Free School Meals: Summer Holidays

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:56 pm on 16th June 2020.

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Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Shadow Secretary of State for Education 3:56 pm, 16th June 2020

I thank my hon. Friend for her comment. I certainly would urge the Secretary of State to consider the points that have been made. I thank her for all the work that she has done on this vital issue. It is a sensible proposal and hopefully one that the Secretary of State will respond on today.

It is important not to forget that even children who have not been through very difficult circumstances throughout this pandemic will still have been profoundly affected emotionally. That is why we need to have a national plan for children’s wellbeing to provide emotional and mental health support when children eventually do return to the classroom. These are the building blocks of a national academic and emotional programme for children. Failing to provide the most basic support for children will undermine this effort. The fact is that no child can learn if they are hungry. That is why it is so important that this year, especially, the Government have stepped in to ensure that all children have a holiday without hunger and that they are funding free school meals over that period.

But now that there is a consensus emerging on the damage that child poverty does to the outcome of our children’s lives, I ask Members to truly address these issues. The two-child cap on child benefit and the five-week delay to the first payment of universal credit are cruelly blighting the lives of children and their families. Will Members now pressure the Government to address decimated school and local authority budgets and the closure of Sure Start centres? Will Members’ concerns on these issues be heightened now? Last month, a survey by the National Education Union told harrowing tales of children without coats and with ill-fitting, ripped shoes; children who were tired and thin; children with mental health issues unable to get help; children with bed bug infestations and rats in their homes. It is no surprise that these children often find it more difficult to learn, and no surprise that during lockdown they are likely to have fallen further behind than their peers. It is no surprise that over 1 million of these children do not even have access to a digital device.

Humanity has won a small battle today, but we have not won the war against poverty. I say to every Member here: remember why you are here; remember who put you in this place and why. We are ultimately 650 individual people elected by our communities to protect and improve their lives. We are the voice of the voiceless. That is the moral compass that should guide every one of our days in this place. This summer, when you wander through parks and streets in the place that you call home, with every child that passes you by, innocently unaware of the vast power that you hold over their life, you will wonder, are they hungry, are they suffering—did I speak for them when they had no voice?

We have the power to change those children’s lives—to speak up like Marcus Rashford did. We have seen the true power that campaigns can bring in encouraging the Government to change their position. We now have to build a consensus across this House that this country will not tolerate child poverty and that we will encourage the Government to bring forward a raft of economic and social policies with one aim—to eradicate child poverty.