The amendment is not being moved, so we move straight into the debate. A lot of Members have shown interest in this particular debate, so please can I ask, in both the opening and the response to this motion, please be mindful that so many people wish to participate?
I beg to move,
That this House welcomes the Government’s decision to provide schools with their expected funding to cover benefits-related free school meals including the national voucher scheme over the Easter and May half-term holidays; notes the decision of the Welsh Government to guarantee each eligible child the equivalent of £19.50 a week up until the end of August to cover their meals over the summer holidays; and calls on the Government to continue to directly fund provision of free school meals, including the free school meal voucher scheme for eligible children over the summer holidays to stop children going hungry during this crisis.
It is a pleasure to open today’s debate on such an important motion—Labour’s call on the Government to provide free school meals over the summer holidays, so that all children can have a holiday without hunger. This is an issue that has gained significant traction over the past few days, with a chorus of charities, legal campaigners, Sustain and Good Law Project, Members across the House, good people tweeting all over the country and, of course, Manchester United star, Marcus Rashford. I am not only proud to be a Man United fan—that one of our own in Greater Manchester never forgot where he came from and used his profile to help those without a voice—but I am proud that he and those who have joined him have shown the very best that our country can be. I am delighted to say that the Government seem to have heard the cries and they appear to have done a U-turn on their decision to end the free school meal voucher scheme over the summer holidays.
I do have questions for the Secretary of State to address—not least, we need confirmation that the guarantee that free school meals vouchers will be provided over the summer holidays is concrete. However, as he will appreciate, this small win will be bittersweet overall if we do not now set about tackling the root cause of why many children are forced to rely on free school meals in the first place—poverty. Marcus, in his heartfelt letter, asked one important question yesterday:
“Can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?”
If we could all agree on that principle, there would be no debate to be had today.
I know that there are Members on the Government Benches—and, of course, on the Opposition Benches —who agree. They will tell stories of the horrific hardship that families in their constituencies have had to suffer daily. They will illustrate that to succeed in life, a child must have a bedrock of security, love and a full belly. They will transcend party lines to unify together in support of our children, showing the very best side of Parliament today.
I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of this debate and of working across the House. I am sorry that this topic has become such a political football because it is one that unites the House, but surely the question is not whether to support the most vulnerable children in our society, but how we do that. Will she acknowledge that the Government are working hard with councils, with schools, with businesses and, crucially, with civil society to put in place a system of support and activity through this summer to ensure that children get the support they need?
I thank the hon. Member for his comments. I await with bated breath the details of the Secretary of State’s summer scheme—I have some ideas to suggest to him for how it might be rolled out. Indeed, there is a wider suite of support that our children will need throughout the pandemic and as we exit lockdown. Tackling poverty is just one element.
All I will say is that I am happy we have reached the point we have today, although it should not have taken a public campaign from a well-known national hero to push the Government into making this decision. That said, they have made that decision and we take these small wins where we can find them.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. It is really good news that the Government, as we understand it, are changing their position on the provision of free school meal vouchers over the summer, but does she agree that, to date, the system has been far from perfect? The contractor that has taken on this job has failed, for example, to provide children with vouchers for supermarkets in the villages or towns where they live. Does that not need to be fixed before the summer?
The Secretary of State will be well aware of the issues with the Edenred voucher scheme —the fact that many families have arrived at supermarkets and been turned away, that many schools have had to step in when vouchers have not been readily available and fund school meals themselves, and that in many cases they have not received assurances from the Government that they will be recompensed for that monetary expenditure. Perhaps he can provide those assurances today.
So far, the Welsh Government and Assembly have agreed to do it, the Scottish Parliament has agreed to do it, the Northern Ireland Assembly has within the last three or four hours agreed to do it, and at long last the Government here have agreed to do it. Society is measured by its attitude to those who are less well off. I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this forward and look forward to the Government’s participation and making this a success.
I thank the hon. Member for his comments.
These children are not just statistics. The vast majority are children in working families, where parents are working around the clock to cover bills but where there is never enough. They are the children of parents who perhaps cannot work, through no fault of their own, for reasons such as chronic ill health. They may be the children of communities that have suffered from generations of unemployment and who feel their hopes and dreams are unachievable, no matter how hard they try, because the jobs simply are not there.
I am sure the hon. Lady will agree that it is quite distasteful that the Government have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this point. I note she said earlier that it is ultimately about not just holiday hunger but the ingrained childhood poverty we see all around us. She talked about other measures being needed. Does she agree that one thing the Government might consider is replicating in England the Scottish child payment, whereby lower income families are given extra help and additional funds to pull them up so there is less need in the household?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments. We take these small wins where we find them, but this campaign has demonstrated how the Government can be encouraged to change their position when we bring together our communities and key figures in sport, entertainment and so on, around an issue that our communities are passionate about. Let us move on as a House, tackle the root cause and move on together, united, to make lives better for these children.
Marcus was right in his letter yesterday. He spoke emotionally about his own story. He stated:
“My story to get here is all-too-familiar for families in England: my mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough. The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked.”
He is right. The shameful reality is that for so many people in Britain today, no matter how hard they try, they cannot make ends meet. Opportunities are too few, wages are too low and bills are too high. Before the pandemic, more than 4 million children in the UK were living in poverty—that is nine out of every class of 30— and that is expected to rise to 5.2 million by 2022. Child poverty is a pandemic of its own in this country and one that has got far worse, unfortunately, over the last few years. Child poverty reduced by 800,000 under the last Labour Government, but the TUC found that, in 2019, that progress had been completely reversed, with the number of children growing up in in-work poverty alone having risen by 800,000 since 2010. Some 47% of children living in lone-parent families are in poverty, 45% of children from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are in poverty and 72% of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one person works.
The Food Foundation has found that food insecurity has increased by almost 250% since lockdown began, affecting 5 million adults and 2.5 million children. While the free school meals U-turn is welcome, it is not enough. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that we need the Government to raise their game fast to protect the millions of people who are now going to face even more hardship?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments, and I completely agree. While today’s U-turn is welcome, it is merely a sticking plaster.
Work is often not a route out of poverty any more. Living in poverty does not mean people do not work or work hard, as some would have us believe. Shamefully, children go hungry every year, but this summer will be especially difficult for many families, as job losses and reduced incomes hit household budgets. Research from the Food Foundation shows that more than 200,000 children have had to skip meals because their family could not access the food they need during lockdown. The Institute for Public Policy Research has found that 200,000 more children are among those expected to be below the pre-virus poverty line at the end of the year.
It is very likely that, since the latest data became available, more than the 1.3 million children already eligible for free school meals will become eligible, with 2.1 million people claiming unemployment-related benefits in April alone, an increase of over 850,000 on the previous month. Indeed, in its coronavirus reference scenario, the Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted that the unemployment rate may rise to 10%.
Does the hon. Lady agree with me that no Government in history have created more jobs than this Government over the last five years, yet every single Labour Government have left power with higher unemployment than when they got into power? Should she not be grateful for the fact that we have a Conservative Government that will actually create more jobs than any Labour Government have ever managed to achieve?
I thank the hon. Member for his comment, but I think he must have been asleep when I outlined the scale of child poverty, particularly the point I made about many children living in working households. A job might be a job, but it is not good enough if that job does not provide enough for people to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. That is what many families are going through across the country at the moment, so let us up our game on this.
Not only is it simply wrong for children to be going to bed hungry, but it is likely to heighten the already substantial gap in attainment between the poorest and their peers. “Newsnight” reported last week that the poorest children usually end up five weeks behind where they were at the end of term because of the usual six-week summer break. With potentially six months away from school, I dread to think what the impact of this period will be on the education of the most disadvantaged children this year, without urgent help.
The Government are said to be planning a big catch-up programme for the summer holidays, which will of course be welcome and I wait to see the detail. However, I would be grateful if the Secretary of State agreed today to ensure that, as part of this, he will develop a national plan for education, where local authorities are funded to make a summer holiday local offer to children and young people; where schools are provided with additional resources, such as an enhanced pupil premium to help disadvantaged children; and where public buildings such as libraries and sports centres are used to expand the space available to schools to ensure safe social distancing.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for being so generous in giving way. She makes a really important point. Of course, if there are 30 kids in a class, to do this carefully and safely may mean having to split it three ways. Does she agree with me that it is right that the Government fund not only the additional space that will be needed, but the additional teaching assistants we need to make sure that those children are properly looked after and taught?
Indeed. The hon. Member makes an important point. Certainly, I would like the Government to look at sourcing these additional teachers, and encouraging qualified teachers who have left the profession to return to support pupils is certainly one such avenue.
As a qualified teacher before entering this House, I would be more than delighted to return to the frontline and help in any way I can. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made a point about schools looking to expand. Rather than spend more money on portakabins and using other buildings, would it not be better—given that the science shows that children are more likely to be hit by lightning than tragically pass away from covid-19—to get all children back into the classroom in September in their school buildings, where we know they are safest?
The Secretary of State has his first volunteer to provide targeted tuition for pupils come September. I look forward to seeing the hon. Gentleman in the classroom once again. I am sure that Members across the House agree that safety has to be the No. 1 priority, and I know that that view is shared by the Secretary of State. We have to work across the House, and the Government really need to start pushing the boundaries and creating a taskforce, with experts, teaching unions and school leaders, to look at how we can safely get children back into school. That will be the best place for them—emotionally and academically—but it is not a trade-off between safety and being back in school. We need to achieve both.
What we do not need from the Government is another rabbit-out-of-the-hat announcement. My hon. Friend has just set out the sorts of things that we need in place if we are going to reopen schools in September, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) just suggested. That would require the Government to set out a plan now and to start to engage with teachers’ unions, teachers themselves, heads of schools, local authorities and parents to create confidence that it is safe to send children back to school. That is what is lacking from the Government; they need to engage more widely if we are going to create the confidence that children can return safely.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. This is about assuring parents, teachers, school staff, pupils and wider communities about safety, and ensuring that we get children back into school in a very safe way. To do that, we have to have a consensus, which is why I have repeatedly called for the creation of a taskforce to bring together all those in the education sector to come up with the safety principles that need to be put in place in schools to ensure their safe reopening, and to produce a national plan for education so that pupils receive the emotional and academic support that they deserve.
Let me turn to additional support measures. I would like the Secretary of State to look at future GCSEs and A-levels, and to have discussions with Ofqual about changes to account for the work that has been lost during this period in order to provide a fair assessment of young people’s attainment. We also need provisions in the event that there is a second spike resulting in pupils being sent back home and being unable to take exams in the usual way.
As the hon. Lady will be fully aware, one of the biggest challenges is that although we have a curriculum, schools teach that curriculum in many different orders. How has she factored that into her suggestion for a potential change in the examination process?
The hon. Gentleman may have missed my first sentence on that point; I think that the Government need to have discussions with Ofqual to look at how changes can be managed properly. He is right that different schools take different modules at different times, and different exam boards have exams set out in different ways, but the challenge is not insurmountable. These discussions need to start now, not at the last minute. We have already lost too much time.
I would also like the Secretary of State to look at blended learning. We do not know how long this pandemic will last and we need to provide for adequate home and school learning. I want him to work with the sector to look at the support that pupils will need both in school and at home, and at how much face-to-face contact can be provided remotely and in person.
On digital provision, we know that free laptops have been promised to year 10s and selected children, but I want to see a guarantee that every single child can access their work online. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that—at the very least—he will start with a commitment to providing devices to all children eligible for free school meals if they do not have access to a digital device?
As my hon. Friend may know, only yesterday I presented to the House on a cross-party basis my Internet Access (Children Eligible for Free School Meals) Bill, which asks the Government to look at the means to provide internet access and devices for the 1.3 million children in England entitled to free school meals. Would she urge the Secretary of State to support that Bill?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comment. I certainly would urge the Secretary of State to consider the points that have been made. I thank her for all the work that she has done on this vital issue. It is a sensible proposal and hopefully one that the Secretary of State will respond on today.
It is important not to forget that even children who have not been through very difficult circumstances throughout this pandemic will still have been profoundly affected emotionally. That is why we need to have a national plan for children’s wellbeing to provide emotional and mental health support when children eventually do return to the classroom. These are the building blocks of a national academic and emotional programme for children. Failing to provide the most basic support for children will undermine this effort. The fact is that no child can learn if they are hungry. That is why it is so important that this year, especially, the Government have stepped in to ensure that all children have a holiday without hunger and that they are funding free school meals over that period.
But now that there is a consensus emerging on the damage that child poverty does to the outcome of our children’s lives, I ask Members to truly address these issues. The two-child cap on child benefit and the five-week delay to the first payment of universal credit are cruelly blighting the lives of children and their families. Will Members now pressure the Government to address decimated school and local authority budgets and the closure of Sure Start centres? Will Members’ concerns on these issues be heightened now? Last month, a survey by the National Education Union told harrowing tales of children without coats and with ill-fitting, ripped shoes; children who were tired and thin; children with mental health issues unable to get help; children with bed bug infestations and rats in their homes. It is no surprise that these children often find it more difficult to learn, and no surprise that during lockdown they are likely to have fallen further behind than their peers. It is no surprise that over 1 million of these children do not even have access to a digital device.
Humanity has won a small battle today, but we have not won the war against poverty. I say to every Member here: remember why you are here; remember who put you in this place and why. We are ultimately 650 individual people elected by our communities to protect and improve their lives. We are the voice of the voiceless. That is the moral compass that should guide every one of our days in this place. This summer, when you wander through parks and streets in the place that you call home, with every child that passes you by, innocently unaware of the vast power that you hold over their life, you will wonder, are they hungry, are they suffering—did I speak for them when they had no voice?
We have the power to change those children’s lives—to speak up like Marcus Rashford did. We have seen the true power that campaigns can bring in encouraging the Government to change their position. We now have to build a consensus across this House that this country will not tolerate child poverty and that we will encourage the Government to bring forward a raft of economic and social policies with one aim—to eradicate child poverty.
In this House we all understand the profound impact that this pandemic has had on people’s lives. Supporting those on lower incomes and vulnerable families is at the heart of everything that we do as a Government. We have taken unprecedented action to support individuals and also to support families. We stepped in to pay the wages of over 9 million people through one of the most generous schemes anywhere in the world. We have launched self-employed income support schemes. We have increased universal credit and working tax credit by over £1,000 a year, injecting more than £6.5 billion into the welfare system. This Government have been firmly and wholeheartedly on the side of those who need help and support at every stage of this pandemic. We have provided millions of families with the support they need to pay their bills, keep their homes and feed their families. At times of crisis, we must think, above all, about the most vulnerable in our society. No one in this House, on either side of the Chamber, ever wants to see a child go hungry. We are all united in that simple view.
Let me remind hon. Members of the Conservative party’s record on free school meals. From 2014, free school meals were offered to further education students for the first time ever in the history of the free school meals programme. We extended free school meals to all infant children in England’s state schools, and an extra 1.5 million children are now receiving a healthy school lunch as a result of that decision. In our response to covid-19, we have for the first time provided free school meals for those who are currently at home.
We must remember that free school meals are not about providing financial support for families; they are there to support a child’s education. Receiving a healthy, nourishing meal is a critical way of helping a child to focus and to learn in school. It helps to enable a child to fulfil their potential, which is essential if we want to break the cycle of poverty from which far too many children right across the country suffer.
My right hon. Friend is correct to say that the will to support these vulnerable children is felt across the House and that it unites us all. I have one concern that I hope he will alleviate. Many of the most vulnerable children do not live in happy, healthy households. We often find that those children—the ones that schools normally look out for—are in a position where their parents are not necessarily going to use those vouchers in the right way, and the current system seems to have no safeguards against that. My constituency has one of the highest levels of domestic abuse and one of the highest levels of addiction anywhere in the country. Can we add, before the summer, a mechanism to ensure that the vouchers are used for healthy meals for vulnerable children?
I can assure my hon. Friend that measures are in place to ensure that the vouchers are not used for things such as alcohol, cigarettes or gambling. That is an important protection. He touches on an important point, because one of the greatest strengths of our free school meals system, where children get a free meal at their school, is ensuring that it is a healthy meal and it is there to support the child.
I just want to press the Secretary of State on the same point that I asked the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) about. The issue with free school meal vouchers, particularly in rural communities such as mine, is that someone may live in Sedbergh and not have a supermarket for which they have voucher within 10 miles. Can we look again to make sure that this U-turn, which I massively welcome, is valuable to every child, no matter where they live?
I ask hon. Members to give me the opportunity to make some progress.
We have understood that, in holiday time, there is a need to offer a wide range of support. This summer, tens of thousands of disadvantaged children will receive additional support through our holiday activities and food programme, which is available thanks to £9 million of Government funding.
I am incredibly grateful that disadvantaged youngsters in my area will benefit from this support, but my local council was recently unsuccessful in a bid to the holiday activities fund; will my right hon. Friend review that bid and meet me so that we can guarantee that the most disadvantaged youngsters across Stockton benefit from a summer of experiences and opportunities?
I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that issue. What we have been doing on the holiday activities programmes is an important step forward. To pick up on something that the shadow Secretary of State mentioned, it is not just about feeding; it is about supporting young people in so many different aspects of their learning and broader health outcomes.
My right hon. Friend will be well aware that in Stoke-on-Trent we have the wonderful Hubb Foundation, run by Carol Shanahan, the owner of Port Vale football club. Linking with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), I urge the Secretary of State to look into how we can expand the holiday programmes so that every town, city and village has some access to great programmes that not only help with health and wellbeing but do educational work to help the most disadvantaged in our communities.
I am very familiar with the schemes that have been run in Stoke-on-Trent and have had the opportunity to meet Mrs Shanahan, whom I commend, as well as a Stoke-on-Trent City Council and its leader Councillor Abi Brown, who have played such an important role in the opportunity area that we have established in Stoke-on-Trent, which is making a real difference to so many children’s lives. I would be happy to discuss in more detail with my hon. Friend, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), how we can make sure that, with holiday activity programmes, we can make a difference to children’s lives, not just through food but through activities.
Further to the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), the Government have done a huge amount on free school meals over the past 10 years and we should be proud of that. These are unprecedented measures for unprecedented times, but the best place for free school meals is in school, so will the Secretary of State confirm his intention to get all pupils back to school in September?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as we would always expect from a Staffordshire Member of Parliament. He is right that the best place for free school meals to be delivered is in schools, where we can ensure that the very best is given to the child, and that emotional and educational support is wrapped around that child. That is why we need to ensure that every effort is made to ensure that all schoolchildren are back in schools for September.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that having children in school is essential to closing the inequality gap? I wish to highlight the excellent work of the Lighthouse in Bourne End, which works with children with learning disabilities and helps them with their summer programme. We need more programmes like that to help people to get back on track and to help vulnerable children. We do not need to throw extra things at children so that they can work at home; we need them back in school with their teachers, learning in a secure environment where they can grow and the inequality gap can close.
The Secretary of State will perhaps recall that last year the Children’s Future Food inquiry was published. One of its recommendations was that an independent UK watchdog for children’s food should be established immediately, so that we have committed and energetic leadership to deliver for children. Such a watchdog has not been established; are there are any plans to establish one? What are the obstacles to doing so?
I should make some progress, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, because I am very conscious that Mr Deputy Speaker requested that we keep our speeches short.
Next summer, I want to be looking at how we can do so much more to support our children by making sure that we see a greater and larger roll-out of our holiday activities programme, including through the new £1 billion fund that we pledged in our manifesto to help to create more high-quality childcare, after-school clubs and support during holidays. But I think we all understand that this is not a normal year. Schools have been closed as part of the essential measures that we have taken to defeat this deadly virus. We took that action in order to save lives, but I knew when we took that decision that our focus had to be on those who were most disadvantaged. That is why we were one of the first countries in the world to keep schools open for children from the most vulnerable backgrounds; it is why we invested more than £100 million in remote education, including delivering laptops and internet access to some of the most disadvantaged children so that they can continue learning—I very much want to look at how we can start to expand that and do more to ensure that all children have the support they need; and it is why we took swift and decisive action to ensure that we could continue free school meals for eligible children who were staying at home.
On behalf of the 13,532 vulnerable children on free school meals in Kirklees, I thank my right hon. Friend for his announcement today about continuing free school meals through the summer. As Marcus Rashford said, this is not about politics; it is about doing the right thing for vulnerable children and their families. Will my right hon. Friend continue to focus on doing the right thing for these children?
I assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to focus on doing the right thing. That will be the key aim of all this.
My hon. Friend makes a really important point about the vulnerable children right across society. I would like to take the opportunity to thank the many teachers and teaching assistants, the social workers who have worked so closely with schools, and the police who have identified some of the children who are most vulnerable—those who needed someone to take the opportunity to reach out to them and make sure that they came into school and had a safe place to come. They have done a magnificent job, and I think everyone in the House is deeply grateful for the triumphant and heroic efforts that they have all made.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the support that teachers and schools have offered to vulnerable people goes much further than just a free school meal? Some of the most vulnerable children in schools in Peterborough have received regular phone calls from their teachers making sure that they are okay and they are looked after during this difficult time.
This is where we need to drive things further, to build up layer upon layer of support for children who are not in school to make sure that they are constantly learning, that they do not fall behind and that they constantly move forward in their education and benefit from the world-class education we have in this country.
Many schools have done an amazing job of keeping free school meals going through either food collections or deliveries. Where schools were unable to do that, we set up the national free school meals voucher. That scheme was established at pace, and over £150 million-worth of vouchers have been redeemed through it.
Alongside the voucher scheme, we continue to provide schools with all their expected funding, including funding to cover free school meals, and most schools right across the country have continued provision in school for those children who are most vulnerable. On top of that, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has provided an additional £63 million for local authorities to help those who are struggling financially to pay not just for food but for other necessities at this incredibly difficult time.
Although many children are now returning to school thanks to the outstanding efforts of hard-working teachers and all those who work in schools, we are not yet out of this crisis. In schools, homes, workplaces and, above all, the NHS, people up and down the country are still making extraordinary sacrifices to overcome this deadly disease.
Free school meals have always been a term-time provision, and that is what they should be, but while we are in extraordinary times, we must not be bound by the constraints of what normally happens. A Government should always listen to the people who need them most. I would like to extend my particular thanks to Marcus Rashford for using his public position to amplify the voices of those who must and should be heard. By speaking out for the less fortunate and raising the phenomenal total of over £20 million in just a few days, he represents the best of Britain and is a role model for all the children who look up to him for inspiration.
We should never be ashamed to listen. I am pleased to announce that we will provide additional funding for a covid summer food fund, to enable children who are eligible for free school meals to claim a six-week voucher. As we prepare for schools to reopen fully in September, we will ensure that no child goes hungry. As we move forward, we will continue to do all we can to support disadvantaged children through not just free school meals but a long-term and sustained programme of catch-up activities, to close the educational gap, which has widened during this period, and ensure that every child in this country can achieve their full potential. We are finalising those plans, and I will shortly be in a position to outline them to the House. We will not be moving our amendment, and I commend this motion to the House.
I am very glad that the Government have reversed their decision not to continue to fund free school meals through the long summer holiday, despite the amendment on the Order Paper, which I am glad they are not moving—we would not have thought that it was even there, listening to some of the interventions from Government Members. That was the least that they could do.
I would like to thank and congratulate Marcus Rashford, the talented young footballer who has spoken so powerfully from his own experience and who has repeatedly put his money where his mouth is, supporting FareShare financially during the covid crisis and writing to all Members of the House to urge them to support reinstating free school meals over the summer. He has just won his first political campaign.
I know how much football fans in my city of Liverpool —through the efforts of Fans Supporting Foodbanks, led, inter alia, by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne)—have done to support those facing hunger. They have been at the forefront of efforts to alleviate the spiralling increase in hunger and food poverty caused by austerity and the covid crisis. They have been supported financially by players during the covid crisis too, to ensure that they can continue to do their work and be the bulwark against hunger that they are.
They always have been that. I was not aware of those numbers, but I am now.
For many years—from the Front Bench when I was on it, and now from the Back Benches—I have highlighted the ever increasing food poverty crisis that my constituents have been enduring, driven by savage cuts in public spending and support for families. The nature of the job market, which is dominated by insecure work, low pay, short-hours and zero-hours contracts, has been one of the drivers of increasing food poverty, but it has been made much worse by the covid crisis.
I do agree with that analysis, as it happens, but I would have to agree in any event in order to keep the peace in the family, even at a distance. My hon. Friend is correct. Precariousness in the labour market—particularly under-employment, as it used to be called, with zero-hours contracts being a prime example—is one of the main causes of the financial instability that leads to the food poverty that I have seen increasing in my constituency over the past 10 years to a remarkable degree. It has been made much worse by the covid crisis. Children are the most innocent victims of that. In the past three Parliaments, I have repeatedly seen incomprehension on the faces of Ministers. They have not seemed to accept that there is a real problem of hunger out there when I and other hon. Members on the Opposition Benches have pointed it out to them, but there is. It was real and growing before covid. It is bigger and starker now.
Free school meals are a direct way to tackle food poverty for children in normal times, but what if the schools are closed or the parents’ income has been removed while their bills remain or are at best deferred? That is what the covid crisis has done. Some 18,000 children are eligible for free school meals in Liverpool, including more than 3,500 in my constituency. Some 29%—close to a third—of all children in my constituency live in poverty.
There are two other problems: first, that things are getting worse, and secondly, that the capacity of local authorities to assist has been systematically undermined and is diminishing rapidly because of Government policies. Before the covid crisis, unemployment in my constituency was at 4.5%. Today’s figures show that the claimant count has almost doubled in two months to 7.9%, which is above the national average. A further 11,500 jobs are furloughed, which is some 18% of the working-age population in my constituency, and 2,600 people are taking up support from the self-employment income support scheme.
Those schemes are valued and important, and I congratulate the Government on instituting them, but many of those livelihoods will be severely at risk over the next two to three months as the Government schemes are brought to an end. Liverpool city region research and other research into the job situation in the Merseyside area suggests that up to a quarter of all jobs are at risk as a fallout of the economic consequences that we are suffering because of covid. The reality is that unemployment in my constituency is likely to be even higher soon.
Unemployment over 10% and a quarter of jobs at risk of going—that reminds me of something. It reminds me of the early 1980s in Liverpool, which was truly the worst of times. I remember it; I was there. Many of my constituents are now in desperate need, having found themselves unemployed with bills still to pay and a financial reckoning heading straight towards them.
In many areas, queues formed quickly outside retail outlets yesterday, as non-essential shops began to reopen, but I am told that the longest queue that formed in Knowsley was outside a local pawnbrokers. There has been a 389% increase there in universal credit applications since before covid. As universal credit is a passport benefit to free school meals, the need is obviously increasing hugely.
Meanwhile, the ability of Liverpool City Council and Knowsley Council to respond and provide extra help is being removed by a Government who have not even kept their own promise at the beginning of the crisis to pay councils the full cost of covid. Far from being paid back what they have paid out, both councils in my constituency have received only about half the costs incurred. That is a recipe for removing their ability to further help children in need as the crisis of child hunger worsens.
In Liverpool, the council was spending £108,000 a week funding a £10 voucher for children eligible for free school meals. It is a good job that it did, because the chaos engendered at the beginning of the Government’s scheme meant that Government vouchers were not forthcoming for weeks. Last year, the council spent a quarter of a million pounds providing city-wide play schemes that included food for the children using them across the city. It is not clear if it will be able to do that in 2020 because of the financial shortfall. In Knowsley, the council has spent £360,000 funding meal vouchers for children, which it will not get back from the Government.
During the lockdown, local councillors in Knowsley and Liverpool have overwhelmingly used their discretionary funds and their volunteering time to feed people, including children. That is all in addition to the food provided, eventually, by the Government’s shielding scheme. The Torrington Drive Community Association in Halewood has delivered more than 2,000 meals and is currently delivering 120 meals, three times a week, including 150 packed lunches for children. In Belle Vale, 2,600 food packs have been given out at three distribution centres, with new families still coming in and asking for help. In Cressington, local councillors have spent £9,000—all of their discretionary funds—simply feeding people, including children, who need support, with the help of Can Cook kitchen, a food poverty charity, whose work I have highlighted before. Yes, I am glad that the Government have seen sense, and have decided to give help that will feed children over the summer holidays; it will be given directly to their parents in the form of vouchers. The Government should not, as some of their Members were close to doing, equate poverty with fecklessness. It is wrong to do so, and I know that the Secretary of State will not fall into that trap.
The Government need to step up to the challenge of making sure that the next few years in Liverpool are not a rerun of the early 1980s. They could begin by giving Liverpool City Council and Knowsley Borough Council the full costs of covid, as they promised they would. In the longer term, they must address the underlying causes of holiday hunger, child poverty, low wages and insecure work. It is only when they do so that this problem will truly be solved.
It is an incredible honour to speak in this debate and give my maiden speech. Schools and the health and nutrition of our children are of paramount importance. No parent should have to worry about where their child’s next meal might come from, so during this crisis it is right that the Government will step in to protect the most vulnerable in our society, just as they have done repeatedly throughout the pandemic. This is conservatism in action. Although these are testing times for the country and our communities, everyone, especially people in Rother Valley, will pull through stronger than ever before.
To many people, the name “Rother Valley” focuses the mind on our beautiful Rother Valley country park, but to me and all who live there it is a selection of beautiful small towns and villages, proudly situated in Yorkshire, that are wrapped up in a love for their country and their home. We have a diverse range of communities, from Bramley to Wickersley, Laughton-en-le-Morthen to Ulley, and we even have our own Wales. There is something for everyone, but it is our industrial heritage that is a great source of pride in Rother Valley.
Coal mining has played an important part in the development of our area, with some of the country’s most important mines situated at Maltby, Kiveton, Thurcroft and Treeton. Many areas of Rother Valley have a long history of mining, but in Whiston the mining of whitestone was recorded in the Domesday Book. However, our history boasts more than just our contribution to industry. There have been settlements at Dinnington since neolithic times, and at Anston since the palaeolithic period, and there are other ancient settlements at Aughton, Swallowsnest, Woodsetts and Todwick.
We have also had our share of historic houses at Thorpe Salvin, Hellaby, Aston and Firbeck, with the former owner of Firbeck Hall being a source of inspiration for the novel “Ivanhoe”. In more recent times, history was made at Rother Valley outside a coking plant in 1984, when the infamous battle of Orgreave took place. We have strong farming areas around Harthill and Hooton Levitt, not to mention the majestic beauty of Roche abbey, which fell foul of Henry VIII’s awful anti-Catholic measures.
It would be remiss of me to give my maiden speech without acknowledging that I would not be standing in the House today were it not for the love and unwavering support of my family and friends: my parents, Theresa and James, who taught me from an early age that it is not where you have come from but where you are going in life that matters; my brother, Gregory, for helping to inspire me to go into politics; my daughter, Persephone, who was an unwitting campaigner during the election; and, of course, my wife, Natalie, to whom I owe this victory and all other successes.
My predecessor, Kevin Barron, formerly “Red Kev” and more recently Sir Kevin, was first elected four years before I was born, and although we would disagree on many things, his love for our area and his championing of anti-smoking measures are to be much applauded. One thing that surely separates me from my predecessors is the collieries. Whereas all of them had close ties to the mining community, either working in the collieries or for those who did, my ties are more with the steel community, which is also key to our local prosperity. Times have changed, and as they have done so, so have the people of Rother Valley. We look to a better, brighter future for our children and our children’s children.
Nevertheless, some things do remain constant, and that is what I espouse. The traditions of the Conservative party—hard work, law and order, family values and Christian morals—are timeless, classless and ageless. Those are the values of Rother Valley and they are ones that inspire me. Those are the common values that bind this great nation together. Love your family, love your friends, love your country, love your Queen and love your God, and you cannot go wrong. That is the contract of those who have gone before us and those who will go after us. These are the values that have spread prosperity, wealth and hope to billions across the globe. Britain, this small island nation, has a great history, and through our values and ideals it has changed the world for the better. It is these universal values that will continue to improve the world.
Rother Valley is not a huge place, but I know that each and every constituent can and will change the world for the better. We have done so before and we will do so again. You will never find a more industrious, hard-working, family-loving, patriotic people than those across Rother Valley. We are rightly proud of our history, heritage and culture. We are not a people to tear things down; we would rather raise them up. It is these attitudes that have driven the wealth of South Yorkshire and, ultimately, the wealth of this great nation.
In this House, we often hear the places that turned blue for the first time being referred to as “left behind”, but I can tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the men and women of Rother Valley do not feel left behind. Instead, they feel empowered. Rather than being told what their lives are going to be like or should be like, we have chosen a different path, one where we will no longer be taken for granted, and where our voices and our votes do matter. We do matter and last December we spoke with one voice. Just like outside Jericho in the days of old, we blew the horn of hope and the red wall came tumbling down. Some voters lent me their vote for the first time. I say to them, “I will not let you down. I will listen. We may have disagreements and different opinions, but the first and foremost job of a Member of this House is to listen and that is what I will do.”
No more will people in Rother Valley be neglected and forgotten. As I look upon this House, whose very walls were crafted from the fine stone of Anston in Rother Valley, I am mindful of the words of that great barbarian King Gelimer as he was paraded in chains through Constantinople by Justinian’s general, Belisarius, following the great liberation of Carthage: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. For what matters in this House is not just the pomp and splendour, although these traditions are incredibly important, but the people we represent, the beating heart of our nation who put us here and whose very presence we honour by being here. Come what may, I will always be true to the people of Rother Valley, as I know they will always be true to Britain.
I will be brief, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I have no choice. I pay tribute to the maiden speech by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford). For a moment, I thought I was in The Old Vic towards the end of it, but it was a superb speech and we all look forward to hearing from him repeatedly in the future. I also pay tribute to his predecessor, Kevin Barron, who is a friend of mine and of many people on this side of the House—and, indeed, on the other side of the House. Kevin was a miner for many years at Maltby colliery. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned mining, I should say that Kevin had his arm broken during the miners’ strike, on the picket line at Maltby colliery. The hon. Gentleman did not mention that, but he might be aware of it.
Returning to the subject of the debate, I want to speak entirely about my constituency. In Leyton and Wanstead, just over 2,000 children are entitled to free school meals. They are concentrated in the four or five poorest wards in my constituency, which means they are among the poorest wards in London, which means they are among the poorest in the country.
This is not an area that has been de-industrialised. It is one that is fairly near the heart of one of the richest cities in the world, in one of the biggest economies in the world, yet we have 2,000 children entitled to free school meals. Communities such as the communities I represent will find it inexplicable that the Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into making a U-turn four hours ago, after days and days and days of pressure from outside this place, from within this place and most notably from Marcus Rashford, as has been mentioned frequently. If Ministers had not finally done the right thing and decided to make this U-turn, that would not have been inconsequential for the people living in Leyton and Wanstead among those poorer communities, because, as my hon. and right Friends have mentioned, it comes on top of a history of deprivation and of working long hours. Many of those children, and many of the children who are not entitled to free school meals but who nevertheless are not among the richest people on the planet, have parents or single parents who work at two or three jobs, who work all the hours that God sends, and who were already facing financial difficulties before the virus struck and before the lockdown.
Leyton and Wanstead is the fifth highest constituency in the country in terms of people furloughed: 33%—one in three—of people living in Leyton and Wanstead are on furlough at the moment. If we put that together with all the other financial constraints, and with zero-hours contracts and with vulnerable working—across the country that runs to about 4 million people at the moment—and if we add on top of that an end to free school meals across the summer holidays, it is clear those families and those children would have been facing a vista that is too appalling for many of us to contemplate.
I will finish on the following comment. The Government should bear this in mind. It is not a direct quote from Winston Churchill, but it certainly paraphrases something he said in the 1930s: no British Government can make a better investment than putting food into British children. Bear that in mind.
I would like to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) on an excellent maiden speech and his lyrical description of his constituency. I also congratulate him on the arrival of his daughter.
I warmly welcome the Government announcement of the covid summer food fund to provide meals through the school summer holidays, and I am grateful to know that, as a new MP, when I raised my voice, the Government were listening. There are three reasons why I felt this was the right thing to do.
The first is the simplicity of the implementation process. I know there is a convenient narrative that the Conservatives were going to keep children hungry through the summer holidays, and I know that that was not the case. I am grateful to the Minister for taking time with me yesterday to explain what the plan was for families who are facing extreme difficulty during the summer, and I considered very carefully what was suggested—the £63 million that was being made available to local authorities to fund families in need, and the £9 million to fund holiday camps where lunch would also be provided.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an excellent opportunity here for voluntary sectors to get involved over the summer and beyond? Organisations such as Passion in Shepshed look after children on a day-to-day basis, offering them food, but also places to do homework and extra work, and support and assistance in every way. Does she agree that there is an opportunity there?
There is an opportunity, and in fact an imperative, to involve wider civil society in getting kids back into school.
While I saw the force in the Minister’s plans, the simple truth to me was that they introduced a layer of bureaucracy and administration, and I was concerned that there was a risk that some of that funding would be delayed, or it might vary or be uneven between local authorities. The fact of the matter is that 1.3 million children are eligible to receive free school meals. They have been identified; their eligibility has been confirmed. They are already receiving the meal or a voucher if they are not in school at the moment. If we have the capability and the will to help children through this period, it is incumbent upon us to find the most direct and accessible means of doing so.
My second point is that it is absolutely right that 12 weeks into the lockdown, we fix our focus very firmly on children. I have thought about the sequencing of how we proceeded through this period. The Government’s starting point, which was absolutely right, was the extremely clinically vulnerable and their protection, and, in fact, the provision of food was an integral part of that. I think that 2 million food boxes—I may be wrong; it may be more—have been distributed in the last 12 weeks.
We then turned our focus to workers and the unprecedented package of support for the 9 million people benefiting through the furlough scheme and the 2.5 million people benefiting through the self-employed income support scheme. We then looked at charities and businesses across every sector, whether it was in terms of grants, business interruption loans, bounce-back loans, future funds or discretionary loans. There was such an array of options, and yet the category of people that we know the very least about are children, and particularly, disadvantaged children, because the fact is that their emails do not fill our inboxes.
To refer to the points that were made in the previous intervention, we all have very important charitable groups in our constituencies. We could all reel off their names and they do fantastic work, but does the hon. Lady agree that essential services, particularly regarding children’s hunger, cannot be contracted out to charitable groups? That is surely the Government’s job, and the reason that these charitable groups have grown up is that the Government have failed.
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. I do not agree that the Government have failed, but I do agree that it is desirable that we provide free school meals, and I hope that she has understood that that is the tenor of my speech this afternoon.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s Department made arrangements for vulnerable children to attend school, but we know that take-up has been relatively low. Arrangements were made for children to learn from home, but the evidence suggests, certainly from heads in my constituency, that this has been quite patchy. Although the Government took unprecedented steps in relation to domestic abuse, the truth is that we do not really know what happens behind closed doors. None of this is a criticism of the Government. The lockdown was an imperative and it was right that schools closed when they did, but in my view it underscores the urgency of prioritising the needs of particularly vulnerable children going forward, and I see continuing to fund free school meals during the holidays as a fundamental part of this.
To turn to my final point, I think that the provision of free school meals places a value on many of those parents whom, historically, we have not really valued enough. I think of my children’s friends at schools they have attended, who have received direct support from the Government, either in the form of the pupil premium or through free school meals. Those children’s parents have been cleaners, bus drivers or hospital porters—what we now call frontline staff, but even six months ago we might not have used that term about a cleaner. They are people who have been doing low-paid and sometimes, in the context of covid-19, dangerous work. That is my experience of one school in one city, but I think that we can transpose those families’ stories across the country.
I know that when the summer holidays come, they are challenging at the best of times, particularly for families on low incomes, and particularly when you do not have the resources of perhaps grandparents to pick up the slack of childcare or camps in the usual way. In my view, it is right that we get on the front foot by providing direct support for families like that at this exceptional time.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) on his virtuoso maiden speech, proving that his constituents made an extremely wise choice. I am pleased to be able to speak in today’s debate, and congratulate the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on securing it. Our children have only one chance at childhood and one chance of getting the education they need. Education, as we Government Members know, is the best way out of poverty. It is the best way of levelling up and sometimes, sadly, it is the best escape from a home that lacks the love and support that we all want for our children but is not always available. That means that teaching is among the most important vocations in society. Teachers are the people we trust to bring up our children, to inspire them, to teach them our shared values of tolerance and respect, and for the environment—
As a former teacher, I absolutely agree about the value of teachers. Does my hon. Friend also agree that, while the support for free school meals is extremely welcome, the best thing we can do for the long-term futures of our children is to get them back into school in front of teachers—the professionals who know how to educate our children—and we will close that attainment gap?
My hon. Friend makes, characteristically, the apposite point. I want to thank all the teachers and heads across West Sussex for their huge efforts made all year round, but particularly during the pandemic. I am pleased to report that all schools in my constituency of Arundel and South Downs are open to at least some year groups. In particular, I want to pay tribute to the parents, pupils and staff at Clapham and Patching school in my constituency, who only yesterday learned the wonderful news that they have saved their 200-year-old village school from closure. I congratulate the excellent South Downs Education Trust, which put forward the successful proposal to maintain the school.
As other Members have said, a hungry child is not a learning child, and is a tragedy that we should not accept in our society. I welcome the Government’s announcement today adding to their very extensive support in this area. I want to highlight the national school breakfast programme, which gives thousands of children in some of the most deprived areas the opportunity to attend a breakfast club. That programme so far reaches 1,800 schools and serves a free nutritious breakfast every school day to 280,000 children.
It is working. A systematic review of the effects of breakfast carried out by the University of Leeds found a positive correlation between breakfast consumption and children’s cognitive function, including improvements in a child’s attention, memory and executive function. In 2016, the Education Endowment Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies carried out a randomised control trial and found that pupils in schools supported by the school breakfast programme made an amazing two months of additional academic progress over the course of a single year. In supporting today’s motion, I congratulate the Government on that valuable scheme, as well as thanking the charities Family Action and Magic Breakfast for all that they do to deliver it.
On days like this, I despair of this Government and their complete lack of understanding, care and emotion towards the very real issues in our country. [Interruption.] It is not a laughing matter for children to be raised in poverty and not have food. It is not something to laugh at. I am happy to explain what it is like to the Government Members who think it is funny.
What it is like to live in poverty is to be palmed off, like I was as a child, to social services, to go away for a week at a time. I went to Scarborough. The only memories I have of that time are that I went birdwatching and it was awfully cold staying in a dormitory. Only this afternoon, I rang my sister to ask, “Do you remember when we used to go to Scarborough because Mum used to send us there for summer holidays?” That is what poverty is—memories that you do not want to recall as an adult, even in my mid-40s. These are not memories that my constituents’ children should have to recall in generations to come.
I despair because today it has taken the experiences of a 22-year-old black man using his social media to get this Government to do the right thing. Our Prime Minister keeps saying, “I am going to take back control.” Who actually took control of this debate today? It was not us in this House. We should have been leading on this issue and doing the right thing before it needed a massive campaign by Marcus Rashford. I absolutely appreciate and thank him for taking that leadership, and others for supporting him, and our those on our Front Bench, who lobbied early this week and talked about the issue previously, but the Government should not have had to be dragged here kicking and screaming.
The Government should not need an international debate—just like today on child poverty—on racism for them to realise that they have failed to provide race equality in the UK, even according to their own recommendations. The Government should not need the entire country to scream in their face to act on a lockdown for us to be protected from covid-19. When it comes to saving millions, they are happy to do so for Tory donors. The figure quoted in the press as the saving made by approving a Tory donor’s Westferry development is £30 million to £40 million, yet we cannot find £120 million for our children. [Interruption.] I will make some progress. When it comes to defending the indefensible with a No. 10 adviser, this Government seem to find their mojo. They do not heed the campaigns that the country is screaming for.
I will not be giving way; I will make some progress.
Bradford West has one of the highest rates of child poverty. It is in the top 10 according to the charity End Child Poverty. Its findings show that 50.9% of children in my constituency live in poverty after housing costs. The Government’s own statistics show that almost 40,000 children across the Bradford district are living in poverty. Those children are not mere statistics. Each one of them is a Marcus Rashford, except the cycle of deprivation will mean they may never get out of poverty.
Marcus Rashford epitomises what happens in spite of, not because of, poverty. One of the reasons he felt the campaign was needed was that poverty was his experience. One of the reasons my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (James Murray) tweets about it and talks about it is that he also experienced life as a child of a single parent on free school meals, just like I did and just like my siblings did. Will the new yardstick in this place to get the Government to do the right thing be a campaign by a footballer or by somebody who has a social media following? Is that what the yardstick is going to be? That would be a crying shame.
Yes, the Government can say that they are running pilot schemes in constituencies such as mine—
I am thankful that the hon. Lady has shared her experience today with the Chamber. I intervene as someone who grew up benefiting from free school meals. Does she share my real disappointment that a year after the Children’s Future Food inquiry, which was about childhood hunger across the UK, the UK Government still have not formally responded to its report?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. We need to continually raise those points in the House. The Government can say that they are running a pilot scheme in constituencies such as mine, rolled out by the Department for Education, but such schemes simply do not go far enough.
The fight against child poverty and desperation needs much more intervention. In 2018, the programme reached 2,000 children in Bradford. Although I welcome it reaching every single one of those 2,000 children, what about the other 38,000? Businesses, charities and grassroots organisations in my constituency have been working tirelessly on that, but I am sorry—funding the NHS, protecting our streets and feeding hungry children are not the responsibilities of our charities; they are the responsibilities of democratic Governments of the first world. They are our responsibility. Perhaps those in government do not know how it feels to live in poverty, but they sure know how to make U-turns. For once I can say that I am glad about the U-turn the Government have made today.
It is a pleasure to be able to talk in this debate, which is on such a fundamentally important issue. I thank Ministers for what they have said today. It has helped me to avoid my worst nightmare of having to vote with the Labour party, which I spent the day fearing I might have to do. I am grateful for that, if nothing else. I also put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for all she has done over the years on this issue. It has been largely unsung, and she deserves much more praise than she gets.
It is hard not take an interest in this issue when one represents a town such as Blackpool. We have eight of the 10 most deprived areas in the country. Two of them are in my constituency. No one will know my constituency better than the Secretary of State, given that he preceded me there as a candidate. He will know that we are probably not facing a V-shaped economic recovery in Blackpool, where we have a fragile visitor economy and where the impact of coronavirus will be felt not just this year but for many years to come.
Nor will we see a V-shaped recovery in educational attainment, I fear, having had too many of our pupils away from education for too long. Too many of my primary schools see 50% of their pupils in each class change every year, as families move around the town in insecure, short-term tenancies in poor quality housing where the possibility of proper home education simply does not occur. That is why we see the inevitable spikes in food bank demand every time the summer holiday comes around, despite the very best efforts of so many charitable organisations around the constituency. In this context, I want to name Hannah Boyd, the curate at St Mark’s, who has done so much in Grange Park.
This is why I really welcome what Ministers have said today. I think they are doing the right thing. Merely rolling over to yet another programme of free school meals over another school holiday does not tackle the fundamentals of this. We would simply be having this debate every time there was a school holiday, with people asking whether we were going to roll it out again and again. Now, we have a chance to try to tackle some of the more fundamental issues that we face, which I know the hon. Member for South Shields and many others have been focusing on. I want to see a much more decentralised approach to tackling holiday hunger. We do not need yet another overly bureaucratic national attempt that tries to fit our young people and communities into a one-size-fits-all solution. Blackpool’s needs are very different from the needs of Staffordshire, Bradford and many other communities.
This represents an opportunity to think a little more deeply about what we want to achieve in relation to holiday hunger, because it is really a symptom of many other issues, not least that of financial insecurity. We still have too many people in absolute poverty. That is when families have been below the poverty line for three years out of four. That is a real concern of mine in Blackpool, and there are so many ways in which it can be tackled that I could easily spend the next 20 minutes talking about them. Tackling financial insecurity is the first step towards tackling food insecurity. We need to address issues such as food deserts, which mean that some of my poorest families cannot access good-value food, and cheap fresh food in particular. We also need to promote ideas such as community shops, which were around a couple of years ago but have now disappeared into nothing again. There is so much that we can do.
It is true that the coronavirus lockdown has acted as an accelerant on the fire of so many of the burning injustices that the last Prime Minister spoke of on the steps of Downing Street. Whether we call it social justice, compassionate Conservatism or levelling up, I really do not care. I just think this happens to be the right thing to do. Many people across the country in some of the most deprived communities voted for us for the first time last December. That is why we got to hear the maiden speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) today. They did not vote for us for any particular reason. They voted for us because they wanted to see a bit of change, and because they wanted to feel that they were special. We should not see them as pawns to be exploited in pursuit of one particular political objective. We need to ensure that we represent them. They may have lent us their vote, but they deserve our full attention. William Hague said in The Daily Telegraph today that the lockdown would cause an era of “inequality” and “social tension”, and we now have an obligation to bring about not just the economic recovery from coronavirus but the social recovery too. What the Secretary of State has put forward today is the first step in that direction.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate. I would like to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) for calling our Opposition day debate on this issue and forcing the Government to confront their inexplicable decision to abandon the programme of food support over the summer. I welcome the U-turn, although it would have been very difficult to learn from the Secretary of State’s contribution that there had been a U-turn at all. It was almost as though the Government were always going to do this. However, it took a huge campaign to achieve it, and I for one welcome the fact that the Government have conceded that the school voucher scheme will go on over this summer. I also agree with the comments that this kind of ad hoc approach is not a good enough way of tackling the issue of holiday hunger.
We know that, as Opposition Members have said, this has been caused by problems in our labour market: low pay, precarious work, and, due to a period of austerity, benefits not being good or generous enough to supply people with the basics. We also know that that hits the most vulnerable. We know that 200,000 children have skipped meals during the lockdown. We know that child poverty has increased since 2010. We know that seven out of 10 of those in poverty are in work. We know from the Trussell Trust that there was an 89% increase in the need for emergency food parcels in April. We know that there has been a 107% increase in parcels given to children. In my own constituency of Wallasey, 3,910 students were eligible for the voucher scheme. Having had a look at the increase in unemployment since March of 1,880, I know that that will be going up. There is extreme pressure.
I talked to a lot of my schools who have been dealing with this issue. Many of them say the same thing: that the food voucher scheme has helped to reduce financial and mental anxiety during the difficult times caused by the lockdown and covid; that vouchers to purchase food at least ensure that people do not have to worry about the basic requirement of being able to feed their families; and that without the Government making this concession children would undoubtedly have gone hungry, resulting in intolerable strain and collapse in our communities.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that a number of families who are eligible for the scheme may not have even had the vouchers? That could be an administrative issue or that they just do not know about it. That means that this is no silver bullet and that the Government need to continue to introduce schemes that will reach those who are the hardest to reach.
Absolutely. I think all of us experienced the chaos that was around when the scheme began. Many teachers who contacted me were pulling their hair out. Many schools spent a lot of money—as did local authorities—to ensure that food parcels were available until the voucher schemes were up and running. There were very many issues with them.
There are those who say that civil society should do this work and that the food bank system is an example of how lucky we are to have an engaged society, but one of the first things that happened when covid struck was that the entire food bank structure in my area had to close down because it was managed mainly by people who are in the older categories who then had to shield for their own wellbeing. The local authority then had to take on a lot of the central distribution of the food bank structures that had grown up to feed thousands of children in Wallasey every summer.
The Government need to pay great attention to how much support they give to the structures that are there to ensure that something as basic as access to food is available for the most vulnerable children. It means, of course, that those children can study and learn, and get a better chance than they would otherwise have had if they were wondering where their next meal would come from. The covid-19 crisis has shone a not very flattering light on the plummeting levels of social justice we have seen in this country throughout the years of austerity. It has shone an unflattering light on the edge that many of our fellow citizens live on, whether they are in zero-hours contracts, in precarious work, only just able to manage, without access to savings, or only one wage away from disaster. It is an issue for all of us to think about how this can be improved, but it is particularly for the Government to ensure that they tackle it, given that they are in power for the next four years.
I welcome the U-turn, and I would welcome it even more if the Government recognised that there was an issue and dealt with it more proactively, rather than being forced, by the fantastic and magnificent campaigning of Marcus Rashford, to U-turn at the last minute.
We all want to do the right thing for struggling families, but we all also want to ensure that there is fairness for the taxpayer, so it is important that the right approach is adopted.
This Government have been financially very generous throughout this outbreak. We have seen the multibillion-pound furloughing scheme, which has saved the livelihoods of millions of people in this country. Assistance has been given for the self-employed, and extra money has been invested in the NHS to help cope with the battle against covid-19. Of course, free school meals have been provided throughout his time in schools, or where schools are not open in the form of vouchers. In addition, they have been provided to children over the Easter and Whitsun periods, and will now cover the summer.
Nobody can claim that this Government have not put their hand in their pocket during the outbreak to help the British people. However, it has not stopped there. Universal credit and working tax credits have seen uplifts to the tune of £6.5 billion, and 2 million food packages have been provided. The list of assistance that has been given is extremely lengthy, yet, of course, it is not our money. It is taxpayers’ money—money that will have to be paid back not just by this generation of workers, but by their children and quite possibly their grandchildren as well.
I am quite astonished that Brexit has managed to be shoehorned into this debate; I am quite happy to talk about Brexit and the opportunities it gives us. I do think that what has happened and what the taxpayer wants is fairness. It wants fairness: yes, it does not want children starving, but it also recognises the fact that there are huge burdens now on our economy and that that money needs to be paid back. We should not get ourselves into the situation of trying to pretend that the state can provide everything in every situation. That is simply not affordable.
Assistance for families to provide food for their children through the summer is very important. Where parents are out of work and in need of help, it is right that the Government provide assistance. Nobody has ever disputed that. Our plans were originally to provide support through local authorities, but now a summer food fund will ensure that children will not go without food provision over the summer, and they were never going to.
This Government have spent money to an unprecedented level, and that money has been targeted at those most affected by this outbreak. The furloughing scheme alone will cost up to £100 billion, and the scheme will still be operating during the school summer holidays and well into the autumn. If anybody doubts this Government’s commitment to free school meals, I can point out that many Conservative Members, including the Secretary of State—unfortunately, he has just popped out—were the ones that supported four to seven-year-olds getting free school meals for the first time, which did not happen in 13 years of a Labour Government.
I will not give way now.
We believe in assisting families hit hard by the virus not just over the summer, but throughout the entirety of this outbreak. Assistance has been given for children to stay well nourished, and various schemes have and will be implemented. These schemes will provide for children, and ensure that a safety net exists.
Most importantly of all, we have financially been there for people during this outbreak. This Government have not shirked responsibility when it came to giving people in work a helping hand and assisting those who are not in work. This is all going to have to be paid back at some stage, and it is going to hurt, but it is right that we step up to our responsibilities during this dreadful time.
I want to speak in this debate today not just as a proud Welsh Labour MP but as a former teacher and a single parent.
We once again find ourselves in a position where a high-profile campaign has forced an embarrassing U-turn from this Government—a U-turn that will benefit thousands of children from some of the most disadvantaged homes. I want to echo the sentiments of my colleagues in recognising the work and dedication of Marcus Rashford in forcing this change of policy. He is exactly the kind of role model I want for my son—even though my son is a Man City fan—and for all the children in my constituency of Gower and in Wales.
I started my teaching career in the autumn of 1997 at Standish Community High School in Wigan. I saw at first hand the impact that a Labour Government had on lifting children out of poverty. When I later returned to teach in Wales, it was obvious that the wellbeing of pupils was at the forefront of the decisions made by the Welsh Government. I am proud that making sure that all children in my school did not start the day hungry was a priority for the headteacher and governing body of Bryngwyn School in Llanelli, where I last taught. They were inclusive, caring, and looking to provide for all pupils who came into their care. This is not something new in Wales. But until today’s screeching U-turn from this Government, children in England would have been losing out on support that they desperately needed. I am proud that kids in receipt of free school meals in Wales will always have that support from a Welsh Labour Government.
The challenges faced by these children and their families across the UK during the holidays are many: the cost of extra meals, finding free extra activities, and worrying about not being able to afford the uniform or the right shoes, school bag and equipment. I know that feeling of dread very well. It is not just parents of children on free school meals who need help and support—it is also working parents on low incomes, single parents, and all those recently affected by covid-19.
Since becoming an MP, I have focused in my community on supporting parents and children in Gower over the summer period. My office and I, like many Welsh Labour MPs, have run schemes to recycle uniforms for local schools, put together back-to-school bags, and made and distributed packed lunches over the summer holidays. We work together with the Welsh Labour Government and Labour-led Swansea City Council, who make huge contributions every year to helping families in Gower and across Swansea. We create and give that extra support for those families, and it goes beyond just free school meals. It is also very pertinent to note that the level of support in Wales is significantly higher than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. An allowance of £19.50 per child, per week, is £4.50 more than in England and up to £9.50 more than in some Scottish council areas. This can make a huge difference to these families and to the feeling of worth of these children.
But what message does it give to our children when the Secretary of State for Transport said this morning that there are more important things than feeding schoolchildren, or when the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions tweets Marcus Rashford making a flippant comment and then attempts to correct it, while other Conservative Members demean Marcus’s own personal life experiences and the experiences of others like him? The lack of empathy and inability to relate to the problems families are facing across this country is endemic among Conservative Members. Really, how can a Government be so tone-deaf to an entire country? There are Members in this House who will have known the challenge of putting food on the table. Many of us are driven by our own life experiences to help people—to pull them up the ladder and not to push them down.
I would like the Government to recognise what the Welsh Labour Government have put in place. On that point, I am proud that a Labour Government in Wales are committed to prioritising the wellbeing of our future generations. Although I am pleased that the Government have reversed their position, it does prompt the question, why did they not think our kids were worth it before?
First, may I join colleagues across the House in paying my respects to Jo Cox? I was not fortunate enough to serve in the House while she was a Member, but her reputation and causes live on in this place and she is hugely missed by Members on both sides of the House.
I am extremely fortunate to be a Member representing the beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye. From our stunning coastline to our historic castle, world-class engineering companies to renowned pubs and restaurants, we have so much to be proud of, but we are also a constituency blighted by poverty and deprivation—ills in our communities that have plagued families for generations. I was elected on a promise to support the most vulnerable in our communities and ensure, as the Prime Minister has said many times, that we level up the area, so that all can benefit from the opportunities of the future. It is because I am acutely aware of these levels of deprivation, which I see every week in Hastings and Rye, that this debate is so important to me.
I am unashamedly committed to the Conservative ideas of a small state, individual responsibility and upholding the value in the institution of family. Yet, at a time of economic and health crises, I see that the most deprived are being punished disproportionately with worse health outcomes, suffering more from the closure of schools and being dependent on institutions like our food banks and charities. So there is clearly a role in these unprecedented times for the state to intervene.
We must recognise that the argument for free school meals to be available during school holidays is not new. A 2016 survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds were returning to school after the summer holidays less than healthy because they had gone without food. To assume, though, that people who are less well off will not or cannot feed their children is, I am sure, somewhat insulting to disadvantaged families. In fact, during the coronavirus, many families have not accessed free school meals or the voucher scheme, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), who has left the Chamber, highlighted, we must not shy away from the fact that, unfortunately, some parents just do not or cannot prioritise their children’s needs over their own. We must turbo-charge our efforts to look at the underlying causes of the neglect of some children by their parents, tackling the root cause rather than just allowing the Government to step in and do the easiest thing—throw money at the problem.
This Conservative Government, under our Prime Minister, have committed to combat poverty by improving education, jobs and our economy by levelling up. As I said, as a Conservative I believe in a small state, which protects individual freedoms and allows people to take responsibility for themselves and their families. Small government may sound uncaring, but it is not. A big state is much more callous, as it engenders dependency and therefore ultimately lacks accountability to the electorate. We cannot let the state take over a parent’s job—a parent’s most basic responsibility to feed and keep their children safe. It cannot be right that Government usurp the domain of the family and the most basic role of parenting. We cannot excuse people from the basic responsibility to their children; it is fundamental to being a good parent. We cannot have a culture that encourages the Government to take over the most basic roles of parenting, and we cannot have a culture where parents expect the Government to feed their children so that they can have money for other things. We cannot take away a parent’s opportunity to take responsibility for themselves and their family.
As Conservatives, we have a good track record in government of supporting the most vulnerable through access to work, increasing the tax threshold, free school meals, the living wage and providing more free childcare. We have shown through other policies that we are committed to helping the most vulnerable. We will get our economy back on track following coronavirus and make it strong again, creating more, higher-paid jobs. The values that I spoke of earlier—individual responsibility, a small state—
From one Wythenshawe-born lad to another, thank you Marcus Rashford. As a United fan, it has been a pleasure to see so many people united from across the football family and well beyond, taking a powerful stand for children. Marcus stated passionately that this was about “humanity”, not politics—a humanity shaped by his direct experience of growing up in Wythenshawe, Manchester in child poverty. Actually, I partially disagree with Marcus on that point. Together with campaigners in Parliament and beyond, he has led change. He is a change maker, striking his political goal of feeding 1.3 million children this summer—Marcus Rashford one, Prime Minister Johnson nil.
Before the Prime Minister’s U-turn, Minister after Minister told us, “We don’t normally fund free school meals outside term time.” Well, we do not normally furlough 9 million workers. We do not normally ask people to isolate, distance and bubble. We do not normally close down schools in the middle of the school year. Nothing has been normal since March. This pandemic has required an extraordinary response from the party of small government and an extraordinary response from society.
This enforced U-turn—we remember the Order Paper, just hours ago—is a victory for children and a victory for common sense. But we cannot be in denial about the economic fallout from covid-19. This is only just the beginning, and it comes on top of 10 years of austerity. We cannot be in denial about the impact that this will have on the poorest in our society: the economic effect of the virus is pushing more families into poverty, and more children will go hungry, from Palacefields to Leftwich in my constituency.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) pointed out, the IPPR estimates that 200,000 more children will now fall below the poverty line and are at risk of hunger. This is not the time for a small state—it is the time for Government to get on their side, surely. In the long term, we need to look at the extraordinary number of children who are living in poverty in this country. We need to work hard to stop child poverty at its roots, rather than treating its worst symptoms or coming out with ideological claptrap and stereotypes. Hunger does not understand term dates. It does not understand ideological nonsense. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all worked together, grew up a little and ended child and food poverty once and for all?
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I will now get rid of half my speech—which, thankfully, I had not actually written, so that is all good.
I pay tribute to Jo Cox, as Mr Speaker did this morning. Sadly, I never got to know her or meet her, but we shared a passion for tackling loneliness. I will continue to take that fight on in Parliament, even though she is sadly no longer with us to do so.
I wish to speak about the challenges that all of us in this Chamber face in working together—we have heard a lot about that today. The challenge is that when the Government listen, we get attacked. When I hear the phrase U-turn, as I have in most speeches today, I do not hear U-turn; I hear, “Thank you. You listened.” That is the sentiment that we need in order to work together to tackle the really big issues. Since the start of this this pandemic we have worked together in a really great way, especially in the early days. I would say that Government have been agile in our approach.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Thankfully, we were in a position that I knew we would be in and anticipated throughout, because, to be open, I too have been lobbying the Government on this issue. I have used strong words behind the scenes, because it has been very important to make sure that this particular situation was sorted. I want to get on with my speech, but my point is that I feel it would have happened anyway, because that has been the movements and music behind the scenes.
The point is that we have to get away from this football politics—excuse the pun on Marcus Rashford—because we have to make sure that we work together cohesively. Throughout the whole of this pandemic, the Government have adapted. We have listened, changed and improved. We have ensured that the most vulnerable in society are being looked after. Look at how many people have been furloughed, how many businesses have been sorted with bounce-back loans and how many children in the vulnerable category were able to go to school.
I have been going every Saturday with an amazing charity called One Vision and another charity initiative called Sewa Day, along with the Salvation Army and others, to deliver food. At least once every single week, if not more often, I get the opportunity to go and see people face to face and help them where I can, but I have known that that is in addition to all the support that the Government are giving.
Do not get me wrong: the reality is that it is important that children in school are fed. It is absolutely a human right. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, so I see this and am very passionate about it. We cannot feed a child’s mind unless we feed their stomach first. We have to hold that at the core of this. But unless we all spot areas where we can improve and work together to improve those things together, we end up with this political point scoring—a fear of adapting, because if we U-turn, the newspaper front pages will say we have failed. Let us praise the successes we have had and the opportunities to work together, and let us look at moving forward on that so that we can make a real difference.
I have one last point to make. When we have these opportunities to change things and adapt them, let us look at how we move forward in the next six months to a year, and the next two or three years. The voluntary sector absolutely has a part to play, not only to help provide support but to be the eyes and ears. The Government have worked hard to collaborate, not just at a party level but with business, charities and organisations to make sure that we are doing that.
I add my voice to those thanking Marcus Rashford for his inspiring and tireless work against child hunger. I also pay tribute to 15-year-old Dev Sharma, the Member of Youth Parliament for Leicestershire and an ambassador for the Food Foundation, for championing the right to food for all children.
I could not agree more that in 2020, in the sixth richest country in the world, it is appalling that we are even having this debate about how to feed our children. Marcus is brilliant, but it should not be left to pioneering premier league footballers to paper over the cracks created by a decade of cruel austerity. The Government should be ashamed of their record: 200,000 children going hungry; 45% of African, Asian and minority ethnic children living in poverty; and 1 million more children projected to be in poverty by 2022.
The hon. Lady talked about the large number of people from ethnic minority backgrounds—in her constituency, perhaps—living in poverty. Will she congratulate the charities in Peterborough that are working with the Conservative city council there to ensure that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are helped during this difficult time?
Indeed, I praise all the voluntary organisations, particularly in my own constituency, that have stepped up to provide food banks at a time when poverty has been stark, and the many faith organisations that have stepped in to help during these times.
I know from my own experience what it is like to be a child on free school meals despite both parents working, and what that means for survival, progress and opportunity. In communities like mine, this Government have normalised hunger, poverty and hopelessness. Some 42% of children in Leicester East live in poverty. Years of austerity combined with insecure employment means that an estimated 44,000 children in Leicestershire are living below the poverty line, even though the vast majority—31,000—have at least one parent who has a job. The fact that a job no longer provides a route out of poverty, or even guarantees that our children will be fed, represents an unforgivable breakdown of our social contract.
Before covid-19, 51% of children in one area of my constituency were in child poverty—and that was before this unprecedented crisis. Nearly 6,000 households in Leicester East are in fuel poverty, meaning that 14% of schoolchildren in my constituency are living in a situation where parents are forced to make the impossible choice between keeping their family warm or going hungry.
Beyond school meals, this Government have completely failed young people in Leicester in terms of education.
It is clear from the Order Paper that the Government were not intending to support this motion today. We were told that one of the reasons was that the approximate cost would be £120 million and that it might set a precedent. Does the hon. Member agree that feeding hungry children at school is quite a good precedent to set?
I want to make the link between poverty and achievement. Central Government funding per pupil has dropped by 8.4% since 2013. At the same time, my constituency has a lower than average GCSE attainment level, and only 6% of our students%—less than half the national average—achieve AAB at A-level. Do this Government not believe that young people in my constituency deserve the same opportunity to receive a good education? Do they not believe that it is a national scandal for any child to go hungry while billionaires and big corporations make ever-increasing profits? Two thirds of the current Cabinet were privately educated, yet they systematically deny working-class young people the opportunities that they were afforded.
That this Government of the super-rich by the super-rich and for the super-rich could have listened to these figures and still even thought about denying vulnerable children the security of a daily meal is beyond callous. The Government would have known from their own equality impact assessment that their plans would have impacted black communities worst. Therefore, they would have lent themselves to the charge of institutional racism. They would have known that the right thing to do was to take the data, follow the evidence and change the outcomes towards the transformational change that Black Lives Matter demands. Instead, it was left to Marcus Rashford and young people such as Dev Sharma from Leicester to present the case for humanity.
Order. The point I am trying to make is that if people take interventions, it gives them extra time, but it prevents others from speaking, because we will not be able to get everybody in. That is why people need to think carefully before they take interventions, because it honestly does stop others speaking.
The reason the Government are in such a mess on this issue is that they did not put together a strategic plan for education and children at the start of covid-19 in the way that they did for the economy. I recognise the work that they have done on that with furloughing and so on.
I congratulate Marcus Rashford and all those who have campaigned for many years to make sure that during school holidays, children can receive food if they need it. It is rather sad that it has taken the covid pandemic to force the Government to acknowledge that holiday hunger has existed for many years. People such as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on school food, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), and campaigners such as Lindsay Graham have been talking about it for many years. It is also worth the House knowing that in the 1960s and 1970s, provision was made during holidays for children who were on free school meals, so the idea that it has never happened before is not correct.
I care deeply about this issue. Some 24% of children in Hull are on free school meals, against a national average of 15%. In my constituency, at least one in three children live in poverty, with 3,600 children on free school meals. In previous years, under previous Labour Administrations, Hull City Council introduced free school meals for all children in primary and special schools because it recognised that for children to do well academically, they need to have good nutrition. I pay tribute to it for that work.
I also remind the House that in 2009, I was an Education Minister in the last Labour Government. One thing that we did then was to introduce universal free school meal pilots in Durham and Newham. Sadly, when the coalition Government came in, they scrapped those pilots, but they showed a clear link. We all want to see our children do well and grow up healthy with a good education.
I have several questions for the Government. I want to make sure that my local authority gets its fair share of money. When will the allocations be made? Will the schools that found the Edenred system difficult to deal with be reimbursed for the work that they are doing to support children and families? Will the support continue indefinitely now that we recognise that holiday hunger exists? Finally, why has Hull never received a penny from the Government’s £9 million scheme for holiday activities, even though it has applied and is the fourth most disadvantaged area in the country? Some £999,000 has gone to Suffolk and £766,000 to Hampshire, but in Yorkshire and the Humber only Leeds has received any money at all.
I rise on the fourth anniversary of the death of my friend Jo Cox. We remember her every day.
I want to thank England’s—[Interruption.] Go on then, Mike—Man United’s Marcus Rashford. We are all grateful to him. I thank the Secretary of State for answering his call, which will undoubtedly make a difference, although I suspect he is now having a word with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care for taking a pop at our footballers at the beginning of the covid crisis, which has now come home to roost.
Holiday hunger is not a singular or new problem. It has its roots in insufficient family incomes, the cause of which is labour market fragility, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) spoke about. We know that the problems in the job market are about to get much worse. Added to that are rising prices in crucial areas such as childcare and the harm to the power of the welfare state in this country, which will be my focus in the minute I have remaining.
The Conservatives have been in charge for 10 years. They have had enough time to show us their priorities, and here is what those priorities have been. The shutting of Sure Start, the end of the child trust fund and the cancellation of the health in pregnancy grant foreshadowed George Osborne’s £12 billion of welfare cuts. The Conservatives ripped the Child Poverty Act 2010 from the statute book, they introduced the two-child policy, which sent a message to children in families of three or four kids that the state does not care, and they introduced the benefits freeze, which sent the same message to families of all sizes. Child benefit has been cut by £350 per year for a family of two kids, and the local housing allowance has simply failed to keep up with rents. The Conservatives demonstrated their priorities by forcing people off tax credits on to universal credit even if that made them worse off. All of that was on top of low wage growth, which is compounded for many—particularly for single parents—by their inability to work ever more hours. For families in this country, there simply are not enough hours in the day.
Those are the choices that have been made. Holiday hunger is simply the consequence of all that. It is the consequence of the Government picking holes in the blanket of the welfare state for 10 years. Each and every one of those policy choices has had consequences, and here we are. At the end of the day, this is about putting money in people’s pockets or not. My party has lost four elections in the past 10 years, and that is on us. Meanwhile, four Conservative Chancellors have put 600,000 children in this country into poverty, and that is on them.
I am pleased that the Government have scrapped their active pursuit of a policy direction that would have seen 3 million children go hungry this summer, but it should not have had to take the powerful, heartfelt and game-changing intervention of Marcus Rashford to get to this point. The anxiety felt by families over the past few weeks could have been avoided had the Government acted sooner.
Clearly, when cross-party MPs signed my letter to the Secretary of State earlier this month asking for an extension of the voucher scheme, the money was there, so why has it taken until now? Even before coronavirus, children were regularly going without. Ten years of Tory Britain has seen a forceful and deliberate dismantling of the safety net that once existed to support those who, through no fault of their own, were struggling.
It is no secret that I do not trust this Government. We have a populist Prime Minister who has a habit of making sweeping announcements, such as this one today, when he knows his popularity is waning. Many of us have been here before. He lauded the holiday activities and food programme, yet this year it was predicted to reach only 4% of eligible children. He then announced £63 million of local welfare assistance, but that is not ring-fenced, so it will not be spent exclusively on free school meals.
I sincerely hope that the Minister can give us some of the detail we need about today’s announcement, because we are heading for a deep recession. This money will help us this summer, but the Government must start being honest about the drivers of food bank use and release the reports they are burying about that, and they must ensure that no child, let alone children in one of the richest countries in the world, goes hungry. Frankly, too many have already. I sincerely hope that today is a serious turning point.
I wholeheartedly support the Labour motion and I am glad that the Government now recognise the strength of our case. It is important at this time that children who need help will be fed over the summer.
Let me illustrate my point by referring to a crisis that my sisters and I experienced when we were young. We were children in a single-parent home in the south Wales valleys. We benefited from free school meals and clothing grants through our early years. At those times, those meals were a godsend. When I was 14, our mum had a terrible mental health episode. She moved away and left me and my two younger sisters to fend for ourselves for a few weeks, then my dad came back from being a seafarer to look after us. Mum did leave us with a £10 note, which was a big help, but she was in a terrible state. It was the start of ongoing very poor health for her, and she was to die at 42 years of age.
I vividly remember the day after my mum left. I worked as a paper boy and there was a muesli promotion in one of the women’s magazines, so we had packets of muesli for breakfast for the next few days. Over those few weeks alone, we three kids pulled together, relatives stepped in and we managed until my dad came back. At school, we had free school meals. Those meals kept us going. Of course, it was a very unusual situation, but so is a global pandemic: people are having to feed their families while earning 80% of their normal wages; and people on sick pay are having to survive on £95 a week. This summer, too many families will find themselves in poverty and some will have to deal with a crisis. They may need that school-meal lifeline.
My message is simple. The Government told us at the start of the pandemic that no one would be left behind. We should stand up for children who, through no fault of their own, need our support. I am glad that the Labour motion will now receive all-party support tonight. And finally, I say well done to Marcus Rashford.
I add my comments to those that have already been made in the House today regarding the reports of the Government’s U-turn, and also pay tribute to Marcus Rashford and his powerful testimony of his own experiences of free school meals growing up in a single-parent household. All of this comes after so much campaigning and arguing for something so simple: making sure that children who need food get it. All of this also comes after years of austerity, which has had a devastating impact on ethnic minorities, with around 45% of black, Asian and ethnic minority children now living in poverty.
It is imperative that we join up the dots. The Public Health England report into the disproportionate impact of the covid-19 crisis on certain groups, which has finally been published, recognises that factors such as racism and social inequality may have contributed to increased risks of those in BAME communities catching and dying from the virus. In truth, it has been clear to anyone who has wanted to know that systemic economic inequalities mean that ethnic minority communities are at higher risk of being in poverty and so are particularly disadvantaged by the health crisis that we have endured.
It has now been weeks since the part-censored review, reluctantly commissioned by the Government, finally officially identified major inequalities, including the alarming statistic that Bangladeshi people face around twice the risk of death. Many of us are very concerned that it has taken months for the Government formally to recognise what has been widely noted and commented on and that action still has not been taken, yet decisions and policies are still going ahead without a clear and transparent examination on how they will affect particular groups and without confirmation that the situation for BAME people will not be made worse.
I was astonished to learn that a full regulatory impact assessment had not been prepared for yesterday’s statutory instrument on health regulations, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2020. This is basic stuff. Let me be clear: this is not about what is technically correct according to bureaucratic rules; it is about what is morally just and correct. This is not about the game of power, but rather it is a question of justice.
Will the Secretary of State clarify what assessment his Department has made of the impact of the original decision not to roll out the national voucher scheme over the summer on black, Asian and minority ethnic children and their families and those with other protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010? Will the Government commit to taking on the message that people across the world are crying out for those in power to understand, which is that, if black lives matter, every policy should be assessed before it is taken forward on how it will impact on different groups. This should be a meaningful and comprehensive process, and it should be made public.
The idea that children should not go hungry is one that most people would consider an issue of basic morality. I am glad that the Government have now conceded that the free school meals scheme should be extended to cover the summer, but given that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) was still arguing against this only a few hours ago, it is clear that this is not a moral change of heart, but a result of incredible pressure from campaigners such as Marcus Rashford and the Opposition.
I would like to ask the Minister about one aspect of the policy. There are many children in this country who have committed no crime but the crime of being migrants —an accident of geography—and who therefore have no recourse to public funds. These pupils have been temporarily eligible for free school meals during the pandemic; will the Minister commit to ensuring that that continues, not just this summer, but as a permanent change in policy?
It is telling that the Education Secretary should imply that children need access to nutritious, healthy meals only when they are at school. If it is wrong for children to go hungry, it is always wrong for children to go hungry, not just during a global pandemic and not only while they are at school.
Despite the very welcome U-turn, this Government are by no means let off the hook for their shameful and damning record on child poverty and hunger. In the sixth richest country in the world, there is no excuse for letting a single child go to bed hungry. The fact that 1.3 million children are routinely receiving free school meals shows that something is deeply wrong. We are a wealthy country, but that wealth is not fairly distributed; the wealthiest 10% in our country have about 45% of the wealth. That inequality is only increasing; wages for the majority have been stagnant for the past decade, employment is increasingly insecure and precarious, and we have a standard-of-living slide, all while the rich get richer.
Even though they may be fed this summer, we will still have approximately one third of children living in poverty. The Government typically respond to this by saying that the best route out of poverty is through work, but that is simply a meaningless platitude in light of the fact that most children who live in poverty have at least one parent in work.
The Conservative party is the party of the food bank and zero-hour contracts. The Living Wage Foundation calculates the real living wage—not the Government’s made up living wage—based on what people need to get by. It is set at £9.30 per hour outside London and that means that anyone paid below that is on a poverty wage.
The north-east has the highest proportion of children and young people in receipt of free school meals. Indeed, Action for Children recently calculated that 71% of children in the north-east are living in families with no or little savings to see them through the current pandemic.
In Hartlepool, the numbers were significantly high prior to covid and have risen since the lockdown, while the effects of ending furlough and potential job losses have yet to be calculated. According to the End Child Poverty coalition and research by Loughborough University, Hartlepool is the third worst place for child poverty in the north-east, with more than a quarter of children living below the breadline. Child poverty has increased by 7% since 2015 in Hartlepool, and the situation is being exacerbated by covid and the economic effects of the lockdown on families who are struggling to cope.
That has raised real concerns about holiday hunger, so I am pleased that, despite the heavy financial burdens placed on my local authority, it was prepared to step up to the plate well before the Government changed their position about this motion and run its holiday hunger programme as it has done for years, at a cost of between £50,000 and £60,000 per week.
Councils such as Hartlepool have recognised the problem of child poverty for years. It is wrong and needs to be eradicated. The Government need to do more, and that work must start today.
Having been brought up in a single-parent household, I imagine I am one of a small number of MPs who received free school meals; I know exactly what it is likely to struggle to make ends meet.
No child should have to go without food, and a child’s concentration, alertness and energy are greatly improved with a nutritious meal inside them. As we are one of the richest countries in the world, we must question why in 2020 families are struggling to put food on the table, heat their homes or clothe their children. No family should have to deal with this, and no parent should have to choose between feeding themselves and feeding their children. Sadly, that is often the choice parents face, and it is exactly what would have happened right across the country had this Government not made yet another U-turn today.
It is a sad fact that one in three children in my constituency are growing up in poverty, and it is shameful that countless families have to endure this painful struggle, day in, day out. I see that struggle at first hand on a daily basis. My inbox regularly contains heartbreaking emails from families forced to rely on food banks to eat and struggling to pay their rent. Staggeringly, food banks have become normalised in society. I remember being outraged when they first started to pop up, as I could not quite believe people were needing to access charitable donations because they did not have enough money to buy food. Now, we all expect that there will be a donation box in the supermarket for food banks that we can donate to. We need to end the normalisation of food banks and to work towards a society where every family have enough money to live on.
The Welsh Government have already announced that they will provide each eligible child with the equivalent of £19.50 a week over the summer, so it would have been deeply heartless for the Government not to fund the estimated £120 million, which will now ensure that children in this country, including 2,605 children in the Jarrow constituency, can eat for the summer holiday period. Not for the first time, the Prime Minister and his Government have found themselves on the wrong side of the argument, and I welcome the fact that they have made yet another U-turn.
This issue is not about politics; it is about doing the right thing. Marcus Rashford, in his efforts to persuade the Government to see sense on this issue, should be applauded, and I am glad the Government have listened to him, to MPs on both sides and to the whole of the country, who have called for this. If the Government can find billions of pounds to support businesses during this pandemic, it is only right that £120 million has been found to ensure that families and children are provided with food this summer.
If hon. Members can speak for slightly less than three minutes, we might be able to get everybody in. If we are thinking of each other, that is the way to do it. As I have said before, having interventions is not a good idea because it will take away the opportunity from others.
I congratulate Marcus Rashford on spearheading this campaign. He is an amazing role model, both on the pitch and off it. His speaking out on how his mother struggled to make ends meet and how he would turn up at his friends’ houses in the hope of being fed resonated across the country, and there are far too many other young kids like Marcus out there.
Last year, I was one of the MPs who served on the children’s future food inquiry, and we heard devastating accounts from children, not just about raw and real hunger, but about living on leftovers, scraps or cheap food with little to no nutritional value. It should not take a famous footballer speaking out about his experiences as a child; the Government should have listened to those children back then in April last year and implemented the children’s right to food charter.
Of course I welcome this U-turn, but we need to embed it, so that we do not have to have this argument every time the school holidays come around. This move alone will not be enough. For far too many children, their free school meal is the only decent meal they get, and the under-fives do not even get that.
In Bristol, we will still be running our healthy holidays scheme this year, which is about far more than just providing a meal, but it looks as though we will have to do so without Government support. Feeding Bristol was fortunate enough to be a holiday hunger pilot in 2018, but last year we were not so lucky and we do not know why. We got nothing from the Government, but we raised £100,000 and we did it ourselves, albeit to a more limited degree than we would have liked. In 2020, we again missed out, apparently by just one point, but again we have no idea why. The Mayor of Bristol and I both wrote to the Government asking why some cities and towns were getting six-figure or even seven-figure sums but Bristol was getting nothing. We suggested spreading the money more evenly so that many more schemes could be pump-primed, but we have not had a response.
We know that covid-19 has made many more families financially vulnerable and those who were already vulnerable even more so. I pay a particular tribute to FareShare, which has been fantastic throughout this crisis. Again, let us congratulate Marcus Rashford on raising £20 million for its national effort. In the past week alone, 80 tonnes of food came to Bristol via FareShare South West, but this is not, as the Government would have it, just about this summer and coping with the fallout from the pandemic. People have been attending food banks in record numbers since the economically illiterate, morally bankrupt policy of austerity was adopted a decade ago. The Government have consistently refused to acknowledge the sheer scale of the problem, to engage with those working on the frontline, or to address the underlying causes of food poverty, and it is time that they did.
Holiday hunger is not a new phenomenon, and since the summer of 2017 in Swansea East, I, my team, the Swans and the Ospreys football and rugby clubs, local businesses, community groups, Bidfood and Castell Howell, which are members of the wholesale federation, have provided food for local children—not just in the summer but during the Christmas holidays. I have lost count of the families we have supported, but it is easily in excess of 30,000.
This summer, we thought our lunch club would be able to stand down, as the Welsh Labour Government recognised the issue and introduced a continuation of free school meals throughout the holidays. However, my grand, quiet summer has been interrupted by coronavirus and over the past 12 weeks we have been busy preparing and delivering more than 20,000 meals to vulnerable families across Swansea. Again, that was achieved with the support of Swansea Council, wonderful volunteers, Mecca bingo, and huge food donations from members of the wholesale federation—ironically, one of the few sectors not to have received any Government pandemic support.
The Welsh Labour Government’s early decision to guarantee funding for free school meals throughout the school holidays is testament to their understanding of real-life issues and their ability to react to this real-life issue. We are hearing more and more harrowing stories of parents going without in order to feed their children—not because they are making thoughtless decisions on what to spend their money but because they do not have the money in the first place.
Almost two months ago, the Welsh Labour Government made an announcement about continued funding for free school meals during the summer holidays. I welcome the fact that today the Prime Minister and the Government have finally, after immense pressure, U-turned on their original decision—again, following Wales’s lead—but I question why they did not make the obvious and compassionate decision in the first place, as that would have saved many families a lot of anxiety in recent weeks. Many families were concerned that during the school holidays they would be sending their children to bed with empty bellies. Welsh Labour led the way, and I am proud to be the deputy leader of Welsh Labour. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!] Thank you. I wonder: without huge pressure from Labour Members, Conservative Back Benchers and an international football star, and a public outcry, would the Prime Minister ever have reached the right decision and made a U-turn on this policy? That is food for thought, but I am afraid that the jury is out to lunch on the answer.
For some, the free school meal voucher roll-out scheme has been nothing short of a disaster, and I know of 16 schools in my constituency that have reported problems with the system managed by the private company, Edenred. At a time when they had enough on their plate, head teachers were literally pulling their hair out. School after school told me that the system had crashed, with error messages appearing, some parents receiving vouchers but not others, and the impossibility of having a conversation with Edenred. At the height of the problems, staff at the North Cambridge academy were getting up at 6 o’clock in the morning to try to log on before the system was overwhelmed. At that point, they had been waiting two weeks for vouchers. If it takes the intervention of the local MP to make something happen, something has gone wrong.
To add insult to injury, the vouchers do not work in many city shops. My local food hub told me of the despair of a mum of four children from Chesterton. She put credit on her phone to receive the vouchers, then asked a friend to print them, as she does not have a printer at home. She then walked to her local shop with her children in tow, shopped, queued, and finally reached the checkout, only to be told that the national vouchers were not redeemable in the Co-op. She was inconsolable. All the food had to be put back; she had no way of paying for it. Think how that must feel.
Why not use non-Edenred schemes? After all, stores such as the Co-op have alternative food voucher schemes ready to go. Schools are nervous, especially after Government encouragement to use Edenred meant that schools dumped better functioning schemes for the Government’s preferred provider. There needs to be clarity about the financial support schools will receive if they choose not to use Edenred.
The Government need to stop penalising well-managed schools. Some do have cash in the bank and in their reserves, but it is for a purpose—investing in buildings and books and computers. The Government guidance that schools with a budget surplus in the current financial year cannot reclaim the cost of providing vouchers needs to be rethought.
Some will say that Cambridge is prosperous and, in many ways, it is, but even before the covid crisis, 1,741 children were already eligible for free school meals and that figure is going up. Since April, an additional 265 children have joined their ranks.
We are fortunate to have the Food Poverty Alliance in Cambridge, backed with funding from the Labour city council. Volunteers cook and deliver meals, including to 70 families, at the kitchens at Cambridge Regional College. They cooked 2,000 meals last week. While we are talking football, although Cambridge United has sadly been forced off the pitch, their “Here for U’s” scheme was enough to get me cheering again and I understand that their bread and butter pudding has been a particular hit.
The Government’s U-turn is welcome, but until we get through this crisis, have a real living wage and job security, there will continue to be need. At one time, we had a Government who sought to Make Poverty History. Now we have a Government who all too often seem indifferent to growing hunger. At least they have been shamed into doing one thing right today.
Like so many Members we have heard from today, I was also in receipt of free school meals when I was at school. I remember having to go to reception daily, in the morning, to collect my voucher and hand it over to the dinner ladies. I remember the bullying and the stigma I faced as a child because of that. That was in the late ’80s and early ’90s and it is shocking that we still need free school meals today.
In my constituency of Vauxhall, there are more than 4,000 children on free school meals. It is unimaginable that their families have to choose between putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads. I welcome the Government’s U-turn, but the fact that Labour had to table the debate in the first place shows a huge blind spot in the Government when it comes to child poverty.
I would like to highlight the Co-op Group’s announcement that it has taken the decision to extend the free school meals scheme over the summer holidays in all Co-op academies, which means that 6,000 students across 25 schools in the Co-op Academies Trust will continue to receive £20 vouchers every week, which is higher than the £15 provided by the Department for Education.
We all know the financial impact of covid on our families and that will have a big hit over the summer holidays. Will the Government reassure families in Vauxhall and across the country that they understand how important free school meals are and what a difference they will make to those families? I also urge the Government to look not just at the symptoms, but at the causes of child poverty.
I congratulate the Government on agreeing to free school meals over the summer holidays and I congratulate Marcus Rashford on the best goal of his life so far—I can only say that his mum must be so proud of him today—but please do not let anybody think that this is just about food over the summer.
The average free school meals child starts school behind their contemporaries in class. The average free school meal child at year 6 can be up to 18 months behind the other kids in their class. When they start secondary school in year 7, they go backwards from year 6. Yet these children will have spent six months out of school, with 700,000 of them not doing any work— 700,000 of them with no access to the internet and no access to a tablet or a computer to do any work at all. The size of the crisis in our schools is huge.
If we are absolutely honest, many of these children will not be going back to full-time schooling in September and will not get the additional small group classes they need. That is why I am asking everybody in the Chamber today to support our Bill to get every child who is on free school meals access to the internet and access to a device that allows them to do that—to give them a step towards employment in the future and to make sure that their families have access to the same education and the same ledger as everybody else.
I would like to take a moment to remember Jo Cox, a fellow Yorkshirewoman. She was such an inspiration and stood up against inequality and the loneliness that often accompanies it.
I welcome the Government U-turn on free school meals over the summer. I pay tribute to Marcus Rashford for his leadership over the past few days. Perhaps Government Members could take some lessons from that.
Since the onset of the covid-19 crisis, 1.5 million people have reported going a whole day without food. The use of food banks has soared. Mutual aid groups, food banks and campaigners in my constituency have struggled to provide the food that the people of Sheffield need. Their work and the work of others is heartening, but it is also a travesty that in the sixth richest country in the world it falls to volunteers and the charity sector to ensure that no one is going hungry.
Over the past few years in Sheffield, we have seen a growth in activities for young people that now must involve the provision of food, whether they are holiday hunger projects or term-time clubs. Children are struggling to get the nutrition they need and rely on such projects, as well as free school meals. The demand is high and it is growing. Communities have identified the need, but it is clear that they do not have the resources to prevent hunger in their neighbourhoods. They cannot solve the structural issues of inequality, low pay, insufficient social security, and rising costs in housing, energy and the basics. Solving that requires action and intervention from this place.
The pandemic has not created this crisis, but it has shone a light on the weaknesses that already exist. According the Trussell Trust’s “State of Hunger” report, 8% to 10% of households in recent years have experienced food insecurity, leading to 1.5 million units of emergency food parcels—
At the start of this crisis, Ministers said they would do whatever it takes to get the country through this crisis. The reality is that the Government have been dragged to this kicking and screaming because of the heroic campaigning of charities and the amazing Marcus Rashford. What the crisis shows is that this is a Government who are morally bankrupt. The fact that they even considered starving millions of children in this crisis, the fact that they did not have the instinct to protect those children, and that it took those campaigners and Opposition Members to get them to see sense, shows a moral bankruptcy that beggars belief. I hope that Ministers will reflect on that and learn from this experience.
Two hundred thousand children have had to skip meals during the lockdown. In Tower Hamlets, we face the highest child poverty in the country, with my constituency facing the second highest. My local authority has lost £50 million of income. Some £30 million of that is costs related to covid. That is £30 million of income lost. Local authorities are struggling to make ends meet and protect people.
The Government must take urgent action not just in relation to child poverty and child hunger during the summer, but to deal with the deep-rooted causes. They must, for example, scrap the two-child policy limit and deal with housing costs in cities like London that condemn families to poverty. We need a new settlement post covid to recognise that inequalities are literally killing people. We have seen that with the spectre of high death rates for black, Asian and minority ethnic people, and white disadvantaged people who are twice as likely to die in this crisis than wealthier white people. We need the Government to step up and protect all those who need our help.
We remember Jo Cox today. She would have been speaking with great passion in this debate.
Since the coronavirus crisis began, St Mary’s in Pontefract has delivered food parcels to help nearly 250 children. Thank you to David Jones, Denise Pallett and all the volunteers. In Castleford, we have been delivering food parcels and kids activity packs, with great leadership from Kath Scott and Saney Ncube. We have talked to families where children are making do with snacks for lunch—something sweet and cheap to eat, because there is no food in the house. Paul Green and the volunteers at Kellingley club have been doing an amazing job supporting families in Knottingley. In Normanton, Michelle Newton, Ash Samuels and the Well Project have been helping families across the town.
Our councillors and volunteers are the best of Britain, and part of the proud tradition in our towns of people rallying round when things are tough. It has also been the best of Britain that we have seen in this phenomenal personal campaign from Marcus Rashford, but also from hundreds of thousands of people across the country joining the campaign to end holiday hunger. Today’s U-turn from the Government is welcome, but we need action all of the time to stop child hunger and poverty, not just when there is a big campaign.
Under the last Labour Government, in the run-up to every Budget—every Budget—we had a big debate on what should be done that year to tackle child poverty and to make progress. We tried to make that pressure permanent 10 years ago by bringing in the Child Poverty Act 2010, which at that time had cross-party support, to keep the pressure up to end child poverty. However, that has been ditched by the Government, and instead we have seen things such as the two-child limit or the five-week wait for universal credit brought in that have caused so much damage. I would urge them to join in that cross-party spirit again to end child hunger and to end child poverty. It is morally wrong that, in the 21st century, any children should go hungry.
On 27 March, at the daily press conference, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that the coronavirus “does not discriminate”. We know that is not true, with 88% higher mortality rates in deprived communities, and we all see and know in our own constituencies the economic effects that this virus is having in more deprived areas. In my own constituency, 1,570 people have joined the claimant count since March, and that will increase. Their families are made up of hard-working, dedicated individuals who through no fault of their own have found themselves and will find themselves struggling. The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) is not here, but I am sorry, the state does need to intervene in these situations, because these people pay their tax and are proud individuals, and they need our support now.
Listening to Conservative Members today, it is as though an amendment was not on the Order Paper saying that they were going to oppose free school meals over the summer, but it is there. As I challenged the hon. Member for Watford (Dean Russell), if it had been there tonight and things had not changed, they would all have trooped through the Lobby and voted against giving our children free school meals during the summer holidays. In 2020 in the sixth richest country in the world, if we cannot afford to support and feed children, there is something terribly wrong. That is not the society I came into politics to see. It is one that I and, I know, others on the Labour Benches will continue to fight, and we will fight against the injustice that this Government seem to be completely deaf to.
The reliance of many children on free school meals is, sadly, not a new thing, but this is the reality for the 3,231 children across my Luton South constituency. Similarly, holiday hunger is a sustained and severe problem at the heart of many of our communities, and both have been exacerbated by this unprecedented public health crisis. I am glad that, after sustained pressure from Marcus Rashford and the Labour party’s Holidays Without Hunger campaign, the Government have decided to U-turn, do the right thing and extend the free school meal voucher scheme over the summer holidays.
Research by End Child Poverty shows that, before the coronavirus crisis, 46% of children in Luton South were living in relative poverty. As I have said before in this House, many are living in families struggling with in-work poverty due to low pay, insecure work and zero-hours contracts. I am very concerned that the financial hardship inflicted by the coronavirus crisis will cause this figure to increase. If the Government had not conceded to public pressure and extended the free school meal voucher scheme, they would have neglected their responsibility to vulnerable children.
Free school meals provide a staple diet and the nutrition that facilitates a child’s development. Neglecting a child’s development needs can have a tremendous impact on their mental and physical health. In the longer term, adverse childhood experiences—for example, a sustained inability to meet a child’s basic needs, such as being fed—can lead, through no fault of their own, to negative outcomes such as low educational and employment achievements and mental health problems. Today’s U-turn is welcome, and I urge the Government to go further to end child poverty.
I pay tribute to Marcus Rashford this afternoon. It is not easy to speak about difficult personal experiences, but by doing so in such a powerful way, he helped to force the Government to act to stop 1.3 million children in England who are eligible for free school meals going hungry over the summer holidays. I also pay tribute to my local councils—Lambeth and Southwark councils—and to the many community organisations that have been working so hard since March to address food insecurity during the pandemic. They show the commitment, care and compassion in our local communities of which I could not be more proud.
While the Government’s U-turn is welcome, we should not be having this debate today, because coronavirus or not, no child should ever go hungry in the UK. Parents do not want to have to rely on a voucher scheme. They want the dignity and freedom to buy healthy, fresh food to nourish their children. Shamefully, childhood hunger and food insecurity are a huge problem in the UK, exacerbated by coronavirus, but a reality for many families, even without the pandemic. It is hard to understand the mindset of a Prime Minister who does not appear to see this as a top priority and who has to be pushed reluctantly into minimal action.
The voucher scheme is welcome and essential, but it is not a solution to food poverty. It is not reaching the thousands of families who fall just outside the income threshold for free school meals, or those who will not claim because of the stigma. We know that many of these families are also on low incomes, with precarious work, facing high housing costs and forced to rely on a social security system that prefers punishment over support.
The Government have a choice: they can keep lurching forward with disorganisation and wrong-headedness, forced to do the right thing only by intense pressure from our communities; or they can start to engage and plan now for a coronavirus recovery that builds back better, addressing structural inequality, low pay, insecure work, the high cost and insecurity of private renting and the ability of our councils to deliver the public services that we all rely on, and they could make sure that no child in the UK ever has to go to bed hungry again.
I welcome the Government’s U-turn on this important issue, and it is incredibly disappointing that it has taken a high-profile intervention—a “Match of the Day”-worthy goal—from Marcus Rashford to get us to this point. I think of my constituents in Ilford South, where we have over 4,000 children who claim free school meal vouchers, and, potentially, with 17,500 people on furlough, that figure could rise to a far worse and frightening level.
Unsurprisingly, I have been inundated with emails from concerned constituents in precarious positions. Andrea, with three children, currently has no income whatever due to the covid crisis, her mental health damaged. I will quickly mention one young man—a 10-year-old, Muhammad Ameen, who took the time to write to me from my old primary school, Highlands, in Ilford South. He said that some children whose
“parents are poor, have to suffer hunger in this crisis and are not getting the free school meals they need. I must stress this is for the families who desperately need it.”
I know that we are short on time, so I will finish by saying that it does not often happen that someone who is a West Ham supporter will congratulate and thank Marcus Rashford, a Manchester United player, but by highlighting this, he has held a mirror up to the Government. Thankfully, they have responded and are going to help all those people in my constituency to get through this summer—
I will start by saying how pleased I am about the U-turn that the Government have made over free school meals, and what an impact it will have on all the children who are facing a food crisis in this pandemic and all the parents who are worried about the long summer months that are coming up over the holidays. We cannot underestimate the impact that this decision will have.
Today’s debate has highlighted how necessary this U-turn was. Forgive me, because I will not be able to mention every single person who has spoken in the debate, but there have been some very powerful speeches from Members on both sides, including the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), who exposed the shocking extent of child poverty in the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) shared powerful stories of child poverty from her constituency, and my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum), for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome), for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) talked movingly about their own personal stories when it comes to free school meals.
There have been so many excellent contributions, and I am afraid I cannot go through all of them, but it would be remiss of me not to mention my hon. Friends the Members for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who have been campaigning on this issue for a very long time now—well before the Government decided to do their U-turn. As for Government Members, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) on his maiden speech, as well as his new baby.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the brilliant organisations that have been campaigning on food poverty in this crisis and calling on the Government to extend free school meals. No campaign ever happened single-handedly, and I cannot name all of them. I will give a quick mention to School Food Matters, the Child Poverty Action Group, Feeding Britain, the Food Foundation, Sustain, and the Good Law Project—but there are so many more.
If you will indulge me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to thank the Minister for making this U-turn in the knowledge that her big boss in No. 10, Dominic Cummings, previously said that free school meals were a “gimmick”. We know what happens to Ministers who cross him, so I hope that the hon. Lady is in her position next week.
I pay tribute to the schools, councils, food banks, community groups and others who have been doing everything they can to support children during this pandemic. One of the things I want to highlight is that we heard some very chilling statistics in this debate about food insecurity, but behind every chilling statistic is a personal tragedy. I want to speak about a young woman who lives in a council estate not very far from where I live. I met her during the election, when she told me that she has small children, just like I do. She said that every day when she picks up the children from school, she just wishes and prays that one of their friends would invite them to their house for dinner so that when it comes to dinner time, she does not have to tell them that she does not have enough food to feed them. She told me that that makes her feel inadequate as a mother. When I think about free school meals, I have long thought about Rebecca and how much this will benefit her during the summer holidays. Every story like this is a family’s personal tragedy—and that is before we consider the long-term impact on children going without food.
What I find so scary is that in this crisis we will not know the full impact of rising food poverty on children for some time: the child whose growth was stunted because they were underfed, the child whose mental health was damaged by the experience of poverty, or the child whose education was set back because they could not focus on learning due to hunger. The extent of this harm will not be clear for many, many years. We also know that it will disproportionately impact black and minority ethnic communities, the disabled community, and already disadvantaged children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
For all those reasons, I heartily welcome the fact that free school meals will be funded over the summer, but I cannot help but question why this decision has come so late. Back in April, the Labour Government in Wales committed to £33 million to fund free school meals over the summer, at a much higher level of support than in England. We heard very passionate speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) highlighting the leadership and clear thinking that the Welsh Labour Government have shown on free school meals. I wish the Government had taken a leaf out of their book.
A win is a win, but the debate should not end here, and I would be grateful if the Minister answered a number of questions about this U-turn. How will she ensure that the administrative problems we have seen with the voucher scheme to date will not be replicated over the summer? Will she set out why the same support has not been offered for universal infant free school meals? Will she commit to continuing with the support from September? How will she ensure that the half a million children who qualify for free school meals but are not accessing the support are properly fed at home? What plans do the Government have to get support to the millions of children who do not qualify for free school meals but are none the less facing food insecurity?
You know that I am a London MP, Madam Deputy Speaker, but when it comes to football, my heart and soul rest at Anfield, so normally I would not be echoing the words of a Manchester United player in the Chamber like this, especially when this is a potentially record-breaking championship season for Liverpool. I would have shown him the red card, but I do not need to consult VAR to see that hungry children are more important than club loyalties. I would like to read out a message that Marcus Rashford has sent where he thanks all the MPs in the Chamber for coming together and making sure that we put our loyalties aside and did what was right for hungry children.
I will start by thanking everybody who has spoken in this debate on an incredibly important issue. I would particularly like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford). He talked in his maiden speech about the passion of his constituents, who he knows
“can and will change the world for the better.”
I believe that everybody who gets involved in politics wants to do that—they can and will change the world for the better.
At this incredibly difficult time, we need to ensure that we all do everything we can to get support to those who need it most, and that includes getting support to vulnerable children. It is right that we ask schools to keep their kitchens open where possible or to deliver food parcels to those who would normally get a free school meal. It is right that we provided vouchers for children whose schools were not able to provide food parcels. Never before has a system like that been set up in such a short period. Yes, there were technical problems, but as of last Friday, more than £150 million-worth of vouchers had been redeemed by families and schools. It is also right that we will provide additional funding for a covid summer food fund, so that children who are eligible for free school meals receive a six-week voucher this summer. It is right that we listen.
Would it not be better for the Minister to use this opportunity to thank Marcus Rashford for the great campaign he has led and to commit to ensure that this never happens again by putting a line in the Budget papers to ensure that these free school meals are available for the duration of this Government’s lifetime?
The hon. Gentleman is right: we must all thank Marcus Rashford for his campaign and his letter, and I will do so.
I want to point out that this is only one piece of a wide network of support that we have ensured is in place for vulnerable children at this time. We have invested in support for adoptive families and foster carers. We have prioritised care leavers and families of children with disabilities. We have supported those who have been excluded from school and kept schools open for those children who need schools to keep them safe. I would like to thank all those who work in schools, the education system and care, our social workers and everyone across the country who works to support vulnerable children.
As many Members have said, getting all children and young people back into school as quickly as possible is a vital next step because of the important role that education plays in all children’s life—especially those children who face disadvantage. It is right that we all thank Marcus Rashford for his letter. I would like to thank him for his letter, and I especially thank him for the work that he has done with FareShare to provide food support. The Government have also invested £16 million in food support through frontline food charities, including FareShare.
Marcus tells a heart-wrenching story of his early childhood. It is right that low-income families should be prioritised for support at a difficult time. He points out in his letter that his experience happened 10 years ago. Since then, the Government have introduced the national living wage, increased wages and reduced taxes for those on the lowest incomes, so that they have more money in their pockets. The lowest-paid working full time could, in real terms, be better off by over £5,000 than they would have been back in 2010.
But we know that this summer is exceptional. It will be a very difficult time for many families. As well as ensuring that vulnerable children are safe at this time and that their learning is supported as much as possible, we have ensured that those who are eligible for free school meals can access food via either local arrangements provided by their schools or our voucher scheme. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), who gave a shout-out to the breakfast clubs Magic Breakfast and Family Action, which have supported so many.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) raised an important point on the attainment gap—the difference between the educational attainment of those from a more disadvantaged background and that of their peers. The good news is that over the past decade, that attainment gap has narrowed at every single stage of education. But we know that it risks widening now, which is why we are committed to a long-term, sustained programme of catch-up, to close that gap again—and we will always focus on the disadvantaged first.
Let me be clear: giving families a voucher—
Mr Nicholas Brown claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question put and agreed to.
Main Question accordingly put and agreed to.
That this House welcomes the Government’s decision to provide schools with their expected funding to cover benefits-related free school meals including the national voucher scheme over the Easter and May half-term holidays; notes the decision of the Welsh Government to guarantee each eligible child the equivalent of £19.50 a week up until the end of August to cover their meals over the summer holidays; and calls on the Government to continue to directly fund provision of free school meals, including the free school meal voucher scheme for eligible children over the summer holidays to stop children going hungry during this crisis.