Free School Meals: Summer Holidays

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:35 pm on 16th June 2020.

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Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye 5:35 pm, 16th June 2020

First, may I join colleagues across the House in paying my respects to Jo Cox? I was not fortunate enough to serve in the House while she was a Member, but her reputation and causes live on in this place and she is hugely missed by Members on both sides of the House.

I am extremely fortunate to be a Member representing the beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye. From our stunning coastline to our historic castle, world-class engineering companies to renowned pubs and restaurants, we have so much to be proud of, but we are also a constituency blighted by poverty and deprivation—ills in our communities that have plagued families for generations. I was elected on a promise to support the most vulnerable in our communities and ensure, as the Prime Minister has said many times, that we level up the area, so that all can benefit from the opportunities of the future. It is because I am acutely aware of these levels of deprivation, which I see every week in Hastings and Rye, that this debate is so important to me.

I am unashamedly committed to the Conservative ideas of a small state, individual responsibility and upholding the value in the institution of family. Yet, at a time of economic and health crises, I see that the most deprived are being punished disproportionately with worse health outcomes, suffering more from the closure of schools and being dependent on institutions like our food banks and charities. So there is clearly a role in these unprecedented times for the state to intervene.

We must recognise that the argument for free school meals to be available during school holidays is not new. A 2016 survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds were returning to school after the summer holidays less than healthy because they had gone without food. To assume, though, that people who are less well off will not or cannot feed their children is, I am sure, somewhat insulting to disadvantaged families. In fact, during the coronavirus, many families have not accessed free school meals or the voucher scheme, but, as my hon. Friend Ben Bradley, who has left the Chamber, highlighted, we must not shy away from the fact that, unfortunately, some parents just do not or cannot prioritise their children’s needs over their own. We must turbo-charge our efforts to look at the underlying causes of the neglect of some children by their parents, tackling the root cause rather than just allowing the Government to step in and do the easiest thing—throw money at the problem.

This Conservative Government, under our Prime Minister, have committed to combat poverty by improving education, jobs and our economy by levelling up. As I said, as a Conservative I believe in a small state, which protects individual freedoms and allows people to take responsibility for themselves and their families. Small government may sound uncaring, but it is not. A big state is much more callous, as it engenders dependency and therefore ultimately lacks accountability to the electorate. We cannot let the state take over a parent’s job—a parent’s most basic responsibility to feed and keep their children safe. It cannot be right that Government usurp the domain of the family and the most basic role of parenting. We cannot excuse people from the basic responsibility to their children; it is fundamental to being a good parent. We cannot have a culture that encourages the Government to take over the most basic roles of parenting, and we cannot have a culture where parents expect the Government to feed their children so that they can have money for other things. We cannot take away a parent’s opportunity to take responsibility for themselves and their family.

As Conservatives, we have a good track record in government of supporting the most vulnerable through access to work, increasing the tax threshold, free school meals, the living wage and providing more free childcare. We have shown through other policies that we are committed to helping the most vulnerable. We will get our economy back on track following coronavirus and make it strong again, creating more, higher-paid jobs. The values that I spoke of earlier—individual responsibility, a small state—