The shocking pictures we have all seen of the tiny portions of grated cheese, half-sliced tomatoes and, if lucky, half a pepper are a measure of the contempt that this Government have for low-income families. During the pandemic, we have seen the Government squander billions of pounds awarding contracts for failed systems and sub-standard produce to friends of the Tory party, whether qualified or not. Every tight-fisted parcel put together with as little food as they could get away with, and every carrot baton and half-cut fruit, is a symbol of the Government’s having been dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing on free school meals every step of the way. They would have got away with the penny-pinching food parcels for our country’s poorest children if one parent had not posted a picture online.
It is a similar story with the laptops. Barely any of the promised laptops materialised last year. The Government had months to plan for the likelihood of the winter lockdown. Their reluctance to do so has meant that today kids in my constituency cannot access their online lessons because they do not have hardware. Schools and children are relying on charity to bridge the shortfall. I am extremely proud of the way the people of Bedford and Kempston have responded to the Government’s failings during the pandemic. I want to thank Susan Lousada, the High Sheriff of Bedfordshire, who is leading a fantastic campaign to get laptops to pupils, with Bedfordshire Learning Link, Bedford Modern School, Bedford Borough Council, local businesses and rotary clubs, donations from the Harpur Trust, the Blues Foundation, and the generosity of other charities and individuals. It has been truly inspiring and a world of difference from the cynical, can’t-do attitude I have seen from this Government.
The gap between the haves and the have-nots has never been wider. The digital divide has never been more obvious. It is not just low-income families who are really struggling; it is the just-about-managing, whom the Prime Minister’s predecessors identified but did nothing to help. If the levelling-up agenda of this Government was anything more than an empty slogan, the Government would support the motion and invest in our children, starting with a comprehensive review of free school meals. Food poverty is an entrenched, long-term issue that requires a considered, long-term solution. Getting free school meals right is a good place to start.