Free School Meals: Summer Holidays

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:43 pm on 16th June 2020.

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Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Education) 6:43 pm, 16th June 2020

I will start by saying how pleased I am about the U-turn that the Government have made over free school meals, and what an impact it will have on all the children who are facing a food crisis in this pandemic and all the parents who are worried about the long summer months that are coming up over the holidays. We cannot underestimate the impact that this decision will have.

Today’s debate has highlighted how necessary this U-turn was. Forgive me, because I will not be able to mention every single person who has spoken in the debate, but there have been some very powerful speeches from Members on both sides, including the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Rebecca Long Bailey, who exposed the shocking extent of child poverty in the UK. My hon. Friend Maria Eagle shared powerful stories of child poverty from her constituency, and my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum), for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome), for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) and for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) talked movingly about their own personal stories when it comes to free school meals.

There have been so many excellent contributions, and I am afraid I cannot go through all of them, but it would be remiss of me not to mention my hon. Friends the Members for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who have been campaigning on this issue for a very long time now—well before the Government decided to do their U-turn. As for Government Members, I want to congratulate Alexander Stafford on his maiden speech, as well as his new baby.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the brilliant organisations that have been campaigning on food poverty in this crisis and calling on the Government to extend free school meals. No campaign ever happened single-handedly, and I cannot name all of them. I will give a quick mention to School Food Matters, the Child Poverty Action Group, Feeding Britain, the Food Foundation, Sustain, and the Good Law Project—but there are so many more.

If you will indulge me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to thank the Minister for making this U-turn in the knowledge that her big boss in No. 10, Dominic Cummings, previously said that free school meals were a “gimmick”. We know what happens to Ministers who cross him, so I hope that the hon. Lady is in her position next week.

I pay tribute to the schools, councils, food banks, community groups and others who have been doing everything they can to support children during this pandemic. One of the things I want to highlight is that we heard some very chilling statistics in this debate about food insecurity, but behind every chilling statistic is a personal tragedy. I want to speak about a young woman who lives in a council estate not very far from where I live. I met her during the election, when she told me that she has small children, just like I do. She said that every day when she picks up the children from school, she just wishes and prays that one of their friends would invite them to their house for dinner so that when it comes to dinner time, she does not have to tell them that she does not have enough food to feed them. She told me that that makes her feel inadequate as a mother. When I think about free school meals, I have long thought about Rebecca and how much this will benefit her during the summer holidays. Every story like this is a family’s personal tragedy—and that is before we consider the long-term impact on children going without food.

What I find so scary is that in this crisis we will not know the full impact of rising food poverty on children for some time: the child whose growth was stunted because they were underfed, the child whose mental health was damaged by the experience of poverty, or the child whose education was set back because they could not focus on learning due to hunger. The extent of this harm will not be clear for many, many years. We also know that it will disproportionately impact black and minority ethnic communities, the disabled community, and already disadvantaged children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

For all those reasons, I heartily welcome the fact that free school meals will be funded over the summer, but I cannot help but question why this decision has come so late. Back in April, the Labour Government in Wales committed to £33 million to fund free school meals over the summer, at a much higher level of support than in England. We heard very passionate speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) highlighting the leadership and clear thinking that the Welsh Labour Government have shown on free school meals. I wish the Government had taken a leaf out of their book.

A win is a win, but the debate should not end here, and I would be grateful if the Minister answered a number of questions about this U-turn. How will she ensure that the administrative problems we have seen with the voucher scheme to date will not be replicated over the summer? Will she set out why the same support has not been offered for universal infant free school meals? Will she commit to continuing with the support from September? How will she ensure that the half a million children who qualify for free school meals but are not accessing the support are properly fed at home? What plans do the Government have to get support to the millions of children who do not qualify for free school meals but are none the less facing food insecurity?

You know that I am a London MP, Madam Deputy Speaker, but when it comes to football, my heart and soul rest at Anfield, so normally I would not be echoing the words of a Manchester United player in the Chamber like this, especially when this is a potentially record-breaking championship season for Liverpool. I would have shown him the red card, but I do not need to consult VAR to see that hungry children are more important than club loyalties. I would like to read out a message that Marcus Rashford has sent where he thanks all the MPs in the Chamber for coming together and making sure that we put our loyalties aside and did what was right for hungry children.