Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the review by the Office for National Statistics Child poverty and education outcomes by ethnicity, published on 25 February 2020, which found that Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black ethnic groups have a higher percentage of children living in low-income households than the national average; and subsequent to this, what assessment they have made of the importance of tackling child food poverty over the upcoming six-week school holidays.
I thank noble Lords for giving me the opportunity to begin this crucial debate. I wish it were longer, but an hour is better than nothing. I am particularly pleased that we are having this debate in the week of the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd—nine minutes and 29 seconds that moved the world. Some of us hope that it will change the world, but that remains to be seen. After his death, in front of our eyes, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young people, black and white, marched on the streets of cities and towns in countries around the world. Central to their demand was that our institutions, our Governments. our people look at systemic inequality, particularly race inequality. That is why today’s debate is important.
To look, as we should, at child poverty in general, as many noble Lords know, 14.4 million people in this country are living in poverty. When we drill down to black, Asian and minority ethnic families and children, the data is stark. We should not only acknowledge and confront this but have the bravery to close those gaps and unleash the talent within our communities. I was struck by the data that the Social Metrics Commission unleashed on us about a year ago, which said that half our black families are living in poverty, many in deep poverty. I tried to get an image of what deep poverty looks like. It is not just about people going to the food banks that we have seen; it is the way that people look down on them when they go. It is also about their housing. I found data in a recent report showing that as many as 13% of black people are living in damp, poor accommodation. For Africans the figure is 10% and for Pakistanis 9%. That compares with 3% in white communities. We see the gulf in food poverty, in housing poverty and in unemployment. The TUC stated that black people have been hit four times harder by Covid-19 in being made unemployed. Unemployment rates for young black men are now rising. The national average is 4% and the figure is about 13% for young people, but for young black men it is nearer 40%.
We know how that pans out. We know where that goes, when people have no hope and no dignity. We see them being vulnerable. We see unscrupulous gangs waiting for them in the wings to take them under their spell and lead them to no good in this double pandemic of Covid-19, which has devastated black, Asian and minority ethnic communities disproportionately, and the George Floyd murder and protest. It has been a double pandemic—a perfect storm, if you like. Historians will look back at this time and ask but one question: when the systemic inequalities were laid bare by this double pandemic, what was our response? What did we do?
We have three choices. We can do nothing, we can do a little or we can do something great. For me, it is not good enough to build back better. I have seen the data from back then, and it was not great then. It was made worse by Covid-19. We parliamentarians have got to build a new better. We must have that 1945 moment, when we built the National Health Service, but we cannot do that if we are not brave. We cannot do it if we are steeped in denial, like Dr Tony Sewell, who saw all this evidence in education, health, jobs and housing and then confronted you and me, saying he found no systemic racism. We cannot deny the lived experiences of many out there, black and white. We must not.
We have an opportunity when bad things happen. We have a unique opportunity before us to have the greatest conversations and the greatest unity ever. Will we take it up? I have been fantastically impressed by that young man, the footballer Marcus Rashford, who has, in his own way, changed our world by demanding that we look at those uncomfortable truths—and he still plays great football and keeps on his track to guide us. Will the Minister listen to the range of experts, supermarkets and charities that make up Marcus Rashford’s End Child Food Poverty coalition and expand free school meals to all under-16s with a parent or guardian in receipt of universal credit or an equivalent benefit? They are slipping through the cracks, and that is on our watch. We cannot let that happen.
I want to be bigger than that. I know noble Lords want to be bigger and bolder than that. We have done right in disregarding the Tony Sewell report because we know it is dishonest and disingenuous and seeks to blame people for their situation, rather than to have an adult conversation. I hope we can have a conversation and meet the Minister and relevant experts in the field to have broader discussions and to formulate, in the absence of a race equality strategy, a framework that deals with these uncomfortable truths, so that we join the dots where Covid has laid them bare. We know where we need to look. We join the dots, in the short term, to make sure that kids do not go hungry; in the medium term, to start building; and, in the long term, so that all our young kids, families and communities can say that in 2021, after the anniversary of the tragedy of George Floyd, we came together—bigger, bolder, more creative, non-political and shoulder to shoulder—to have a plan that will deliver for all our communities. I thank noble Lords for this special time.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for tabling this QSD, which raises important questions about child poverty and ethnicity.
In addition to the sobering ONS statistics that it highlights, recent analysis from Leeds University shows how children from black, Asian and other minority ethnic backgrounds are at the greatest risk of deep poverty—to which the noble Lord referred—which is increasing among children generally. Indeed, the latest official data showed that two-thirds of the growing number of children in poverty are in deep poverty. What steps are the Minister’s department taking to address this growing problem?
Although the recent attention given to child food poverty is welcome, it is but a symptom of what the New Policy Institute has called a “child poverty disaster”, as earlier progress made in reducing child poverty has been all but wiped out in the past six years. The Trussell Trust, which has done so much to draw attention to growing food insecurity and reliance on food banks, is clear that the problem is not one of food but of people not having enough money for basics. The answer, it believes—as do others—lies at least in part in improved social security support, especially for children.
According to the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, social security spending on children has been cut by £10 billion in real terms since 2009-10. Analysts agree that social security cuts, both the general freeze and cuts targeted at larger families, have been a key driver in worsening child poverty. What assessment have the Government made of the likely impact on child poverty of: first, ending the £20 universal credit uplift this autumn as planned; secondly, retaining the two-child limit, when just yesterday three of the UK’s Children’s Commissioners called on the Government to scrap it, arguing that it is a clear breach of children’s human rights and pointing to its disproportionate impact on black and minority ethnic children; and, thirdly, refusing to review the benefit cap as a matter of urgency, as was called for by the Economic Affairs Committee back in December? Again, the cap has a disproportionate impact on black and minority ethnic children.
Tackling child food poverty, including among black and minority ethnic children, requires a comprehensive cross-departmental child poverty strategy that goes well beyond paid work, which is increasingly failing to provide protection against poverty. Where is it?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, on his excellent speech.
This ONS report is very interesting. I want to focus on food poverty. I particularly value the granularity of the data because it allows us to explore which elements of a child’s experience and background affect their educational attainment. The ONS has made a clear the link between poverty in general and educational attainment and, within that, the excessive representation of certain ethnic groups.
First, I believe that the provision of free holiday meals should be extended to all holidays when schools are closed for whatever reason. Children do not get hungry only during the major holidays. Secondly, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, that we should increase eligibility for free school meals and do more to encourage the parents of children in poverty of all ethnicities to apply for them. However, the ONS found that pupils who were eligible for free school meals —FSM—made less progress between the ages of 11 and 16 than those who were not eligible. This indicates that it is the poverty, not the meal itself, which affects educational attainment. However, free meals help to alleviate poverty and help with children’s health, albeit in a small way. For those reasons, will the Government consider reintroducing free lunches for all primary pupils at least, as was done for a time under the coalition Government? There was evidence of better attainment during that period. That may have been because, by removing the barriers to application and the stigma, more pupils who really needed a free meal got one.
However, the ONS found that educational outcomes for Bangladeshi and Pakistani children did not follow this lower attainment trend, since children of those ethnicities who were eligible for FSM had higher Progress 8 scores than the national average. Since the ONS also found that these children are more likely than average to live in low-income homes, this indicates that there is something else operating here to overcome the poverty effect. It is not that these ethnic groups have higher incomes than other Asian groups, but it could be something about the home background and the extent to which the parents positively engage with the child’s education. We need more research to find out whether this is the case. Can the Minister tell us if that will happen?
Of course, when we talk about child food poverty, we are not talking just about free lunches. It is important to make sure that children get a good breakfast by increasing support to the excellent voluntary organisations that provide them to ensure that they are available everywhere and throughout the holidays.
Finally, because all aspects of a child’s life link together to predict their life chances, it is vital to tackle child poverty in the round through housing, special education provision and all the other things that contribute to education and health inequality. Will the Minister comment?
My Lords, it is obviously concerning that certain ethnic minority groups still have a greater percentage of children in low-income households than the national average and illuminating that children from Pakistani and Bangladeshi households perform higher than the national average at GCSE level despite this. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley has just indicated, there is a disparity here. Also, white Irish and white British pupils have the largest gaps between average educational outcomes for students eligible for free schools meals and those who are not, while Chinese, black African, Bangladeshi and Pakistani students have the smallest gaps. In other words, income is only one determinant that should be of interest to policymakers.
This further substantiates evidence from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities that certain ethnic groups, such as black African, Indian and Bangladeshi pupils, perform better than white British groups once socioeconomic status is taken into consideration. The commission partly attributes such achievements to “immigrant optimism” and greater devotion than the native population to education as a way out of poverty. It recommends that the Government invests in research to understand what factors drive the success of high-performing pupil communities, including black African, Chinese, Bangladeshi and Indian ethnic groups, and how this can be replicated to support all pupils.
The CRED report has proven controversial for many reasons, but it contains important messages that we ignore to the detriment of those whom policy should support. Its findings and those of the ONS highlight that poor white British populations should also be seen as ethnicities deserving of policy attention. Poor white people in the north-east of England are the largest group with multidimensional disadvantages, such as income and life expectancy. Importantly, the north-east also has the largest proportion of lone-parent families in England after London. The CRED report made the neglected point that family breakdown is
“one of the main reasons for poor outcomes”,
“Family is also the foundation stone of success for many ethnic minorities.”
Those ethnicities that are doing better educationally also have lower numbers of families where there is only one parent; for example, 40% of black African families and 6% of Indian families, compared with 60% of black Caribbean families. Strengthening families must be central to effective policy to tackle social inequality. As co-founder of the Family Hubs Network, I welcome the Government’s adoption of family hubs as official policy and their continued funding of the reducing parental conflict and supporting families programmes. Will the Minister say what the Government are doing to ensure that family hubs and these other strands of policy are outworked in a way that fully includes families from all ethnicities?
My Lords, today, the political community reels from accusations made by the Government’s former most senior adviser that so many lives were cut needlessly short by a wanton disregard for their value during last year’s pandemic management. Surely we can at least come together with the pledge that no child should ever have their life blighted by hunger in the sixth wealthiest jurisdiction on the planet.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, a legendary campaigner for social justice, for this timely provocation, and I congratulate him on his new role in Cambridge. The Minister knows of my respect for her and my belief that she is one of most genuinely compassionate voices in a less-than-compassionate Government. I therefore ask her today whether she will consider using her voice to urge the Government to legislate for a right to food in the United Kingdom. I ask her to consider the enormous public health, educational and life expectancy benefits of providing a nutritious pre-school breakfast and a lunch for every single child in compulsory education. I urge her also, in the interests of better scrutiny and governance, to consider a new statutory duty on the Secretary of State to set out how much of any welfare benefit or legal minimum wage has been calculated for food. Will she meet me and other right-to-food campaigners after the Recess to discuss our proposals for the most basic levelling up of all?
As for the forthcoming half-term holiday, I wish all noble Lords safe and peaceful breaks, but I also fear for all those children and families who will undoubtedly struggle adequately to feed themselves during this period. How can we justify being a country of food banks next to investment banks? How can we justify even those in work on the front line of infection struggling to feed their families? How can we give thanks for a single meal with our own families while so many children go badly nourished or undernourished?
I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and endorse every word she uttered. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Woolley and congratulate him on his new role.
Noting the ONS report, I wish specifically to highlight the educational achievements of Bangladeshi people, particularly in Tower Hamlets, notwithstanding the evident consequences of poverty, poor social outcomes, a lack of quality housing and, even more stark, unequal opportunities for employment. Experiences of institutional and structural racism, whether or not it is recognised by the Government, also have a profound impact on educational outcomes.
However, there is a parallel narrative. Through the efforts of my generation of councillors in the late 1980s and early 1990s, inspired by the historic struggles of Eric and Jessica Huntley, Bernard Coard and Professor Gus John, the Tower Hamlets parent and community team revolutionised and mobilised the delivery of education through supplementary schools and made it available to Bangladeshi children, who also suffered significantly as a result of the disgraceful ESN designation and the continuance of pupil referral units.
This report speaks of poverty without acknowledging the pernicious effects of discrimination, which blights and impoverishes children’s lives. They look on their schools and institutions, still disgracefully lacking representation, and the message to them remains that they do not belong to their society, that they do not have any stake in their institutions and that they are lesser citizens. We live in the shadow of the wealth of Canary Wharf, the City of London and Broadgate. I have raised this matter time and again. Despite an educated workforce and educated Bangladeshi graduates being available at arm’s length, more than 70% of those who work in these areas come from at least 70 miles away. These are uncomfortable facts which cannot be denied. We cannot be complicit with the endemic effects of institutional and structural discrimination on children’s futures.
What discussions can the Minister and her department undertake to ensure that employers in this area take seriously the Government’s agenda to strengthen these communities and eradicate the endemic discrimination which is harming our children’s futures?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for instigating this debate and shall focus my comments on the section on page 6 of the report highlighting low income and material deprivation, the self-reported inability of individuals or households to afford 21 particular goods and activities. For children, these include, in order of weighting and priority, outdoor space or facilities nearby to play safely, a hobby or leisure activity and organised activity outside school each week. These factors, when considered with wider concepts of material deprivation, demonstrate that children in Bangladeshi households are the most likely of all ethnic groups to come off worst. Their material deprivation scores in the ONS study before the Grand Committee today stand at an appalling 29%. This is almost three times as high as white households.
The importance of play and investment in green spaces so that children can play safely in the community must be strengthened in the new planning system which will come before Parliament shortly. We must transform lives and communities through sport, recreation and physical activity for all our children. We must increase school sport and PE provision. We must tackle the growing crisis of obesity. We must improve teacher training in this context, especially in primary schools. We must transform lives and rebuild the younger generation, who carried the greatest burden of the coronavirus epidemic for the rest of us. They suffered from obesity, poverty and, above all, boredom, being cooped up with escalating mental health issues, to protect old generations and the most vulnerable from even greater hospitalisation and death rates. We must recognise the vital contribution of an active lifestyle to alleviate poverty, and we need policies for the communities which are most affected by material deprivation.
For all this, we urgently need a Cabinet Minister for children. We need the development of a youth well-being strategy that considers the wide discrepancies in our society highlighted in this report. They are heart-breaking. The interests of children are served by many government departments, local authorities and the voluntary sector, yet co-ordination of policy formulation and policy initiatives is too weak. It is time for action. It is time for a voice for children at the cabinet table.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for securing this debate and for so powerfully introducing it. The noble Lord referred to the lived experiences of systemic racism, something which has been built on centuries of discrimination, discrimination that very much continues, as powerfully testified by the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin.
In this debate, I feel that I need to respond to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, particularly in the light of the fact that your Lordships’ House has recently spent a great deal of time and energy on the Domestic Abuse Bill. It is important that we do not send any kind of message that we need to continue families no matter what, given the damage that might be done to the individuals within them. We should acknowledge the impact of discrimination and poverty on the rate of family breakdown.
However, I want mostly to focus on two positive solutions. To ensure that I was taking a different approach from other noble Lords, I went to two research institutes in Sheffield. Both are associated with the University of Sheffield: SPERI, the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, and the Institute for Sustainable Food. I want to focus on one sentence in a report from SPERI in December 2020 on food vulnerability during Covid-19. The report said that
“it is important to revisit, once again, the heated debate around the role of food charities as frontline responses to a lack of economic access to food.”
That has been carefully phrased in the form of academic discourse, but I put it to the Committee that, in the context we are talking about, none of us should rest until the last foodbank closes because of a lack of demand.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, food poverty is poverty. The underlying problem is a lack of income. She also talked about maintaining the boost to universal credit; that is a start, and the Minister will be well aware that I would much prefer universal basic income, but we need to look at incomes.
Secondly, the Institute for Sustainable Food focuses on the local as the site of food security resilience. I would like to point here to a group in Sheffield called Kenwood Community Growers, which was set up at the start of the pandemic and has been supplying community kitchens in Sharrow and areas with a large BAME community. What are the Government doing to focus efforts towards local food production and local growing, with people being able to produce food for themselves and have access to land and the resources that they need? Our BAME communities have skills, talents and energy that need to be utilised, supported and encouraged.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for this debate and for giving us the opportunity to consider the ONS report and, of course, systemic inequality in general. Hungry children cannot learn as effectively and efficiently as those who are well fed, or at least adequately fed and nourished. Teachers and teaching assistants know this only too well; they deal with hungry children in their classrooms every working day of their lives and respond by providing food, often at their own expense. Hunger in the classroom is, alas, not a new problem but education staff observe it to be an increasingly prevalent one.
As we all know, the pandemic has exposed significantly different health outcomes by ethnic group, while the ONS report has shown that Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black ethnic groups have more children living in low-income households than the national average. These children must therefore be exceedingly likely to be disproportionately affected by hunger daily. As we all know, it took a young man better known for football than politics to draw on his own lived experience and push the Government to do something on food which they had no intention of doing originally. Marcus Rushford is no longer just a football star but a champion for the right to food—and now food for the mind, too, with his campaign on reading and access to books.
The pandemic has hit many families’ finances hard. Eight out of 10 teachers say that they have seen this impact. We know that many schools have organised foodbanks and delivered food parcels to pupils in their homes—some, of course, even before the pandemic. We cannot allow our children and their families to languish in hunger during the summer break. Local authorities can be well placed to provide recreational and educational programmes and include food as part of that offer, but they need sufficient resources provided in a coherent and timely manner, and on an ongoing basis throughout the summer and during the autumn half-term. In fact, this should happen in all school holidays to ensure that no child or family slips through the cracks.
If the levelling-up agenda means anything, it must mean an end to child and family hunger and poverty. It must mean a right to food and an end to systemic inequality, which has left so many facing a future in which their own future is less bright than it could and should be.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, on securing this important debate. I will focus solely on one aspect of child food poverty, which is somewhat “offline”. I declare my interest as a lifelong sufferer from coeliac disease. This is an autoimmune condition; it is difficult to diagnose and is not an allergic reaction. There are a growing number of children, across all ethnicities, who suffer from gluten intolerance. For those from ethnic backgrounds, reading the small print on labels to check for the presence of wheat can be a challenge, especially if English is not their first language. When I was a child, a very limited range of gluten-free products was available and only on prescription. The Minister will know that a large number of clinical commissioning groups no longer provide gluten-free prescribing. Supermarkets now stocking a range of GF products is given as the reason. This assumes that those with gluten intolerance have money in their pockets.
Supermarkets dedicate sections to “free from” foods, including GF products. Although there are different types of GF pasta, sliced loaves, chocolate biscuits, et cetera, their cost is very different from that of products containing gluten. In the case of a loaf of bread, this can be three to four times as much as a loaf made from wheat. For families who are living on benefits, the cost of GF cereals, bread and flour may be beyond their reach. For a recently diagnosed child, the family may find the cost of the new diet prohibitive. A child usually having a packed lunch at school may find they cannot afford a gluten-free sandwich due to the price of the bread, so just what are they going to have for lunch? Would the Minister consider pressing her colleagues in the Department of Health to seriously reconsider returning gluten-free products to the prescription list?
There are those not qualifying for benefits who have fallen on hard times during the pandemic; the food banks are keeping them alive. It is important for the long-term health and welfare of coeliac sufferers that they stick to their diets at all times. A GF parcel from food banks will be essential for these sufferers.
Lastly, I turn to the school holidays. A child may have qualified for a GF school hot meal during the week, but what will happen to them during the school holidays? I urge the Minister to take account of the importance of regular, proper, balanced meals during those six weeks. As Marcus Rashford has demonstrated, it is a dreadful thing for a child to go to bed hungry. We are one of the richest countries in the world and should be ashamed that this is happening to large sections of our communities. I look forward to the Minister’s positive response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for securing this debate and for the powerful challenge with which he kicked it off. The picture painted by these ONS statistics is both politically unacceptable and deeply sad. I note the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, about the educational results in the north-east and I look forward to seeing more action to support my region. However, what struck me most in this report was the clear reminder that child poverty has a disproportionate impact on certain minority-ethnic communities in the UK. Noble Lords have referred to the fact that children from Pakistani and Bangladeshi households are the most likely to live in low income; a higher proportion of children in black and other UKME households are more likely to be living in low income; and children in Asian households are two and a half times as likely as the national average to be in persistent low income. That is huge. These figures came out in February last year, before the pandemic even kicked in, showing that, even by that point, progress in the UK had stalled.
We know that, when kids grow up in poverty, there is a greater risk that all areas of their lives will be adversely affected. This includes lower grades and fewer opportunities and, later on, lower wages and poorer health. However, the Government are still sticking with policies, such as those outlined by my noble friend Lady Lister, that have already resulted in 4.3 million of our children growing up in poverty, and they are still planning to cut another £20 a week for millions of families in September, which will make things worse still. Given this evidence that poverty is not equally distributed, can the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of whether and, if so, how that £20 cut will disproportionately hit black, Asian and other UKME people?
We know that kids cannot learn well on an empty stomach. Just this week, new government data showed that 500,000 more children became eligible for free school meals during the first year of the pandemic—more than 11,000 children each week. However, again, this is not evenly distributed. The 2020 ONS figures showed that black pupils were the most overrepresented group in the free school meals population, so can the Minister tell us what the picture is for black pupils now that we have had a year of the pandemic?
The Government plan to give food and activities to children eligible for free school meals, though during just half of the summer holidays. Why will they not give cash transfers for free school meals to ensure that families get the full value of this support and can buy the food and activities best suited to their children? As has been mentioned by other noble Lords, do the Government plan to extend eligibility for free school meals to all children from a household getting universal credit or with no recourse to public funds?
We need action to tackle child poverty. We need reform of our social security system to give everyone the help that they need. However, we also need action to target structural inequalities, including differential rates of poverty, unemployment, low pay, job insecurity and so much more. How will the Government address those underlying problems? Indeed, how will they identify them? Labour suggested various ways, such as a race equality Act or a strategy. If the Government do not like those ideas, that is fine, but what are their ideas? How will they identify the problems and address them? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for securing this important debate and introducing it so eloquently and powerfully. I also thank those noble Lords who have contributed to today’s discussion of this important issue.
I share the concern that has been expressed that children from some ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be in low income than their peers. It is absolutely right that any Government are held to account for their record on tackling poverty.
Over the past year, our priority has of course been to help all families, regardless of their background, to withstand the financial hardship brought about by the pandemic. Such unprecedented circumstances have called for an unprecedented response. I believe that this Government are delivering this by spending more than £407 billion on support measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, including the furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. This has helped to protect jobs and to keep businesses afloat and has helped families to get by. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, issued us with a challenge: we can do something little or we can do something great. I believe that the Government are doing a good job in trying to support people in this incredibly difficult time.
That spending also includes the additional £7.4 billion injected into the welfare system further to support those most in need, raising our total spend on welfare support for people of working age to around £111 billion. The noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Sherlock, referred to the £20 uplift. I must tell them that it was always intended to be a temporary measure. As such, as far as I know, it will cease in September.
We have done other things to support families and children. We fully recognise the profound impact of this hugely challenging period on people’s lives. We have taken further substantial action to support the most vulnerable children and families, wherever they live and whatever their background, to ensure that they are able to access food and other essentials.
My noble friend Lord Farmer raised the important issue of family stability and the good work that family hubs are doing. The Government are working to expand these hubs and continue to invest in the reducing parental conflict programme. The hubs continue to grow at pace. There is a cross-government department team working on family hubs and RPC: I am a member of that group. Somebody pleaded with me to use my voice; it is loud and clear on these issues, and I would be very happy to meet any noble Lords to talk about hubs and the reducing parental conflict programme.
To strengthen the welfare safety net, in December 2020, my department introduced the Covid winter grant programme, which had an additional £229 million of local welfare funding and has enabled local authorities to provide targeted support to vulnerable households, keeping them warm and well fed over the winter, focusing particularly on disadvantaged children and families, whether that support is needed in term time or in holidays. Recognising that some restrictions on the economy are still in place, a further £40 million of funding has been allocated to the Covid local support grant fund.
The noble Lord, Lord Wooley, was very challenging in his speech, as other noble Lords have been, about educational attainment and free school meals and breakfast clubs. We have put in place extraordinary measures to ensure that disadvantaged children receive the support they need to learn, whether that is in home or in the classroom. In England, this has included spending an additional £500 million on food vouchers so that children had access to food when schools were closed during lockdown. This is in addition to the usual funding schools have continued to receive to provide free school meals for more than 1.6 million pupils from the lowest income families and universal free school meals for all children in reception, year 1 and year 2. As well as lunchtime meals, the Government also support breakfast clubs in more than 2,450 schools. The Department for Education has recently announced another £24 million to continue the successful breakfast club programme.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, talked about the summer holidays. Looking ahead to this summer, we recognise that many vulnerable families need additional support during the longer school holidays. Following three years of successful pilots, the Department for Education’s holiday activities and food programme has been expanded for 2021. The programme launched at Easter and will provide support during summer and Christmas this year at a cost of £220 million. This programme is available to disadvantaged children in every local authority. Wider support is available, including our healthy start scheme, and we are exploring any additional support that may be needed throughout the summer.
I now turn to some of the specific points made by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, talked about unemployment rates for ethnic minorities. We have committed to level up skills and opportunities across the country for people of all backgrounds. Using data from the race disparity audit, updated annually since October 2017, and our own analysis, we are continuing to help those underrepresented in the labour market.
We were challenged in this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and others about expanding free school meals. We think it is important that free school meal support is targeted at those who need it most. Free school meals are an integral part of our provision for families on low incomes and of our wider actions to promote social mobility.
On the help we are giving to ethnic minorities, particularly to get into the labour market, we have identified 20 target areas using our own research and data from the race disparity audit. Lessons learned are rolled out, where appropriate, across the country. Each area has a high ethnic minority population and a high gap between the ethnic minority and white employment rates. Together, they represent more than half of the national ethnic minority employment gap. We are also considering the recommendations of the independent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.
Again, I am sorry to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, that I have no information that the two-child policy is going to be changed. I know it will be disappointing to her, but the Government feel quite strongly that a benefit structure adjusting automatically to family size is unsustainable.
We have the same view on the benefit cap. The proportion of individuals capped remains low in comparison to the overall UC case load at around 3%. This is in spite of the significant action that DWP took early in the pandemic to protect those financially impacted, including the temporary uplift in the UC standard allowance and increases to local housing allowance rates. The most vulnerable, who are entitled to benefits for disability and caring, are obviously exempt from the cap.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, raised a point about free school meals for all primary school children. I am afraid I have no information that that is planned. On the other points the noble Baroness raised, I will write to her.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, raised the poverty strategy and cross-government working. Here I might raise a smile, I think. As we recover from the pandemic, departments will continue to work together to deliver a number of key cross-cutting outcomes linked to the 2020 spending review. These outcomes include addressing poverty through enabling progression into work and increasing financial resilience. DWP is leading this work in collaboration with other departments, including, in particular, HMT, DfE, MHCLG and Defra.
My noble friend Lord Moynihan raised the issue of a Cabinet Minister for children, which other noble Lords have raised. The Secretary of State in the Department for Education has responsibility for children and families and takes it very seriously. I will ask my noble friend Lady Berridge to write on behalf of her Secretary of State to say what is being done there.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, urged me to use my voice. I will always do that. I can confirm to her, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that we will consider all the recommendations of the national food strategy and respond fully within six months of the publication of the next and final national food strategy report. I will come back to the noble Baroness in writing.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, a passionate campaigner, for her contribution. In my working life, trying to help people back to work, the business community at Canary Wharf has been outstanding in its support for its local communities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, made a point about gluten-free products on prescription. I am very happy to write to the Department of Health. I make no promises, but I will write, and I will copy the noble Baroness in on the letter.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, talked about the impact of the pandemic on levels of poverty being clear and asked whether we will publish our evidence and act on it. Estimating the impact of Covid-19 on relative and absolute poverty requires estimates of income for all people in the UK, which are not yet available. We are wholly committed to supporting people on lower incomes. We spend an estimated £111 billion on welfare, including an additional £7.4 billion on Covid-related welfare policies.
I always finish these debates by apologising for not being able to answer every point, and I always promise that I will look at Hansard and write to noble Lords on any matters I have not dealt with. I hope noble Lords understand that this Government are absolutely committed to helping those who need help most—those in poverty—and my door is open at any time for noble Lords to make representations.