I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021 to prevent over a million children going hungry during this crisis.
I am very pleased to open today’s debate on such an important motion on behalf of children across the country who are at risk of going hungry and of all the families worried that their children will be hungry over the school holidays.
The truth is that we should not be having this debate at all. In the summer, when this issue was debated in this House, the Government saw sense, did the right thing and ensured that no child would go hungry over the summer holidays. This time, however, despite many families facing even more challenging circumstances now than they did four months ago, shamefully the Government are walking away from their obligation to hungry children. In their hearts, hon. Members on the Government Benches who rightly supported the extension of free school meals over the summer holidays know that. They will also know that the thousands of families who rely on free school meals to help them to make ends meet will watch with great interest how they vote this evening. I am aware that there are some right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches who are indicating that they will vote in favour of this motion. I commend them for setting party politics aside and I hope that by the end of this evening many more of their colleagues will join them.
More than 1.4 million children benefit from free school meals. Nearly 900,000 eligible children live in areas now subject to tier 2 and tier 3 covid restrictions. Their families face an upcoming furlough cliff-edge, an inadequate replacement system and the deep fear of growing unemployment. So the question for Members on the Government Benches is simple: are they absolutely confident that support is adequate and that no child in their constituencies will go hungry?
I am grateful to the hon. Member. Initially, I would suggest that we urgently need a measure that will take us through this half term and the remainder of this academic year. We understand that nobody can predict how the virus might progress over the coming months, but it is crystal clear that what we need to vote for tonight is an urgent emergency measure to protect children and families who are struggling.
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene in the midst of her excellent oration. There are 3,891 children in Slough who are known to require free school meals. Does she agree that if feeding those children over the summer was the right and humane thing to do in the middle of a pandemic, surely it is right and honourable to feed them over the winter when their parents are struggling to put food on the table and more than 1 million children could potentially go hungry? Or does she think that the Prime Minister has merely changed his priorities once again?
My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point, and he is right to draw attention to the Prime Minister’s view on this matter, because Downing Street said just the other day:
“It’s not for schools to provide food to pupils during the school holidays.”
I cannot believe I have to spell this out: it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that children do not go hungry, and they do not stop being hungry just because the school bell rings for the end of term. Surely our constituents send us to this place as Members of Parliament to vote to ensure that the children who most need our help at any time of year are protected.
The hon. Lady is making a passionate and thought-through speech. Does she agree that the holiday periods are always a difficulty—whether or not there is a pandemic—for those children from families on free school meals? They always need that support, and that should be something we are doing irrespective of the pandemic. In my constituency, 40% of the entire workforce are on furlough. The cliff edge is coming in a few days’ time, when the number of people desperate for support will increase massively. Is it not therefore right that we take action today?
That is right. The debate this evening is urgent. Let me say to Members on the Government Benches: please put party politics aside tonight and for the sake of our children vote to extend free school meals. After all, since the summer holidays, exactly as we have just heard, the situation has got worse and more desperate for millions of families.
While the provision of free school meals is being closed, the gravy train is still open for business—with £7,000 a day for consultants working on a test and trace system that does not work, £130 million to a Conservative party donor for unsafe covid testing kits, £160 million of profits for Serco and an increased dividend for its shareholders, because the Government threw good money after bad on a test and trace contract that is robbing the public. Yesterday, a Business Minister said that extending free school meals was not as simple as writing a cheque, but why is it that the money only runs out when it is hungry children who need it?
I am surprised there is not greater recognition on the Government Benches that families across the country are finding it very difficult to manage. It was, after all, only a matter of weeks ago that national newspapers were full of briefings from friends of the Prime Minister reporting anxiety about how he had to provide for his family. He had a new baby and, with the loss of his lucrative newspaper columns, his friends said it was a strain to manage on his £150,000 salary as Prime Minister.
It is frankly contemptible that the kind of concern we read in the national newspapers for the Prime Minister’s finances is not extended to the millions across this country who are genuinely struggling. Imagine being a parent of one of the more than 3,000 children in the Prime Minister’s constituency who benefits from free school meals. To read one week about how hard it is to make ends meet on £150,000 a year and then to see the provision of a free meal for your child taken away a few days later is utterly inexplicable.
The fact that we need to have this debate is a sign of repeated failures on the part of the Government—a failure of compassion, a failure of competence, not recognising the challenges that parents face and not giving them the support they need to provide for their children.
There are roughly 14 million people living in relative poverty this year. In 2000, there were roughly 14 million people living in relative poverty. Why were Labour not able to fix the problems of relative poverty when they were in power?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like me to enlighten him on the poverty figures during Labour’s period in office. In 2010-11, there were 3.5 million children living in relative poverty. Today, the figure after housing costs is 4.2 million. I would advise him to be very careful about quoting child poverty figures to Labour Members.
We have a failure of leadership today—a failure to be clear and unequivocal. No child should go hungry in one of the world’s richest countries, but where the Government have failed to show leadership, many others have stepped up to do the right thing. As the Member of Parliament for Old Trafford, I am very proud to pay tribute to Marcus Rashford. I congratulate him on his late winning goal last night and I hope that he will score another late victory today when we vote on Labour’s motion. I congratulate and thank the many others across the country who are acting and campaigning to end child poverty and food poverty.
If the hon. Member will forgive me, no—I will make progress and let others in.
It gives me huge pride to see people come together and take action where the Government are failing to do so. Co-operative schools are already committing to providing free school meals over the holidays. That represents the very best of the co-op movement—a movement built on support for one another, on people helping their neighbours in their community and doing what is right for the most disadvantaged. Will the Secretary of State follow their example?
Colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government, in Northern Ireland and in some parts of Scotland have already committed to providing free school meals over the holidays until Easter. Again, I ask: will the Secretary of State follow their example? Catering staff across our schools have worked flat out to fulfil their essential role in providing free school meals. They are among the many low-paid workers we have learned to depend on during the pandemic, but many feel that their jobs and livelihoods are at risk. Will the Secretary of State tell us what steps are being taken to protect and support the jobs of school catering staff and others who deliver this support to our children?
Before the pandemic, there were over 4 million children growing up in poverty. In the months ahead, that will only increase. Child poverty is a pandemic of its own. It is a pandemic that reflects the great evils still haunting our society—a society blighted by wages that are not enough for working families to make ends meet, a housing crisis that creates insecurity and a social security system cut to ribbons by the Conservative party.
I recognise today’s proposals are not a silver bullet, and they will not end child poverty. They are a sticking plaster, but one that is badly and urgently needed—needed by the 1.4 million children who could go hungry without them and by families worried about putting food on the table—so will the Secretary of State do what is right and take this first small step to ensure that over a million children do not go hungry this Christmas?
As I said at the outset, the Government should never have let things get this far. They still do not have to. The Secretary of State can stand up now and do the right thing. He can listen to Labour, to campaigners and to families across the country, withdraw his amendment and support our motion. Sadly, I do not think he will do so. Yet months ago, Marcus Rashford asked the question that started this debate and that saw the Government extend free school meals over the summer. Today I ask—[Interruption.] Oh, don’t be silly! The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) knows perfectly well that the one thing I am not is frit. Today I ask the Secretary of State the same simple question: can we all agree that no child should go to bed hungry? I commend our motion to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“notes that schools are now fully operational following the covid-19 outbreak, and will continue to offer free school meals in term time; welcomes the substantial support provided by the Government to children worth £550 million annually; further welcomes that this support has been bolstered by almost £53 billion worth of income protection schemes, and £9.3 billion of additional welfare payments; notes that eligible families have also been supported throughout lockdown through the receipt of meal vouchers worth £380 million while schools were partially closed, alongside the Holiday Activities and Food Fund; and further supports the Government in its ongoing activities to help the most vulnerable children in society.”
As we all know, this is a unique and hugely challenging period that our nation faces. We understand the profound impact that the pandemic has had on people’s lives. Supporting those on lower incomes and vulnerable families is very much at the heart of the Government’s response. I recognise and understand the strength of feeling around this issue, both within this House and more widely. I would like to take this opportunity to outline the significant steps that we have taken to support children during the pandemic and the package of support available from the Government for families who might otherwise be facing hardship.
As my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer have both made clear throughout this period, the Government will continue to support people affected by coronavirus. We have taken unprecedented action to support families and jobs, as we take measures to tackle this virus. That is why we have undertaken the most radical overhaul of our welfare system since Beveridge, by introducing universal credit, ensuring that work pays for everyone. If we had not taken those bold actions—actions that were opposed by Labour at every single stage—this country would not have been in a position to support those families and individuals, who are most vulnerable in society.
May I take the Secretary of State back to children and schools? As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) has outlined, schools are anchors in the community. School leaders are already overburdened by much of what they are having to do, but they are already doing much of it. This week I visited FareShare South West in Bristol, which reaches out and uses community anchors to feed children and families. We have a golden opportunity to use schools as community anchors. The Secretary of State needs to see this differently and do that, and also include nurseries and children’s centres—the anchors for families. He needs to reconsider.
I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting another Government initiative—FareShare receives considerable support from the Government, as do such schemes as Magic Breakfast, in recognition of the important role that the voluntary sector plays in provision and support for schools and children. Let me also take this opportunity to thank not just the teachers and support staff in her constituency, but those in all our constituencies, who have done an amazing job in ensuring, despite opposition from Labour on numerous occasions, that every school has the opportunity to open and that children can go back, as we have been able to do so.
As my predecessor as candidate in Blackpool North and Fleetwood, my right hon. Friend will know that I have some 6,000 pupils reliant on free school meals in my constituency, and I am deeply disappointed by the decision that has been taken at the moment. Will he commit to pushing in the comprehensive spending review for a much more strategic approach that rolls out the school holiday activity fund nationwide—a universal approach to tackling child poverty that does not just stigmatise those on free school meals?
My hon. Friend raises a really important point, which I was going to come to, about the important role that the holiday activities and food programme has played in making a real difference for children. This debate should not be just about food; we have to look at different ways that we can support children and families. Children, often from the most deprived backgrounds, are sometimes in a situation over the long summer period of not being able to have the level of support that we would like to see all children benefit from, and we should look at how we can roll out that programme more into the future. It has been very successful in the previous two years and we would like to see how we can do more in the future.
I am looking forward with enthusiasm to turning to the hon. Gentleman, but let me just finish addressing the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard).
As my hon. Friend will know, we have invested a considerable amount of money in the opportunity areas, which are looking at some of the real long-term challenges that we have in Blackpool as well as in 12 other areas right around the country.[Official Report, 3 November 2020, Vol. 683, c. 4MC.] I would be very happy to sit down with him to see how we can link up what we are doing with the Blackpool opportunity area, and the progress that we are making on that, in addressing some of the concerns that I know he has.
Let me make just a little more progress, and then I will hand over to the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who I know is keen to get in. I was talking about universal credit and how it has been such an important part of our response to the covid crisis. If we had not had universal credit in place, the job of the Department for Work and Pensions and the whole of Government would have been so much more challenging in being able support everyone in this country. By tapering benefits and providing work allowances to those facing the greatest barriers to work, we ensure that people are always better off in work. Something that is often forgotten is the number of barriers that we inherited and had to deal with when we came to power back in 2010, as a result of the legacy of the last Labour Government.
That is why between 2015-16 and 2019-20, we have taken 1.7 million people out of tax. Yes, we on the Government side of the House believe that tax cuts are good, and they benefit the poorest in society by taking them out of tax. We provided approximately 32 million people with a tax cut by raising the personal tax allowance to £12,500. I personally, and I think a lot of Government Members, think that helping 32 million people is a good thing.
I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words and for allowing me to intervene. Food bank usage is predicted to be 61% higher this coming winter than it was last winter. That is a mere prediction. It will take a lot more than free school meals to sort out this poverty crisis, but does the Secretary of State agree that that is the least we can do to help support struggling families?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a man who has great passion and belief on the subject of education and how we support the most vulnerable people in society, and he raises an important point about how we can support those people. Our view is, clearly, that the best way of doing that is through the universal credit system and ensuring that we have a welfare system that works for everyone in this country.
As I touched on, we have raised the personal tax allowance to £12,500 to ensure that those on the lowest incomes benefit, and at the same time we have raised the adult national living wage to £8.72, up from the adult national minimum wage of £5.80 at the start of 2010.
I very much welcome the support being given to poorer families, but the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs looked at covid and the food supply, and there is no doubt that it is hugely challenging for the poorest in society to get food at the moment. Does the Secretary of State accept that some of these families are very challenged, and that if we give them money, it does not necessarily get to food for children—[Interruption.] No, it does not. Therefore, I think school meal vouchers are a good way of getting food out to those families that really need it, so will he re-look at meal vouchers for Christmas?
That is what is so incredibly important about our free school meals programme, which originally came into existence in 1906 and has evolved considerably since. The programme has the raised the standards of what children receive and has expanded to support so many others. It is an important part of what we deliver. I will touch on that later in my speech.
I know that the hon. Lady is eager to intervene—I am sure that it is an interchangeable point that she can probably make at any time in my speech. If I could make some progress, I will give way to her later.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we have been prioritising supporting jobs. We are helping employees to get back into work with an £1,000 bonus for employers if they keep on a member of staff. We are doubling the number of frontline work coaches, and putting in place a new job support scheme to protect jobs and businesses that are facing lower demand over the winter due to coronavirus. We are determined to build back better, which is why we have introduced a £30 billion plan for jobs, including the £2 billion kickstart scheme to help 250,000 16 to 24-year-olds on universal credit to get a foot on the jobs ladder.
I am going to give way to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) before the hon. Lady, but first I will make just a little bit more progress.
In this unprecedented time, the Government are proud to have injected £9 billion into the welfare system, because we on this side of the House recognised that action needed to be taken to protect and support those who are most vulnerable. That support has been targeted at those on low incomes, and includes increasing universal credit and working tax credit by up to £1,040 for this financial year, which benefits more than 4 million households. We have also provided an additional £63 million in welfare assistance funding for local authorities to support families with urgent needs, including over the October half-term.
I was not going to make an inter- changeable point; I actually wanted to pick up on a point that the Secretary of State made earlier in his speech about raising the income tax personal allowance. Given that he is making such a passionate defence of what was a Liberal Democrat policy in the coalition Government, perhaps he might follow another Liberal Democrat policy—that of the Education Minister in Wales, Kirsty Williams, who has extended free school meals until April next year—so that some 2,000 children in my constituency of Twickenham will not go hungry in the holidays this winter.
The hon. Lady will probably remember that it was a coalition Government that the Liberal Democrats were part of. We are proud that the UK Government have provided free school meals to those who have needed them for over a century. They are an essential part of our education system, supporting 1.4 million students from the lowest-income families to learn and to achieve in the classroom.
This Government have always recognised the importance of free school meals. That is why it was the Conservatives, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats—the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) may want to intervene at this point—who, in September 2014, extended free school meals to disadvantaged further education students for the first time ever. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, schools have continued to receive their expected funding to cover both free school meals and universal infant free school meals.
I was not going to make that point, but it was actually another example of a policy that you guys definitely did oppose, and which we managed to persuade you to do. But that is not my point.
My point is about support for children, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, when it comes to their learning. It is clear that young people who have no access to learning technology at home fall further behind than those who do have access to wi-fi, laptops and larger screens. There are 2,300 children living in poverty—below the poverty line—in my constituency, yet only 116 PCs were delivered to support them. Should not the Secretary of State look at that provision again, so that people from poorer backgrounds do not fall further behind at school?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about learning for children. He has the privilege of representing a beautiful and rural part of the world, and he know some of the challenges that come with that. Beauty can often disguise some of the poverty that sits behind it, and he is right to mention some of the challenges around how we support schools. We have extended the laptop scheme, making more available. In total, close to 500,000 laptops will be made available for schools, and we continue to work with the sector to do everything we can to support schools in the delivery of remote education.
These are obviously exceptional times, but temporary solutions tend to become permanent. By the way, it was not me who called the shadow Secretary of State “frit”—I wanted to clear that up. If Opposition Members are suggesting a permanent right to free school meals during the holidays, why did they not introduce such a provision during their many years in power? Should we have an honest conversation with the public about whether such a measure would require raising taxes to pay for that increased welfare?
My hon. Friend raises important points about what is temporary and what is permanent. Indeed, there seems to be some disagreement here, because the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) seems to be moving away from the motion that she tabled. I was a little confused about whether she was developing her policy at the Dispatch Box, or whether her policy is stated in the motion.
There are real challenges around youngsters and tackling poverty, and Conservative Members are intent on ensuring that we put in place actions to deal with those issues, and that families, children, and individuals get the support they need. The best way to do that is through the welfare system; the best way to do that is by supporting people into work, as that is always the best route out of poverty.
I will make some progress, and then I will give way to the hon. Lady. In March we took the unprecedented step of asking schools to close to all but a very small number of children. Given that children were expected to study from home in such an unexpected manner, we took swift and decisive action, and invested significant funding to ensure that we could continue free school meal provision for eligible children. We also, temporarily, extended eligibility for free school meals to children from families with no recourse to public funds—an arrangement that we have extended into the autumn term while we undertake a review. It is right that such extraordinary measures were put in place at the start of the pandemic.
Now that pupils are back in schools, kitchens are open once again to provide healthy, nutritious meals to all children—including those eligible for free school meals—aiding their academic performance, and supporting attendance and engagement. We have also set out in guidance information for schools and caterers to support free school meal pupils who are self-isolating, through the provision of food parcels to those children.
I simply wanted to ask the Secretary of State, in the context of what he was saying about his party’s determination to reduce child poverty, whether he agrees with his colleague who, today at lunchtime on the BBC, said that there have always been hungry children, as if that were somehow a reason not to take action.
I think it is fair to say that Members on both sides of the House are united in their commitment to drive out poverty and to make sure that children do not go hungry. We will do everything we can to support families and help them to do well and to succeed, and to provide them with a world-class education system driving up standards. That is what drives Conservative Members and always will.
Was the Secretary of State moved, as I was, by The Times “Red Box” article that Marcus Rashford wrote? Did he find it quite striking that the anxiety and difficulties that he described in growing up, with his mum’s worry about feeding the children, took place entirely under a Labour Government who claimed that eradicating child poverty was their front and central policy?
My hon. Friend points out that this is a challenge that both parties face. There is a sense of commitment on the Conservative Benches to make a real and long-lasting difference to this, and that is what we will do.
We have sent out our guidance information to schools about how they can be supporting children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. We understand how important this is. It is a continued focus of this Government and always will be. Schools are an integral part of our local communities. However, free school meals have only ever been intended to provide support during term-time periods while children are engaging in activity and learning. The provision of a healthy school meal helps children to concentrate and learn, as most recently evidenced by the pilot programme in 2012 that led to the introduction of universal infant free school meals in 2014. This complements a wider range of Government support that responds more directly to the challenges faced by families on lower incomes, and is further supplemented by the additional support in place as a direct result of the pandemic.
I do apologise, but Mr Deputy Speaker has been quite clear about wanting me to make progress, and I would best do so.
During the unprecedented and unpredictable period at the start of the pandemic, it was right that extra measures were taken to provide free school meals during the holidays, but we are in a different position now that we have welcomed all pupils back to school. We know that the long summer break is the time when families most welcome support, and when children will most benefit from engaging activities so that they are ready to learn when they return to school in September. For the past three years, we have supported disadvantaged children with free healthy meals and enriching activities through our holiday activities and food programme. This summer, the £9 million holiday activities and food programme supported about 50,000 children across 17 different local authority areas. We have also provided £63 million in welfare assistance funding to local authorities to support families with urgent needs. This funding was passed to councils in July to provide local access to funding for those who need support, including families facing financial challenge.
Education is the No. 1 route to opportunity and prosperity. We invest more in the education of disadvantaged children to give them the very best chance in life, both through the weighted national funding formula and the £2.4 billion annual pupil premium. We have invested £1 billion in the covid catch-up fund, including investing in the national tutoring programme, which will offer high-quality small-group tutoring to disadvantaged pupils who have fallen furthest behind. We are equally determined to encourage the continuation of high-quality childcare, which helps parents to work and is a critical building block in children’s development. We are proud that since 2013 the proportion of children achieving a good level of development at the end of reception year has gone from one in two to nearly three out of four.
However, we recognise that these are unprecedented and difficult times for some families, and that is why the Government have significantly strengthened the welfare net. We have put in place additional welfare measures worth around £9 billion in this financial year, including increasing universal credit and working tax credit by up to £1,040 for this financial year, benefiting more than 4 million households. These welfare measures sit alongside our extensive support package, including the income protection schemes that have so far protected 12 million jobs at a cost of almost £53 billion for England alone. This is one of the most significant interventions by any Government in the western world. We recognise how important it is to protect not only jobs but families, and that is why we have taken these interventions. Taken together, it is clear that the Government have taken significant and unprecedented action to support children and families at risk of hardship during this period.
Free school meals are, and always have been, about supporting children with a meal to help them to learn when they are at school or, indeed, currently at home learning. However, it is our support through universal credit and our comprehensive welfare system that supports families. I have outlined a significant series of actions from across Government to support families who may otherwise struggle in the light of a pandemic, including £9 billion in welfare, £53 billion for job support measures, £63 million for local authorities to help those with urgent needs and £350 million to help the most disadvantaged students to catch up at school. Those are just a few things that this Government have put in place to support those who are most disadvantaged. They represent a direct financial response to the pandemic and demonstrate that the Government are doing everything possible to support those who need help. I encourage Members from across the House to support the Government as we tackle this pandemic and the impact it has on people across society, and I commend our amendment to the House.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate this afternoon and to give the full support of the Scottish National party to this Opposition motion. We very much welcome this debate, particularly as just yesterday the Scottish Government announced a £10 million package of funding for local authorities to continue providing free school meals over the forthcoming school holidays, up to and including the Easter break of 2021. The Scottish Government did that, quite simply, because in the middle of a global pandemic and with an economic crisis looming, that was the right thing to do. As the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security, Shirley-Anne Somerville, said:
“We are doing all we can to ensure the right support gets to the right people at the right time in the right way”.
Part of getting the right support to the right people in the right way at the right time involves ensuring that those who are most exposed to the economic consequences of the pandemic know that their children will still at least have one hot meal every day, even if it is during the school holidays. I agree with the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) that it is remarkable that, in the 21st century, at a time like this, in one of the richest countries in the world, we are even having to debate this or to ask the Government to fund free school meals over the school holiday period to prevent 1.5 million of the poorest and most vulnerable children in England from going hungry.
I, too, would like to pay tribute to the work done by Marcus Rashford to shine a light on this issue. As a hugely successful young professional athlete, it would have been so easy for him not to have done what he has, but it is a measure of him as a person that he has not forgotten where he came from and the struggle that his family and others had to endure every day growing up. In his public petition, he is asking the Government to keep going with the free school meal programme that was put in place over the summer holidays and did so much to help children from low-income families, who have been hardest hit by the pandemic. It is not a huge ask, but it has struck a chord across these islands, including several hundred of my constituents in Argyll and Bute, who, although not directly affected by this, have been struck by the sincerity and compassion of this young man.
Sadly, that compassion was not replicated in the Government’s response to the petition reaching 300,000 signatures. Their spokesperson said:
“It’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays. We believe the best way to support families outside of term time is through Universal Credit rather than government subsidising meals.”
Of course, they said that when the Government had just announced that they were taking the £20 universal credit uplift away. That particularly dismissive, not to say callous, response exposes just how hollow the Chancellor’s promise was back in the summer to do “whatever it takes” to help people through this crisis. As we head into what will certainly be very difficult times this winter, with coronavirus cases on the rise, prompting fears of a second wave, taking away food from under- privileged children seems a perverse way of doing whatever it takes to help. Bizarrely, that same UK Government spokesperson said of the summer holiday school meal scheme:
“This is a specific measure to reflect the unique circumstances of the pandemic”
as if we had somehow come through it all, the pandemic had gone and everything had returned to normal. Is that really what the Government wanted to say? Is that the message that they wanted to get out? If so, it is palpable nonsense, as any health professional, self-employed worker, hospitality business owner, seasonal worker or someone who is about to lose their furlough will confirm—as will the parent and carer of every poor child in England whose income has fallen and are now reliant on food banks and for whom a free school meal had become almost a daily necessity.
This is a political choice. There is no doubt that if this Government prioritised eradicating poverty, the money would be found in an instant, because poverty is not accidental. It is not inevitable. It is a political choice. Poverty is not something that happens by accident. Children going hungry in a country as rich as this is a consequence—a direct consequence—of political choices. A decade of austerity in which the poorest and weakest in our society were forced to carry the can and bear the brunt of a financial crisis that had nothing to do with them was a political choice, and so too is the decision to take away poor children’s food during an economic and health crisis. It is staggering.
I was going to ask the Secretary of State this. We all know how important healthy eating is—not just food on the table but healthy food on the table. During the covid crisis, the Government suspended the fruit and veg scheme, and it was only reinstated after some serious campaigning by the organisation Sustain. Does the hon. Member agree with me and Sustain that the fruit and veg scheme should be extended to all primary school children, so that they have the benefit of it?
That is not really a question for me—I am not and never would aspire to be the Secretary of State for Education—but I take on board the hon. Member’s point, because it is about political choices. That is why I am so pleased that the Scottish Government have chosen to use the limited powers they have to support 156,000 of our children and young people by committing £10 million to ensure that those children who need it will continue to get a free school meal during this holiday and every holiday up to Easter 2021. In addition, the Scottish Government have announced £20 million of funding to be made available to local councils to help tackle financial insecurity. That funding will be sufficiently flexible for councils to be able to provide support to people who, shamefully, have no recourse to public funds and would otherwise be destitute and have no access to mainstream benefits.
Of course child poverty still exists in Scotland; no one could or would deny it. But the difference between what the UK Government are doing and what the SNP is doing in Holyrood is that the Scottish Government are doing what they can, with limited powers, to alleviate the worst effects of the Government’s policies, to try to improve the lives of Scotland’s poorest children. That was recognised by both the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, who praised the Scottish Government for using what he described as their
“newly devolved powers to establish a promising social security system guided by the principles of dignity”.
Included in that new security system is the Scottish child payment, which will pay the equivalent of £10 a week per child to families with eligible children who are currently in receipt of low-income benefit. From November, the fund will be open to families with children under the age of six, recognising that, of all children in poverty, almost 60% live in a family where a child is under six years old. Although there is no cap to the number of children per family, it means, for a family with two children under six, £1,040 a year extra in their pockets. That is expected to alleviate the worst excesses of poverty for 194,000 children, and it is a significant investment by the Scottish Government.
I understand that the Government intend to vote against the motion tonight. I hope the Whips have done their arithmetic, because I understand that at least one group of Conservatives will be voting with the Opposition this evening—the Scottish Conservatives. It was less than a month ago that the new leader, the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), declared that providing free school meals, breakfast and lunch to every primary school pupil in Scotland was to be his flagship policy in next year’s Scottish elections. He said:
“I have seen myself the difference that providing free meals can make. I just want to make sure no-one falls through the cracks and by giving this to all primary school pupils we can make sure the offer is there for everyone.”
Given his words, it is absolutely inconceivable that he and his colleagues would do anything other than vote for the motion tonight and provide the same level of support for the 1.5 million children in England who will benefit from school meals. That is why, despite being wholly devolved, we will be in the Lobby this evening alongside, I believe, every single Scottish MP when the House divides this evening.
Throughout the pandemic, the Secretary of State has acted significantly to support families in financial distress, and I thank both the Children’s Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), and the Minister with responsibility for universal credit, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), for the many discussions that I have had with them on these subjects.
The £20 a week uplift to universal credit and the £63 million for local authorities to provide families with emergency food and essential supplies has been a lifeline, but all the while that support has been in place, food insecurity has continued to rise. Between January and September 2020, the Harlow food bank gave out 118 tonnes of food—nearly double the tonnage of last year—and nationally, 32% of households have experienced a drop in income since late March. An estimated 1.9 million children have been affected by food insecurity in the same period, according to the Food Foundation, and 2% of adults said they had skipped meals entirely. That is only set to continue.
My right hon. Friend is quite right about food insecurity, because that is exactly what the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report found. Does he agree that, if a sugar tax were implemented, raising £300 million, it would cost about £20 million per week to support free school meals? Surely it would be money well spent. I believe that the sugar tax was meant for helping poor people to get food.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I will come to that later. I am asking not for huge amounts of new money from the Treasury, but for the redistribution of the proceeds of the existing sugar tax, which disproportionately hits those on low incomes, back to those on lower incomes through free school meals and food programmes.
The Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast a 13.2% rise in unemployment, meaning that 336,500 more working adults could face food insecurity. Now is the time for a long-term plan on combating food hunger from the Government, rather than a series of patchwork solutions.
First, I urge the Government to collect and publish proper data on child food insecurity. The most recent DFE estimate of the number of children eligible for free school meals, provided to me in a recent letter from the Children’s Minister, is 1.4 million. The figures are from January 2020, and we know that since then the world has been turned on its head. The Food Foundation suggests that the figure is now more like 2.2 million children, with 900,000 newly registered.
To the Government’s credit, there are a number of schemes to relieve food hunger, but what is being done to ensure that they are working? In September, for example, just 47.3% of eligible mothers were receiving healthy start vouchers, and those uptake figures are in decline. Much more could be done to boost awareness of those schemes, digitise healthy start vouchers and ensure that all those eligible for free school meals are registered quickly.
Secondly, free school meals should be extended over the school holidays temporarily for as long as the big effects of the pandemic continue to be felt. I would only support that temporarily. If we acknowledge that children risk going hungry in term time by providing them with free school meals despite the provision of universal credit and the other things that have been mentioned by the Government, we know that they risk going hungry in the holidays too.
Thirdly, as the report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment, “Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food”, recommended, when calculating universal credit allowances, the Government must consider the cost of buying and preparing healthy, nutritious meals under its own Eatwell scheme. Fourthly, the Government should implement the private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on school breakfasts and give all disadvantaged schools the funding to provide a free school breakfast to children at risk of hunger. We know that that increases educational progress by two months, and average GCSE achievement goes up for those children who have a regular breakfast.
Fifthly, we need a programme of holiday activities not just over the summer, but over every school holiday, to offer academic catch-up, as well as mental health and wellbeing support. I have seen that work in my constituency of Harlow, with children getting fed. Of course, I understand there are significant financial constraints on the Treasury right now, but these proposals do not need new money. It is also time for prominent retailers, suppliers and manufacturers to take on a much bigger role and match fund Government investment in tackling child food insecurity. It is no good just ticking a virtue-signalling box on a taskforce—they should actually act. We should ring-fence the £340 million a year in revenue from the tax on sugary drinks to cover the cost of these proposals.
The sugar tax, as I mentioned, hits families on lower incomes. Why should we not redistribute the revenue to fund these policy proposals, helping those same families facing food insecurity? Kellogg’s has found that hunger in the classroom costs the English economy at least £5.2 million a year. All the evidence shows that if we feed children properly, we increase educational attainment and boost life chances. It is a no-brainer. I urge the Government to set out a serious long-term plan to combat childhood hunger, and—at least until we are over the coronavirus—keep free school meals going through the winter and Easter holidays.
As I said earlier, with over 6,000 children eligible for free school meals in my constituency, tackling food poverty during the school holidays is more than important: it is the ultimate example in politics of where something must be done. That is very different from saying that anything should be done. We need to ensure that the right support reaches the right children and, most importantly, in the right manner to have the impact required.
I note the support that has already been provided, not least the £120 million extra spent over the critical summer holiday period. I note the £1,000 a year uplift in universal credit, as well as the £1 billion extra in local housing allowance. It is worth noting that eligibility for universal credit covers far more children than the much narrower eligibility for free school meals does, and that is supporting the financial resilience of many families in my constituency at a time of real and growing insecurity as tier 3 impacts my hospitality sector so devastatingly. It none the less remains a source of deep, deep personal regret that advantage has not been taken in the intervening period since we were here discussing this back before the summer for the Government to reach agreement across the whole of Government—not just within individual Departments—to take a decision that could have obviated the need for this debate. My view is that we need a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support stream to deal with the trials that have occurred. This would avoid any of the stigmatisation that I see in my constituency around eligibility for free school meals. It is essential that children retain a link with an outside body during the longer summer break when child neglect as well as food poverty increase. Such a scheme would also diminish the risk of them losing some of the learning that they have acquired during the academic year.
The policy chief of the Leader of the Opposition, Claire Ainsley, observed, in her previous role with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, that strong families able to withstand the shocks of personal change and external pressures such as job loss are vital. She was clear, as I am, that strong families matter. She also wants to see a return of a sense of agency and autonomy to the lives of some of the most disadvantaged in society—people who have had their ability to make choices about how their lives are structured taken away from them by systems that they have not designed. I am talking about choices that we here take for granted.
I am not convinced that the model on the Order Paper today is the right one. I am not sure that it returns that sense of agency and autonomy that I seek. Politics is not something that we do to people; it is something that we do with people. We need to make much more strategic use of Opposition day debates, rather than have the partisan squabbling that we tend to see. I have had 10 years here now. I have yet to see a single Opposition day debate illuminate an issue rather than obscure it further. I am not sure that it is the greatest use of the time that we have in this House—time that is very, very restricted these days.
For all that, the Government must move much more quickly to fill what has now become a policy vacuum and turn the thinking that I know is occurring within Departments into something much more concrete than they argue for—whether it be the spending review, the comprehensive spending review, the autumn fiscal event, or whatever season’s fiscal event it might be. The next time we have big announcements I have big hopes and expectations of what the Government will deliver.
In 2010, the incoming Conservative Prime Minister promised to fix what he termed “broken Britain”. A decade later, we are having a debate about whether or not children go hungry next week and I have to run a food bank from my constituency office. When Labour left office, 40,000 were using food banks, last year it was 1.4 million people, 7,000 of whom were in Southwark, including hundreds of working people.
My constituency is at heart of London. It may be the capital city of the fifth wealthiest nation on the planet, but in some wards child poverty is as high as 40%. It was the coalition who scrapped the proper measurement of poverty and then scrapped the previous Labour Government’s statutory commitment to end child poverty by this year—by 2020. Today’s debate shows the impact of that downgrade of the need to tackle child poverty. It was not just a downgrade, but a direct exacerbation of the problem directly imposed by Government policies. The Secretary State waxed lyrical about universal credit with its perverse and catastrophic five-week delay, but the Government’s own statistics show that, this year, more than 200,000 people who applied for universal credit were paid after five weeks. A third of the applicants got nothing and others have been forced to take out a loan from the Department for Work and Pensions, totalling now almost £1 billion. People sought help, but all they were given was debt and no recourse to public funds, which was a condition imposed on some people, but which leaves children growing up without access to the same support as the kid they were born next to at St Thomas’s Hospital and sit next to at St Saviour’s school. The Children’s Society tells us that there are 175,000 children in that position. The Home Office refused to release the figure, even though the Prime Minister promised that he would. I ask Members to contrast that pernicious national Government approach of state-sponsored food poverty with a willingness to help elsewhere.
I am proud of the efforts of my local Labour council to tackle food poverty, providing free healthy school meals for all primary school children since 2011. There are 59 members of the Southwark Food Action Alliance, including the council and faith groups such as the Salvation Army, and even private companies such as Engie and British Land understand that there is a problem. There are also some great local charities such as the Central Southwark Community Hub under Felicia Boshorin’s brilliant leadership, which has fed 2,300 families since April alone, Time & Talents has an amazing team under Sarah Gibb and Pecan, the Southwark food bank, which, last year, fed more than 2,400 children.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point about how the voluntary sector, individuals and local councils have stood up and filled the enormous gap left by the Government. I pay tribute to the Lunch Bunch in Woodley in my constituency of Reading East, to a range of other local charities, including Sadaka and Whitley Community Development Association, and to Reading Borough Council for its work. When will the Government stand up and play their part?
I am glad that my hon. Friend’s constituency has organisations like those in mine.
Organisations have popped up in response to covid, such as the mutual aid groups, and existing organisations such as Burgess Sports and Pembroke House have extended their activities to help feed families. They all deserve community gratitude, but they have worked so hard because the Government have created and then ignored the need for help—a Government headed by a man who apparently cries himself to sleep because he is now receiving only £150,000 a year. Well, boo hoo!
I want to end by talking about a real injustice. This year, children have largely, thankfully, escaped the worst health effects of covid, but they have not been spared the economic impact on their parents. In Bermondsey and Old Southwark, unemployment has jumped by 5,000, many parents are still prevented from working and we face the cliff edge of the end of the furlough scheme, which has helped 24,000 people in my constituency alone. Children feel the injustice of that situation. The Government have a genuine chance to act today—mindful, I hope, of the 300,000-and-growing signatures on Marcus Rashford’s petition.
I will finish by quoting Charles Dickens, who, of course, lived in Southwark. In the 1860s, he wrote “Great Expectations”, in which he said:
“In the little world in which children have their existence, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.”
It is injustice that we vote on today. MPs can allow an injustice to occur or we can vote to prevent an injustice from being done to children, through no fault of their own. I know how I will be voting—I will be voting to end injustice.
Free school meals have been part of the education system for more than a century, and they are and have always been intended to be an additional support on school days in term time. Lockdown disrupted education in a way that we probably have not seen since the war. The lines between school, home and education became blurred and, in those extraordinary circumstances, it was right to temporarily amend the rules on school meal provision so that those who would have received a meal, had school been open in the usual way, did not miss out.
But as I understand it, this motion is proposing something entirely different: it does not extend the system, but changes the very basis on which support might be offered. Schools are now open and those in receipt of free school meals will receive one at school. Indeed, the proposal in the motion was rejected by the Labour Government when it was made in 2007. This change might be desirable; it could make a difference. But I suggest that any such proposal should be considered not on its own, but as part of wider efforts to combat poverty.
We are definitely facing a period of economic hardship, and the welfare system has rightly been strengthened. I welcome, for example, the cash injection of £9,000 million into our welfare system and I particularly welcome the increase by £858,000 to Nottinghamshire as its part of the local authority welfare assistance fund. I further welcome changes such as the national living wage and the raising of the income tax threshold so that those on the lowest incomes pay no income tax at all—policies of practical benefit to the poorest in society.
I am a little unclear about how the Opposition’s proposals will work in practice. Should schools be reopened at a time when they would normally be closed? Is there a desire among staff who have worked so hard recently to take on this additional responsibility? What will be the additional costs and who will pick them up?
I also hear from the Opposition Benches the name of Marcus Rashford being invoked. But according to his tweet of 18 October, Mr Rashford is calling for school meal provision in all holidays. Is it that the Opposition motion does not agree with Mr Rashford but is attempting to catch his coat tails or do the Opposition secretly agree with him but are too coy to say it at the moment?
There are big questions to answer when it comes to tackling poverty and I do not believe that changes should be made lightly. But I do accept that there is far more to do, including targeted interventions for those most in need. For the reasons I have given, I regret that I cannot support the motion in its unamended form today. The Labour party might believe that the motion scores a moral victory, but I believe that it fails to address many fundamental issues, and the responsibility for addressing those issues now falls to the Government side of the House.
This debate is about priorities and it is about shame—the shame that, in the fifth richest country in the world, 30% of our children, which is 4.2 million of them, are living in poverty by the Government’s official statistics. Before the summer, Marcus Rashford publicly shamed the Government and won free school meals over the holidays. He spoke from the heart about his experience as a child when he was dependent on food banks.
The Prime Minister now says that it is not the role of schools to provide food during the holidays. Child hunger may not be a priority for him, but it is a priority for the headteachers of my schools in Brent who have emailed me in the past 24 hours with their heartfelt experiences. Perhaps they will shame the Prime Minister once again.
Rebecca Curtis, principal of ARK Elvin Academy, said:
“In Lockdown we had children calling the school explaining they were hungry and asking what we could do—as soon as we were able to issue the FSM vouchers we were flooded with thanks from our children and their parents. The situation with unemployment in Brent is clearly so much worse now so we are really concerned about how we can support our pupils through the half term and the Christmas holidays”.
James Simmons, the head of Oliver Goldsmith Primary School, observed:
“Families with multiple children were able to purchase food in bigger quantities to take advantage of offers. With stress for families trying to feed children greatly reduced, they described the access to FSM as a lifeline.”
Mrs Mistry at Sudbury Primary School said that she
“strongly believes that FSM should be provided,”
but cautioned that,
“The government needs to implement a scheme that is easily manageable by schools”.
Karen Giles, the head at Barham Primary School, made the point that,
“Many families have had their income cut by two thirds or more and many children are going hungry. Schools need Free School Meals to be directly funded and the criteria for eligibility should be less stringent.”
Mr Farrington, the head of the Village School, warned:
“There is very limited provision for pupils with disabilities over the holidays and we fear many won’t receive adequate food and support. We are also aware that parents, carers and families are putting themselves in more debt and that providing for their children has had a large impact on the mental health of our families.”
Finally, Raphael Moss, the head of Elsley Primary School, wrote that the
“government paying for FSM during holidays should be an absolute minimum. What is really needed is to widen the eligibility for children whose families are in receipt of Universal Credit as Marcus Rashford is campaigning for. At Elsley we had to set up a food bank to support some of our families. I cannot believe that as a Head teacher in London in 2020 I am overseeing a food bank to ensure that our children don’t go hungry. It is truly unbelievable.”
Well, it is truly unbelievable, but the Government have the opportunity to put it right.
It is not just about extending the voucher scheme, however. Today, five senior children’s charities published an analysis showing that even before coronavirus, local authorities were struggling to fund the need for children’s services. They say:
“Those in the most deprived communities have suffered the greatest reductions in spending power. Funding for services for the 20% most deprived Local Authorities has fallen more than twice as fast as for the least”.
My borough of Brent has lost £174 million since 2010.
A recent National Audit Office report on bounce back loans found that, to support business, the Government underwrote more than £36 billion of loans in the full knowledge and acceptance that between 30% and 60% of that would have to be written off as unrepayable or even fraudulent. That is between £11 billion and £20 billion of public money wasted, yet the Government baulk at spending another £10 million—million—on our children. This is about priorities and it is about shame. If those are the Minister’s priorities, he should be ashamed.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate, not just as the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central or the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the national food strategy, but as someone who is disappointed and saddened by the divisive nature of the debate. There is no need for today’s point-scoring motion—a sticking plaster, as the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) called it—which will no doubt cause unnecessary concern for our constituents. A consensus exists between hon. Members on both sides of the House that one child hungry is one too many. Any suggestion that an hon. Member would think otherwise is deeply offensive.
The coronavirus restrictions introduced in March this year presented a challenge as the boundaries between our public services and our private lives became blurred. This Government rightly listened to public opinion and acted by extending the provision of free school meals over the summer holidays at a time when we were facing school closures. However, we are now in a very different position. With schools and classrooms now in session, it is only right that the exceptional measures introduced at the height of this pandemic come to an end. Instead, we must have a constructive debate considering the longer-term and most sustainable solutions to tackling this problem.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree with me that the very fact that we have reopened schools—99% of state schools are now open—shows just how committed this Government are to tackling child poverty, because saving our children’s education and catching children up where they have fallen behind is the No. 1 thing we can do to help bring people out of poverty?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I absolutely agree with what she says.
There is no question about it: there is a problem, but headlines do not help these children and their families, and the sticking plaster this motion calls for would be woefully inadequate. Before the pandemic, the Government commissioned an independent and comprehensive review of our entire food system from field to fork. The national food strategy review now being conducted is a top-to-bottom examination, and it will publish long-term and sustainable recommendations that will inform Government strategy on some of the biggest challenges to improving the health of our nation. As chairman of the APPG on the national food strategy, I am determined to work cross-party to develop support for more comprehensive, more fundamental and more long-term solutions. The work of the group will be integral to developing these proposals and it will help inform the White Paper. Addressing the issues of child obesity, malnutrition and food poverty is central to the levelling-up agenda. As with many aspects of the Government’s levelling-up agenda, outcomes cannot be delivered overnight.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for giving way, because I think this is a very important issue and she is talking about cross-party support. The fruit and veg scheme is such an important scheme. Will she look at the campaign by Sustain of having a healthy piece of fruit or vegetable for every primary schoolchild in state education?
I thank the hon. Lady and, absolutely, we will be looking at this very broadly. That is the mandate and, quite frankly, I think that is what we should be talking about today.
As I was saying, addressing the issues of child obesity, malnutrition and food poverty is completely central to the agenda and it cannot be done overnight. I stood on a platform that a society is best judged by how it looks after its most vulnerable. This Government have shown throughout this pandemic that they are committed to supporting the most vulnerable in our society. The temporary and exceptional measure put in place at the height of this pandemic is not a sustainable solution. Rather than the Opposition bringing this same old question to the House every time we face a school holiday, they should work with us towards a long-term solution and a wraparound-support approach for low-income families.
For the reasons I have outlined, I will not be supporting this motion, but instead I call on those who truly wish to tackle the issue of food poverty long term to work with me in developing solutions for the benefit of those children and families we all seek to help.
Order. May I gently point out that taking interventions has now meant that one fewer person can speak who had put in to speak and who has been sitting here all afternoon? If colleagues want to take interventions, I suggest that they take them out of the three minutes that I have allocated, because taking five minutes means that somebody else is probably unlikely to get into the debate.
I want to agree with two things that the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), said in her speech. The first is that no child should go hungry in this country. That is something that we all agree with in this House. The question is how we can ensure that outcome?
Before I was a Member of this House, I ran a charity working with children and families at risk, and I did a lot of work with schools, and I recognise that there is an important role for schools to facilitate social support for children and families. They can play an important role as a hub in the local community, as has been said, but it is not appropriate to make them a provider of welfare themselves. As we have heard from the shadow Secretary of State, there is a possibility of the proposal becoming permanent. That is not an appropriate use of schools. Now that schools are open again, it is not appropriate to make them welfare providers. That is a role for the welfare system. I pay tribute to the DWP and to the Ministers who have overseen universal credit. That system has been a great success, and without it we would be in a very serious way, That is the appropriate mechanism for delivering welfare to families.
More can be done and, of course, more is being done by the Government. We have seen a £20 a week uplift to universal credit, which will run through half-term, through Christmas and into next year. Free school meals are available for families with no recourse to public funds and, of course, extra money has been made available for local authorities to provide welfare to families, including £500,000 for my local authority in Wiltshire, which is very welcome. No doubt more can be done, and I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) in calling for a comprehensive strategy to support families and children during the school holidays. That is an absolutely pressing need, and we need to get it right.
My second point of agreement with the shadow Secretary of State is on putting aside party politics. She then went on to make one of the most partisan speeches I have heard in my short time in this House, with references to test and trace, consultants and even the Prime Minister’s personal finances, which is pretty unnecessary.
I will talk quickly about the motivation behind this debate and of Members in this House. I hope we can agree that rudeness of the sort we saw earlier from the Opposition Front Bench is completely unacceptable. I do not think robust language is unacceptable. It is quite appropriate to use robust language—we should not bleed these debates of any emotion—and it is completely acceptable and understandable if Opposition Members want to attack the Government on their competence. I do not agree, but it is fair enough to attack us on our judgment.
Obviously, mistakes get made, which is understandable; but to attack us on our motivation and our morality, as we repeatedly hear from Opposition Members, is completely unacceptable, because it demeans this House and the quality of debate. It does not serve the people of this country. I ask Opposition Members to desist from that, to keep the debate on policy and to stop the trolling they are engaged in at the moment.
Listening to all the contributions, it is clear we are all committed to ensuring that no child should go hungry, that no child should worry about when they are going to eat next and that children have the support and opportunities to succeed.
Even before covid-19 infected our lives, this Government’s support for children was significant: delivering a world-class education; ensuring children have the skills to succeed; and ensuring children have a nutritious lunchtime meal to support their learning, concentration and ability to achieve at school. The support during coronavirus has been unprecedented. The Government ensured that no child was left behind while schools were closed, by providing substantial additional funding to eligible families through the national voucher scheme.
The total amount of supermarket vouchers redeemed by families was over £380 million. Alongside the income-protection schemes, which have so far protected 12 million jobs, the Government have provided £63 million in welfare assistance funding to local authorities to support families with urgent needs.
I will take no lectures from a Labour party that wants a full national lockdown, which would be disastrous—a party that will not work collectively at a time of national crisis; a party that politicises a national crisis; a party that, in this great place, calls my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) scum; a party that itself, when in government, refused to extend free school meals into the holidays.
We are in danger of viewing everything through the lens of covid-19. We need to look beyond that. How we treat our most vulnerable reflects on all of us, as does ensuring that the ladder of opportunity is one that everyone can climb. We all have an important collective role in helping to address the underlying causes of child poverty. A rounded approach to tackling child poverty will take children from their earliest years through schooling to adolescence and adult life, and not just react when there is a crisis. Every family turned around means more children in school and more parents in work.
If there is a vote, as I am sure there will be, I will not be voting for a Labour motion that is just one more action by those intent on undermining and derailing the response to this national crisis with yet another strapline. Instead, I will support a Government who I know are determined and committed to ensuring that families continue to have the support that they need, and not just during this crisis—a Government who listen and, I am sure, will take on board all comments made this evening on tackling child poverty. This is a Government who have during this crisis delivered an unprecedented set of measures to ensure that no child was left behind while schools were closed—a Government who will always provide a safety net, and not just at a time of national crisis, to ensure that those who need it most are supported unquestionably.
I pay tribute to Marcus Rashford for his incredible campaigning on this issue, which meant that 1.3 million children were able to receive meals over the summer. The unbelievable prospect of a Manchester United player having his name sung on my beloved Spion Kop at Anfield would now not be beyond the realms of possibility. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for her School Breakfast Bill and her tireless efforts to get it through Parliament.
The crisis of food insecurity is having a devastating impact in my community. In August, 2.3 million children were living in households that experienced food insecurity. In Liverpool, West Derby, figures show that even before the covid-19 pandemic 37% of children were living in poverty. If the Government do not provide free school meals over the school holidays, 4,155 children in Liverpool, West Derby will be at risk of going hungry in the middle of winter and in the middle of a pandemic.
As someone who received free school meals as a child and who serves as a school governor in one of the most impoverished wards in the country, I can say from first-hand experience that the difference that passing this motion would make to struggling families cannot be quantified in sheer monetary terms. The mental pressures of worrying about whether your child will have a hot meal a day should not be experienced by any citizen in our nation.
The fact that we have to hold this debate today, and that we have to ask the Government for such a vital provision as free school meals, is quite frankly shocking given the scale of food insecurity in this country right now. Ensuring that millions of our fellow citizens do not go hungry is the Government’s moral duty, and it should be a legal right. As I did in my Westminster Hall debate this morning, I call on the Government to introduce the right to food into UK legislation. That would oblige the Government to make sure that people do not ever go hungry and would mean that measures such as the five-week universal credit delay or the refusal to provide free school meals would be subject to legal challenge. The Prime Minister would not be able to refuse to provide meals to children living in poverty.
I will end by urging the Minister to think again and to support this motion.
I strongly endorse what the Secretary of State has already said and commend the support for children and their families that he outlined. Free school meals have only ever been intended to support pupils during term time and it is important that that arrangement returns.
On the proposals made today, why did colleagues on the Opposition Benches never implement any of them under the Labour Government? We need sensible policies to combat child poverty, not policy by public relations. As a former teacher and head, I have seen many cases in which children are the victims of neglect, and the extra care that we can provide through schools is sometimes life-changing, but it will never replace the role of the parent. When did it suddenly become controversial to suggest that the primary responsibility for a child’s welfare should lie with their parents, or to suggest that people do not always spend vouchers in the way they are intended?
I will share my own experience. My parents separated when I was 11 years old and at one point I had to share a room with my father at my grandmother’s house. I qualified for free school meals, so I have experienced this myself. However, I never considered myself to be a child with a single parent: both parents cared, both parents worked and both parents did their best to provide for their children. Like many, they realised that parental responsibility does not end when a relationship does.
We must focus on breaking the cycle in which the first reaction is to look to the state. It is a vicious circle. We need to support families with early intervention and help with things such as budgeting and employment. Collect and pay arrangements with the Child Maintenance Service show that only 60% of parents make payments—they are not necessarily adequate payments, as the figures are for people who pay anything at all—which leaves 40% who pay nothing. That is a disgrace. There are parents out there doing their best to manage under very difficult circumstances, while there are fathers and, indeed, mothers who disappear and think they can be absolved of all responsibility. This is not just immoral but means that many hard-working parents have to struggle and support their children on their own. The welfare state is rightly there as a safety net, but it is not a replacement. I have spoken to parents in Bassetlaw who have been left without support for years. We need to track these people down and make them contribute towards their children’s welfare. Where is the slick PR campaign encouraging absent parents to take some responsibility for their children? I do not believe in nationalising children. Instead, we need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility. That means less celebrity virtue signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty.
The Secretary of State gave us a spectacular display of number theatre: millions for this, millions for that, billions for this, billions for that. There is no doubt that the Government are facing unprecedented demands for money from all sorts of directions, but I simply do not understand why they draw the red line at hungry children.
I feel ashamed to be an MP today and I feel ashamed of this debate. While we throw mud at each other from the security of these plush green Benches, there are millions of families who do not know where they are going to find the £30 or £40 to feed their kids next week in half-term and have no idea at all where the money is going to come from to feed their kids at Christmas. Even if we agreed the extension of free school meals in school holidays until Easter, there would still be families who struggle. There would still be families claiming universal credit who would not qualify. We need to look again at the eligibility criteria.
Does my hon. Friend feel, as I do, that the Government could learn a lot from the Welsh Government, where Kirsty Williams, the Liberal Democrat Education Minister, extended free school meals, and that this should actually just be a no-brainer today?
My hon. Friend anticipates my very next point. It was the Liberal party that first introduced free school meals, in 1906. It was the Liberal Democrats in Government who introduced free school meals for 1.89 million infant children. In Wales last week, Liberal Democrat Education Minister Kirsty Williams led the way by agreeing to extend the scheme until Easter next year. Scotland has followed suit. Now it is England’s turn. Why should children in England go hungry when children in Scotland and Wales will have access to support in the coming holidays?
There are colleagues on the Government Benches who have called on us to work with them on a long-term food strategy. We are happy to do that. This debate today does not stop us looking at long-term solutions. But half-term starts in just a few days’ time, and we need to give immediate reassurance to a nation of families who are lying awake at night. I urge every Member of this House to please consider providing that immediate reassurance tonight.
I welcome this debate today, as it gives us an opportunity to have a discussion on challenging issues around poverty in our constituencies. The causes of poverty are not simple. What is most important is sustainable solutions. Increases in the living wage, increases in the income tax threshold, decreases in absolute poverty and income inequality in the long term—those are the sustainable, long-term achievements of this Government. Have we solved everything? No. Could we all—individuals, communities, millionaire celebrities and supermarkets—have a role to play in doing more? Yes. But to pretend that further increasing the role of the state directly in feeding children is a solution is mistaken. Yet again, it sends out the signal that our communities do not have to look after each other.
Again and again, we reinforce the idea that taking money off people through the tax system to support people less well off is always good, but asking people to choose to be generous and support other people in their communities in need is somehow bad. I want to live in a society where our local communities look out for each other and provide support to those who are less well off. I am incredibly proud of the hard work and effort put in by local charities in my constituency that, with help from donations and support from local people and local businesses, support those in need. The Government do have a role to play, but our communities play a role, too. What is so wrong with that?
Indeed, and they tend to provide support in a wraparound way. Rather than just giving out a meal, it tends to be part of a broader package of support for a family that tackles things in the longer term.
Why is it that when the state tackles a problem using taxpayers’ money—our money—indirectly, it is always the right solution, but when people choose to help solve a problem themselves directly, it must be a reflection of some kind of failure? The reality is that those on the Opposition Benches are advocating for us to live in a world where the state caters to every need and every challenge and mitigates every consequence. That is the logical conclusion of what they argue. That is not the kind of country I want to live in, where generosity of spirit, kindness and support for our neighbours are somehow surplus to requirements.
I ask high-profile campaigners on this issue to urge their hundreds of thousands of social media followers, who are signing petitions and retweeting, to put an equal amount of energy into encouraging their friends and family to volunteer for charities, to mentor young people, to help parents who are struggling and to donate money to local organisations to fight poverty. I want voices such as Courtney Lawes to be heard as widely as Marcus Rashford’s. The combined wealth of some of the individuals and businesses who think this can all be fixed with money means that they are very well placed to make that change themselves if they think it is necessary.
Do not tell me these problems only start and end with Government. The number of people living in relative poverty in the UK has been around 14 million for decades. I listened to the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) throwing accusations such as “shameful” at us. He is no longer in his place, but where was he under the Labour Government, when there were also millions of people, including children, living in poverty? It was not “shameful” then, but apparently when it is the Conservative Government, it becomes shameful.
This Government have acted, and they have played a role. Yes, we need to keep these issues at the heart of the Government’s agenda, and yes, we need to understand the impact of poverty and combat it, but our whole society has a role to play in contributing and helping one another to build lives, livelihoods and families and provide long-term solutions to these challenges.
I put on record my thanks to Marcus Rashford for an excellent goal last night, but also for supporting this fantastic campaign. In this House, we need to realise what we are facing. We are in denial. Our economy has contracted by 9% since March. In my constituency, unemployment has gone up by 182%. Even in one of my very affluent wards in Muswell Hill, there has been a 300% increase in unemployment since the spring.
We are dealing with the biggest recession since the first world war, so some of the arguments today pale into insignificance when compared with the enormity of the economic challenge we face. It is therefore correct to look at quick measures such as this, when normally we would take a strategic view, go through a Select Committee, get evidence and so on. This is an opportunity to act quickly. While we are at it, let us have some good and high-level sports coaching, some arts and crafts, and some of the other things that our families rely on desperately over the half-term break and also during the Christmas holidays.
Our families are under enormous pressure, whether that is before school at breakfast—I am a big believer in breakfast clubs—or after school, because some shifts carry on after 3 o’clock and need to be worked. Let us bring back lots of clubs, because many have stopped because of coronavirus. Also, let us look at increasing the eligibility. I introduced universal free meals for all children in primary school when I was a borough leader. I did that because I felt it was the one public health measure that would make a huge difference. That is not the subject of today’s debate, but it did bring up everyone in the same way and meant every child had a hot meal. The youngsters learned how to use a knife and fork and how to have a conversation with their teachers.
An analysis of packed lunches shows that custard creams and Diet Coke are the most popular thing for kids who have packed lunches. In all sorts of different families, that tends to be the choice, whereas a hot meal in the middle of the day increases good behaviour and helps after school. If we can bring families with no recourse to public funds into the net, it would be fantastic, because it would mean no more popping into the office for someone to explain their circumstances to a judgmental secretary or another judgmental person who might be opposite them. Some parents have shared with me that they feel a sense of stigma going on and off school meals. I will stop there, Madam Deputy Speaker, so that we can hear more speakers.
I doubt anyone in the Chamber tonight would disagree that we must focus the resources of the nation on those who need help most, but whatever the question is before us, it requires a degree of objectivity and evidence in our decision making. Both of those things have been conspicuously lacking in the Opposition’s approach tonight.
Let us consider for a moment the circumstances of the most vulnerable children in our country. There are around 400,000 children on the statutory children in need registers of our local authorities and 52,300 children on child protection plans. We all recognise that they are the most vulnerable, and they are in a system that we all recognise is facing a significant funding gap. What does it say about the Opposition’s priorities that all their interests are simply swept aside in favour of spending taxpayers’ money to curry favour with celebrity status, wealth and power? I have no doubt that Mr Rashford is an expert in his own experience, but we should not forget that the experiences he so movingly described took place under a Labour Government—a Labour Government then supposedly at the peak of their powers in tackling child poverty in this country. So if there was a lamentable failure, it was a lamentable failure of the Labour party when in Government.
The beneficiaries of the earlier free school meals decision, which, of course, went way beyond anything ever done by Labour, at least had recourse to a variety of support. We had universal credit, jobseeker’s allowance, emergency support from local authorities and even, dare I mention it, food banks. But we talk about the need to tackle food poverty in this country, and of course, this debate is happening at a time when the cost of food to British families is at a historic low—8% of household expenditure on average, down from 35% in 1957, when my father was the age that my son is today. If that is not a strategy to tackle food poverty, I do not know what is.
I know that the Opposition do not like to waste a good crisis, but this House should be ashamed if we allow ourselves today to be pushed into setting aside the circumstances of the most needy. Neglect, domestic violence, addiction and family breakdown are the major drivers of that need. They must not be put aside in favour of currying the favour of the wealthy and powerful and celebrities.
Any debate discussing children is rightly emotive. We must protect them, we must nurture them and we must support them. The question is: how do we do that most effectively? In this debate, we have heard highly charged arguments, which, if listened to in isolation, without reference to the actual facts, would cause any of us to fear for the next generation. But as my namesake, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, once stated:
“The degree of one’s emotions varies inversely with one’s knowledge of the facts.”
The real facts are that throughout this pandemic, this Government have been actively supporting vulnerable children, doing the right thing at the right time. At the start of the pandemic, it was right that unprecedented measures on free school meals were taken. In that time, children’s lives were blurred between home and school, but now schools have opened back up fully to all pupils and more targeted support can be provided.
Let us not forget the facts of this debate. First, we are not ending free school meals. We are returning to the way that it has always been under successive Governments, yet we are also providing an ever more focused approach to support, so that we can reach every child who needs a helping hand. I am conscious in these debates—especially ones such as this—that there can be number fatigue, with statistics and billions thrown here and there, but the facts are the facts, and it is this Government who have increased universal credit by £1,000 this year for families and delivered £63 million in additional funding for councils to provide emergency assistance to families with food essentials and meals. We strengthened welfare support, adding £9 billion into the welfare system this year, not to mention the billions in furlough schemes, business support and a multitude of other packages to charities, individuals and families to help them to put food on tables across the country. I could go on, but the facts are the facts. To round off my speech with one more quotation, as Aldous Huxley once stated:
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
The facts are that the Government have been ensuring targeted support for vulnerable children, both now and into the future, ensuring that the right support reaches the right children at the right time.
This is a hugely important debate for many families in my constituency and across the north-east and the country. I applaud Marcus Rashford for his hard work in raising this issue. Data from the North East Child Poverty Commission shows that almost 93,000 children and young people across the north-east were in receipt of free school meals in the last academic year, 2019-20. However, these figures do not take into account the full impact—indeed, hardly any of the impact—of covid-19 on family incomes and the number of families who have registered for such support in recent weeks.
In fact, the Food Foundation recently published an estimate that more than 900,000 children have signed up for free school meals for the first time this year. Over 50% of those using Trussell Trust food banks at the start of the pandemic had never needed help from a food bank before, and families with children were the hardest hit, accounting for nearly two in five of the households needing to use a food bank. These are staggering numbers. We talked earlier about universal credit being a help, but so many people are finding for the first time that universal credit is really poor and does not help those most in need, especially those applying for the first time, who might have expected help.
We know from the North East Child Poverty Commission’s figures that more than one in three children and young people grow up in poverty in the north-east and that the north-east has the highest proportion of children in receipt of free school meals. In Gateshead, there were 6,135 students in receipt of free school meals before the covid-19 pandemic. That is 20% of pupils, and that number cannot help but go up in the coming months, as we see the impact of job losses, short-time working and so forth. We know that the covid-19 pandemic will have a huge impact.
During the summer, I had the privilege of visiting some of the holiday hunger schemes and activities in my constituency. I saw at first hand how well appreciated the free lunches and free school meals were in those activities, so I know the difference that they can make. Of course the Government must continue to fund free school meal provision in every school holiday between October half-term and Easter 2021 and extend the offer of free school meals to all families receiving universal credit and those with no recourse to public funds. However, we have to do more than that in the face of this crisis, with rising costs and unemployment, and millions of families falling into poverty.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). We spent time on the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, and we agree on much. I also agreed with much that the shadow Secretary of State said earlier. She was my predecessor as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on poverty, so we share many of the concerns that have been raised in this debate.
However, I listened very carefully to what the shadow Secretary of State said, and at one point she said—I hope I do not get this wrong—that it is the Government’s job to make sure children do not go hungry. I differ there, and I think lots of my constituents differ there too, because they would be appalled by the prospect of the Government interfering in their daily lives to make sure their children did not go hungry. Many in this House will be aware that I had a slight fall-out in the Twittersphere with Marcus Rashford a couple of weeks ago on this issue, which is why I wanted to speak today. When somebody said something similar to me on Twitter, I simply tweeted:
“Where they can, it’s a parent’s job to feed their children”.
I noticed that the shadow Secretary of State did not include the caveat “where they can”, and that is the key difference here. It needs—
That is what she did not say, and it is a very important principle.
The other important principle is whether the measures that the shadow Secretary of State is proposing are temporary or permanent. Temporary measures in this place tend to become permanent. These are exceptional times, but I can see the outcry in a year or two when we try to reverse these measures: “Oh my God, you can’t do that because of the impact it might have on people.” These measures may well then become permanent, and, if we are honest, what would that mean? It would mean increasing the size of the welfare state and therefore increasing taxation.
Even before covid, we were running a deficit and had done for the vast majority of the last 40 years, so such a measure would mean higher taxes. The alternative, of course, is that we spread a load of welfare among many more people, which will mean that less will go to the people who are really in need. That is the principle we are talking about—whether we are going to target these resources to the people who are really, really in need or whether we are going to spread it more widely. We need to include the taxpayer in this conversation and say to them, “If we are going to increase welfare, you are going to carry the burden.” If we are going to say that people, we should also be saying to people that we are going to clamp down on tax avoidance, which is a stain on the way we handle our tax system. Whether it is multinationals or individuals in the UK who try to avoid tax through things such as image rights, we need to ensure that people pay a fair share of their taxes.
Coronavirus has blown away many of the old orthodoxies in politics, and this offensive idea of the undeserving poor—feckless parents unwilling to take responsibility—to which the Conservative party seems so ideologically committed just does not hold water. The universal credit system was barely fit for purpose before covid, but it is now on its knees, with parents being made redundant, their hours slashed, and the support system set up for businesses forced to close, leaving people on as little as 66% of the national minimum wage. Others, including those excluded because they were new starters, have been left with nothing. If parents could pull themselves up by their bootstraps before, they certainly cannot now—and their children cannot either.
I pay tribute to the work of Warrington food bank, the Station House food bank, Friends of Meadowside, and the numerous other voluntary groups across our community in Warrington North, who are doing all they can to ensure that no child goes hungry. But there are almost 4,500 children eligible for free school meals in my constituency, many of whom are vulnerable to falling through the cracks. These are families in every single ward of my constituency, from the inner wards, which have the highest rates of deprivation, to the affluent suburbs. All of them have been using food banks—every single ward. The Government can make a choice today to strengthen that safety net and ensure that no child in Warrington goes hungry.
In financial terms, this is a small ask, but it is a vital one in these exceptional times. If the Government can find the money to pay Serco, they can find the money to ensure that the most vulnerable children in our communities are not going to bed hungry.
I will do my best, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The motion calls on the Government to extend free school meal provision throughout the school holidays until Easter next year. Although on the Order Paper this is a debate about free school meals, even if the motion passes, the result will not be more free school meals. To risk stating the obvious, during the holidays schools are closed, and they do not provide physical meals—free or otherwise—to any child. Let us be clear: what is really being called for here is an extension to the voucher scheme that would start in half-term next week by giving supermarket vouchers to parents of children who are eligible. That is not the same as providing a daily nutritious meal to a child in a school environment to help them get the most out of their education. It is important to recognise the difference between free school meals and what they are for, and supermarket vouchers.
The initial supermarket voucher scheme was set up in March and was not an attempt to solve child poverty, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) rightly pointed out, is a matter for the welfare system, not our schools. No one denies that child, and therefore family, poverty does exist, or that we should be doing everything that we can to bring people out of it—I will talk about that more in a moment—but the initial voucher scheme was a practical, administrative response to the unforeseen necessity of closing schools for an indeterminate period. No one suggested at the time that it was anything other than a temporary measure.
The truth is that far too many families do not have enough. They do not have enough money, enough food or enough help. There are many and complex reasons for that, and, sadly, to suggest that supermarket vouchers will somehow fix it is like putting a sticking plaster on a serious wound. But what will work? When the welfare state was launched, the vision was to provide a safety net for those who found themselves out of work and to help them get back on their feet, but now we find ourselves in a position—pre-covid, anyway—where far more of our welfare budget is spent on those in work than those out of work. In other words, at present, work is not always the route out of poverty that it should be.
How do we help people into better paid and secure work, and away from the addiction, the family breakdown and the social issues that all too often trap people in poverty? Education is part of the answer, and I commend my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary for the catch-up schemes, but research shows that the barriers to good work are not just material or educational poverty; lack of social, relational capital prevents many people from finding a way out.
There is no time for me to say more, but I recommend that hon. Members read the work of Hilary Cottam, whose book “Radical Help” proposes a very radical relational community approach to tackling poverty. These are the kinds of things that we should be debating in this House. Child poverty is a serious and complex issue; we need serious and complex solutions.
As someone who personally benefited from free school meals as a child, I congratulate Marcus Rashford on his vital and selfless campaign. Between him and Andy Burnham, I do not think the Prime Minister will be setting foot in Manchester any time soon.
In a previous debate, I said that the Government’s initial U-turn on free school meals was a case of them having to be embarrassed into feeding hungry children. Well, it looks like the Conservatives have moved beyond that. They truly have no shame. What astounds me most about this Government’s approach is the complete lack of responsibility. They are acting like child poverty is purely the fault of the parents and ignoring the leading cause of child poverty: Tory Governments.
It is a fact that this Government have increased poverty. Before this pandemic, their own Social Mobility Commission stated that there are 600,000 more children living in poverty in 2020 than there were in 2012. They cannot blame Labour for that. And let us not ignore the reality that holiday hunger hits the north-east the hardest. Not only does the region have the highest proportion of children in receipt of free school meals, but that number is rising at a faster rate than anywhere else. So much for levelling up.
The coronavirus pandemic and the Government’s incompetent handling of it will only make this crisis worse. Thousands of people will be experiencing poverty for the first time, through absolutely no fault of their own, yet the Government are going to deny them this small bit of help. Even if we ignore the argument that this Government have increased poverty over the last decade, it still does not change the fact that children do not choose to be born into poverty and they do not choose to go hungry during the holidays. Poverty is never the child’s fault. To punish them is as cruel as it is illogical.
The Government believe that it is right to feed these children when they are at school, so why not during the holidays? Poverty does not stop at the end of term. Are the Government planning to let impoverished children go hungry in order to teach them some sort of perverse lesson—to show them the realities of sink-or-swim Conservatism? If, as some Members claim, it is a question of not being able to afford to fund these £15-a-week lunches, I am sure we can make savings somewhere else, such as by cutting some of the £7,000 a day that consultants are being paid for working on the failing track and trace system. Personally, I would rather put food into the stomach of a hungry child than money into the pockets of wealthy consultants.
No matter how they try to justify it, if Government Members oppose the motion, they will be voting to let children go hungry, for no other reason than that they just do not care.
Over the last decade, we have seen a shocking increase in poverty levels in the UK. In particular, child poverty has risen significantly and should be seen in no uncertain terms as a national crisis. The causes of this increase in poverty are clear: a decade of damaging policies implemented by Conservative Governments who have taken income away from the poorest in our society and redistributed wealth upwards, making the rich even richer.
The scourge of child poverty is a disgrace to a society as rich as ours. In my constituency alone, 15,335 children live in poverty, and many of those children depend on free school meals so that they can go to school and receive the education they deserve. Across Birmingham, the number of pupils who rely on free school meals is higher than in many parts of the country, and that is due in no small part to the shocking levels of poverty that many families currently find themselves in. It is obvious that such poverty and the subsequent support needed by those families does not come to an end when the school term ends.
These measures are essential to families in my constituency who are facing the full force of lost income due to the pandemic and the resultant recession. I have received a great many messages from constituents urging action on free school meals. I, along with my constituents, believe that extending free school meals over the school holidays for the period stated in the motion is the very least this Government can do to assist families in need.
More needs to be done to ensure that no child in my constituency or the country at large goes to school hungry. I want to take this opportunity to raise the recommendations made by School Food Matters, the Food Foundation and many others regarding free school meals. I believe it is necessary to extend free school meals for all children in families receiving universal credit and to extend the holiday activity and food programme to all areas in England, to ensure that summer holiday support is available to all children receiving free school meals. The Healthy Start vouchers also need to be increased.
Unfortunately, I will have to start by referring to the comments made by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy). I have high regard for her, but I found her moral superiority quite distressing. I spent eight years of my life working as a secondary school teacher, the overwhelming majority of which was as a head of year, working in some of the most disadvantaged parts of London and Birmingham, seeing the impact of child poverty and child hunger but also of not having a stable family and good role models and of crime and drugs in a local community. I refuse to be lectured by Opposition Members who have not walked in my shoes and seen the things that I have had to witness in my career. I hope the hon. Lady will reflect on those remarks. [Interruption.] I will not be lectured by those on the shadow Front Bench who have not worked in the schools I have worked in or seen the things I have seen. I refuse to be shouted down and treated in this manner.
Let us be very clear about this extension. This is not a one-off extension—this is about free school meals being permanently provided outside of school time. First, who is going to fund that—the school or the state? Do schools provide the meals on-site, or do they have to deliver food parcels? If so, do they have to renegotiate their contracts? Have the unions supported that? Is there understanding of the voucher system, and are they being used in an appropriate and responsible manner? I have had supermarkets, parents and schools contact me directly to say that they have grave concerns about the way in which those vouchers have been used.
This Government have done remarkable work on holiday programmes. I want to mention the Hubb Foundation and its “Ay Up Duck” campaign, run by Carol Shanahan, the co-owner of Port Vale football club, and Adam Yates, a former professional footballer. The Hubb Foundation is providing thousands of meals across the city and providing hundreds of children and parents with the opportunity to participate in activities that not only improve their physical and mental health but ensure that they are fed and that the local authority and schools have health and wellbeing checks done on a regular basis over the holiday.
If we were to have a serious discussion about how to tackle this issue, one way to do that is to reduce the summer holiday from six weeks to four weeks. Childcare costs £133 a week on average. If we redistributed those two weeks, with one in the October half-term and one in the May half-term, we could bring down the cost of the summer holiday for parents and help them to be better able to access the food that they need. Free school meals are indeed important, but it is the role of the school to educate, not to be the welfare state.
It is not often that I find myself really struggling to follow an hon. Member, but I am struggling to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). Let me tell him, and his Government. He is not taking lectures from the Labour Benches. But we have experience of poverty. Tell that to the 5,500 children in my constituency who are eligible for free school meals. Tell that to the Marcus Rashfords of this world who grew up in poverty. Tell me, who grew up in poverty. Tell Labour Members who have experienced it at first hand.
I will not take any lectures, and nor will I take any interventions, when it comes to children in poverty, from the Conservative Benches.
Yesterday, I spoke to the Trussell Trust and the truth is that we expect a 9% increase in children and families starting to use food banks, just because of the £20 cut to universal credit. In addition—wow; it is not often that I get this angry in the House—more than 16,000 of my constituents are on universal credit, yet Members on the Conservative Benches are happy to cut another £20 from that. Only 31% of people in my constituency are taking up the furlough scheme, and many of them will be thrown into poverty when that comes to an end. That figure of 16,000—the number of families affected—will go up day by day, as the virus hits us and people have to make a choice between putting food on their table and going to work, and having to isolate for 14 days. That is what real poverty is. I can speak from experience, having experienced poverty, so I will take no lectures from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North.
This is about morality. This is not a debate about whether it is food bank vouchers or free school meals; this is a debate about poverty. Which bit of that do Members of the House not get? This is about children who will not have a meal, or the sufficient nutrients to go to school or to go about their daily lives and be able to learn. That should be their God-given right. That is what every child in the country should have. We are a rich nation. If people live from food banks, what is the measure of our country? We have kids and families on food banks.
Let me thank all those in my constituency who volunteer at food banks, and who continuously try to plug the gap that 10 years of austerity and the failures of Members on the Conservative Benches and this Government, have left for people in my constituency and up and down the country. Shame on this Government! Shame on the people who are going to walk through that Lobby today and vote this motion down. I know exactly where my moral compass is, and it is on the right side of history.
I completely agree with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) has just said. I am saddened that we are talking about free school meals as if they are a luxury. They are not a luxury. I was on free school meals—[Interruption.] No, it is not an option; let’s be honest. I was on free school meals, and I know how important they were for me and my family. On many mornings I had to rush into school, and I was provided with breakfast, lunch and a snack. That gave me the opportunity to focus, study and learn, and to be here today. So I am really saddened that this is what we are here to talk about.
What kind of nation will we be if a single mother from Spon End in my constituency, who struggles to make ends meet due to the minimum wage, has to decide between paying an electricity bill, or paying her rent, and whether her family will have dinner that night? What kind of nation do we want to be, if elected Members of this House, who are in Parliament to represent their constituents and ensure they have the best opportunities in life, can be so callous as to treat the ability of hard- working families from deprived areas to feed their children as such a luxury? Food is not a luxury. It is a basic human right that children should never be hungry, whether at school or at home.
I pay tribute to Feeding Coventry and Coventry food bank, which do a phenomenal job to ensure that all the families in Coventry are not abandoned and are given the food that they need to survive. However, it should not be up to charities such as that; it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that families have the food they need to allow them to be able to make a positive contribution to the society in which we live.
According to Action for Children, over 6,700 children in Coventry live in poverty after housing costs are taken into account. Approximately 2,789 children receive free school meals in my constituency.
We should not be here deciding on whether there should be a vote on this: free school meals should never be something that is put to a vote. It should be something that we work together on across these Benches, saying, “Let us provide opportunity for our constituents, let us give them the ability to achieve their full potential, and let them be able not to worry about food with the issues that are going on.” They are already dealing with covid-19 —they do not need to deal with whether or not they are going to have food. I really do hope that Government Members will sit down, look deep into their hearts, and vote for their constituents to ensure that they are not left behind.
It is a great honour to follow such passionate and righteous indignation from my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) in representing their constituents so powerfully.
It should shame all of us in this House that amidst one of the greatest economic and health crises in modern history we are having to vote to force this Government to extend free school meals over the holidays just so that children do not go hungry at Christmas. We may well be living in unprecedented times, but we are still the fifth richest country in the world and are more than capable of supporting the most vulnerable in our society.
We are in the middle of the most severe crisis our nation has faced since it stood and fought for democracy and sovereignty in world war two. There can be no half measures as our nation pulls together to get us through a dark hour indeed. This country is so sick and tired of asking the Government to do the right thing. Time and again, this Government are showing our nation that they are simply not fit to govern during a time of crisis, nor do they prioritise the interests of ordinary working people.
Before the covid crisis, more than 4,000 children were eligible for free school meals in my constituency. After the pandemic hit, that figure more than doubled, with many now reliant on welfare support just to make ends meet. A fifth of Ilford South’s population are still on furlough, with a significant number forecast to lose their jobs over the next month as a result of the Government’s inadequate job support package. It is shocking—absolutely shocking—that more than 2 million children across our country are living in households that experience food insecurity during this pandemic. With over 1 million children living in areas that are now subject to harsher lockdowns, the number of children that will require this additional support will only increase.
We are failing our children at a time of national crisis. The lack of support provided to socioeconomically disadvantaged children will scar their futures. What we are asking from this Government is neither radical nor impractical. Well-governed nations around the world continue to prove that there is another way. In New Zealand, despite already having lower child poverty rates than the UK, a competent Labour-majority Government have found the means to prioritise free school meals within their covid-19 recovery. If the UK were to match the scale of that commitment made by Jacinda Ardern, it would have to provide almost 3 million students with free school meals. If it is good enough for New Zealand, it is good enough for our great nation as well.
I implore this Government to adopt the calls from the Food Foundation and other civil society organisations to implement three of the recommendations from the national food strategy. The parents of children in Ilford South, who are desperate to get by and to provide for their families, and are defiant in the face of such disregard, are doing their bit to beat this virus, yet their businesses, staff and wage support are slashed while their children go hungry.
As I stand here once again at the Dispatch Box winding up an Opposition day debate on free school meals, I have a strong sense of déjà vu, because just four months ago I was standing in this exact spot speaking on the exact same topic—extending free school meals over the upcoming holidays. The big difference between now and then is that just hours before the big debate in June, the Prime Minister performed a U-turn. Today, sadly, there has been no U-turn, and 1.4 million children will be without a hot meal from next week during half-term. For some, it is the only nutritious meal they get every day.
We are about to face one of the toughest winters of our generation. With the pandemic, with the flu season upon us and with the furlough scheme coming to an end, parents are twice as likely to be furloughed than anyone else working, and now they have to worry about feeding their children. We should all be hanging our heads in shame. Some 1.5 million people are already unemployed, the Bank of England has predicted that the employment rate will rise above its previous forecast of 7.5% this year, and food bank use in this country is expected to be 51% higher this winter than last. Almost 1 million of the children who are set to lose their free school meals next week are in areas that are subject to tier 1 and tier 2 restrictions.
I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me for not giving way; I have a lot to get through.
Before I sum up the important contributions that were made in this debate, I want to thank someone who is not an MP but who probably should be. Marcus Rashford has done us proud. It pains me, as a Liverpool fan, to say that—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) felt the same when we praised him earlier—but we congratulate him on holding the Government to account and on the amazing goal that he scored last night.
I want to pay tribute to two other people who are not in the Chamber today, my hon. Friends the Members for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for all the work they have done in championing this issue.
My hon. Friends the Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), for Bradford West (Naz Shah) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) made passionate speeches about the struggles of the poor children in their constituencies, and I think the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West will go down in history for demonstrating the passion that she feels about representing the poor people in her constituency. We also heard a very passionate and personal story from my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) about being on free school meals and how that benefited her. That shows just how important being well fed is for a child. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) also spoke passionately about the struggles in his constituency when it comes to food poverty.
The Government do not think it is worth spending £157 million to ensure that hungry children can get food support in the holidays during a pandemic. Yet, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) pointed out, they think it is worth spending £7,000 a day on a consultant for Serco’s failing test and trace system. I do not know whether the House is aware that that fee alone could pay for 2,300 meals for hungry children next week during half term. The amount that we are paying one consultant per day to deliver Serco’s failing test and trace system could pay for 2,300 meals for hungry children. Please let that sink in.
All the other nations of the UK understand this and have now committed to holiday provision. It is only children in England who will not get the support—again, shameful. I pay tribute in particular to the Welsh Government, who have not only guaranteed support through spring next year, but at every stage announced it well in advance, giving families certainty and the right to plan. The result of that strong leadership is that parents in Wales are not having to worry about whether they can put food on the table next year.
I want to share a quote from a parent who shared their experience with the Children’s Society last month. They said, “I tell my kid to make sure they eat all their school meals, as it may be the only meal they have. I often have nothing to eat and any food I do have I give to my kid, as they only get one meal a day. I don’t have a meal many days.” I would like all the Conservative MPs in the Chamber to think about a child who they know, whether it is their own child, their niece or nephew, a godchild or a friend’s child. How would they feel if that child was going to sleep tonight not having eaten, and knowing that when they wake up tomorrow there is no food in the fridge? Can they imagine that small person having a rumbling stomach when they are going to bed at night? This is what we are voting on today. It is about humanity.
Many people on the Opposition Benches might not agree with me, but I genuinely believe that most MPs came into this House for the right reasons. I believe they came into politics because they wanted to make a difference and because they wanted to protect the most vulnerable. This is a chance to demonstrate why we came into politics. I know it is not easy to rebel against the party. I have rebelled a few times against my own party, and it has never been easy, but this is about principles above party. I know it is not easy to defy the Prime Minister, but I am asking hon. Members from across the House to think carefully about what they are going to say when they go back to their constituencies and there are hungry children because they voted in the wrong Lobby. I know it is a hard thing to do, but once again I am asking Conservative MPs to vote with us tonight.
As the House knows, we are in the middle of Black History Month, so I will conclude by quoting a very famous black person, Nelson Mandela, who once said:
“There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Before Conservative Members vote today, I ask them please to think about what Nelson Mandela said.
“are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]
I think that feeling has come through in many of the speeches tonight made by right hon. and hon. Members. It came through even where there was anger about some of the different policy approaches that could be taken. I think the House is absolutely united in wanting to do the best for vulnerable children.
Social justice has been at the absolute heart of every decision that the Government have taken to help the people of this country get through this pandemic together. Whether it is about trying to do our best to save lives and livelihoods, about devising the shielding scheme where we provided 4.2 million food boxes to people, or about making sure that schools were kept open by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the most vulnerable children in society, those are the approaches that we have taken in trying to make sure that we can get through this pandemic together.
It is a truism that when the Labour party has left government, unemployment has always been higher than when it went into office. That is not the same for Conservative Governments. The Conservative approach is that the best way out of poverty is through work. What we have also done in the time that we have been in office since 2010 is to make a shift away from the cliff edges that happened under the tax credit system, where people made rational decisions that they would be better off not working than working. We have turned that on its head so that people will be better off in work unless they cannot work.
I am very conscious that in every constituency it is highly likely that we will see unemployment rising in a very difficult and challenging way, particularly for the sectors that we know about such as hospitality and similar, and where we have put much greater national restrictions. Right here, right now, this Conservative Government are standing behind the people and businesses of this country to help them when they need it most. In terms of our schools, I have already pointed out that we had extra support throughout the year, including through holiday activities. In terms of supporting employees, we have had the furlough scheme, which will take us through to the end of October, through half-term. It has cost, and is costing, taxpayers £53 billion to provide that support for families right across the country. There will be a new job support scheme with enhanced measures for those parts of the country where stricter and more radical public health changes need to be made, in order to help to tackle this virus. Amid all that, I am very proud of the people that work in my Department for the support that they have given to vulnerable people across the country, making sure that we have got money to people when they needed it in terms of the welfare state.
In particular, it is important to stress that £9.3 billion is not a small amount of money compared to what was injected into the welfare system when we had the last financial crisis. It is giving families an extra £20 a week, and that takes those families right through to Easter next year. It is important that we try to make sure that we have that targeted support, which is why, in addition to the councils that received £500 million extra earlier in the year, an extra £63 million was specifically given to councils, because our social workers know the families in their areas who are at risk and can get that extra help to them. Of course, with the Barnett formula, all the devolved nations have had extra funding as well.
We are in a situation where the Government have firmly stood behind the most vulnerable children and people in the country, and I am very proud of our Government for doing that.
There are 3,829 children in Coventry South who receive free school meals. Talking to their parents, I know how valuable that provision is—how they depend on it, and how their kids would starve without it. So I ask the Minister and MPs on the Government Benches: “If you vote against the motion, if you let kids go to sleep hungry at night, how do you not feel any sense of shame?”
Some of the hon. Lady’s hon. Friends made important speeches. The hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) spoke in praise of the holiday activities and food in the summer. We share her view on that; it is one of the schemes that we funded. The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) was absolutely right in her passionate conviction that we are here to do what we can to help children in society; and that is what we have been doing—not least by improving children’s educational attainment, to enable them to have a genuine future career.
My hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who have experience as teachers, said that a major part of our approach should be to improve the chances of families. That is why the Government are working together—we are working with my hon. Friends in other Departments—not only on identifying what we can do to help the most challenged families in society, but on tackling the cost of living. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced the extension of the energy price cap, and we shall continue to do more. Nearly a million pensioners are getting £140 off their energy bills later this year without lifting a finger; that is what we are doing to help people.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), who was praised by her near neighbour the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, spoke about the benefits of a hot meal in the middle of a school day that helps children learn. Yes, we agree. We have provided that, and extended it to the youngest children automatically. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) is right that we must continue to focus on those children who are in protection plans, and those families who are suffering drug abuse and family breakdown, and we need to keep a focus on making sure that we support the child in the whole.
We are actually in quite a different situation from where we were earlier in the year, when we were in a national lockdown, with a very strong “stay at home” message, and people’s lives were highly restricted. The virus was new; it was scary. We were—and still are—continuing to learn how to handle the situation, but together as a Government we have tried to ensure that we continue to put the vulnerable first. We are in a different situation now. We are not in the same measures of lockdown. More people have come off the furlough scheme and are now back in work—they can work from home or go to work. Schools are open. The NHS is treating many more people, not just the people with coronavirus. So we need to encourage life to continue as it is. That is why we have put those enhanced measures into tier 2 and tier 3. I congratulate the leaders of the councils who have decided to take that offer of support from the Government, to ensure that they can help the people who they represent.
It is really important that we continue to come together as a House to recognise the support that has gone in. That is why we tabled the amendment to today’s motion, recognising that we have undertaken significant ways to help the most vulnerable children in society. I am very keen to ensure that we keep that focus on the most important of our generations for the future, so that people do not fall through the cracks. That is why I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Ministers across Government, including the Prime Minister, say regularly that there will be nobody left behind, and that we will do our best to strive every day to save the lives and livelihoods of people in this country.
We really must consider, genuinely, what should be uniting us today. I am very conscious that Labour Members may think that theirs is the only way to approach this issue. I say gently to them: recognise the support that has been given to the families that you represent; recognise the £9.3 billion in welfare alone, never mind the furlough income that has been there, and is continuing to help people. So, right here, right now, let the House come together, support the amendment and show a united message to the people of this country that we shall support, and continue to support, the most vulnerable people in our country.
Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
Question agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).
That this House notes that schools are now fully operational following the covid-19 outbreak, and will continue to offer free school meals in term time; welcomes the substantial support provided by the Government to children worth £550 million annually; further welcomes that this support has been bolstered by almost £53 billion worth of income protection schemes, and £9.3 billion of additional welfare payments; notes that eligible families have also been supported throughout lockdown through the receipt of meal vouchers worth £380 million while schools were partially closed, alongside the Holiday Activities and Food Fund; and further supports the Government in its ongoing activities to help the most vulnerable children in society.
I now have to announce the results of today’s deferred Divisions.
On the draft Citizens’ Rights (Application Deadline and Temporary Protection) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, the Ayes were 342 and the Noes were 237, so the Ayes have it.
On the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 (Coronavirus) (Extension of the Relevant Period) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1031), the Ayes were 353 and the Noes were nil, so the Ayes have it.
On the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1045), the Ayes were 333 and the Noes were one, so the Ayes have it.
On the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (North of England, North East and North West of England and Obligations of Undertakings (England) etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1057), the Ayes were 332 and the Noes were four, so the Ayes have it.
On the draft Community Infrastructure Levy (Amendment) (England) (No. 2) Regulations 2020, the Ayes were 324 and the Noes were 188, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division lists are published at the end of today’s debates.]