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Covid-19 Summer Food Fund

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the announcement made on 16 June, whether they will set out the details of the “Covid Summer food fund” for children eligible for free school meals.

My Lords, the Government remain committed to ensuring that the most disadvantaged children continue to be supported. We know that, due to coronavirus, there is increased pressure on household budgets, and we recognise that families will face particular challenges over the coming months. That is why we are providing additional funding for a Covid summer food fund, which will enable children who are eligible for free school meals to claim vouchers for the six-week summer holiday period.

My Lords, I am sure we are all amazingly grateful to Marcus Rashford for highlighting and understanding this issue. Perhaps the Minister will consider in future putting him in charge of the Social Mobility Commission. But free school meals are only one indicator of child poverty, and many children will slip through the net. How can we ensure that those children do not slip through the net and that we provide for them as well?

My Lords, I too pay tribute to Marcus Rashford and hope that his example of participation will inspire many other young people to speak up on the issues that they feel strongly about. Yes, indeed, this is why we are entrusting free school meal voucher administration to schools, which are best placed to register for the vouchers. In addition to the free school meals voucher system, local authorities have £63 million to meet the needs of people who are vulnerable and need food support.

I thank the Minister for her response and congratulate the Government on recognising that “Rashford rules OK!”. Protecting children from going hungry is vital. Will the Government ensure a more effective distribution of vouchers, as there was a significant problem during the last period? Will they encourage schools to maximise summer activities during the holidays? Do the Government recognise that nourishing the mind as well as the body is vitally important to children?

My Lords, the voucher system is now operating effectively. In addition to this system, holiday clubs have been run for the last two years. We are building on that with another £9 million. Those clubs take place in disadvantaged areas and, of course, provide healthy meals in addition to educational activities.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that, when considerable criticism of the Government’s current policy and encouragement to change are ignored from their own Benches over a long period of time, something has gone wrong? A Premiership footballer should be allowed to concentrate on his own sport and career and should not be required to come in and bail out the Government.

My Lords, the Government always keep decisions under review and have listened; that is, as I have outlined, part of a mature democracy. The participation of people such as Marcus Rashford is welcome in the public space and a tribute to the free and fair democracy that we all enjoy.

Welcome as this decision is, can my noble friend tell us what other measures the Government are taking to address food poverty, which has only got worse as a result of the pandemic?

My Lords, we recognise that during the pandemic there have been particular crises in relation to food support. Defra has given £3.5 million to a food charities grant fund, enabling charities to apply for up to £100,000 to provide food. Also, in conjunction with MHCLG, it has distributed over 1 million food parcels; that is in addition to the £63 million that I outlined. There has been considerable support during the crisis for those who have needed food support.

My Lords, I welcome the development as a result of Marcus Rashford’s intervention; any mother would be proud to have him as a son. He has made life different for young people this holiday. When will the Government look at long-term food support for children who are vulnerable during holidays and answer the questions raised in the recent social mobility report?

My Lords, 1.3 million children will indeed benefit from the support given over the summer holiday. This is in addition to increases of over £1,000 per household for those who claim working tax credits or universal credit. So support is there and, as I outlined, there will also be holiday activity clubs to provide activity and food for children during the summer.

My Lords, seven days ago at Oral Questions, the Minister rebuffed my call for an extension of the free school meals voucher system to cover the summer holidays, saying:

“There is support out there for those who need provision.”—[Official Report, 10/6/20; col. 1745.]

A week is indeed a long time in politics. Can the Minister explain what changed in the interim, leading to the Government’s welcome about-face yesterday with the announcement of the Covid summer food fund for 1.3 million pupils in England?

My Lords, as I have outlined to other noble Lords, the Government keep decisions under review. We have listened, we recognise the pressures that families will be under this particular summer due to the Covid crisis, and we have responded to that. As I said, 1.3 million children will benefit; at £15, this payment is actually higher than the sums normally given to schools to provide free school meals. Schools are encouraged to make provision if they can during the holidays and to operate their food parcel system. If they cannot, the voucher system is available to children.

The Minister will be familiar with the phrase, “More joy in heaven for one sinner that repents”. So the U-turn is welcome. But how are the Government pursuing my suggestion, made to the Minister last week, about asking the big supermarkets involved to contribute to the cost of the scheme—or, better still, to provide additional benefits to those using the vouchers?

My Lords, as requested, I have taken this forward with colleagues in BEIS and will have a reply imminently ready for the noble Lord. In relation to the operation of the scheme, the cost to the taxpayer is the face value of the vouchers. The administration costs of the scheme are borne in the arrangement between Edenred, the supplier, and the supermarkets themselves.

My Lords, we should always welcome a U-turn when it points the Government in the right direction, but will they fine-tune the navigation by ensuring that these vouchers can be used in local markets and shops, particularly with many local markets reopening, as here in Sheffield, with its Moor Market? That is the best possible source, and the cheapest, of a healthy diet of fresh fruit and vegetables. Also, small independent businesses that operate in the local community put money back into the community, rather than pumping even more government money into the hands of a few multinational companies.

My Lords, since last Friday over £150 million has been distributed through the food voucher scheme but, as I outlined, some schools already operate their own voucher schemes. They can claim back from the schools fund if they do not have funds in their existing resources to do that. The Government are not party to every system operating, but we hope that some of those systems operated individually by schools would be available to local suppliers. During the currency of the scheme, we have added two supermarkets to those eligible for it, which have the infrastructure to deliver it across all their stores.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on this welcome decision to extend free school meals to children throughout the summer. Does my noble friend share my frustration that so much criticism has been levelled today, rather than a warm welcome of the fact that this extra money will help the 1.3 million children to receive a better meal during this time of crisis, when so many families are struggling?

Yes, my Lords, when the Government have listened and reviewed something it would be welcome if the focus could be on the children and what they will now receive as a result of the six-week food voucher that will be available to them over the summer holidays. We are guiding parents to the “Eat Well” resources that the NHS produces, while making it clear that these vouchers cannot be redeemed against alcohol, cigarettes or lottery tickets.

My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Children First Alliance. Hunger and extreme poverty have disastrous consequences for children, as we know, and several models demonstrate that children’s needs can be achieved rapidly and cost-effectively through schools and local authorities. Should not the Government now entrench these models in legislation, together with Cabinet-level representation for children?

My Lords, there are many cross-government meetings and initiatives to ensure that children’s situation is in the sight of the Ministers who need to have it. That is why, during the crisis, we have also made £3.2 billion of funding available to local authorities. On the ground, it is often the local authorities that are aware of the acute needs of their communities.

My Lords, the Secretary of State said yesterday, “We will ensure that no child will go hungry”, yet thousands of children subject to the “no recourse to public funds” rule will still go hungry, either because they are not covered by its recent welcome easing or because of confusion of the ground over which children subject to the rule are now eligible for free meals. Can the Minister please undertake to look into this and get back to me?

My Lords, it is correct that the Government have temporarily extended free school meal eligibility to some groups of children where there is no recourse to public funds, particularly the children of Zambrano carers, where the parent may not be a British citizen but the child is. As I understand it, we have issued guidance on what documentation may be used to establish membership of these groups. I will get back to the noble Baroness with any further detail on that, but there has been a welcome easing of those restrictions, bearing in mind the current crisis.

I very much welcome the Government’s U-turn on this issue but, as the Minister will recognise, producing seven meals a week on £15 is extremely difficult. I am pretty certain that I could not do it. Is there anything that the Government might do to encourage a competition among families in receipt of vouchers to produce menus that are nourishing, attractive and not too difficult? Perhaps she might also encourage the media to set up a Marcus Rashford prize for the best set of seven menus.

My Lords, as I have outlined, because families cannot buy at the scale that schools can to provide free school meals, the vouchers are at £15 to provide lunches rather than the £11.50 normally allocated to schools. There is an NHS “Eat Well” guide, which we encourage parents to look at; there are also, of course, the school food standards and the Change4Life healthy eating recipes. There are resources out there for parents to look at for a healthy diet. In addition, in 2016 we began the child obesity strategy to ensure that children are eating a healthier diet.

My Lords, the Minister says, rightly, that the focus should be on the children. Can she please explain to the House how that was reflected in the decision that the Government took and stood by—until Marcus Rashford intervened—that they would not extend the scheme through the holiday?

My Lords, as noble Lords will be aware, the free school meals system has normally operated only in term time, except for the holiday activity clubs, which, as I outlined, also include food. We are living in unprecedented times for everyone, including hard-pressed families, and I am delighted that the Government have announced this provision. Ordinarily, however, the provision of free school meals is during term time and not the holidays. This is a Covid school food fund.