Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:43 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education 7:43 pm, 18th January 2021

Absolutely. My hon. Friend always makes excellent points, as my experience of working with him in the Whips Office always proved. He is right to highlight the brilliant work that Hampshire County Council is doing. So many local authorities are looking at this issue in an innovative and different way, and are able to have a bigger impact and offer more support to those families who are most disadvantaged, and to whom we want to see support and help offered.

We are well aware that free school meals play a vital role in making sure that disadvantaged children receive a healthy, nutritious meal each school day. They are aimed at families who are out of work or on low incomes, and I have no doubt that they represent a lifeline for many families who have been hard-hit by this pandemic. Any school, family or pupil will be able to raise concerns about their food parcels through the Department for Education helpline. We have had a minimal number of cases so far, but we will take action on each and every one of them.

I want to be clear that children will be receiving food over the February half-term, just as they did at Christmas. In November, we announced a £170 million covid winter grant scheme to support vulnerable children and families—not only with food but, importantly, with other essentials, because we on the Government Benches recognise that this is not just an issue of food; sometimes, for those families most in need and requiring greater support, it is about other elements of support, too. Many of those families were struggling with bills, and other support could be provided through schemes such as the one so brilliantly outlined by my hon. Friend Steve Brine.

We recognised that support needed to be put in place, and we are doing more to provide support for children over the holidays. As part of the winter package announced in November, we confirmed the expansion of our brilliant holiday activities and food programme, at a cost of £220 million. It would be remiss of me not to mention the work done by a former member of the Labour party, Lord Field, who has done so much to highlight this issue and has always been a great advocate for holiday activities. While we address the issue of food, we must not lose sight of the need to make sure that activities are going on, and the need to support young people, most importantly, families. The expansion of the programme means that eligible children in every local authority throughout the country will be able to access healthy food and take part in fun activities over Easter, summer and Christmas, if they require that.

The course of the virus has changed since December. As a result of the change in trajectory, and bearing the possibility of future changes in mind, the Government will continue to keep under review what they need to do to ensure that all children continue to be fed, and families continue to be supported. I am confident that, thanks to the measures that we have put in place, remote education will go from strength to strength during this lockdown, enabling young people to make the educational progress that every single one of us in this House wants. Of course, every single one of us on the Government Benches wants to see them return to the classroom at the earliest opportunity.

I can confirm that the amendment tabled in the name of the Prime Minister will not be moved this evening. Government Members are focusing on making sure that we get social policy right for the children of this country, and that they and their families are properly supported. For those on the Opposition Benches, so often the tone of the debate is more about social media than social policy. What we see in this Government’s actions are long-term solutions in respect of not just food, but activity for children at Easter, summer and into the future, because we realise and understand that that can make a real difference to children’s lives.