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Schools: Free Holiday Meals and Activities

Volume 805: debated on Monday 14 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of proposals for a permanent programme of free school meals and activities during all school holidays.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare my interests as set out in the register.

My Lords, this Government are determined to ensure that children eat healthily and lead active lives. We welcome the National Food Strategy’s recent report and will carefully consider its recommendations as we approach the next spending review, including in relation to holiday provision. We are proud to provide invaluable support to children who are eligible for free school meals, and have taken unprecedented action to make sure that no child goes hungry throughout this coronavirus pandemic.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer and express my thanks for the free school meal programmes carried out during the summer vacation. That said, with the rise in family poverty and an increasing number of children admitted to hospital for reasons of malnutrition, there is undoubtedly a need for a more permanent system of free school meals during vacations in areas of need. Free school meals are even more urgent with the onset of winter and the continuing spread of Covid-19. By ceasing or limiting—or perhaps failing to make an overt commitment to—these programmes, are the Government saying that the problem of holiday hunger has in fact been resolved?

My Lords, it is indeed to the Government’s great credit that £380 million was paid out to support people during the pandemic with food vouchers for free school meals. One of the recommendations of the task force that will be considered is that holiday activity clubs be extended nationally in part of the summer holidays, so we are taking those recommendations seriously.

My Lords, given the challenges faced by children of school age relating to Covid-19, funding for free school meals and activity opportunities during school holidays would significantly promote healthier living for the poorest children in our society and could form a key platform in the Prime Minister’s obesity reduction strategy for young people. What plans are there to fund food vouchers and holiday clubs for at least the remainder of this Parliament, and for measures to be taken to help children who have to stay off school because of Covid-19 isolation? If there are not any, why not? This would level up opportunity for young people through good nutrition and chances for exercise.

My Lords, with the return of schools over the last couple of weeks, in most environments the school kitchens will now be up and running and providing food. For those limited numbers of children who might not be in school, we have encouraged those services to make weekly food parcel deliveries and have encouraged local innovations in certain circumstances where vouchers have been used. I am sure that the noble Baroness will be aware that, through the NHS, there is also funding for the Healthy Start scheme for pregnant women and parents with a child under four to get certain vouchers for healthy food for those entitled to certain benefits. We are looking to ensure that children have access to healthy food, not just food.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the evidence of many years shows that summer learning programmes really work to lift learning, skills and confidence for poorer children in particular? That helps to maintain their motivation, particularly when they then transfer to secondary school. Given the further evidence of lockdown, what is stopping the Government now from putting a systematic learning programme in place over the summer as part of the whole strategy to reduce the growing attainment gap?

My Lords, since 2018 the Government have funded summer learning to the tune of £9 million a year. It was open to schools to use some of the catch-up funding announced at the end of last term to provide summer schools and learning. As I have outlined, the holiday provision is subject to recommendation and consideration in the spending review.

My Lords, I am sure that we all agree that all children have a right to food. When we consider the national strategy, can we bear in mind a number of factors? First, we need to be flexible so that people whose families become unemployed during that period have access to the scheme. Secondly, the vouchers should pay only for food that contributes to a healthy diet. Thirdly, some of the technical problems, which I understand, need to be properly sorted out. It is not acceptable for struggling parents to have to access a helpline that costs £21 an hour to use.

My Lords, there will be a census in October that will take into account the number of students now eligible to claim free school meals, and funding will follow that. I pay tribute to those who put up the Edenred platform at speed. There were some teething problems, but we managed to have 20,000 schools get vouchers via that system.

My Lords, one 22 year-old footballer, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, has had more influence recently on policy on child food poverty than any number of politicians or government agencies. Is there potential for the Government to work alongside other high-profile figures in sport and entertainment on this issue or more widely to promote higher standards in education and training?

My Lords, Marcus Rashford’s contribution to this debate was indeed welcome; it was a tribute to the fair and free democracy that we enjoy. He put his name behind the recommendations of the National Food Strategy, which we are looking at.

My Lords, listening to the Minister’s answers, I wonder whether she has missed the point of the Question, specifically that made by the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins. Back in June, the Government were forced into an embarrassing—although very welcome—climbdown about providing free school meals over the summer holidays. They rightly recognised the increased pressure on families, particularly those who have had to cut working hours, are unable to work or are on furlough or shielding so cannot earn their usual wage. Rather than wait for Marcus Rashford this time to put some pressure on the Government, we are looking for some reassurance from the Minister not about strategies for the future but about planning for October and Christmas. We do not want the Government to suddenly realise that these families are struggling; the planning should be done now to ensure that children are fed and cared for in the school half-term and the Christmas holidays.

My Lords, it is indeed important to plan. In relation to the two previous vacation periods, the Government made those vouchers available. As I said, it is a welcome part of our democracy that there was a response to the contribution made by Marcus Rashford. This of course is an area of multiple departmental responsibility and, as the noble Baroness will probably be aware, £6.5 billion was also put in through universal credit, local housing allowances and the working tax credit system. I will update the House as and when there are any recommendations that we have agreed to from the National Food Strategy.

My Lords, I will build on what the previous speaker said. The Trussell Trust report published this morning revealed an 89% increase in the number of emergency food parcels given out in April compared to the year before. The furlough scheme has protected many, as we know, but by the end of the year, the trust reckons that an additional 670,000 people will be classed as destitute. I also want to ask the Minister about planning in two specific areas. First, I fail to understand why all people in receipt of universal credit should not be given free food for their children—free school meals and holiday meals as well. Secondly, why, throughout this pandemic and all these crises, has this problem been left to the charity sector, which has played a blinder in the last few months to deal with it, while the Government had to wait until the footballer knocked on the door and made it a huge issue?

My Lords, the contribution of the Government is huge in this area: 1.4 million children receive free school meals. The Government introduced free school meal entitlement in 2014 to those in further education. However, it is welcome that the voluntary sector also plays a role in our society, and I pay tribute to its work. It is one of the silver linings to the terrible cloud of the pandemic that we have seen communities rise to give support. As children become eligible for free school meals in the October census, that eligibility will be passed through the system, so we are providing for children who need this, but it is a school meal that has been available during term time.

My Lords, although it is good to see that the Government have done something here, after a great deal of prompting, what has been done to ensure that even the representations from the Government’s own party are being registered without prompting from outside? I asked this the last time the issue arose, and the answer was a sort of “oh well, we’ve done something”, but remembering that on school meals it took Jamie Oliver to make them nutritious, something should be done here so that we listen to politicians.

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that the Government are listening to all who contribute in this area. He will be aware that school food standards in this country are a matter of legislation, and as part of the child obesity strategy we are now looking to review those to ensure that what is provided in our kitchens is healthy food for children.