The reliance of many children on free school meals is, sadly, not a new thing, but this is the reality for the 3,231 children across my Luton South constituency. Similarly, holiday hunger is a sustained and severe problem at the heart of many of our communities, and both have been exacerbated by this unprecedented public health crisis. I am glad that, after sustained pressure from Marcus Rashford and the Labour party’s Holidays Without Hunger campaign, the Government have decided to U-turn, do the right thing and extend the free school meal voucher scheme over the summer holidays.
Research by End Child Poverty shows that, before the coronavirus crisis, 46% of children in Luton South were living in relative poverty. As I have said before in this House, many are living in families struggling with in-work poverty due to low pay, insecure work and zero-hours contracts. I am very concerned that the financial hardship inflicted by the coronavirus crisis will cause this figure to increase. If the Government had not conceded to public pressure and extended the free school meal voucher scheme, they would have neglected their responsibility to vulnerable children.
Free school meals provide a staple diet and the nutrition that facilitates a child’s development. Neglecting a child’s development needs can have a tremendous impact on their mental and physical health. In the longer term, adverse childhood experiences—for example, a sustained inability to meet a child’s basic needs, such as being fed—can lead, through no fault of their own, to negative outcomes such as low educational and employment achievements and mental health problems. Today’s U-turn is welcome, and I urge the Government to go further to end child poverty.