I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Children’s Future Food report.
My sentiment differs from that expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) when he was winding up our previous debate on co-operatives and mutuals. He talked, naturally, of his huge pride and pleasure in contributing to that debate, but few Members will rise with pride or pleasure to contribute to this one. This is a very necessary debate, but it is not, I hope, one in which we, as a House of Commons or as a country, can take much pleasure.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling the debate so that we can properly consider and debate the report, and press the Minister on the Government’s response to the report’s important recommendations. In doing so, it is worth our remembering that hunger in this country did not feature as a topic in our debates prior to 2012, so today we are debating something that has happened very quickly in our society. We are considering how the bottom of our society has fallen out, and how those at the very bottom have been subjected to not only hunger, but destitution. Obviously there are reasons for that, although they are not the point of today’s debate. When George Osborne, the then Chancellor, moved to try to prevent the opening up of our markets to much increased international competition by introducing a living wage, it was an important way of trying to counter the collapse of certainties and standards for the poorest people in our communities. Of course, we know that employers try to get round the living wage in various ways, such as through the gig economy. However, I hope that the Government will soon look seriously and carefully at their role in the hunger we are debating today.
We have had a series of cuts—four years in total—to the income of people on benefits. That had never, ever happened before since the beginning of the welfare state between 1909 and 1911. This is an immensely important issue, and in the review of public expenditure, we expect Ministers to fight very hard for the idea that those who have paid most will be at the front of the queue for future payouts.
It is with real pleasure that I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) for co-chairing the inquiry that led to the report. It is also appropriate to thank not only those who made sure we had a report to consider, but the Food Foundation, which is led by Laura Sandys, who was until recently a Member of this House, for its work in raising the whole issue of hunger and destitution. The report not only does that, but makes practical proposals for what we might do about the situation. Likewise, I wish to thank the hundreds of children and young people who contributed to the inquiry, particularly those young people who, with their co-interviewees, not only brought about a report for us, but are continuing the work by becoming ambassadors on this big issue.
Let us recall how new a topic hunger, including school hunger, and the destitution that follows it is for the House of Commons. If we look at the index of our work—our parliamentary questions and debates—we see that there was not much to be said about the issue before 2012. At that point, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, was asked about it, given that that same week, the Trussell Trust had said that unless the Government took action, the number of people who would be drawing on food banks would double between then and 2015, when the next general election was due. I asked him to take action that day, and while he did not do so, MPs did by forming an all-party group to look at the extent of hunger around the country and to collect evidence. In what I believe was a first, a group of MPs then formed a charity, Feeding Britain, to take the work forward. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), I helped to form that charity in 2015. Part of what we are debating today is the work of Feeding Britain. Let me draw attention to my constituency, where we were among the first—we may have been the first—to try to deal with the shocking situation of children being hungry. The work was specifically about the situation during the school holidays, but its brief widened all too quickly.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his speech thus far—it is impossible to disagree with a single point of it. In recent months, my constituency, which has traditionally been seen as a relatively well-off part of London, has seen real evidence of hunger, with people needing our food bank and now school hunger projects. Has he looked at the low take-up of Healthy Start vouchers, which represent Government support for people on benefits with newborn children? Almost 45% of eligible people do not take those vouchers up. Does he not think there is more that the Government and the supermarkets should be doing to promote the scheme?
I am immensely grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was not going to mention that matter, because I was not sure how many other people would raise it during the debate. It is covered by one of the report’s recommendations, and the fact that a targeted benefit is failing to reach many of the people at whom it is aimed is important. Perhaps the Minister will set out the Government’s response.
Prior to 2012—my right hon. Friend touched on this point—food banks were set up by churches and voluntary organisations to help refugees, but since then, these things have become institutionalised. Only a couple of weeks ago I made a visit to a major distributor to nine food banks in Coventry. Some 22,000 people in Coventry used those food banks last year, and they provide everything from food to babies’ nappies. That is how bad the situation is getting, so I agree with a lot of what he has says.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has intervened, because Coventry has the terrific Feeding Coventry project, which not only deals with the issues he set out, but has set up a citizens’ supermarket to cater for people in desperate need while giving them real choice about to how they build up their budgets, or at least the food with which they feed themselves and nurture their children.
The Government will rightly say—they should claim some credit for this—that they have been sponsoring pilots for two years. Birkenhead was successful in gaining funding from the first pilot, but we were not successful in gaining any of the large dollops of money the Government gave out this time. We have therefore had to look at other ways of raising money, because an important job remains of feeding children during the school holidays and enabling them to have fun. Members will be raising points about the importance of various aspects of this report, and I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about how he wants to develop those two pilots so that we are not dependent on bidding for funds. I hope he will provide a universal service for all children of people on low incomes so that they are fed during the school holidays and can have fun, like richer children. Once that has occurred, I also hope that the education system will be able to report to him that poorer children have not dropped behind richer children when they come back to school, especially after the long summer holidays, due to a lack of food and nutrition over the holidays widening the educational disadvantage they suffer.
I wish to set out an example of a school governor in my constituency because it tells us about the journey that many of our constituents have travelled, and which we have travelled with them as Members of Parliament. We are grateful that the Government sponsor breakfast clubs at five schools in Birkenhead. Today, however, the fact that 27 schools and community groups could pick up 80,000 breakfasts in Hamilton Square in Birkenhead was made possible by moneys raised by Feeding Birkenhead and the provision of supplies from that person’s church. This one school governor reported that there was initial amazement that there was a need to start a breakfast club. However, later came the realisation that children did not want to go home during the winter months because their home was cold and there was no food, so they wished to stay in school. It was therefore decided that schools should provide a form of tea for those children so that they would get at least one good meal between going home and coming back the next day for their school breakfast. Sadly, many of our constituents will have made that journey, and many good-minded people in our constituency have done their best to try to counter it.
Following the report and the #Right2Food charter, we very much look to the Government to respond, particularly given the report’s list of recommendations, to which other Members, including our co-chair, will speak. They include the recommendation that there should be a children’s food watchdog. When will that person be put in place? What part will the young food ambassadors play in ongoing work so that we can regularly monitor progress when there are reports to this House?
Let me end my speech by discussing free school dinners. This topic concerned me when I worked for the Child Poverty Action Group. I have been around for some considerable time, so I have experience of the discrimination that poor children suffer through free school meals and how the face of that discrimination has changed. In the early days, children might be have been brought in through separate doors, sat at separate tables or given tickets of a different colour. Today, in this age of IT, we find that children are discriminated against through the new IT system.
With thanks to the academics watching the debate from the Public Gallery, I shall end on the following issue. If a child’s parents pay for their dinners and the credit is put on to a card, but that child is not at school to have their school dinner for a particular reason, the money on the card is rolled over. However, for a poor child, the school dinner money for that day is cancelled. Our good academics have found that something like £88 million a year is lost to those children, and that goes somewhere—presumably to the companies that run the cards used to operate the dinner system. I am very concerned about this issue, and the sum itself is horrendous. Yesterday I wrote to the new Comptroller and Auditor General to ask him to undertake an inquiry on behalf of MPs who are interested in the issue so that we can establish whether £88 million is the floor or if the sum is even larger. If a poorer child does not attend school on one day, it is probably because they are ill, so we would think, as ordinary human beings, that they would need extra food the following day. For them, however, unlike their richer peers, the money that they did not spend the previous day disappears from their cards. I very much hope that the Minister will support the National Audit Office carrying out an inquiry into this new, nasty, vicious little twist that stigmatises poor children who draw on our school dinner system.
I rise to speak briefly. I am not going to say that there is not a problem; I have too much respect for the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) not to acknowledge that there is. The causes are deep rooted. It will not surprise Members or the Minister if I say that I think one reason is the fact that family life in this country is not as strong as it was generations ago. My grandparents grew up and lived in poverty in Burnley, a very poor mill town, but from my understanding, and having witnessed how they fed themselves on a very modest income as pensioners, I know that hunger was not prevalent in those homes.
The Minister knows that I have said time and again that we need to look into what we can do to strengthen family life. Let me give one example before I address some specific issues relating to the report. In recent years, we have undermined—our Government have done so, too—the role of mothering, the value of a mother and the vocation that many women have to be a mother in the home. Through our financial recommendations, regulations and incentives, we have almost encouraged many women to go out to work, but for some of them there is fulfilment in being at home, where they can care for their children and think about what goes into building and making a home and nurturing. That includes home cooking, which often can be far more nutritious, at a lower cost, than the easier takeaway meals to which those who work, and who work long hours, often resort. I am conscious that if those from the poorest homes go out to work, they often have to work the longest, most antisocial hours. They often have to leave their children to come home alone or to buy something on the way home from school.
I know that the children’s Minister has looked seriously at our “Manifesto to Strengthen Families”, and I urge him to do so again in this context. There is a place for saying that mothering should be valued and esteemed in our society and not, as I fear it has been, rather reduced in respect over the past few years. Many of the children who are now experiencing some of the challenges that we have heard about are doing so because of the reduction in that role. It is not just the immediate family who benefit when mum is able to give such support; the wider family, including cousins and grandchildren—we know the important role that grandparents can play—and the wider community often benefit too. We have all lost out.
I am pleased that Ministers have said that they will look at the report very seriously, and that they will not respond to it in a knee-jerk way. They say that they will carefully consider the findings of the report and respond later in the summer, before the beginning of the next school year. Perhaps the Minister will take into account the wider context of what we are saying about today’s society.
I was particularly interested to see that one of the recommendations relates to supporting pregnant women, which is a really important concern. I am very concerned that we do not pay enough attention to helping women in pregnancy feed themselves and care for themselves. As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on foetal alcohol syndrome, I know that it is a particular concern that we have noted. Even though there is a Government recommendation that women should not drink during pregnancy, they do, so there is a place for Ministers to speak out much more clearly and strongly about healthy eating during pregnancy.
I have mentioned that I respect the fact that the Government are themselves respecting this report and taking it seriously, and I note that they are already working with Public Health England to look at how nutrition can be better improved. It also appears that it will work with the Food Foundation to explore the creation of a working group to look at how greater oversight of children’s food can be achieved, including engaging with all relevant Government Departments. That is another thing that we do not do enough of in this context: we do not look across Government; we often work in silos. I hope that the Minister will extend his reach right across the very many Departments that need to be engaged if this issue is to be tackled. I am pleased that Ministers have said that they will involve the young food ambassadors, too, because at the end of the day, if we do not hear the children themselves, we are missing something.
Let me look at some of the things that the Government have done. I am pleased that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) referred to the funding of holiday clubs. Although he said that it was not sufficient, it is interesting to note that, last year, the Government awarded £2 million to holiday club providers to deliver free and healthy food, along with enriching activities for children, and that, I think, helped around 18,000 children. I am encouraged that, this year, the Government have extended that to more than £9 million to help 50,000 children. It was certainly a move in the right direction; the funding for holiday clubs has quadrupled.
The Government are working with 11 organisations across England. I am interested to know which they are. It is interesting to note how many organisations are still working voluntarily. Will the Government do any kind of value for money exercise to find out which organisations are providing holiday club food for the best value? Although £9 million is a lot of money, it is still reaching only 50,000 children. Finding a way to support the organisations in local communities that really are providing best value would be an exercise worth including in the work that the Government are undertaking over this summer.
The Minister also said that the Government are investing £26 million in the national school breakfast programme. That is an important scheme, because breakfast helps children to start the day, concentrate and learn. It is sad that so many arrive at school without having had breakfast. We could address that as part of the strengthening families programme by ensuring that parents—not just women, but their husbands or partners—are skilled up in feeding their children well and taught about the importance of breakfast for children during antenatal classes. In fact, much can be done under that umbrella.
I mentioned what it was like generations ago. I was fortunate to inherit a few good habits so that I knew how to feed my children well. I was just lucky. My children seem to have survived—they are 26 and 23—even though I did not formally learn very much about how to feed them well, but there has been a lack of role models in so many areas over recent generations, so there is now a need to use antenatal classes and family hubs to teach people about good nutrition. Some family hubs are already doing that. I welcome their establishment in many parts of the country.
The Minister has greatly supported the family hubs, many of which are teaching good nutrition, which is particularly important because childhood obesity is affecting disadvantaged children more than others. However, something more structured could still be done to help young families and young parents to feed themselves and their children better and more economically. I am therefore pleased that there is more money going into the national school breakfast programme, which I believe will benefit about 250,000 children, but many more children could benefit if we taught people how to feed themselves better. I am interested to hear that the free school meal scheme is being extended, with 1.5 million more infants receiving a free school lunch. The programme is also being extended to further education colleges, and that is very important.
I commend the Government, because they are doing things to address the issue. The soft drinks industry levy appears to have been quite a success, incentivising the industry to reduce the sugar content of soft drinks. The levy has provided money that has enabled us to invest in the PE and sport premium for primary schools, and it is already improving young people’s teeth. A lot has been done, but there is more that can be done. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on alcohol harm, which this week had an interesting meeting about the calorific value of alcohol. I was appalled to see the sugar content of some alcopops. Much can be done to encourage better drinking among youngsters—not necessarily those of school age, but older young people—by labelling all drinks, including alcopops, with their calorific value.
It is good that the Government are committed to improving children’s health through the childhood obesity plan and that a number of Government Departments are involved. I know that the Minister takes this issue seriously, and I know he will take this report seriously as well. There is much more that can be done. The report has made a useful contribution to the debate. I hope that Ministers will continue to take it seriously and to build on the work that has already been undertaken.
It is a pleasure to follow my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). Although we may not agree about the cause, we do share the fundamental concern that some children in all our communities are hungry, day in, day out.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) has been an inspiration in tackling these issues and raising their profile in this place. He has not just used this unique platform; he has also ensured that he has put his time, effort and resources where his words are—both in the community through his role at the academy chain he participates in, and in the charity he set up to address this issue.
We are here because of what we see and hear, too often, in our own constituencies, at our surgeries and from children when we go and visit. I applaud the work, as ever, of my hon. Friend—my friend—the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who has been a guiding light on this issue. She was an extraordinary advocate for the report. She led the charge when we had children come to this place to give us their experiences of what they had at home, what they did not have at home, and what happened to them at school. We talk a great deal in this place. We talk for far too long, on many occasions, as I am sure that many of us will today. But we talk about our views on what is happening in our constituencies and in the world; we rarely get to talk about what other people have said to us. That is why this was so heartbreaking.
The first question I ever asked in this place was on the issue of holiday hunger: what happens to children who qualify for free school meals during school holidays. It is 100 years since we as a Parliament agreed that our children should be fed at school. We never thought about the holidays, because at that point communities took care of children. In my constituency, school kitchens were opened during school holidays. The kitchen was positioned at the front of every school, so children never had to go inside: they would queue there to get a hot meal. Their mothers were working in our potbanks and their fathers were working down the pit, so their grandparents and wider family were looking after them. Because of that, we never had to come up with a Government solution—or at least we felt no need to. It has only been in the past decade that this has become such a heartbreaking issue that we now need to tackle it.
One of the challenges for all of us is that as soon as we touch on one of these issues, we receive stories from up and down the country about other people’s experiences. I truly believe that every one of us in this place should campaign on something that makes them want to cry—something that is so devastating to us as individuals that we cannot ignore it. For me, that is child food poverty, as it is for many others on the Labour Benches, and across the House.
When I first got selected to run to be the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove, I started talking to some of my local families. Someone who worked as a school catering assistant told me the story of a child who collapsed—fainted—one Monday morning when he walked into school. It took a while to understand what had happened. It was 11 o’clock in the morning. He had not eaten since his free school meal on Friday. He was given a sandwich and an apple due to how close it was to lunchtime. He ate the sandwich but did not eat the apple—he put it in his rucksack. People said, “It’s okay—you are going to have lunch in a minute. It’s absolutely fine—eat the food.” He said, “My sister is down the hall and she hasn’t eaten either.” In the 21st century, in the 13th-largest city in the country, we have children who are starving. It does not matter if their parents are not good enough. It does not matter how much money is or is not going into the household. The reality on the ground is that our children are not being fed. With all the will in the world, we can put in every kind of initiative, but we have failed in everything if this is happening in our schools.
We heard about a child in Scotland who was going to one of the holiday clubs that were set up two years ago. They were stealing the ketchup packets that were on the table every lunchtime. Our friend Lindsay Graham tells this story and cannot help but cry when she does. When the child was asked why they were stealing ketchup packets, they said they hoped they could make tomato soup out of them when they got home, because there was literally nothing else to eat. That is the reality of child food poverty in the 21st century. It is Victorian. It is heartbreaking, it is devastating, and it is why we so desperately need direct intervention.
Since the introduction of universal credit in my constituency, demand at the food bank has gone up 46%. My food bank considered cancelling its Christmas service because it was 1 tonne short of food. We have poverty at every level, but as soon as it becomes about food, it is devastating for communities. That is why I am so grateful that the Government launched the holiday hunger pilots. They did not give any money to Stoke-on-Trent, but I am sure that will be rectified next year, Minister.
Instead, work has been done through the opportunity area board, and the wonderful, extraordinary, fantastically brilliant Carol Shanahan has launched a charity in order to provide such a service in my constituency. Last summer, 16,500 meals were provided by volunteers during the summer holidays. It is important that we look at child food poverty in the round, and I want to tell one story from last year’s projects.
In Kidsgrove in my constituency, the holiday club was going to open at 11:30 am—we cannot call it “holiday hunger in the community”, because people will not come. By half-past 10, there was a queue of 30 people, who knew that it was not going to open for another hour. There was only enough food for 40 people, and 30 were already queuing. Thank God for Tesco, which delivered food and staff to help cook and serve the food, because there were not enough volunteers, never mind enough food. On that day, having expected 40 people, 191 came through the door. There is a need. There is a desire. We have a responsibility to help.
One of the most shocking things to come out of the children’s future food inquiry was access to water, which I know the Minister has been contacted about. There is a limited amount of money available—I listened in horror to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead explain how much of it is sent back to companies—to children for their free school meal. In some schools around the country, children were having to pay for a bottle of water out of their free school meal allowance. That meant they could not afford a full meal, so they were having a bottle of water and chips, or a bottle of water and a sandwich. These are children who qualify for free school meals. How are we feeding them? How are they getting access to a good, healthy meal that may well be their only hot meal all week? We have some work to do.
The recommendations in the report are made by children, and another disconcerting issue they told us about was the short period of time they are being given to eat. It could be as little as 20 minutes. If hundreds of people are going through a catering establishment, it will take longer than 20 minutes to ensure that everyone is served a meal and can eat it. As a result, children are getting food to grab and go. That is not in the spirit of free school meals, and it definitely does not encourage healthy eating.
The five recommendations that the children who participated in the report made were: a healthy lunch guarantee, a healthy food minimum, a children’s food watchdog, for health to be put before profits and to stop the stigma. That really should not be too much to ask, and it is not us asking for it; it is the children.
My final point is about the national school breakfast programme. I know that it is not strictly the subject of the debate, but if a child qualifies for free school meals, they are probably also receiving a free breakfast—or at least I hope they are. That is two meals a day, 10 meals a week, that their parents do not have to pay for. Fifteen schools currently receive the national school breakfast programme in my constituency, and for that I am grateful, but the funding stops in March 2020. Given that that is in the middle of the school year—or towards the end of it, but with another term still to go—my schools and schools across the country need assurances about what they have to put in their budgets, or do they tell children, “You’ve only got breakfast till Easter”. I ask the Minister if he could be so kind as to ensure that there is more food for our schools.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) for securing this very important debate, and for his excellent and passionate speech. I am thrilled to be following my very good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth). It has been an honour to work with her over the last few years on an issue that we are both so very passionate about. I remember that when I met her, as a brand-new MP, she said she would focus on this issue more than on any other, and she has been true to her word. I know the children in her constituency are all the better for it, as are those across the country, because she is not just doing this for the children in her constituency, but fighting for all children.
I, too, want to thank the young people who participated in this inquiry, and I congratulate them on doing so. We have heard some moving testimonies about what those children told us. Without their hard work, bravery and determination, we would not have had such a groundbreaking report; it would just have been another report written about children by adults. Listening to those young food ambassadors was eye-opening—and eye-watering—for everyone, including those of us who think we are more seasoned to some of these issues. Finally, I thank everyone involved in the inquiry, with special thanks to the Food Foundation, and to Lindsay Graham, whose idea was the original genesis of the inquiry.
As co-chair of the children’s future food inquiry—along with the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), who is not in her place, sadly—I have spoken many times about the shocking things that we heard from the food ambassadors about their experiences of hunger and food insecurity. I am pleased that other Members have shared some of those examples in detail. Today, I will focus on issues that I did not mention when we had the Westminster Hall debate on this issue last month, so I will mainly focus on holiday hunger and breakfast clubs.
First, I would like to hold the Minister to account on some of the things he said in response to that debate. [Interruption.] I think he is a little bit distracted, so perhaps I should wait until he is listening, so he knows what I am going to ask him. Minister, hello! [Interruption.] Wonderful. I know the Minister was distracted by his Whip, but I will be asking him some direct questions, and it would not be fair on him if I did not give him a chance to listen to those questions. I was referring to the debate we had in Westminster Hall, to which he responded, and I am going to reiterate some of those responses and ask him to comment on them further.
As hon. Members will know, the young food ambassadors put together the #Right2Food charter, to outline their demands on Government, and the committee made up of MPs, peers and charities calls on the Government to establish an independent food watchdog that will examine the cost of the policies in the charter. During the Westminster Hall debate on this issue, the Minister said that he had asked his team
“to work with the Food Foundation to look into setting up a working group”.—[Official Report, 8 May 2019; Vol. 659, c. 312WH.]
Can the Minister please provide a progress report on that commitment? Will he also please restate his commitment to continue listening to and working with the young food ambassadors themselves? The Minister also said that the free school meals allowance will be looked at in the spending review, so can he reaffirm this commitment? Can he give the House an insight on when the spending review is estimated to take place under the new Prime Minister? That may be a little more difficult, but he might have a bit of an idea.
As the chair of the all-party group on school food, I am very interested in this issue, as is my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), who is a vice-chair of that all-party group. Unfortunately, she was not able to be in her place today either, due to commitments elsewhere in the House. However, she has asked me to put on record her support for a radical change in how we do school food.
As we heard in the closing remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, today we have a report from Feeding Britain, and the excellent academics from Northumbria University, led by Professor Greta Defeyter who is in the Public Gallery today. The report found that in just one year, £88.3 million allocated to local authorities to provide free school meals for eligible children disappeared. The issue was first brought to my attention a number of years ago, and I have tried to get to the bottom of it through Children North East, which is an excellent anti-poverty charity from my region. It raised the issue with me because children had raised it with them. Where does that money go? Who benefits from it? Certainly not the children for whom it is intended.
The young food ambassador spoke to the Minister about that issue directly. Has the Minister had time to consider it further? I am sure he agrees that children should have access to the full benefits they are entitled to and that are intended for them, not for whoever else is managing to pocket the money. He promised that he would write to all schools, and earlier this month he did just that and set out the schools’ responsibilities on food, especially free drinking water. I thank him for that. We all hope that the letter will have had an effect on schools and that we will see immediate changes, especially free water.
It is not only during school time that children go hungry or do not have access to healthy food. Many children up and down the country will be counting down the days to the summer holidays, but for many parents and guardians, those holidays bring not joy but dread. Children who usually receive free school meals do not have access to them when the school gates shut, which is for a total of 170 days per year. Holidays can be an expensive time for all families, especially those who are trying to make their food stretch.
The summer holiday is thought to contribute to many weeks’ worth of learning loss. Professor Greta Defeyter has done studies into that, and it has been academically proven. Many teachers report the effects of that learning loss when the school term begins again after the summer. Andrew McCreery, a youth worker in Portadown, told the Committee that when they asked children to bring a packed lunch for the holiday programmes they were running, 10% to 15% of children brought no lunch, and those who did often brought in bread, cold microwave chips, biscuits, or even an empty lunchbox. That is why I was proud to play a small part by campaigning, lobbying for and securing the holiday hunger provision pilots, and I am pleased they are going ahead again this year.
My hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), and for Stoke-on-Trent North do amazing work in their local communities over the summer holidays to ensure that children and families are fed. Because of them, thousands of children who would otherwise go hungry are fed every day in the summer holidays. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead has also done that over many years, and they should all be proud of their work. I will try to replicate that and learn from best practice across Sunderland next summer. However, such work should not be down to my hon. Friends, or to the local authorities, charities or communities that step in to do what I believe to be the Government’s job. Will the Minister look at creating a holiday provision framework across the UK, to ensure that those children and families who need it can be fed healthy food over the school holidays?
Finally, I move to breakfast clubs, and once again I thank the Minister for giving up some of his valuable time when I met Carmel McConnell from Magic Breakfast and David Holmes from Family Action. I know he was busy, but he gave some of his time to speak to them, which they both appreciated, as did I. Carmel McConnell and David Holmes are doing excellent work, and they currently feed 280,000 school children each day through the national school breakfast programme. However, that funding is scheduled to come to an end in March 2020. This week, the Minister said that funding would be decided in the upcoming spending review—this comes back to his crystal ball.
Is the Minister able to provide any reassurance to children in schools that the funding for the national school breakfast programme will continue beyond March 2020? The programme is a lifeline for children, parents, families and teachers, who see the immediate benefit of a child having breakfast before they start their school day with regard to their learning and, ultimately, their health and long-term outcomes. There can be no better measure to help to close the gap we all talk about than making sure children are not hungry and are able to learn.
Last year, I visited Surrey Square Primary School with my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) to see the excellent work the school does in feeding, clothing and caring for children and their families. It is an excellent school and I encourage the Minister to visit if he wants to see a local school that does everything so well. It looks after everyone, all children and families, but especially those with no recourse to public funds. Will the Minister please ensure that children whose families have no recourse to public funds are not forgotten when we design policies for school food? No child, no matter what their family situation, should go hungry in our schools. He may be aware—it was raised in the report—that those children are not entitled to free school meals. They have no recourse to public funds and they are not even entitled to a free school meal unless the school decides to feed them anyway. A lot of schools do. Unfortunately, children across the country are going hungry for lots of reasons and I know the Minister knows he needs to address that.
Having spoken to the young food ambassadors, I know that the Minister is very aware of how important this issue is to them, their peers and their families. The Minister has committed to formally responding to the report in the autumn term, and I thank him for that commitment. I hope he is still a Minister then. If he is able to commit to anything further today, before the summer holidays—before any reshuffle—I know that the young food ambassadors would really appreciate it.
Finally, I would like to welcome today’s launch of the national food strategy, led by Henry Dimbleby. I worked closely with Henry on the excellent school food plan and that work has continued. Cross-departmental considerations on food security and safety are a welcome step towards ensuring that everyone, including children, has access to healthy and affordable food. I very much look forward to working with Henry on this new endeavour.
This has been an excellent debate. I look forward to hearing those who have yet to speak, and to a positive and decisive response from the Minister.
I thank the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) for putting his case so well. I also commend the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for their contributions. No one could listen to their contributions and not be moved. Minister, I am going to say some things fairly firmly. I am not a person for harshness—that has never been my nature—but I want to speak honestly about how things are. I think everyone has done that. I need to do that too, and in a way that I hope the Minister can respond to.
I am well known for supporting working class people and, increasingly, the so-called middle class who are living hand-to-mouth. It is beyond shocking to me and others that in this day and age children are starving and their families have to turn to food banks to put food in their bellies. Children are suffering for their parents’ financial position. Through no fault of their own, children are sitting in school classes hungry and unable to concentrate. When you are hungry, you are unable to concentrate. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North referred to the wee child who fainted because he had no food. It is clear that children are unable to concentrate and frankly that is cruel.
It is heartbreaking that 4.5 million children across the United Kingdom live in poverty. We in this place and the Government are not doing enough to tackle the issue. That is somewhat vindicated by the fact that we foist responsibility on to charities, but why is this the case?
To the surprise of the mainstream media, which often portrays the Church as out of touch and not involved in communities, the Church is stepping up to the challenge. That is the case in my constituency and, from what I have heard so far, I suspect that churches in everybody else’s constituencies are filling the gap and taking responsibility. Despite some saying that the Church indoctrinates children, the only thing that it seems to be indoctrinating children into displaying is compassion. For me, that is clear. It is bringing up the next generation to care and take action when they see people in need and are in a position to help.
I am very proud to be the Member of Parliament for Strangford, which is stepping up to the challenge on child food poverty. Our local churches in Newtownards have stepped up where local and national Government have failed. The Thriving Life Church, the Ards Congregational, the Ards Baptist Church, the Glen Community Church, St Mark’s, Londonderry Primary School, Greenwell Street Presbyterian, First Ards Presbyterian Church, Ards Reformed Presbyterian, Scrabo Hall, Scrabo Presbyterian Church, St Patrick’s tennis skills and Northdown Christian Fellowship Church have all advertised that they include free food with their Bible clubs.
Other Members have referred to the summer, which was in my mind before the debate, because it brings added problems for children and their parents, who do not have schools to fall back on. That is why what the churches in Strangford and Newtownards specifically are doing to come together collectively, cross-religion, is so important. They have all seen the need and have stepped into the gap. They should not have to do that—it is not their responsibility—yet they are, because that is what their Bible teaching, beliefs and faith tell them to do. We need to ask ourselves in this place: are we doing all we can? The Government have not delivered for these poor children who need food, which is a sickening thought.
Whatever is being done to solve this pressing issue is clearly not working. Thanks to charities such as the Trussell Trust—it set up the first food bank in Northern Ireland, in my constituency in Newtownards—and other various organisations in the community, the problem is minimised. Without them, the issue could be far worse, which is a scary thought, to say the least.
The situation is particularly disappointing, bearing in mind that there is not enough focus on the options to minimise the problem. Recent data published by UNICEF shows that one in five youngsters under 15 now lives in a food-insecure home. How is that possible in this day and age? This should be a red flag for Government and for everyone else, yet they continue to employ—I say this respectfully, Minister—austerity measures that only make matters worse. It really does not take a genius to realise that the cuts and changes that the Government continue to employ are paramount to the problem. That is the feedback I am getting in my constituency about universal credit. The food bank tells me that the changes in benefits are putting the pressure on, so I have to say that in this House because it is true. It is happening and we cannot ignore it. When someone works different hours and their tax credits claim materially changes, they migrate to universal credit with a five-week embargo on payments. That puts people over the poverty breadline and it is really unfair.
I asked my local food bank for its up-to-date figures. This is what is happening in my area:
“So for the last year we have fed 1,992 people…846 were children”—
so 45% were children. It continued,
“this is a 3% rise on the last year. The rise is on the increase as we see more and more families switching to UC. And as we head to the summer, kids off school—414 of those kids from low income families = summer hunger with no free school meals.”
That is going to be the issue this summer. The churches stepping in, running their Bible classes and Bible clubs and having the meals alongside those, is so important. The food bank continued:
“Last summer June-August we saw 152 low income families alone! The problem we see is families going without.”
The reality of today’s society is that families are going without. Parents do not eat so that their children can, or children do eat not because their parents are not eating either.
The food bank continued:
“Last year we began partnering with Ards Community Network to help families with free uniforms. And this year we are launching with local churches and their holiday bible clubs to offer lunches.”
I suggest that is true community spirit at work, alongside the churches and faith groups, offering practical, financial and emotional help when it is needed most.
I urge the Government to do the right thing by helping to better the lives of those who are left with no option but to line up at food banks. More funding is needed, along with better understanding. One of the fundamental purposes of government is to help the people. Frankly, that is not being achieved at the moment.
Twenty years ago, Tony Blair—people have their own opinions about him—pledged to end child poverty, calling it a “20-year mission”. Three Prime Ministers later—the fourth is on the way—we are nowhere near accomplishing that mission. Children have to go home after school and sleep on an empty stomach. That is a disgrace. Never would I have expected child poverty to be such a problem in 2019. Nations are meant to develop, not to go backwards, but I am afraid that is what I see.
The National Housing Federation, using Office for National Statistics data, has found that roughly 847,000 children from working families—a 30% increase from 2010—live in poverty due to the sole reason that their homes are too expensive. We need to look at the reasons for that as well. One of the reasons is the cost of rental accommodation. Many parents have to choose between paying the rent and feeding their children. We have recently had debates about that—last week in Westminster Hall, I think—when there has been some talk about how the Government could help people under rental pressure. It breaks my heart that parents have to make that choice.
With all due respect, we must stop approaching these life and death issues in a daze. I gently suggest that this House needs to wake up to what is happening, because children are starving and families are having to turn to food banks. For heaven’s sake, we are in the 21st century and this is one of the richest countries in the world. When will we get it right for those children and families? I am sorry if I am being a bit harsh, but we must take a good look at the important underlying crisis in this country. More importantly, we must make better decisions. We need to be aware of how decisions made here affect children throughout the whole United Kingdom.
I am speaking today from my knowledge of the matter in Northern Ireland, which comes from seeing it directly in my constituency office every week. The Thriving Life Church food bank in Newtownards tells me that the organisation that points the most people to it is our advice centre. That tells me, and hopefully this House, that I have my finger on the pulse of what is happening in my constituency, and that I understand that the food bank is doing an incredible job, but I also understand that people are under pressure.
We must take a better look at this important underlying crisis. The issue is not one that we can poke with daisies—if we poke it with a daisy, it will not move, because daisies have no strength. I say this with respect to Opposition colleagues—they may agree with me and they may not—but of course Jeremy Corbyn would make the matter worse, with his Marxist manifesto—
I am pleased to have this opportunity to participate in the debate, although I agreed absolutely with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who is a long-time campaigner on these issues, when he said that this debate should give us cause for shame.
The children’s future food inquiry has done a considerable amount of work, gathering evidence from workshops with nearly 400 children across the UK, alongside polling young people’s views and academic research on food insecurity to produce the report that we are debating today. Much of what it tells us, as well as being shocking, is, sadly, unsurprising. I know that the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) means well, but I am afraid that I had to disagree with her when she said that in previous generations things were not quite so bad. I may not be old enough to have a memory of the generations to which she is referring, but I suspect that things were equally bad if not worse, and people just talked about it less.
I am not saying that there was not poverty, but what I am saying is this. My grandmother was born in 1900, and what I witnessed was that she knew how to make a little money go a long way in cooking nutritious meals that fed a family. That seems to be something that we have not passed on from generation to generation, but it is one of the solutions that we could seek to achieve for today’s generation.
What I will say in my speech may explain more fully why, although I respect very much what the hon. Lady has said and understand the point that she has made, I do not agree with it. I think that the problem of children growing up in hunger has always been with us, regardless of what generation we are talking about, but in this day and age we are no longer willing to accept it. That is why we have debates like this, and why the report was undertaken in the first place.
We can go back even further. I am a great lover of Charles Dickens. A mere glance at his work tells us that every single novel he ever wrote features a deeply neglected child in challenging circumstances. That is a direct result of his having been sent out to work at a very young age himself, an experience born of necessity to keep hunger at bay. He understood that the sanctity of childhood was lost for ever through poverty, hunger, and an uncaring society. Indeed, his childhood experience —his own truncated childhood—scarred him to such an extent that he never forgot it, which is why he always included in his novels a child who was a victim of a society that did not do enough to protect its children from poverty and want.
In her moving speech, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) shared with us some real-life and very sobering examples from her constituency, which sounded as though they could have been lifted directly from a Dickens novel. That, in this day and age, is utterly and truly appalling. I agree with the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who said that the Government’s role was critical if we were to face down hunger in our children. That view was echoed by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
We know that parents want to do the best for their children, but we also know that it is much easier to do the best for our children if we have a reasonable standard of living and enough money to live on, which in turn will give us enough food to eat. In my constituency, child poverty levels average about 30% across each of the distinct towns. We know that that figure is set to rise, just as the figures will in every other constituency in the United Kingdom, which is absolutely disgraceful. My local authority area has the third highest rate of child poverty in Scotland, which is indeed sobering.
Let us not forget that poverty is not just about money. Today we are talking about the importance of food for children, but poverty does not just rob children of access to proper, nutritious, healthy food; it robs them of self-esteem, it robs them of opportunities, it robs them of hope, and it robs them of the secure sense of wellbeing that every child has the right to enjoy. That casts a shadow over them for the rest of their lives.
I know this, because I myself grew up in poverty, the youngest of eight children. After my father’s death, my mother endured struggles with poverty that no one should have to endure—although, to her credit, I had no idea just how poor we were until I was grown up. That is not a hard-luck story. I share it as a way of showing that I understand, as many in the Chamber do, what poverty can do to a family. I know about the barriers that it creates for parents and, in turn, for their children.
The austerity agenda, which a number of Members have mentioned today, and the fact that families all too often feel punished for their poverty, only adds to the damage, the hopelessness, and the erosion of the idea that life could be so much more. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead spoke of people who have not only been condemned to hunger but have also all too often been condemned to destitution.
We know it is hard for parents to source healthy and nutritious food on an extremely tight budget that can hardly stretch over a normal week. This kind of hunger does not affect just those children whose parents are on benefits; we must face up to the fact that the working poor exist and many of their children are living in poverty.
To help combat this I am proud to say that the Scottish Government have expanded the provision of free school meals to those eligible for free early learning and childcare and free school meals for infants, and plan to monitor food standards in schools. I am pleased that the children’s future food inquiry report acknowledged that.
In addition, there is to be more funding for more children to have access to healthy food during the school holidays. A six-week holiday for Scotland’s schoolchildren with no free school meals can place an intolerable strain on families who are struggling. We cannot sit by and watch our children go hungry, so the children’s charity Cash for Kids is being granted £150,000 to help local community organisations to support children during the school holidays with activities and access to meals, and this funding is the first allocation of £1 million over the next two years to tackle food insecurity outside of term time.
Every child in Scotland attending a local authority school has a right to a free school lunch in primaries 1, 2 and 3, regardless of their family’s circumstances. After primary 3 these free lunches continue if the child’s parents receive certain benefits. Many Members today have called on the Minister to similarly invest in support for children in England and Northern Ireland and I hope he listens to those pleas.
Alongside the £3.5 million fair food fund to tackle food insecurity, we are working hard in Scotland to ensure that everyone can feed themselves and their families to reduce the reliance on emergency provision. These initiatives matter as we see food bank usage rising. In my own constituency in Largs, food bank usage has soared by between 200% and 300% since November last year. In this day and age that is an absolute disgrace. I cannot understand how any elected representative can be blind to or unmoved by the evidence showing the suffering and hardship caused by recent welfare reforms. It is no accident that the roll-out of universal credit, with its five-week wait for payment, has coincided with an increase in the use of food banks.
All claimants are expected to be on universal credit by 2023, including almost 10,000 more North Ayrshire and Arran households. That means that, sadly, this trend of food bank use looks set to continue, with no sign that the UK Government are prepared to pause and properly fix this system which is not fit for purpose and causes unnecessary hardship.
The food our children eat has implications for life chances, as does the food they do not eat. There is little point in trying to tackle the attainment gap if children go to bed hungry—it cannot be done—and I welcome the Scottish Government’s joined-up approach in that regard.
The SNP Scottish Government announced only yesterday that there will be a new form of support, the Scottish child payment, which will provide £10 each week for all eligible children from low-income families under the age of 16 by 2022, and that payment will increase annually in line with inflation. This benefit will be fast-tracked so all eligible under six-year-olds will receive it by 2021. When delivered in full, 410,000 children will be eligible for this payment. This is yet another front we can open up in the war against hunger in our own children, and it has been warmly welcomed by groups such as Menu for Change, Save the Children Scotland, Oxfam Scotland, the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland and the Poverty Alliance, which describes this new initiative as a “game changer” in the fight against child poverty.
This action from the Scottish Government is expensive, but it is also a political choice to do more to tackle child poverty. I hope the Minister will take note and ask if his Government can afford not to do this. The SNP Scottish Government do not control all the levers of benefits and taxation necessary to truly build the kind of fair society that I believe most people in Scotland want, but with the limited powers they have, they will always do what they can to mitigate poverty while delivering a balanced budget in a minority Administration.
Any debate or report on children’s food and the need to tackle the health implications of the food they eat or the hunger they face is necessarily a discussion about the kind of society we wish to build. What kind of society thinks that children going hungry is ever acceptable? This is an important report, but for all that, it is only a report; it cannot be left to gather dust. It is time for this Government to engage in real reflection on the true cost of hunger to our children and our society, to act accordingly, to fully study the report and to take the necessary action to tackle child poverty and the resultant hunger that is poverty’s bedfellow. It is an absolute disgrace that anybody ever has to go hungry in the United Kingdom. The mark of a civilised society is to combat that in a sensitive and robust way. The Scottish Government are choosing not to pass by on the other side when they see families in need of this basic necessity, and I urge the Minister today to do as much for other families.
This is my first appearance at the Dispatch Box as Labour’s children and families spokesperson, and I am glad that it is in a debate on such an important issue. It is shocking and unacceptable that child hunger still exists in our country to this extent. I would like to take this opportunity, if I may, to thank our previous spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell- Buck), for her work in this role. She brought her experience as a social worker to the position, and she made a significant contribution to our manifesto in the general election.
I am grateful to all Members who have spoken in the debate. From my own party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) drew on his vast experience and powerfully highlighted the extent of child hunger, the damage it does to children and the link to welfare reform and benefit cuts. He called on the Government to act. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) reminded us how widespread holiday hunger has become for children from low-income families, particularly over the last decade. She shared some powerful and moving examples from our own experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) emphasised the importance of listening to children talk about their experiences. She asked the Minister a series of direct questions, which I hope he heard when the Whips were not distracting him. We look forward to his answers.
Members of both Houses and from all sides of the political debate have contributed to this important report, and I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West and the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) on co-chairing the inquiry, as well as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), my hon. Friends the Members for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North and for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), who served on the committee. I must, in particular, thank the 15 young food ambassadors who also gave their assistance and their experience.
The committee’s work now joins a body of important literature that highlights the shocking levels of poverty in our country. One hungry child is one too many, but UNICEF estimates that 2.5 million British children live in households where food is not always securely available, and the Trussell Trust points out that more than 500,000 emergency food parcels went to children alone last year. It is staggering that that can be happening here, in one of the richest countries in the world.
Food insecurity blights children’s immediate and future lives. It can trigger mental health problems, and it can damage a child’s physical health. It can lead to obesity and restricted growth, and it can retard healthy development. It affects children’s school attendance as well as their ability to learn. Ask any teacher, and they will tell you that a hungry child cannot concentrate in class. In a BBC report on child poverty last year, one headteacher described their pupils as having grey skin. Another described the unhealthy pallor of the students in their school. Something is going badly wrong in our society if we are allowing this to happen to so many of our children. A society that loves and cares for its children does not let them go hungry, especially not to this extent.
The report reinforces the importance of the early years of a child’s life, particularly the first 1,000 days. Those early years have a defining impact on a child’s development, affecting everything from educational achievement to economic security to health. The report states:
“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.”
I invite the Minister to tell the House what has happened to the Government’s review of the first 1,001 critical days—an excellent initiative commissioned by the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), the former Leader of the House. The Department’s approach to early years has been lacklustre to say the least. A thousand Sure Start centres have been closed since 2010. As the Minister knows, they were places where young mums could receive advice and support on breastfeeding, healthy nutrition and their child’s critical early development.
The report highlights how free school meal provision is inconsistent, and it expresses concern about how the free school meals policy works, including worries that the allowance is not always enough to buy a meal. As my right hon. and hon. Friends have said this afternoon, it is important to find out how much money is not spent and what happens to it, so that it can be redirected to support the children for whom it was originally intended. One way of tackling child hunger would be to introduce universal free school meals for all primary school children, paid for by removing the VAT exemption on private school fees, as proposed in Labour’s manifesto. The outgoing Prime Minister is somewhat belatedly talking about increasing education funding, so perhaps the Minister can start today by matching Labour’s commitment on free school meals.
As members have mentioned, several months have passed since the inquiry published the final report. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East held a Westminster Hall debate on 8 May to discuss its findings and recommendations. During the debate, the Minister stated that he had asked his team in the Department to work with the Food Foundation to look into setting up a working group. I am sure that Members across the House would appreciate an update from the Minister on how that working group is proceeding. Members will also want to know whether the Government intend to involve the inquiry’s young food ambassadors in future work, and what the Government intend to do with the five key asks of the #Right2Food charter.
Since the publication of the Food Foundation’s report, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, published the UN’s findings on poverty in our country. That report exposes the cold reality of poverty in Britain today. It reinforces the findings of the Food Foundation, observing that children are showing up at school with empty stomachs and that schools are collecting food and sending it home because teachers know that their students will otherwise go hungry. Teachers, the report states, are not equipped to ensure that their students have clean clothes and food to eat, not least because many teachers rely on food banks themselves. The UN also predicted that, without urgent change, 40% of British children will be living in poverty by 2021. What a damning indictment it is of this Government that they are allowing that to happen in one of the richest countries in the world.
I absolutely acknowledge the amazing work done by faith groups, but many other parts of civil society, such as charities and other community organisations, are also stepping in to alleviate child hunger that, frankly, should not exist in the first place.
One hungry child is one too many, but 2.5 million British children regularly go hungry. The Food Foundation report shames this Government, but it is also a wake-up call, and it must lead to action.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) on securing this important debate and thank all colleagues who participated in the inquiry, including the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). We have heard contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson).
I welcome the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) to his role as shadow Minister for children and families. We may come to our roles from different policy perspectives, but we share a passion for wanting to do the best for the children and families whom we ultimately serve.
I know that hon. Members in the Chamber have a sincere and long-held interest in this area. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead was a member of the inquiry, and I thank him for his work and his continued significant contribution to shaping my tenure in office and, of course, to children’s health and wellbeing.
The inquiry’s report is the result of a detailed and thorough examination of how we ensure that all children and young people have access to healthy and nutritious meals. I extend my thanks to all the children, young people, practitioners and, of course, researchers who were involved in its production. I also thank the many hon. Members on both sides of the House, and colleagues in the other place, for their contributions to this important work.
I was pleased to attend the launch of the report in April, at which I was truly privileged to be fortunate enough to meet some of the young food ambassadors in person. I was moved by their experiences, and impressed by their confidence and clarity in setting out how they will continue to make an impassioned contribution in this area. I look forward to continuing my engagement with them.
The Government share the inquiry’s overarching aims. All children should be able to access healthy, nutritious food at home and at school, as that is an essential part of building a country that works for everyone and in which every child and young person can reach their potential. The Government are already taking many steps to support children in accessing nutritious food and leading healthy lives. Of course, I recognise that there is much more that we need to do and can do.
When I spoke at the launch of the report back in April, I committed to providing a formal response in the autumn school term. Earlier this month, I again met representatives from the inquiry to discuss the recommendations further, and I have asked my team to work with the Food Foundation, including on exploring how we might provide greater oversight of children’s food by involving the inquiry’s young food ambassadors, as well as with other relevant Government Departments —my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned cross-Government work earlier.
I look forward to providing that formal response in the coming months. In the meantime, I wish to highlight some immediate actions we are taking. On 7 June, I wrote to all schools in England to highlight the inquiry’s findings and to remind them of their responsibilities in relation to school food. Many schools are, of course, already delivering excellent practice in this area, including through creative menu options and a focus on healthy eating across the curriculum, and by making it easy for children to enjoy free school meals.
In my letter to schools, I highlighted the importance of creating a positive lunchtime experience by ensuring that dining areas are welcoming places and by giving children a genuine voice in shaping this provision. I also stressed that no child should be stigmatised because they are eligible for free school meals—the right hon. Member for Birkenhead is passionate about that—and that there should be no limit on the healthy meal choices available to these children. I also described my shock on hearing from some young people that they do not have access to free drinking water at school and often have to buy a bottle of water, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) mentioned. Schools are legally obliged to provide access to free drinking water on the school premises at all times, as I made very clear in my letter.
The Minister has quickly gone on to the important topic of having free water in schools, but was he also shocked about how poorer children—we do not know how many—lose entitlement if they are not in school on a given day, as the credit on their card for a free school meal is cancelled? I hope the National Audit Office will be looking at this issue; will he and the Department also do so?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that point. I intend to address that matter later in my remarks.
Finally, my letter highlighted the range of resources and guidance that is available for schools, including on meeting the mandatory school food standards and supporting children on free school meals, and curriculum resources for schools to help children to lead healthier lives. The Government have recently taken significant action to ensure that all children can access healthy food at school and beyond.
On the Minister’s point about ensuring that schools deliver the healthy food required under standards set out in the school food plan, will the Minister ensure that Ofsted is suitably tooled up and equipped with the most knowledgeable staff, so that when they go into schools to do their inspection, no school will be rated as outstanding unless its food delivery and the food given to children is outstanding?
The hon. Lady makes her point powerfully, as she has done in the past. She is right—we have to look at every lever available to make sure that we nudge school leaders towards the best behaviour in delivering healthy food.
In 2018, our holiday activities and food programme awarded £2 million to holiday club providers to deliver free healthy food and enriching activities to about 18,000 children across the country, as was mentioned earlier. Following the success of this first year, we have more than quadrupled the funding for the summer of 2019. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned, we are working with 11 organisations in 11 local authorities across the country—I am happy to write to her about those organisations. Both the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said that they were disappointed that there had not been a successful bid from their constituencies for a holiday activities and food co-ordinator. I am sure they will appreciate that there has been a lot of interest in the programme from organisations, but my team is happy to talk to bidders who want more detail and feedback on their bids so that we can keep pushing forward in this area.
I am also proud of my Department’s breakfast clubs programme. We are investing up to £26 million to set up or improve 1,700 breakfast clubs in schools in the most disadvantaged areas of the country, with the clear aim that those clubs stay sustainable over the longer term. The clubs ensure that children start the day with a nutritious breakfast. Such breakfasts not only bring a health benefit, but help children to concentrate and learn in school. I have visited one of these breakfast clubs, and one positive outcome from it was a rise in school attendance, with the fact that parents brought in their children early delivering much better attendance numbers. The children and teachers whom I visited were overwhelmingly positive about the benefits of such clubs.
We also remain committed to ensuring that the most disadvantaged children receive a healthy lunch at school. Last year, more than 1 million disadvantaged children were eligible for and claimed a free school meal, and that important provision has recently been expanded in three significant ways. First, in 2014, we introduced free meals in further education colleges. Secondly, in the same year, we also introduced universal free school meals to all infant children in state-funded schools. Thirdly, under our revised criteria for free school meals, which were introduced last April, we estimate that more children will benefit from free meals by 2022 compared with under the previous benefit system. In fact, numbers released today show that 1.3 million children are benefiting from free school meals.[Official Report, 2 July 2019, Vol. 662, c. 9MC.]
On the point made earlier by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, one recommendation in the inquiry’s report was that any unspent free meal allowance should be carried over for pupils to use on subsequent days. Schools absolutely have the freedom to do this if their local arrangements allow for it—indeed, Carmel Education Trust in the north-east has adopted the practice. The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important point, however, and we should look into the matter to see how we can get all schools to adopt a similar practice, if they can. I should highlight that free school meals are of course intended as a benefit in kind, rather than as a cash benefit, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman understands that better than I do. Our critical interest is that schools meet their legal requirements to provide free and healthy meals to eligible children every day.
My Department is responsible for setting the mandatory school food standards, which have been mentioned. They require schools to serve children healthy and nutritious food. The standards restrict foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar—both you and I, Mr Deputy Speaker, could benefit from fewer foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar. We are currently in the process of updating the standards, working with Public Health England to deliver a bold reduction in the sugar content of school meals. This is part of a wider Government plan to tackle childhood obesity. Sadly, as was mentioned in the Westminster Hall debate, the other side of coin with regard to children going without food is obesity among the most disadvantaged families and their children.
The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland has described the Scottish child payment, which was announced yesterday, as a
“game changer in the fight to end child poverty.”
Will the Minister think about whether he could bring in something similar to help with child poverty throughout the UK?
I am very much of the mindset that we should share best practice throughout the four nations, and I intend to visit to Scotland to look at what is being done there and to share what we are doing in England, too.
Many of the young people involved in the children’s future food report queried why unhealthy food is cheaper and more readily available than healthier choices. Through our childhood obesity plan, the Government are taking forward significant action on the advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods to children.
In the few minutes I have left, I shall address some of the direct questions I was asked. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead asked about the future of the holiday programme, which will of course be part of the spending review considerations. We have already learned a tremendous amount from this year’s and last year’s programmes on holiday activities. That evidence will help me in my discussions with the Treasury.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned the programme’s value for money. Our independent evaluation of the programme will report on that early next year. I am conscious of the time, however, so while I have detailed responses to her points and those made by other hon. Members, I will write to them rather than taking any more of the House’s time.
I am enormously grateful to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead for securing the debate and all colleagues who participated. The Government are already taking important and significant steps, and we will continue to do so, while working with all those involved in this important report.
Before I make a request of the Minister, I wish, like others, to thank those Members who participated in the debate: the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) and the Minister himself.
In this Chamber, in Westminster Hall and in Committee, we have been debating the evil of hunger among children in this country for seven whole years; we are still doing so. Under our system, we know that it is the Cabinet that has the power to do things. We conclude our debate today in the knowledge that all too many children will be hungry tonight and tomorrow morning. As we approach the school holidays, despite the efforts of many voluntary bodies and the Government, the number of hungry children will significantly increase. Will the Minister undertake to tell members of the Cabinet that the House of Commons knows that if we as a country wish to abolish hunger as we know it, the place where a decision will be made is the Cabinet, so will they act?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Children’s Future Food report.