I am dismayed, but not surprised that, yet again, we are having to put pressure on this Government to do the right thing by hungry children in the middle of a pandemic. In the first five weeks of the initial lockdown, more than 2 million children experienced food insecurity. More than 4 million children are living in poverty. They are hungry every single day, every day of the year with no let-up in sight. Any decent Government would be proactively doing everything in their power to make sure that every single one of those children had access to nutritional healthy food.
The Secretary of State, at the outset of this debate, predictably reeled off schemes and grants that the Government have put in place. They were schemes and grants that they had to be shamed into providing, just as we saw last week, when yet another one of their associates was given public money to deliver meagre food parcels that, disgracefully, met the Government’s own guidelines. The Secretary of State is also missing the point. If the winter covid grant, the holiday activities and food programmes, the national school breakfast programme, and school meals vouchers and parcels were leaving no child without why are food banks inundated with desperate parents seeking help for their children? Why is it that UNICEF, for the first time in its 70-year history, is feeding hungry children? Of course, in the absence of any other support, I would not wish for these piecemeal and short-term schemes and grants to disappear. I will continue working with the Magic Breakfast scheme to press for the implementation of my School Breakfast Bill, because when the scheme ends in July, many children will be left with that gnawing hunger in their stomach at the start of their school day, and we all know that no matter how talented or amazing a teacher is, that hunger will impact on learning.
Just last week, Sustain found that £700 million from the soft drinks levy that was intended for school breakfast provision is unaccounted for. I hope that the Minister can confirm where that money has gone when she sums up. As the Food Foundation has recently called for, we need to rethink school meal provision, but we also need to stop looking at school meals in isolation. The reason that so many children are in poverty and going hungry is that we have had over a decade of cruel policy making that has plunged families into destitution and despair. That there are hungry children in a country as rich as ours is no accident, and it is not purely a result of this pandemic.
To those Government Members who have spent all day claiming that tonight’s debates and votes do not matter, I simply say this: they matter to millions of children and families; and they matter to the 3,000-plus children in South Shields who receive free school meals. How Members vote tonight lets them and all our constituents know what we stand for, who we are, and, more importantly, who it is that we really care about.