[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate, and there will also be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall, and they are expected to remain for the entire debate. I also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us here in the Boothroyd Room.
If Members who are attending virtually have any technical problems, can they email the Westminster Hall Clerks? I think everyone was emailed with the instructions this morning, but the address is westminsterhallclerks @parliament.uk. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them, and as they leave the room. I think there are baby wipes for everyone. Mr Speaker has also reminded Members to wear masks in Westminster Hall unless they are speaking; the Chair is exempt, because we may need to speak at any time, but apart from me, everyone should have their mask on. Members can only speak from a place with a microphone, but I think everybody is in the right place.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for children entitled to free school meals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq.
The UK is a rich country. As a G7 nation with a GDP that many countries can only look at in envy, we simply must do more to provide for our own citizens and combat the ever-increasing levels of child poverty. With huge wealth in many parts of the country and an economy with the most potential in Europe, we can do far better than we are, and MPs should not need to apply for debates such as the one we are having today. However, across the country and in this very city, the richest 1% live a gilded life, a handful of streets away from the most deprived neighbourhoods in the most unequal areas. We live on the same streets; we walk the same streets; but we inhabit different worlds. We are a deeply unequal society, and the fact that so many families rely on the meagre support available from the state to feed their children is nothing short of a national outrage. It is a clear demonstration that our economic system is not working for so many.
In some local authority areas, child poverty is reaching 50%, while the wealth of the richest 1% has grown exponentially. As per The Sunday Times’ rich list, printed last Sunday, the richest man in the country saw his wealth grow by £7 billion last year, while in my own borough of Haringey, some 8,000 children—a staggering 29%—rely on free school meals. That figure has increased by 1,700 over the past year. The Trussell Trust has said that over 50% of those using its food banks had never used one before this year, so we are seeing a huge increase. Some 1 million eight to 17-year-olds visited a food bank in the months of December and January—I would like the Minister to dwell on that for a moment. We see this stark inequality among many families in every part of London, and not just in London: people are relying on state support to feed their children, not through any fault of their own but as a damning indictment of the soaring cost of living and the broken economic system. Families are facing above-inflation increases in water and fuel bills and the Government’s council tax increases, and family budgets are at breaking point.
Outside London, Labour analysis has shown that the number of children eligible for free schools meals has increased in nearly every region and nation of the UK. It would be wrong to say that this rise in entitlement is purely down to the pandemic. Analysis released in March by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that child poverty had been increasing for six years before the pandemic hit, with three quarters of children growing up in poverty being from a working family. That is because many people are being paid paltry national minimum wage levels. Where families get the London living wage, or the living wage outside of London, it increases the likelihood that they will be able to pay for nutritious food. The shadow Education Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), is right to say that feeding kids is not a half-time activity—a reference to Marcus Rashford.
What is also clear beyond any doubt is the wider and life-long impact of the poverty and deprivation faced by children eligible for free school meals. While these children will have support during school hours, for other parts of the week and throughout the year when they are not in school, they face going hungry and their attainment, health and prospects will suffer. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on school food, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), has shown in this House over a number of years, statistics have repeatedly shown that this has a serious impact on the rest of a child’s education, with far lower numbers of those on free school meals attending university, compared with their peers who are not.
The hon. Lady has outlined the fact that child poverty is rising, and has been rising for a number of years. In light of that, does she share my shock and disappointment that today at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that child poverty was falling, showing that he does not actually understand the scale of the problem, much less how to fix it?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am not sure whether it is ignorance, or not wanting to tell the truth. All who have signed up to this debate know what our inboxes are showing, what our constituents tell us when they walk in the door, and we know that things are getting worse. One of the poor health outcomes is on people’s teeth. Research from the British Dental Association has shown that 11% of children in England have tooth decay by three years old, which rises to 23% by the time they are five and reaching school. Even though this is completely preventable, it continues to be the No. 1 reason why children aged five to nine are admitted to hospital in the UK. With a rise in free school-meal entitlement because of grinding levels of child poverty, this is no surprise.
Problems with teeth can have an impact on a child’s ability to sleep, concentrate in school or develop good speech and language skills. We need to take action and be bold in our approach through a less threadbare welfare system and a more generous system of school meals provision. We also know the importance of action before school, such as breakfast clubs. As a former council leader, I wanted to know which schools did not have a breakfast club so I could ask them to put one on. Not only do they help working families to have children in school on time and have an early start, they also show that where breakfast is of a high quality, it helps enormously with academic achievement and concentration. Teachers say that, with good nutrition, children’s behaviour is good right through into the afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), who used to be a teacher, will confirm that. Likewise, after-school activities should provide healthy options because, for some children who are in school for many, many hours, this could be the only hot meal—at lunchtime and then in the afternoon—that they might have, so it is incredibly important.
Members in this House have championed the need to address school holiday hunger, and I hope that the national food strategy will focus the minds of Minsters on that, so that we address what is going to be a very long break this summer, with many people on really low incomes.
I will conclude soon, but I am sure the points that I have made are abundantly clear. In response to the very good debate earlier this week on a similar topic, I will make a short point. We do not want to make this particular topic very party political. We want everyone to pull together, but sadly when the Prime Minister mentions that child poverty is reducing, and we know that child poverty is not reducing, that is when it becomes political. When a footballer has to lead the charge because many MPs vote against children having nutritional food during the school holidays that is when it becomes something that really hits home, and something we must do something about.
In conclusion, this is the prescription for the levels of child poverty that we are seeing: first, to make the £20 universal credit uplift permanent; secondly, more help for families with fuel bills, water bills and council tax; thirdly, high-quality debt advice—too many households rely on buy now, pay later financial products, which quickly become unaffordable; fourthly, help with housing costs—too many families spend over a third of their income on expensive rent payments. Shelter, the charity that specialises in housing, recommends no more than 35%, but far too many families are spending way over 35% on housing payments, which does not leave enough to pay for food. Fifthly, childcare costs: if a family has two children in childcare, the cost is often more than rent, so that needs to be urgently addressed.
Britain’s children deserve better. We have the wealth in our society to deliver a better society for all our citizens. We need a Government with a heart to act. I implore the Minister to do her utmost to address this full-on. We must not sit on our hands; it cannot take any further debates or votes in Parliament. Do what is right. Work with us and implement the policies that we need to be a real and noticeable help to families.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr Huq. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing this important debate.
Before coming to this place, I was a schoolteacher. I saw first-hand the impact of free school meals. Access to a healthy meal can make such a difference to a child’s learning and health. Over the last year, we have all seen headlines about holiday hunger and the fact that too many children go hungry in the school holidays, as families struggle to meet the rising cost of living throughout the pandemic.
In my constituency, 25% of 0 to 15 year-olds live in poverty. Take a moment to consider that statistic: a quarter of children in Barnsley live in poverty. More than 3,000 children are currently eligible for free school meals. As has been mentioned, the Trussell Trust has reported that almost 1 million emergency food parcels were given to children in the last year alone—a 36% rise on the previous year. We should take this opportunity to praise Marcus Rashford for his work to highlight the issue, and for shaming the Government into a U-turn on their decision not to feed hungry kids during school holidays. It should not require a public shaming for that to happen, and it is telling that not a single Tory MP is here for the debate, other than the Minister who is required to be here.
Last week, I visited the holiday hunger project run by Barnsley Council, to see the great work it is doing with the help of volunteers. Barnsley Council is committed to providing good quality food hampers that meet its school meal standards. The good food boxes are provided by the council’s in-house school catering service. Almost 10,000 children were eligible during the Easter holidays. Of that number, more than 2,000 families applied for a box, and 4,000 boxes were put together. That was a huge task for the council, but it could only reach 42% of children. Sadly, the number of eligible children is only set to rise. The Government are funding only half the holidays, leaving the rest of the burden on already cash- strapped councils such as mine in Barnsley. My council has stepped up to the challenge and delivered for our children, despite having its budget cut by 33% since 2010, and despite the financial burden of covid-19. Without urgent and direct action, the problem will only get worse.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing this important debate.
When it comes to what should be a primary role of Government—ensuring that our children have enough food so they can concentrate in school—this Administration should be ashamed of themselves. Recent figures published by Trussell Trust show that nearly 10,000 food parcels were delivered in Leicester over the past year, of which more than 2,000 went to children. The most shocking statistic is that the number of food parcels delivered to adults increased by 303% between March 2020 and March 2021. For children, the increase was 166% during the same period. During the same period during the pandemic, the wealth of UK billionaires increased by 22% to £597 billion. Given the extensive range of faith and community organisations engaged in food bank delivery in my constituency alone, even these shocking figures from the Trussell Trust do not give a complete picture of food bank usage in Leicester. The actual figure is much higher.
One way to limit the reliance on food banks is to ensure that children receive the food that they need at school, as is the case in countries such as Sweden and Finland that provide universal school meals for all. In Leicester East, over 7,000 school-aged children were living in poverty before the coronavirus pandemic hit, yet only 3,300 were eligible for free school meals. That means that nearly 4,000 children in Leicester East were not eligible for free school meals, despite living below the poverty line. That will have worsened during the pandemic, especially as there are now 11,113 children trapped in poverty in my constituency.
The current free school meals threshold is very low, requiring an annual income of £7,400 or less. This means that two in five children living below the poverty line do not qualify for free school meals. The Government are happy to fork out millions to private consultants and large companies, yet balk at the prospect of guaranteeing food for vulnerable children. I believe that the Government must follow Marcus Rashford’s campaigning, and significantly widen access to free school meals and improve their quality. The temporary extension of free school meals to children from families with no recourse to public funds must be extended further, and this callous policy must then be scrapped for good.
Some 4.3 million children are living in poverty in the UK, which is nine children in every classroom of 30. In my constituency of Leicester East that is almost one in two children, as 42% of children are living in poverty. These figures have become entrenched because of the policy choices that have been made, yet the pandemic has also caused a sharp rise in food insecurity. Some 12% of households with children experienced food insecurity between August 2020 and January 2021, and that figure includes 2.3 million children.
Children enduring food insecurity during term time are at increased risk of food insecurity during the school holidays, especially in families who are forced to attend food banks. The Government must make their holiday food schemes both more generous and permanent. The Government must extend and increase the uplift to universal credit, scrap the two-child limit and remove the benefit cap. A long-term, more universal and generous benefits policy must be considered, alongside introducing a statutory right to food for everyone in the UK.
I volunteer with many food banks in my community and I know, from first-hand experience, the incredible selflessness that is involved. While they are currently necessary due to widespread poverty in Leicester and across the country, the overreliance on food banks is a symptom of our unacceptably unequal society. It is appalling that in one of the world’s richest countries workers are paid poverty wages and are forced to live on the generosity of others. It is even worse that not all children who are living in poverty are eligible to receive a proper meal at school. I urge the Government to work with us on this side of the House and fight for a future that is built around solidarity and dignity for every child, no matter their background, in which poverty, child hunger and food banks are a thing of the past.
Thank you, Ms Huq. It is an absolute pleasure to speak on this issue. I have applied to speak in such debates a great many times but they have always unfortunately been over-subscribed. I thought that if the opportunity came my way today, I would certainly try to make a contribution. I have said this many times, and I think it is probably the same for us all as elected representatives: one of the things we always reflect in our speeches is our own constituency issues, and child poverty and free school meals has been a massive issue through the lockdown period in my constituency.
I am clear that the Minister does not have responsibility for back home, but I want to reflect those comments in the debate. I must say—she will know this—that she and I share the fact that we were both born in Omagh in County Tyrone, so we have got something that unites us. Indeed, more than one thing unites us, but sharing the same home town is one of them.
Of all the resources this great nation has, our children are the most important. Indeed, their education must be paramount, and a part of that education is ensuring that children can concentrate and are well fed. In many cases we are, unfortunately, failing some of those children.
My home town of Newtownards—the major town of the constituency of Strangford—was the first place in Northern Ireland to have a Trussell Trust food bank. It has become an integral part of everyday life for many people in Strangford, and indeed across the whole of Northern Ireland, where there are now 13 or maybe 15 major food banks plus a lot of smaller ones. In the last year, almost 1 million emergency food parcels were given to children: a record high and a 36% rise on the previous year. That is higher than the increase for adults, which stood at 32%. It is therefore obvious that the issue for children is even greater than for adults, but in many cases the adults will ensure that the children get the first crack of the whip.
The number of emergency food parcels provided to children by food banks in the Trussell Trust network was already rising year on year before the pandemic hit. I see the food banks as a plus for the area and not necessarily as a negative, because they unite all the Departments and bring church groups, individuals and people who want to help together, and through the food banks they can give some of the help and assistance that is needed. The figures for 2020-21 represent a 135% increase in need compared with 2015-16. Single parents and larger families are at particular risk of needing to turn to a food bank. Single-parent households are highly over-represented at food banks, with 90% of households in early 2020 being single-parent families—more than twice the proportion in the wider population.
My constituency office in Newtownards is one of the bodies that hands out vouchers for food banks and we are told that we are the biggest contact point for the food banks in the constituency. It is important that we recognise how critical food banks are for people in the area. Larger families are also at particular risk, with 39% of families—two in five—referred to food banks in early 2020 having three or more children. In the general population, just one in seven families—14%—has three or more children. That gives an idea of how that particular category is affected. The figure has risen from 36% since 2018, which suggests that those with three or more children may be at particular risk due to policies such as the two-child limit and the benefit cap. A colleague of my good friend the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) has spoken on so many occasions about the two-child policy, and I support her on that.
I want to give a quick plug for the Education Minister in Northern Ireland and what he did by making sure that food vouchers were available in schools. That was a Rashford campaign, but our Minister responded immediately. Perhaps we should look towards the summer to put ourselves in a position where we are able to offer continuity should there be a need for that help.
It is imperative that we retain free school meals and expand the remit for longer. We must invest in the next generation. I know that the future is about my five grandchildren—two are at school; three are yet to get there—and everyone else’s grandchildren, so I believe it is the wisest investment that we can make, and I support the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) in her calls for that. I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
Although it is a real pleasure to be able to speak today, it is disturbing to be speaking in a debate about children going hungry, especially as the UK is the fifth richest country in the world by GDP. A quarter of the country’s wealth is held by a mere 1% of the population, however. That is an absolute shame. That is why, in 2021, I and other Members are still having to call on the Government to keep children fed during the school holidays.
The issue of food poverty goes well beyond children relying on free school meals; it affects our whole community. Indeed, it is a crisis of the Government’s own making. Cuts to funding have resulted in a reduction of local authorities’ spend, which has meant the loss of youth services and children’s social services. The cuts have also reduced the third sector’s capacity to deliver services and, in some cases, the ability of those services to exist at all. In my borough of Lewisham, the council has to make additional £28 million of cuts for this coming year, after 11 difficult years of austerity. Schools desperately want to support families in need, but they have also had their own budgets decimated.
Members have already heard this, but they will hear it again: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation writes that
“food poverty is just poverty”
and that the only way to solve poverty is
“with better jobs, affordable homes and strong social security.”
I agree. Too many adults continue to struggle through jobs that are high effort but low income. Indeed, food banks in my constituency, like those in other Members’ constituencies, have seen a rise in users and people suffering from in-work poverty. Those people may have two or three jobs, but still have little security and measly wages. They are struggling, their families are struggling, and the people around them are struggling.
Universal credit’s initial five-week delay to benefits harms families by presuming that debt is the norm. That was ludicrous at the beginning and remains ludicrous now. Universal credit works against women as it is only paid into one person’s bank account, and its two-child limit discriminates against families. Child Poverty Action Group estimates that childcare costs have risen by 42% since 2008, but child benefit has not risen accordingly. With rising rents in London and higher energy bills as a result of the pandemic, families repeatedly have to make sacrifices to make ends meet. Many parents are themselves going without food so that they can feed their children.
That is a miserable and cruel situation for any parent, but it is not inevitable. The last Labour Government brought 900,000 children out of poverty. We can do it and we must do it, so why are we not doing it again? The real question is this: why have this Government chosen to keep children in food poverty?
Thank you for your indulgence, Dr Huq. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) on securing the debate. At the heart of this issue, Marcus Rashford scored the most important goal of his career, using his platform to highlight that food poverty is not restricted just to school term times. It was a campaign of which any left winger wearing red would be proud.
I will argue that support for children who are entitled to free school meals should be about far more than just the food, because when schools closed, it was not just lunch that disadvantaged children missed out on, but connectivity. Through the lockdown, millions of children started the day with Joe Wicks’ online exercise classes. They completed schoolwork sent remotely by their teachers, and they joined their classmates in live remote-learning lessons. It was not perfect, but it was an extraordinary feat, achieved thanks to the dedication of our teachers and to the support and patience of home-schooling parents. However, the lockdown exposed the digital divide in our society.
About 30% of private school pupils attended four or more online lessons per day during the first lockdown, but just 6.3% of state school pupils did the same. That is no surprise considering that one in five children did not always have access to a device for online learning while schools were closed. How does the Minister think those children logged in and learnt from home? The simple answer is, they did not. Those without have fallen behind even further.
The Government’s roll-out of devices was nothing short of shambolic: 5% of teachers in state schools reported that all their students had a device, compared with 54% at private schools. The Minister may point to those devices that finally were distributed, but the conclusion of the National Audit Office in March was utterly damning. The Department for Education did not even aim to provide equipment to all children who lacked it. Every click simply widened the attainment gap. So much for levelling up!
With schools open and lockdown lifting, this is no problem of the past. The days of pen and paper are long gone, and the technological age we now live in is here to stay. Homework, research, resources, catch-up—so much is now online. The consequences for those children on the wrong side of the digital divide is that they are now even more disadvantaged than before.
This afternoon, we debate the support that should be provided for children entitled to free school meals. I say to the Minister that support must be about more than just food. I am calling for all children entitled to free school meals to have internet access and an adequate device, so that they can log in and catch up from home. I recognise that free school meals are not a perfect indicator, but it is the best we have. Compared with the vast sums squandered through the pandemic, this is a low-cost, straightforward and tangible step forward. It is no silver bullet, but it would make a life-changing difference to children on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Take 10-year-old Abi in my constituency. In lockdown, she secured entry to the Tiffin Girls’ School, one of the most prestigious grammar schools in the country. She was working from a cramped homeless hostel, with only a refurbished smartphone to get her connected, one of 140 given to me by Tesco Mobile. Social mobility, levelling up—call it whatever you want—the impact for Abi was lifelong.
I put on the record my hon. Friend’s excellent work on the digital divide during the pandemic. It was right at the beginning, when highlighting it made such an impact. Of course, we all jumped on it when she raised the matter, but I wanted to put on the record the huge impact that had for so many children and learners in our society. A debt of gratitude is owed by so many families to her work.
I thank my hon. Friend. So many people got involved in providing devices, such as football clubs like my own AFC Wimbledon, which has now donated more than 2,000 refurbished laptops. I thank all those charities that did such work. While it was brilliant work, however, it cannot be enough—the Government need to step in.
I hope that the Minister will consider the merits of my proposal to provide devices and an internet connection to all children on free school meals. I would be delighted to meet her to discuss how it could be rolled out in practice. It took the intervention of a premier league footballer for Ministers to agree that no child should go to bed hungry. What will it take before we all agree that no child should be left behind because of their internet connection?
I am glad to be able to participate in today’s important debate about support for children in receipt of free school meals, and I thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for securing it. What we are really talking about, of course, is child poverty, and only on Tuesday, we had quite a similar debate to the one we are having today. During that debate, I pointed out the chilling similarities between welfare arrangements as they are today and the kind of support that was offered to the poorest in society in the 1834 new Poor Law. I know that some people will scoff at that comparison, but I am willing to sit down with anybody and talk them through the similarities, which are striking.
As delighted as I am to see the Minister in her place, it is quite telling that when we have debates about child hunger and child poverty, no Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions is prepared to stand up and defend the policies of their own Department. Those watching, as well as those participating, will draw their own conclusions from that fact.
We know that for some children, the free school meal that they receive during the school day may be the only proper meal—the only hot meal—they will have on that particular day. We also know that only one third of children who claim free school meals achieve five or more good GCSE grades or equivalent, compared with two thirds of children whose families are in better circumstances. This is not surprising, given that underneath the free school meal figures is the more pernicious challenge of child poverty, which free school meals alone cannot even begin to address.
In Scotland, the SNP Government are expanding free school breakfasts and lunches to every primary school pupil and every child in state-funded special schools. That way, there is no stigma, and no child will fall through the net. Best Start food payments across Scotland are increasing to £4.50 a week, and eligibility will increase by about 50%, to all in receipt of universal credit.
There is a tale of two Governments here, because while the UK Government scrapped targets to reduce child poverty, the SNP Government in Scotland have set ambitious targets to work towards eradicating child poverty. The Scottish child payment of £10 a week per child for those on qualifying benefits will increase to £20 a week per child, assisting 450,000 children across Scotland, a measure that the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland has paid tribute to.
Meanwhile, the UK Government’s mean-spiritedness is laid bare as they refuse to commit to retaining the £20 uplift in universal credit for the poorest families, and scrap targets to reduce child poverty while presiding over a rise in it, with a Prime Minister who—it gives me no pleasure to say this—does not even seem to be aware that child poverty is rising. That will not inspire confidence in my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran, nor, I would imagine, in any other constituency.
While the SNP Scottish Government are doing all they can to tackle this social ill with all the limited powers that they have, 85% of control over welfare is reserved to the Westminster Government. That is where the real solutions can be found, if there is the political will to implement them. However, we know that the current welfare system does not fulfil its avowed aim. Apart from the fact that in the past year, the Trussell Trust delivered a food parcel every 2.5 minutes, if the goal of welfare is to support and assist those who are able to work to re-enter the job market, it seems that the system is not fulfilling that goal: otherwise, there would be no five-week wait for support. There would be no advance payments, which force those who eventually receive universal credit and are therefore living on, or beyond, the breadline to be deemed capable of paying back these advance payments, throwing claimants further and further into financial despair and further and further away from the job market.
I have said this to the Minister before, so it will not surprise her to hear me say it again: no reputable lender would lend money to somebody on universal credit, because they understand that they do not have the means to repay that loan. However, the DWP is quite happy to lend money to claimants in the full knowledge that their attempts to repay it will put them in deep financial distress. Why on earth would anyone design a system along those principles?
Even now, in 2021, we know about the disgrace of children in our communities going to school hungry. We know that free school meals are really important, but we also know that we need to do more to address the deep poverty too many children currently live in, and we know it goes well beyond the material. Most children living in poverty have at least one parent in work, and I wonder whether the Minister is at all disturbed by that.
Although we lack the political will in the Westminster Government, we also know that there are things we can do to address some of the really pernicious problems that are aggravating and fixing child poverty in a very stubborn way. We could replace advance payments, which are loans that people cannot pay back without real hardship. We could get rid of the five-week wait. We could also actually talk about a real living wage as opposed to the wee, pretendy living wage currently trumpeted by the UK Government.
I do not know whether anybody in this debate shares my shock and horror about the Prime Minister saying today in Prime Minister’s questions that child poverty is falling. One of the many reasons why that is so disturbing is that, only this week, the DWP released figures showing that 4.3 million children were living in relative poverty in the UK in 2019-20—an increase from 4.1 million in the previous year. That amounts to one in three children —31% of children—living in poverty. Those statistics predate the pandemic, so we know that the figures are even higher as we sit in this Chamber.
We also know of the serious impact that living in poverty has on children’s wellbeing. Disadvantaged children are four and a half times more likely to develop severe mental health problems by age 11 than their well-off peers. Children in poor housing are more at risk of respiratory illnesses and meningitis. Those in the most disadvantaged areas can expect 20 fewer years of good health than children in places with more resources and affluence. I wonder whether the Minister finds that as disturbing as I do.
We know there is a direct correlation between poverty and under-attainment at school, so if we do not tackle child poverty with every weapon in our armoury, we can forget tackling the attainment gap. As we have heard, school closures during the pandemic have hit the most deprived children hardest, and will undoubtedly widen an already worrying attainment gap, especially in the short term. I look forward to hearing what new and additional poverty measures the Minister thinks can be brought forward in view of the decisive impacts that poverty has on educational attainment.
Not tackling poverty is a significant cost to the state, so I hope that the Minister’s plans for preventive spending to tackle child poverty will be revealed to us today, because that would be the wisest and most humane course of action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq, for the first time. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for securing this important debate, and for her powerful speeches today and at the debate on Monday. She is right that it is a national outrage that our country is so unequal, with an economic system so broken that so many parents are forced to rely on inadequate support from the state to feed their children, despite their best efforts.
I really regret the fact that not a single Conservative MP has chosen to speak in today’s debates. Yet, a few years ago, this very same room was packed with Conservative Members who wanted to defend Donald Trump’s right to a state visit. With over half a million children qualifying for free school meals since March last year, a debate on this support has never been more important. Free school meals are often the only hot meal that some children get all day, and they are a lifeline for many families who are struggling to make ends meet, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) set out so clearly, drawing on her experience as a teacher in a previous life. The huge rise in free school meals eligibility is therefore very significant and further evidence of how devastating covid-19 has been for family budgets.
There was a very real and growing problem with child poverty in this country before the pandemic, and we have seen today the new, shocking statistic that more than one in five Londoners in working households live in poverty. We also heard powerful testimony from my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) about the huge increase in food parcels delivered by the Trussell Trust in this pandemic. The fact that more than 2 million children have now been pushed into food insecurity and that hundreds of thousands have been forced to skip meals in the pandemic has really shone a light on the need to ensure that proper free school meal support is delivered to all children who need it all year round.
However, that realisation, which has been obvious to pretty much everybody, particularly after Marcus Rashford’s powerful campaigns, has not come as easily to Government Ministers. I am sad to say that they have had to be dragged kicking and screaming time and again to do the right thing. I do not take any pleasure from this, but the Prime Minister’s right-hand man told us today that his boss decided to “pick a fight” with Marcus Rashford over free school meals rather than take action to feed hungry children in a pandemic.
What did the Government do? They initially refused to extend free school meals over last summer, when millions were being forced to apply for unemployment benefits. They whipped Conservative MPs to vote against providing free school meals over the October 2020 half- term through to Easter this year. They presided over a moment of national shame in January, when utterly woeful food parcels, which were near-identical to the Government’s own guidance, were given out, and then they voted against Labour’s motion to ensure that families get the full value of that support.
Just contrast us with Wales, where families have known from the start of the pandemic, and many months ahead of time, that the full value of free school meals would be available in every upcoming school holiday, and that is now guaranteed until Easter 2022. That is the leadership that we should have seen from the Prime Minister, who instead picked a fight with a premier league footballer. It astonishes me that, after all that failure and the uncertainty that the Government have put families through, they have still not learned the lessons and are still refusing to guarantee free school meals in the upcoming summer holidays.
I know that the Minister will point to the holiday activities and food programme, but the Government’s guidance on that scheme says that councils should provide just 16 days’ of food support over the entire six-week summer holiday. It does not say that that support should be guaranteed. The Local Government Association has said that
“the scheme is unlikely to see all eligible children participate and will not be suitable for everyone.”
I am extremely concerned that many children will miss out on that if they do not do the activities, and that there will be a postcode lottery in support. That is especially concerning in the light of the deep cuts to local government budgets, the impact of which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) spelled out so clearly in her powerful speech.
The failure to deliver free school meals is not the only way in which the Government have let down children who qualify for this support. Children on free school meals are less likely to have digital devices and internet connectivity than their peers, and there has been a failure to rectify that for home learning during school closures and self-isolation. Ministers have missed every single target for delivering laptops. Their schemes ensured that only a third to a half of those who needed one got one, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for her contribution, and her tireless campaigning for children on free school meals to get digital support.
Most recently, and perhaps most shockingly, the Government implemented a stealth cut to the pupil premium by excluding anyone who became eligible for free school meals since October last year from the calculation of how much more to give schools. Labour analysis of freedom of information data shows that more than 115,000 children will miss out on over £133 million of support as a result. There is no end to the ways that this Government are prepared to sideline the needs of some of the most disadvantaged children in the country.
I have a series of questions for the Minister. Why did the Prime Minister pick a fight with Marcus Rashford over free school meals? Why on earth are the Government implementing a cut to the pupil premium in the middle of a pandemic? Why will they not simply guarantee that all children who qualify will be able to get free school meals over the summer holiday? Why are the Government refusing to consider Labour’s suggestion of allowing families to get cash payments for this support? Are they still planning to withdraw free school meals support from children who have no recourse to public funds at some point? Finally, what steps are they taking to support children who do not qualify for free school meals but who, none the less, face food insecurity?
The point was made several times in the debate that, in a country as rich as ours, we should not need free school meals. At the very least, children should not be as reliant on them as they are right now. Sadly, they are a necessity because 4.3 million children in the UK live in poverty. For far too many people, work does not pay enough to live on. The Government spent 10 years gutting the social security system, and our economy is built on insecurity and inequality. All those things are getting worse as a direct result of policy choices over the last decade. We need to start making different choices as we emerge from the pandemic.
The Government need to show the moral courage and leadership required to eradicate child poverty and ensure that no child goes hungry. That starts with the Government learning the lessons from mistakes that led to children having to skip meals in the pandemic. I hope we will hear some humility from the Minister when she addresses our arguments. I look forward to her answering all the questions posed throughout the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I understand that at least one Member had endeavoured to speak in this debate, but had technical challenges. I thank you for raising that issue with the Speaker’s Office so that we can address it for future debates.
I thank the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) for securing this important debate, which enables us to continue the debate that we started on Monday. I said then, and I repeat, that this Government are absolutely dedicated to supporting all children and families, especially the most vulnerable. That is even more important during the pandemic, which has brought so many challenges to so many people.
During term time, the Government provide more than 1.6 million free school meals, providing pupils from the lowest-income families with a free, nutritious lunchtime meal. That helps them to concentrate, learn and achieve in the classroom. The Government have extended free school meal eligibility to more children than any other Government in the last half-century. We extended free school meals to all children in their infant years, and to eligible children in further education institutes. Last year, we expanded that free school meal offer to many families who normally have no recourse to public funds whatever.
As well as free school meals at lunchtime, the Government fund breakfast clubs in more than 2,450 schools in the most disadvantaged areas of the country. That supports more than a quarter of a million children. We have just announced another £24 million to continue that successful support for even more children.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) talked about the devolved Administration’s approach in Scotland. School food and free school meals are fully devolved, and all the devolved nations have a range of different food provision in place, including free meal support for families on welfare benefits. However, in England, we provide free school meals and milk to the children of those who are out of work and on the lowest incomes, and we have our national school milk subsidy scheme, universal free milk provision to all infant schools and our breakfast club programmes. We also have the school fruit and veg scheme, which we jointly fund with the Department for Health and Social Care and, of course, our fantastic holiday activities and food programme.
These days, the use of cashless payments in schools is normal. It is widespread, which means that free school meals pupils are not identifiable among their peers, which helps to remove decades of stigma. In terms of wider support, the Government are completely committed to levelling up for not only adults but people of all ages. That includes helping to raise the educational attainment of pupils from all income backgrounds, and especially those from lower-income backgrounds. We therefore ensure that those in greatest need of support have every chance to realise their potential. Investing in education is a key route to levelling up the playing field for all, so our pupil premium fund is additional support for children who have claimed free school meals at any point in the last six years, as well as children and young people who are in care or who have recently left care.
In 2020-21 alone we distributed £2.4 billion through the pupil premium, and that supported almost 2 million disadvantaged children across the country. School leaders know their pupils best, and schools have the autonomy to use the funding in the most effective way for their learners. That can include a mix of educational interventions and pastoral support. We know that working in that way has had a real impact on attainment. Against a background of rising school standards, disadvantaged pupils have been catching up on their non-disadvantaged peers. The attainment gap has narrowed at every stage from early years to age 16, and the majority of pupils from lower-income backgrounds now attend a good or outstanding school. Our education reforms and the focus provided by the pupil premium have supported that improvement.
From next year we will base the pupil premium on the October 2020 census instead of the January one, which will provide schools with greater certainty about future funding levels earlier in the year, helping them to plan ahead. It also brings the pupil premium in line with how the rest of the core schools budget is calculated. However, the change does not mean that the pupil premium is decreasing. On the contrary, we expect pupil premium funding to increase to more than £2.5 billion in this financial year. As a result we expect a typical school to see an increase in pupil premium funding from the last financial year. In addition, the £300 million recovery premium will be paid out for the same pupils as the pupil premium.
The Government also use the schools national funding formula to distribute mainstream school funding more fairly by looking at the needs of schools and their pupil cohort. In this financial year, 2021-22, the funding is increasing by 3.5%, or £1.27 billion. The NFF continues to target funding to schools that have the greatest numbers of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, providing £6.4 billion in funding for pupils with additional needs in this financial year, or 17% of the formula’s total funding. On top of that, we are providing the largest cash boost to schools in a decade, with core school funding increasing by £2.6 billion in the last financial year, by £4.8 billion this year, and by £7.1 billion in the year ahead. That also includes significant additional funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
Members who have spoken in the debate might be interested in the impact on their own constituencies. The national funding formula allocation this year has increased in Hornsey and Wood Green by 2.3%, or £2.7 million; in Barnsley East by 4.5%, or £2.8 million; in Leicester East by £3.5 million, or 3.4%; in Mitcham and Morden by £0.8 million, or 1.3%; in Lewisham East by £2.1 million, or 2.7%; and in Hampstead and Kilburn by £1.2 million, or 1.9%.
Beyond the classroom, we also fund free home-to-school transport for children eligible for free school meals. Because we know that families also welcome support during the school holidays, I am delighted that our holiday activities and food programme has been expanded across England for 2021. I completely refute the allegation by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who speaks for the Labour party, that the Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do something for children in the holidays. We started these programmes three years ago. We have been piloting them, perfecting them, working out what parents and children want. It was a manifesto commitment of this party that we would increase holiday wraparound care, and that is why we have introduced them. The programme launched in Easter and will run across England during the summer and Christmas holidays year. It provides engaging and enriching activities for children across the country.
The holiday activities and food programme, which we announced, during the spending review—this is a really important point—had been piloted by this Government for three years. We had a manifesto commitment to launch it, and we have launched it and delivered it. It is being funded by this Government and has been delivered in every single local authority in England.
We are working hand in hand with Conservative councils, with Labour councils, with Liberal Democrat councils, with councils with no overall control, with independent councils, even with a Green council. We should not play party political games with holiday activities and food, which are vital not only to our children’s food but also to their educational attainment, because we know that when children are engaged in enriching activities during the summer holidays, they come back more ready to learn in September and it helps to close that attainment gap. I ask hon. Members to get behind these clubs, work with their local areas, go and volunteer, take part and enjoy the children having fun.
During the pandemic, the Government have taken exceptional steps to support children to learn when they are in the classroom, but also when they had to stay at home. More than 1.3 million laptops were delivered. It was a massive procurement project, at times one of the largest in the world, and that was on top of an estimated 2.9 million laptops and devices already owned by schools before the start of the pandemic. We have provided extra funding for local transport authorities to procure dedicated additional transport capacity to enable children to travel to school and, in addition to the usual funding that schools receive for free school meals, during the period when school attendance was restricted, we funded almost £0.5 billion of food vouchers, so that children continued to be able to access free lunchtime meals while learning from home.
Right now, our focus is on building back better. We announced the £1 billion covid catch-up package last year, which has already enabled schools to directly tackle the impact of lost learning. Some £650 million was distributed directly to schools. In addition, the £350 million national tutoring programme specifically targets the most disadvantaged young people and enables them to access high-quality small group or one-on-one tuition, which we know helps accelerate academic progress and will help them to tackle the gap between them and their peers.
One example is the Nuffield early language initiative, which supports children in reception year, to which 40% of schools have signed up. The majority of those are schools with above average rates of free school-meal eligibility. Nearly a quarter of a million children are being screened under the programme, and 60,000 children are getting that one-on-one or small group help. It makes a massive difference to those children at the start of their education journey and it is just one part of this amazing national tutoring programme.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green asked about support for other bills. As well as the furlough scheme and more than £7 billion in covid-related welfare measures, the Government have provided an additional £260 million of local welfare funding to local authorities in England. The key focus is to support disadvantaged children and their families, including children who have not yet started school, with food and other essentials, such as the utility bills that the hon. Lady mentioned, during both term time and school holidays. It covers food and fuel, and it keeps children and their families warm and well.
In terms of childcare bills, over the past decade we have made unprecedented investment in childcare. We introduced 30 hours of free childcare for many three and four-year-olds from working families, which can save parents up to £5,000 a year. The 15 hours of free childcare for two-year-olds from lower-income families is also a significant help. We know that when a two-year-old attends an early years setting it helps them to develop social skills and communication skills that can set them up for life.
We have also introduced many other different measures to help with childcare, for example the tax-free childcare that people can use. We want to ensure that our childcare is of very high quality, which is really important to parents, but the cost of childcare and of other bills continues to be an issue that we will keep looking at. That is why colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions are doing additional work on the support we can give to reduce the cost of living for families from different backgrounds. The In-Work Progression Commission, which is led by Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, is looking at this exact issue, to better understand the barriers faced by people in low pay and to look at what more we can do to support those individuals and businesses. That report is expected to be published shortly.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green mentioned support for families who get into debt. I am pleased that after many years of planning this month we have seen the launch of the breathing space scheme, which will help many hundreds of thousands of people who are struggling with their finances to obtain bespoke, tailored support to help them get back on track.
We know that the best way for families to get out of poverty is through work. After taking into account housing costs, a child living in a household where every adult is working is about four times less likely to be in absolute poverty than a child in household where nobody works. That is why, through colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions, we are doubling the number of work coaches to help people find a job. Our £2 billion kickstart scheme offers work placements for 16 to 24-year-olds. The skills Bill not only unlocks new opportunities for young people but, through the lifelong learning grant, it will also open up the chance to access new skills and opportunities to people of all ages. All of that will help families and children.
To conclude, this Government have extended the free school-meals offer to more groups of children than any other for half a century and we provide breakfast clubs in many disadvantaged areas. Our amazing holiday activities and food scheme, which we have spent many years working on, is now going to be available across the country. We also support these children to level up through educational opportunities, the pupil premium, which will increase, and the national funding formula.
We have provided unprecedented support in early years. During the pandemic, we supported families with vouchers, we gave out 1 million laptops and we invested in transport and educational recovery. We have put billions of pounds of extra funding into welfare payments, and taken real action to help parents into jobs and to upskill, so that they can get even better-paid jobs. Over the past decade, a Conservative-led Government introduced that national living wage and has doubled the personal tax allowance. That, and changes to the national insurance calculations, means that people working full time on lower incomes are now up to £5,400 a year better off than they were under Labour.
The pandemic has presented challenging circumstances for many families, and the Government have acted swiftly to ensure that children and families continue to be able to achieve the very best in life. I think about vulnerable children every single day, and every single day people across Government are working on how best to support them now, tomorrow and in the future. We will continue to take action where it is needed, focusing always on the most vulnerable first, as that is the right thing to do.
Thank you, Dr Huq, and I am sure I can keep my remarks to under five minutes.
Recommendation 1 of the Government’s food strategy was to
“make sure a generation of our most disadvantaged children do not get left behind”.
Eating well in childhood is the foundation stone of equality of opportunity, and it is essential for both physical and mental growth. A poorly nourished child will struggle to concentrate at school, and the debate has fleshed out that concept a lot. Unfortunately, the Minister’s winding-up speech did not give me much hope. I welcome the increases to many of the constituencies that she mentioned, but an increase in pupil premium, or an increase in funding for disadvantaged children, means that child poverty is increasing. That suggests the Prime Minister was wrong when he made his statement today, which the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) mentioned earlier.
A number of actions desperately need to be taken. No.1 is to pay as many people as possible not the minimum wage, but the real living wage, which is £9.50 in most of the UK and £10.85 in London. By the way, when I was a borough leader, we introduced the London living wage to all staff who worked in kitchens in schools at the same time as we introduced universal free school meals for every single primary school child. It was a great day when we did that.
No. 2 is that the £20 universal credit uplift must be made permanent, and we must urgently review the two- child limit. Let us not forget that over 50% of people using Trussell Trust food banks had never used one with children before, and that 1 million eight to 17-year-olds visited a food bank in December and January. We desperately need to review child benefit levels, which have been frozen, and we need to look at more help for families with fuel bills, water bills and council tax. I welcome the breathing space initiative that the Minister mentioned, but I do not think it is well known. I do not think there has been enough getting the message out, because far too many people are still in debt for certain financial products that are “buy now, pay later”, which very quickly become unaffordable.
People desperately need more help with housing costs, and we must look urgently at the privately rented sector, which tends to be very low quality. These days, it has lower-quality housing stock than in social housing, and people pay over a third of their income on expensive rent payments and childcare costs. [Interruption.] I think we have to end there, Dr Huq.
I accept that not all of those elements are in the Minister’s brief, but she did very well to cover some of them. I think all Members in the debate would like to put on record the wonderful work that is done in schools by the women who cook the meals, our school meals supervisors, all our teaching assistants and all our teachers. They play an important role in promoting good nutrition and sitting down to have a hot meal in the middle of the day. That has important elements, such as learning to use a knife and fork and learning to have conversations with adults—all the things that sitting around a table does.
I hope the Minister will take this to heart as we go forward and as she looks at the implications of the national food strategy for schools, so that we can hopefully go towards a high-quality approach to breakfast clubs and school meals. We need to get as much free fruit into schools as possible—that was another cut during the austerity years that needs to come back. We should also look at any provision that we can offer in secondary schools, because children do not stop being poor when they turn 13 and go to secondary school. They still need all that nutritional support and help.
We have had a good debate, and I thank all Members for being involved. I hope that the Minister will take some of the recommendations from the debate into Government policy, so that we can aspire to have a society where the 23 billionaires who were added to the rich list do not get to eat all the food, but where our poorer children get to have a nutritional and fully based diet as well.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for children entitled to free school meals.