch in July and the plan is for another two later this year. The clubs are a way of providing a top-up of groceries at very low cost—families pay about £3.50 a week per customer to get groceries worth about £15 to £20. The first two clubs will based in two children’s centres. We will then find another two sites. We have also funded two community engagement workers through the Big Lottery. They are based in community organisations and provide support to families in need, helping them to build independence into their food security.
Holiday hunger is the final thing to mention. As I said, we are rather disappointed that Bristol did not qualify for the funding this year; last year, we got £30,000 from the Department for Education, which we used to feed 2,200 children—a total of 15,000 meals—over the six-week summer holidays. The Minister’s office was in touch with me, because the announcement was made just gone midnight this morning, but I would be interested to know the criteria, because we felt that we did a good job with the money last year. We are now trying to crowd-source the funding and going out to city institutions because we want not only to replicate that this year, but to roll it out into something bigger.
A couple of weeks ago we had our huge annual Feeding Bristol event, with well over 100 people—perhaps 150—from all the organisations involved. That was not just people working in food banks and the charity sector but those involved in local food-growing projects, which we are keen on, or those who teach cooking skills or want to do communal cooking in cooking centres. The pilot is a brilliant initiative, and I know that we are not the only place trying to do such things.
The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, spoke out when expressing his disappointment at us not getting the funding again. He said:
“It is evidence of a defunct model of leadership where a city…has proven its commitment and ability to deliver, further plans are put in place but…they are dependent on London-based decision makers—who then took a judgment not to fund, which in turn poses a major challenge... Our efforts to end child hunger should not be undermined because we are thrust into a zero-sum competition with other cities and towns. What is more, it undermines the stated national objective.”
That is true. We did all we could to deliver the programme, and we are keen to roll it out, but this time I think in the south-west it was Plymouth that secured the funding, which is great, but it should be mainstreamed and not subject to the whim of bids.
The Minister came along to the launch, and he was praised for his willingness to engage. I know that he was keen to take part in the debate today. I hope that he has had a chance to reflect more on the findings and that he will come up with some firm commitments.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on her speech and on bringing this important subject before the House of Commons. She is absolutely right to do so, because the Food Foundation, among others, has pointed out that public policy has in effect withdrawn from the food sector over the past 20 years or so. That is not right, because the area is important and we need to do better in many parts of it.
At the very start of life, as we know from the report, the UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Mothers’ milk, or formula milk, is the most important food that children get to start with. As a man, I feel particularly passionate about defending the rights of breastfeeding mothers to feed in public or at work—women should not be shut away. We are moving on, but we still have to challenge one or two people who do not stand up for mothers who want to breastfeed.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I am sure he was in the House, as I was, when the Equality Act 2010 was passed. The Act made it lawful to breastfeed wherever bottle feeding a child was allowed. Is he as disappointed as I am that the Act still has not been enforced properly?
Yes, I am. We need to go further. If any employers are not giving mothers breaks at work to breastfeed, they should change their practice. The hon. Lady is right to raise that issue.
As children’s lives go on, the problem gets worse. When children start primary school, 10% are obese, but when they leave at the age of 11, 20% are obese. A quarter of all children starting primary school are overweight or obese, yet one third are when they leave. Cancer Research UK and others have said that, based on present trends, half all children in the UK are set to be overweight or obese by 2020.
Sadly, obese children are five times more likely to remain obese as adults, and therefore more likely to have diabetes, cancer, heart or liver conditions, or perhaps mental health conditions associated with those issues. There are 3.1 million people with diabetes. That has gone up from 2.4 million in 2010. Every week in this country we amputate around 170 lower limbs due to diabetes. That is 9,000 a year. People are having their feet or lower legs cut off because their diabetes has got so bad. That should shame us; it is an appalling state of affairs, and the number has gone up from 7,200 amputations in 2010. The trajectory is getting worse.
Our food sector is not working in the way it should. We know from the work of the Food Foundation and others that unhealthy food is on average three times cheaper than healthy food. Let me put that the other way around: healthy food is three times more expensive than unhealthy food. That is simply not good enough. People in poverty and those with low incomes will buy what they can afford. If they are forced to buy unhealthy food, children set off on the wrong trajectory, which is why being obese and overweight is a huge social justice issue. For the first time in our nation’s history, the poorest are the most overweight and obese. That should set red lights flashing across Whitehall that our food policy is not working.
In most constituencies, fast food outlets, many of which unfortunately do not sell the healthy food they should, average about a quarter of all places to buy food. The figure varies from only 7% in the Isles of Scilly to 39% in Blackburn with Darwen, where nearly four in 10 food outlets are fast food outlets, selling primarily unhealthy food.
The UK does badly internationally, too. I am grateful for the research from the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity in its report “Bite Size”, which came out a couple of months ago. It compared London with capital cities around the world for childhood obesity rates. It is not a happy story. In Paris, 5% of children are obese; in Hong Kong, it is 7%; in Sydney, it is 10%; in Tokyo, it is 12%; in New York, it is 21%; and in London, it is 22%. We are worse than New York for childhood obesity, and more than four times worse than Paris, which is just the other side of the channel.
There is a particularly European dimension to the problem. I will not talk about Brexit, but about what is happening with food policy in Europe. I am grateful to the Food Foundation for its “Broken Plate” report, which came out a couple of months ago. In that, a lady called Kathleen Kerridge wrote:
“Across mainland Europe, cheap foods are healthy choices. It’s sensible that a kilo of tomatoes should be cheaper than a kilo of sausages. In the UK, however, the opposite is true”—
or it is often true. Why is that the case? She goes on to state:
“I would like to see the UK take note of the European model. I think with food education and more affordable fresh produce, we could turn the tide for the poorest households and see us all eating ‘well’.”
I have considerable issues with the food industry in this country. I commend the work of the Obesity Health Alliance in calling for the 9 pm watershed and for restrictions on multi-buy promotions, both of which the Government are consulting on. That is excellent, but we need to get through the consultation and take action. As the Obesity Health Alliance says, these are serious and important issues.
Let me give praise where praise is due. One supermarket in Europe is doing the right thing—the Dutch retail chain Marqt, which operates 16 stores in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Haarlem in the Netherlands. It has become the first chain in the Netherlands to ban the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. Its chief executive Joost Leeflang said:
“Marqt helps consumers choose products that are produced with respect for people, animals and environment and this includes helping customers make healthier choices.”
He went on to say:
“Tempting children to choose unhealthy products doesn’t fit with how we want to help our customers.”
Mr Leeflang is a private sector entrepreneur running a business, and he is appealing to people’s better instincts—to parents to do the right thing for their children. Frankly, if he can do it, I want to lay down that challenge before the supermarkets and fast food outlets up and down this country. If it can happen in the Netherlands, it can happen here.
As a member of the Health Committee, I went to Amsterdam, where the deputy mayor, Eric van der Burg, a centre-right politician, has brought in a major, city-wide programme to deal with obesity. That meant having free water available in schools—the hon. Member for Bristol East is absolutely right about that. In fact, only water is allowed to be drunk in schools there. That meant educating the parents, helping low-income and immigrant communities to learn to cook properly and banning the advertising of unhealthy foods on the metro. It is a city-wide approach that is producing results, as is happening in Leeds—encouragingly, we learnt last week that the poorest children are starting to lose weight the fastest. There is hope that lessons from Amsterdam are coming over to the UK.
I hear what the hon. Lady says about people living in food poverty. We have to make sure that people have enough income to eat properly. We need what I would call prosperity with a purpose and inclusive growth—there is no point running a free market system that does not benefit the people working in it. That has to be part of what we are about; it is what I am about, and I know it is what the Minister is about in his role in Government.
There is more we can do. We could learn from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme in the United States, which gives vouchers for farmer’s markets in the USA. I have farmer’s markets in towns in my constituency, which often provide lower cost, healthy food. We need more of that. Let us look around the world and take best practice. Let us not just leave this issue to the free market alone. Let us encourage the people who are doing the right thing, such as Mr Leeflang in the Netherlands, and encourage UK retailers to follow his excellent example.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for securing this important and very timely debate, and for her excellent opening speech.
Two weeks ago, as we have heard, we launched the children’s future food inquiry and it was widely welcomed. A huge number of people attended the launch, including a number of us here, and the Minister, who everyone was pleased to see. I co-chaired the inquiry with the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East and for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) were members of the inquiry committee. The report is unique, because it is the first to include children and young people from low-income backgrounds—in fact, it is all about them and their voices.
The young food ambassadors were instrumental in the development of the report—so much so that we produced the children’s #Right2Food charter, which contains the voices of all the young people who contributed. They shared their experiences of food insecurity and hunger with such bravery, and ensured that not only their voices but those of their friends and peers who had experienced food insecurity were heard. They were so articulate in telling us about their experiences at home and school. They told us things that shocked even the most hardened and clued-up MPs on the inquiry committee; I think a number of us shed a few tears at those sessions.
I cannot mention all the things we heard during the inquiry, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East has already highlighted a number of them, so I will focus on three things that stood out: free school meals; the availability of free water, which we have already heard about; and the affordability and availability of food at home.
Hon. Members will know that I chair the all-party parliamentary group on school food. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, who helped me set up that group 10 years ago, is one of its vice-chairs. We have campaigned for more than a decade with Members across the House to ensure that children have access to a hot and healthy meal during the school day. I am pleased that that campaign has developed to include provision for breakfast and meals throughout the school holidays for the poorest children.
I am very pleased by the Minister’s announcement overnight that the Government will provide £9.1 million this year for holiday activities and food, following last year’s £2 million. I was also pleased to see that two of the successful bids—those from Gateshead Council and StreetGames in Newcastle—were from the north-east. It will be really interesting to follow those programmes and see the difference that I know they will make to some of the most disadvantaged children across the country.
However, I want to focus on the provision of free school meals. As we know, on average, free school meal pupils receive around £2.30 a day. That rate was introduced in 2014 and has not increased since, so pupils have to stretch their allowance further each year to get a meal. However, the young food ambassadors told us that, more often than not, the cheapest food on the menu is the unhealthiest food. As the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, we see the same in wider society with supermarkets and takeaways, for example.
One young ambassador told us that she would usually get a sausage roll, chips and beans, because that was all she could afford on her free school meal allowance that would actually keep her full. She was looking for fullness, not healthiness. The Minister will know that that is not the best example of a nutritious meal for a young person who is growing up and preparing for an afternoon of lessons. It is fine once in a while, but we do not really want a child to be eating that day in, day out just because it keeps them full. Will the Minister therefore have cross-departmental discussions with his colleagues to ensure that, especially in schools, the cheapest food is not the unhealthiest food on the menu, so pupils on free school meals have the opportunity to eat the same healthy food as their peers, even if some healthy items have to be provided at a loss? The situation in schools must be different from the situation in the supermarkets.
We also heard that schools did not value lunch time as part of the day but saw it as an inconvenience to be rushed and got over with. Unfortunately, for thousands of children, the only meal they get each day is the one they eat at school. That is not right, but we know it is the case, so school meals should not be rushed or dismissed. However, the young ambassadors told us that they sometimes had their lunch time as late as 1pm. That is an excruciating time for someone who has gone to school hungry to wait—even we cannot always wait until 1pm—and makes it impossible for them to concentrate on lessons in the morning. It probably wastes the whole morning’s learning.
Most shockingly, we also heard that those very same pupils then had only a half-hour lunch break, a lot of which was spent queuing for food. If they had not finished their meal by the time the break was over, they were made to throw the remnants of their food in the bin. Imagine that—imagine having to throw some of the only meal that is available to you that day in the bin because you do not have time to eat it. It is just gut-wrenching.
One young ambassador also told us that pupils could be forced to take their detentions during their lunch break, further limiting the time they have to eat. Schools should not turn lunch time into a chore, something for pupils to dread or a time to punish pupils. Lunch time should be an integral part of the day—a time for children to get nourishment, to wind down and to spend time socialising with their friends. Let me be frank: children simply cannot learn if they are hungry and thirsty.
That takes me to my next point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East eloquently raised—its absurdity has exercised a number of us. We must remember that children from low-income families who are on free school meals are not the kind of children who have fancy reusable water bottles that they can refill as and when. They may also be from chaotic homes and, as we heard, some of them are child carers who have many responsibilities before they get to school, so finding a bottle to fill will not be foremost in their mind. In fact, it was the consensus among the young ambassadors that, even if they did have a reusable water bottle, there were no facilities at school where they could fill it with fresh water. The Minister heard that for himself when he met the young ambassadors at the launch of the report. I know he was shocked by that and said it was against school standards, but that is the reality that those children face. Sadly, I am sure the situation is the same in other schools.
If a child manages to bring a water bottle to school, there is often nowhere to fill it, so they have to buy another bottle. As we heard, that can cost them up to 90p—a huge proportion of their £2.30 allowance for a free school meal, especially when they are battling with hunger. We were also told that, similarly to food, unhealthy drinks options such as juice and milkshakes are available and—guess what?—they are often cheaper than water, at 50p or 60p.
There is indeed a lot we can learn from other countries. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham and I visited Sweden at the start of our parliamentary careers, and that is what drove us to campaign to improve things here. In Sweden, not only was all the food free and healthy, but there were not millions of choices, so it was affordable to provide. The children all ate it, and there was water and milk on tap, totally free.
Clearly, there is a disparity in the messaging to pupils. They are told they have to eat healthily but they feel that a healthy diet is totally unaffordable for them. That brings me to my final point, which is about the availability of affordable food at home. Some 4.1 million children in the UK are growing up in poverty. That is a fact. That means that one in three children lives in a household that struggles to afford to buy enough healthy food to meet the official nutritional guidelines. Those families would have to spend 42% of their disposable income after housing to be able to consume a healthy diet. It is outrageous that a healthy diet is so far out of reach for millions of families. One young ambassador, who was a child carer, told the inquiry that food was so scarce at home that she rationed her food so her mum and siblings had enough to eat. I hope the Minister agrees that that is not a position any child should be put in.
Finally, will the Minister commit to setting up an independent food watchdog to look at these issues, to cost policies and to prevent children from going hungry? It is one of the five asks of the children’s #Right2Food charter contained in the report. I will not go into those asks, because my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East spoke about them in detail. As the report highlights, if we do not act now, we will lose an entire generation to food insecurity and hunger—and, in turn, obesity, because hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin: malnutrition. I implore the Minister to act now to help future generations.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing and opening the debate. She set the tone for a thoughtful discussion. I pay tribute to all of those who served on the inquiry, which has produced an excellent report with many worthy recommendations.
Food poverty and food provision are topical, and I want to bring a few reflections from my constituency to the debate. I want to touch on a number of issues relating to providing free school meals, tackling holiday hunger, providing breakfast clubs and promoting breastfeeding.
I was heartened to hear the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) promoting breastfeeding, in the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who does a huge amount of work on the issue, although she cannot be here due to Committee commitments. I want to help fly the flag for breastfeeding. When we are having a conversation about infant and child nutrition, we need to think about breastfeeding. It is important that it is on the agenda, but there was no mention of it in the obesity strategy published in 2016.
The report rightly points out that the first 1,000 days of a child’s development, from conception to their second birthday, are critical. We know, because the science tells us, that breastfeeding is second to none in terms of protecting a baby’s short-term and long-term health. Yet, as the hon. Gentleman said, our breastfeeding rates are stubbornly low, and many people are not breastfeeding up to two years, in line with World Health Organisation guidelines. However, I do not want to be despondent on that point, because we have some truly dedicated health professionals in my constituency, such as Christine Walker and Lesley Davidson, who are doing some outstanding work to promote breastfeeding and help mentor peer-support volunteers alongside colleagues in the Breastfeeding Network.
I absolutely agree with the report’s point about the loose regulation and legislation concerning formula companies, which have been allowed to ride roughshod when it comes to advertising and promotion. In the previous Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central introduced an excellent Bill that sought to rein in some of these outlandish claims made by the formula industry. The Minister would do well to look at that.
Let me turn to diet and the provision of fruit and vegetables. On bank holiday Monday, I was enjoying a picnic in the park with my wife and kids and reflecting on aspects of my own childhood. One of my most vivid memories from primary school—admittedly, that was only in the 1990s—was of the first time I saw a real pineapple. I was the son of a single parent, living in a deprived community, and fruit and vegetables were seen as a luxury or too expensive. In many respects, they still are. The report references testimony saying:
“I’ll choose something that I know they’re gonna like because I can’t afford to do something and for them not to eat it.”
I remember that day in primary school when my teacher, very much off her own back, brought in some fresh fruit for my class to try. I recall being fascinated by these exotic fruits: kiwis and pineapples. For some reason, the pineapple blew my mind—because until then I genuinely thought it just came from tins. I was in primary 4 in Glasgow, and I had never seen a pineapple before.
I say that because I was recounting the story to my wife and son on Monday. We make a conscious effort to promote fruit and vegetables with my son, who, I am delighted to say, always chooses fruit over chocolate. In many respects, we are able to do that because we are a higher-income family, and I am conscious that many families see buying fruit and vegetables as an expense that they do not want.
Parents are able to have only so much influence when it comes to the provision of food—the report makes that point—so let me turn to the provision of meals in the education environment, where we have made some progress but we have got further to go. Thankfully, free school meals have moved from the stigmatised dinner tickets being handed out at the front of the class to the less well-off kids and are moving towards universal provision. In my class, the vast majority of us were getting free school meal tickets, but it must be welcomed that we are moving away from that and to universal provision.
In Glasgow, the city council has committed to ensuring free school meals for all primary school pupils by the end of this council term, which demonstrates an ambition to provide warm, nutritious school meals to every child regardless of their background. Likewise, my own son, Isaac, attends a Glasgow City Council nursery, where, until recently, there was a small charge for lunches. However, those have been abolished, which is good news for family budgets and ensuring equality in the early years. That point is made in the report.
I am glad that our ambition is not restricted to school or nursery meals, because we have recognised that holiday hunger is a major issue, too. The roll-out of Glasgow’s £2 million holiday hunger programme has been hugely successful in meeting the demand for food provision and in bringing together partners to run community activities during the school holidays. Last summer, my church, Parkhead Nazarene, ran an incredibly successful programme of activities called Parkhead summer connections, providing warm, nutritious meals for families in some of the worst SIMD—Scottish index of multiple deprivation—areas in the country.
I am conscious of time constraints, but I want to touch on one other issue, which relates to breakfast clubs and how they tie into the education system. I was recently delighted to welcome a group of children from Quarry Brae Primary School in the east end, who were in Westminster to receive an award from Kellogg’s for the best breakfast club in Scotland. More than 40 children attend Quarry Brae’s breakfast club every morning, which makes a massive impact in ensuring that our young people are at school with a full stomach and ready to learn. Likewise, at Oakwood Primary School in Easterhouse, the headteacher, Vanessa Thomson, absolutely gets this, too. Working with local partners, she has ensured that free toast is available before the school day starts to help ensure that kids, many of whom live in a high SIMD area, are getting some form of nutrition before the start of the school day.
There is a lot more I want to say, but I was keen to offer a view from Glasgow’s east end, where we know we have so much more to do. I finish by quoting Aaron Ross, aged 20, from Easterhouse, whose words are in the report. He told the inquiry:
“People struggle to afford to pay rent and buy food for their families and themselves. Most people don’t want to ask for help as they are too ashamed or embarrassed about the issue. I want to be a part of this project to bring awareness to the rising issue of food poverty, and to help by providing better support to those in need.”
Aaron and many others have given of their time, opinions and experience, and it falls to us to ensure that the report’s recommendations are acted on and that we deliver.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for securing this important debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for all the work she does. I want to acknowledge at the outset that she is a real champion of this issue.
Here we are again in this Chamber, talking about school food. However, this time it is wonderful that we have the children’s future food inquiry report. I thank Dame Emma Thompson and Lindsay Graham for the huge work they did on the inquiry, but I pay most tribute to the young people who talked to us and gave us the evidence. It was a hard listen for all of us—even for those of us who have worked on school food and children’s hunger for many years. We heard about their life experiences and about how, in many respects, the school system made things worse in terms of school food, when it could have offered a wonderful, nutritious experience for those young people. What they said was powerful; we are lucky to have those ambassadors.
School food has been an issue for me all my life because my mother was a school cook. Interestingly, I think we understood more about the importance of nutrition for learning 60 or 70 years ago than we appear to now as a society, which is dreadful. The issue was brought home to me when my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West and I visited Sweden in 2006. We were newly elected MPs and keen to get this issue on the agenda, and we were staggered by the way those in Sweden thought about school food. Young people came along in the morning. They got breakfast and lunch; it was provided free to them all. Their teachers sat down with them so that they learned social skills as well as having a nutritious meal.
Obviously, we were a bit shocked and said, “Oh, this is amazing.” They said, “How is it amazing? Children can’t learn when they are hungry.” Having a nutritious school meal in the middle of the day is just as important as having a desk, chair or anything else that we provide as part of the education system. We must take that on board—I hope the Minister is listening—because 13 years later we are still having to make the same arguments about the importance of a nutritious school meal, including breakfast and something later in the school day.
What is different at the moment is the context in which we are making this argument, because we know that hunger is rising in this country. Between 1 April 2018 and 31 March 2019, Durham County Council allocated almost 20,000 emergency food supplies from food banks, including almost 7,000 to children. That was just in Durham—it is a huge number. I raised the matter with the Prime Minister some weeks ago, because teachers in my constituency are reporting children coming to school who have had nothing to eat since they were at school the day before. Teachers are providing breakfast themselves, and the situation cannot continue. In the north-east, almost a quarter of families are living in poverty, which for a lot of them means poor housing conditions and poor health, including mental health. They might not live in an area where it is easy to access shops or affordable, good-quality food, so we must consider the whole picture.
Some things that came out of the children’s future food inquiry are worth emphasising, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East did a good job of that. For example, school lunch may be the only proper meal that a child receives, but what children eat during the day affects their concentration and performance at school. Entitlement to free school meals varies hugely across the UK, and thousands of extremely vulnerable children are excluded from accessing them because of their immigration status. I hope the Minister will consider that point.
As others have said, the free school meal allocation, at around £2.30, is not enough to enable children to buy a hot lunch, particularly if they have to buy water as well. I am glad that issue has been well aired this morning, because it is a disgrace that children at school in this country have to spend up to £1 to buy water at lunchtime. Private water companies must take that on board. The money might add to their profits, but what it is doing to children is outrageous. We also found that free school meals still carry a stigma, often because of the way they are organised. We have the technology for that not to be the case, so why do schools still do it? Perhaps we should think about how to rename free school meals.
Meal times are not valued as part of the school day, and they should be. We heard story after story of young people who simply do not have enough time to purchase a proper school meal at lunchtime, or time to eat it, as that often competes with other things they need to do. Young people also want a say in what type of food is delivered at school—that was more about cultural preferences than them wanting pizza and chips all the time, and they recognised the importance of having a proper meal.
One reason we are still here making the argument again and again for universal free school meals is the naysayers, and we will have to take them on if we want to make progress—Amanda Platell’s recent article in the Daily Mail is a good example. People say we have high levels of childhood obesity in this country, so we cannot have hungry children. As my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, however, those are two sides of the same coin. A lot of children from poorer backgrounds are not able to access good-quality food, and we therefore have a huge obesity crisis.
The last time we debated this issue in Westminster Hall, I and others were told that it was an abrogation of parental responsibility, because it is the responsibility of parents to feed their children properly at school. Practically, it is quite difficult for parents to give children a hot meal during the day, and we should think about education more generally as a societal responsibility.
People might say, “They can send children in with a packed lunch,” but as my hon. Friend knows, only 1% of packed lunches were found by a report on school food to be as healthy as the food provided within schools. It is almost impossible for parents to send in that healthy food.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point.
There was a universal free school meals pilot for two years in County Durham, and it transformed behaviour in school. It was incredibly important for the children to learn those social skills, and attainment levels across the school were improved in a short time. The evidence is there. I hope the Minister will look at it and think about providing universal free school meals. It is great that additional money is going to address holiday hunger, but none of that is coming to County Durham, which is the poorest county in the country. Will the Minister consider that issue?
What children have asked for in the charter is modest, and I hope not only that the Minister will consider implementing it, but that he will have higher ambitions in terms of properly serving the needs of our young people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this important debate, and all members of the panel and other organisations on producing the report.
Far too many children across the country live in poverty, which we know can have a variety of extremely detrimental effects on their wellbeing, development and life chances. Nowhere is that clearer than with the issue of food poverty and food insecurity. Across Bradford, 21.8% of children live in poverty. In my constituency, 25% of children—more than 7,000—live in poverty. Exact figures for how many children experience food poverty and insecurity are harder to come by, but it is likely that a high proportion of those who live in poverty have experienced food insecurity and, ultimately, hunger.
I will turn to some of the ways that is damaging children in my constituency, as the report rightly makes clear the link between food insecurity and attendance, achievement and attainment at school. What children eat during the day affects their concentration and performance in school. Children who are hungry are significantly more likely to misbehave or lose concentration and attention during lessons.
Hunger during term time is further compounded by hunger in the holidays. The long summer holidays are thought to contribute to weeks’ worth of learning loss for the most disadvantaged children, and many teachers report its effects when the school year begins again. It is clear that food insecurity and going hungry is holding our children back from achieving their full potential. In my constituency, which ranks at the very bottom of all English constituencies for school-age social mobility, this is having a devastating impact on life chances for children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. If we are to address the urgent problem of poor social mobility in this country, highlighted recently by the Social Mobility Commission’s annual report, we must ensure that as a bare minimum no child goes hungry.
One of the great strengths of the report, and what sets it apart from others, is that it prominently features the contribution of young people who have themselves experienced food poverty. Their testimony is both heartbreaking and powerful. I commend their dignity and I hope that their stories will be a wake-up call for all politicians to act now. I endorse the children’s #Right2Food charter that was developed as part of the inquiry. All children, whatever their background, deserve nothing less than a healthy and balanced diet. We must consider a range of policies that can further this goal, and I support the calls to expand free school meals and the Healthy Start voucher scheme.
I agree with the inquiry’s conclusion that the Government must act with more urgency and focus on this issue, for instance by establishing a new watchdog and including young people in its leadership. Our ultimate ambition must be that no child experiences poverty of any type. That will require wholescale effort by the Government that reaches across all Government Departments. As a start, reinstating and properly funding Sure Start and investing in our early years programme is a must. While children continue to live in poverty, the very least we must do is ensure that they do not go hungry.
As we have heard, 2.5 million children in the UK are living in food insecurity. I was honoured, along with the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), to co-chair this inquiry. I am also vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty.
The inquiry heard from 400 young people across the UK. We met 15 young ambassadors, who were absolutely amazing and so articulate in explaining their experiences. Listing to them was harrowing. In the session that I chaired I kept having to put my glasses on to hide the fact that I was crying. They talked in an unemotional and down-to-earth way, because sadly this is their daily experience.
It is clear that the allowance for school meals is far too small, ranging from just over £2 to £3. Just some toast for breakfast can cost from 40p to over £1. Many young people mentioned that a bottle of water can cost 90p. In a country that has clean water, that is ridiculous. No water should be sold. Water coolers should simply be provided, as already ordained in law, and children should be given something to drink from, whether clean cups or water bottles. That is absolutely critical. It is important to hear those young people describe the headaches they were getting from dehydration. We also heard about many catering services being outsourced. It was all about having a canteen that made a profit and not about one that was providing nutrition.
There is a cliff edge that means that even a tiny change in income can suddenly mean that children do not qualify for free school meals. Dev talked about coming to school feeling embarrassed because his packed lunch box had hardly anything in it. Working out who is eligible for free schools meals has become a lot harder since the introduction of universal credit. My local authority used to have an automatic system based on the benefits people received, but there are no ways of triggering that any more. We also heard about not having enough time to eat and food therefore being thrown away, while other children who were feeling hungry watched.
There is stigma. I lost my father a week before my third birthday, so I grew up on free school meals when there were different coloured tickets and those eligible stood in a different queue. People have mentioned that there are ways of avoiding that stigma, but, as the young people mentioned, everyone knows very quickly who is on free school meals; there is no hiding it. The simple approach is to make free school meals universal. England and Scotland have that system up to the age of 7, but Wales and Northern Ireland do not. In fact, investing in universal free school meals would be the most effective way of contributing to closing the attainment gap. Children who are mentally stressed or malnourished cannot learn. As I said at the launch of the report, I defy anyone to solve algebra when their stomach is hurting them because of hunger.
Governments have direct control over what our young people eat in school and that is where they could make changes. Outside school, Government do not have direct control, although they do have a lot of powers and levers. They could fund local authorities to tackle holiday hunger. In my constituency, North Ayrshire Council provides 23 centres that are open throughout the summer, providing activities and warm meals; that is an important provision in tackling holiday hunger. The APPG undertook a report two years ago, which has stimulated discussion at least. As was said earlier, when those children come back to school they have lost out educationally over the holidays. They are not being stimulated either, as there is no access to activities, and they are filling themselves up with carbohydrates, which are cheap. They may actually have gained weight over the summer.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned breastfeeding, which is the start of a young person in life, but the mother’s nutrition is also important, as that life actually starts at conception. People forget that if a pregnant woman is carrying a female child, that child will have all her eggs from the start; a woman is carrying two generations at one time. Therefore, if that child is malnourished during pregnancy, that is hitting two generations. Then comes breastfeeding, which requires promotion and support, as well as a health visitor or someone to check that the mother is not having problems. In England, half of infant feeding lead jobs have been cut and there is no breastfeeding strategy. In Scotland, we started at a worse level—as is often the case—but in the last 17 years breastfeeding has risen by 20%. In England the figure is drifting down, and we need to turn that around.
We heard that healthy food is three times more expensive than unhealthy food. Some 46% of advertising is about rubbish food and only 2.5% about fruit and vegetables. It is critical that we have a 9pm watershed. We have debated that for the four years that I have been in Parliament, yet there has still been no action. We need to tackle that or we will face an epidemic of type 2 diabetes, which results in people losing feet or legs. Having worked in a vascular unit, I spent two years of my life being part of those awful operations. People get stuck in hospital or stuck in care, and the quality of their lives is awful. The management of diabetes already costs NHS services £10 billion. Why do we not invest more of that money in our children, by making them healthy early in life?
It is critical that we have an independent children’s food watchdog. It must involve young people, be allowed to explore different innovative approaches across the four UK nations and produce reports that the Government must promise to listen to. If that does not happen, we will pay the price in trying to support those children when they are struggling when they are older. We need to invest in our children now, and we need to start by listening to their words in this report.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for securing such a vital debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for the amount of work she has put in, over a considerable number of years, to chairing the APPG. Special thanks also go to the 15 young food ambassadors, all the young people and stakeholders who have offered their insights to this valuable report, and of course Dame Emma Thompson for giving the matter such a strong media profile, as well as for her impassioned work on the subject.
As we have heard, the report is an excellent and engaging piece of work, and it is all the more important because it involved young people so closely. As a result, it is something that all parties should give serious attention to. We on the Labour Benches would very much welcome the inquiry report and the #Right2Food charter’s being submitted as a contribution to our current review of social security, and I hope the Government and other parties are also giving the report’s findings serious consideration, and action in some parts of devolved Government.
It has been clear for some time, and made even clearer today, that we are facing a child poverty and child hunger crisis in our country, right from birth. For babies and pre-school years, the report raises serious concerns over support for breastfeeding—highlighted by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous)—policies to support babies in low-income households and food provision in early years and pre-school environments.
The report goes on to find that free school meal provision is inconsistent across the Westminster and devolved Governments, while expressing concern about the way the free school meal policy works, including concerns that the allowance is not sufficient to buy a meal, as hon. Members have pointed out, and the higher price of healthier food options. It also highlights issues related to advertising and access to cheap, fast food. For example, the report states that children from the poorest families are
“more exposed to fast food outlets and more affected by the relatively higher costs of healthy food”.
Children, as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire rightly pointed out, are becoming more obese, comparing London with the likes of Paris. Of course, that has drastic consequences for our nation’s health.
These findings should come as no surprise. Last month, the Trussell Trust published its annual statistics on food bank use, which show that in 2018-19 the trust distributed almost 1.6 million food parcels, of which 578,000 went to children—a fact highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), who noted that 7,000 such parcels were distributed to local children in Durham. That is the highest level since the charity opened in 2013-14 and nearly a 75% increase in the past five years.
Furthermore, the Government’s own figures for households below average income, released in March, tell a shocking story. Child poverty is at 4.1 million, half a million more than in 2010, and beneath that headline charities such as the Child Poverty Action Group and others have even more concerns. Despite Government claims that work is the best route out of poverty, 70% of children in poverty now live in working households, up from 67% last year. Every time we hear a Government Minister talk about record levels of employment, they are also presiding over record levels of families working, only to continue in poverty.
The Child Poverty Action Group also finds that the face of child poverty is getting younger; the proportion of children living in poverty who are under the age of five has risen from 51% to 53%, representing over 2 million children. We know that these early years often define our children’s outcomes and expectations for a lifetime, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) argued.
Indeed, the inquiry report tells us:
“Up until their second birthday children’s brains and bodies are developing fast and laying down the foundation for the future. The food, energy and nutrients which children eat during this period determine how well they grow, how well they do at school and are also a good predictor of long-term health.”
Tragically, under the current Government, those years are increasingly being damaged by poverty and empty stomachs.
The picture is worsening for larger families too. The risk of poverty for children in families with three or more children has also gone up, from 32% in 2012 to 43% today. Will the Minister admit that his policies, such as the two-child limit, the benefit cap and universal credit, have helped to drive this scandal? If so, will he commit to doing something about it and reversing these unfair and callous policies?
Poverty and food poverty are, of course, about more than just numbers. Behind the statistics, as hon. Members across the Chamber have pointed out, are real children, real families and real experiences. The inquiry report gives us some chilling examples and experiences from the food ambassadors about their experiences of going hungry, or of living and working alongside children suffering from not having enough to eat.
We have heard many other stories from colleagues here today. Hon. Members have given us examples of families having to choose between paying for heating or for eating. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West spoke about the need for water dispensers, with thousands of children going thirsty day after day in the school environment. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) spoke about children’s experiences of being stigmatised by the way free school meals are currently administered. Those tales show us just how important it is to ensure that, in one of the richest countries in the world, all our children can have access to that most basic of rights: enough to eat so that they can live and learn without the pain of hunger.
Related to that point is the shocking observation in the report that children living in households who have migrated to the UK and been granted leave to remain with no recourse to public funds cannot claim free school meals. That is affecting thousands and thousands of the most vulnerable children—something the Government must address. Will the Minister commit to recording that data, which is not currently recorded, so that we can have a true picture of some of the starkest examples of hunger in this country?
Will the Minister also commit, as hon. Members across the House have advocated, to extending holiday provision throughout the UK and funding all local authorities to do that? We certainly welcome the announcement of the increase from £2 million to £9 million, but let us go further.
I will finish by once again thanking all those who have contributed to the report and the several hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I await the Minister’s answers with interest, while also recognising that we all have a responsibility to understand the true picture of child and food poverty in our country and to improve that picture for the future. We are certainly committed to doing so on the Labour benches, and I hope that the Government will respond as a matter of urgency to the five asks in the report.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this important debate. I know it is an issue close to her heart, as a member of the committee for this important inquiry. I also take this opportunity to thank the young people and everyone else who contributed to the report.
I thank two people who are not in the room, Lindsay Graham and, of course, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), for their work in this area. The right hon. Gentleman certainly left an impression on me from the moment I got this job as the Children and Families Minister, and much of the work on the holiday activities and food programme is testament to his passion and commitment to this area.
I attended the launch of the inquiry’s report the other week—it has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members—and I was especially lucky to meet some of the young food ambassadors in person. They have been mentioned several times today, and I want to echo what has been said, extend to them my congratulations and state my commitment to continue to listen to them as they continue their work. I was struck by the bravery of those young people, how articulate they were and their commitment to work with one another to improve the lives of other children in their communities. I know that many of them, including Dev, whom the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) mentioned, are interested in pursuing a career in politics. All I can say is that if that is the calibre of politicians in the future, we are in safe hands.
The Government are committed to delivering a country that works for everyone, and all children should be able to access healthy and nutritious food at home and at school. I am determined to ensure that we target our support as effectively as possible towards the children who are most in need.
I have very little time and I want to address a number of the issues that were raised and, obviously, give the hon. Member for Bristol East a couple of minutes to respond, so I apologise, but I will not give way now. If I can at the end of my speech, I will certainly take interventions.
Clearly, there is much more to do. That was highlighted in the report, which raised some serious and important issues that we need to address. At the launch event, I promised to take the report away to consider it in detail and to formulate an official response. Although this speech does not constitute our formal response to the report, what I can say is that I have asked my team to work with the Food Foundation to look into setting up a working group to explore how we might provide greater oversight of children’s food, involving the young food ambassadors and other relevant Departments. I am happy to meet representatives of the Food Foundation to discuss that in more detail before the end of this month—diaries permitting, of course. I will also write to schools to remind them of their responsibilities on school food, including the need to provide access at all times to free, fresh drinking water. That issue has been mentioned several times today. I will respond formally to the report by the start of the new school year. That will give us a chance to test the response with the young food ambassadors when they meet in the school holidays. My Department is committed to ensuring that all children can access healthy food, both at school and beyond, and has put in place significant resources to ensure that that happens.
The holiday activities and food programme is exploring how we can better support children and young people during school holidays. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) mentioned expanding it. This is the second year of our research, and we will continue to try to understand what works. Last year, we awarded £2 million, as he mentioned, to holiday club providers to deliver free healthy food and enriching activities to about 18,000 children across the country. We have more than quadrupled the funding for the summer of 2019, when, as people may have heard earlier today, we will work with 11 organisations in all the regions of England. I am pleased to be able to tell the House, if hon. Members have not already heard, that the organisations and areas that we will be working with this summer are StreetGames in Newcastle—that organisation was mentioned by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson)—Gateshead Council; the Leeds Community Foundation; Transforming Lives for Good, in Bradford; Edsential in the Cheshire West and Chester area; the Happy Healthy Holidays consortium in Birmingham; Barnardo’s in Leicestershire; Suffolk County Council; Family Action in Croydon; the Romsey School in Hampshire; and Plymouth City Council. Those organisations will co-ordinate and fund—
And Durham. The organisations that I have listed will co-ordinate and fund provision across their area to ensure that those who need it can access it. They will work with providers to ensure that they meet our new set of minimum standards, including that the food they offer meets school food standards, and that children and young people attending the clubs—and their families where appropriate—are being taught about the importance of healthy food and given the skills, through cooking classes, to ensure that they can put those lessons into practice at home.
I have spoken before about how enormously proud I am of the breakfast club programme, which has been mentioned today. We are investing £26 million. A good breakfast sets children up for the day ahead, as colleagues have mentioned, and where children do not get that at home, we are committed to ensuring that schools are able to provide it. The breakfast club programme is setting up or improving more than 1,700 breakfast clubs in schools in the most disadvantaged areas across the country. I recently visited one such club in Battersea, and everyone involved was overwhelmingly positive about the impact that the club has had.
Free school meals have been mentioned. The Government are also committed to ensuring that the most disadvantaged children receive a healthy and nutritious lunch time meal at school. Last year, more than 1 million disadvantaged children were eligible for and claimed a free school meal. We have recently expanded free school meal provision to include further education colleges and implemented, as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire mentioned, universal free school meals for all infant children in state-funded schools in England.
We estimate that under our revised criteria, introduced last April, for free school meals, more children will benefit from free meals by 2022, compared with the previous benefits system. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale talked about that. We have also introduced generous transitional protections, so that all children will keep their free meals during the change to the new criteria.
Another recommendation from the report was that any unspent free meal allowance should be carried over for pupils to use on subsequent days. Free school meals are intended as a benefit in kind, rather than a cash benefit; our primary interest is that schools meet their legal duties to provide nutritious free lunches to eligible children. However, schools absolutely have the freedom to do this if their local arrangements allow it, and I know that Carmel Education Trust, up in the north-east, is one body that has adopted this practice.
My Department’s school food standards mean that the food that children and young people access at school is healthy and nutritious and foods high in fat, salt and sugar are restricted. We are going even further by updating the standards to reduce sugar content even more. Of course, I acknowledge that these issues are related more to child health and obesity. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke so eloquently about that and the relationship with diabetes and the scourge of that illness. But as we all know, obesity and poverty are related issues. Many colleagues have mentioned that they are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, many of the young people asked why unhealthy food is cheaper and more readily available than healthy alternatives. I was shocked to hear the young food ambassadors talking about not having access to free water at school, and I will include that in my letter when I write to schools.
My time is limited. I thank all colleagues who have spoken. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West spoke about free school meals and the allowance. We will look at that in the spending review. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) eloquently told his pineapple story, as I will refer to it, and quoted a young man named Aaron. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) referred to her own mother’s experience of being a school cook and talked about holiday activities, which I will hopefully write to her on. The hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) talked about behavioural challenges. I have been to that wonderful town to look at our opportunity area there.
I want to end there to allow the hon. Member for Bristol East to respond. The only other thing I will say is that I have lots of responses to colleagues’ points and I will write to them if I have not responded fully in my remarks today.
In the very short time I have, I do not want to appear churlish, but as has been made clear, my brilliant hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) have been campaigning on this issue since we were all elected in 2005. I am sure that the young food ambassadors and the Food Foundation will seize the opportunity that the Minister has suggested, but I do not think we need pilots to find out what works on holiday hunger. I do not think we need working groups. I think we need to get on with tackling the problems that have been identified and particularly the underlying problems, which the Minister has not mentioned at all. I am talking about things such as the roll-out of universal credit, benefit sanctions and so on. I urge the Minister to look at those, too.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the report of the Children’s Future Food inquiry.