Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:27 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education 7:27 pm, 18th January 2021

I am aware that a number of organisations, representing food charities, anti-poverty organisations, educationalists and so on, have written to the Prime Minister suggesting a full review of that subject. I welcome that, and I hope that he will respond with the offer of the review that they are seeking. However, I point out that not only are we in the middle of the first global pandemic in 100 years, but that it is against the backdrop of rapidly rising child poverty. That is why the push to address the hunger that children are facing now has become more acute than ever.

I have a simple solution for the Secretary of State to the problem of holiday hunger, one that could solve the problem at the touch of a button: sack the companies that are providing a substandard service and just give parents the money—secure family incomes by using the existing social security infrastructure and put £15 a week into the bank accounts of the parents who need it to feed their children. He should put his trust in mums and dads, because we know that parents will do the right thing.

Anyone who has thought about these issues—I do not know about Government Members, but I have spent a large part of my career thinking about them—knows that cash transfers work. They improve outcomes for children, they remove stigma for families and they ensure that the full value of support provided goes to children. I know that there are some people—in October we discovered some of them on the Government Benches—who believe that parents cannot be trusted to use money responsibly to feed their children. That is wrong in every possible way. It is morally wrong to condemn families to insecurity and stigma. It is economically illiterate not to provide cash to families who most need it, and instead to slash their incomes in the midst of the worst recession that most of us will know in our lifetimes. And it is factually and empirically wrong to suggest that this money would not be spent by parents on food for children. So I ask the Secretary of State to do the right thing: to end the scandal of inadequate food parcels or vouchers that take days to arrive, and the scandal—in one of the richest countries in the world—of children continuing to go to bed hungry.

I want to turn briefly to the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. Let me begin by saying that there are some things in the amendment that I am glad to see—not least that he has finally listened to teachers and to Labour and started to move towards zero rating of educational websites, though quite why it has taken him so long, I do not know. First, the amendment asks us to note that the Government are

“committed to supporting families to feed their children during both term-time and holidays”.

It then mentions a voucher scheme that has been hit by repeated delays in an outsourcing fiasco, a winter grant scheme that cannot guarantee that every child will be fed and a holiday scheme that will not be in place for months. It condemns the food parcels we saw on social media, while failing to take any responsibility for the fact that they were in line with the Government’s own policies. It ignores the Government’s plans to slash more than £1,000 a year from family incomes by cutting the lifeline in universal credit, plunging hundreds of thousands of children into poverty.

Then the amendment calls on us to note all the progress the Secretary of State has made in improving digital access. It lauds his half-delivered target of delivering 1.3 million laptops yet gives us no clear timeline for full delivery. It notes the support given to schools but ignores the fact that schools up and down the country have repeatedly reported that they have not had the support they needed from the Government throughout the pandemic, whether it is on funding, testing, exams—the list continues. I am afraid the amendment is not credible. In fact, it is insulting to schools and families across the country, who will see through this attempt to give Government Members something to vote for while failing to support the entirely reasonable motion we have tabled.

Poverty is, sadly, endemic across our country. In every city, town and community, it blights the life chances of children, causes unimaginable hardship and insecurity to families, and weakens our economy. The pandemic has made the situation far, far worse, and it is appalling that today, we have seen with our own eyes that the Government are simply not committed to the task of ending child poverty.

Earlier this evening, Government Members failed to support Labour’s motion calling for the £20 uplift in universal credit—a lifeline that has kept millions above water over the past nine months—to be made permanent. The consequences are simple: families and children will be plunged into insecurity, hardship and poverty. I am giving Government Members a second chance to do the right thing this evening and to put children first by voting for our motion—a motion that asks for nothing more than the chance for every child to learn and for no child to go hungry.