Remote Education and Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:42 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 9:42 pm, 18th January 2021

Thank you for squeezing me in, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I take the opportunity to add my thanks to the teachers and parents, but let us also remember the children themselves, who are working hard in awful circumstances to further their education. However, hungry children do not learn. Last Friday alone, I was contacted by five constituents who, faced with the withdrawal of vouchers, simply would not have enough food to feed their children. The cost of living has been raised because children have to stay and eat at home—not by much, but so many families are living on the margins that it does not take much to push them over the line into absolute poverty.

Most of those families are in work. In insecure, low-paid work and facing rising household debt, they rely on food banks and voluntary aid run by churches, community groups, Feeding Britain or, in my area, the brilliant Welcome Network. Next time hon. Members who support the Government go to a photo opportunity at a food bank, they should remember that, in Chester at least, not one volunteer wants food banks to continue a day more than they must, or thinks that they are a thing to be celebrated—they are a mark of shame and of the failure of our society and the Government.

The Government must start taking this seriously, not lurching as we seem to do from one crisis to the next, as they face the anger of the public, roused by Marcus Rashford. The Government need to invest and to review food for children in the whole day and the whole week—Healthy Start vouchers, universal credit, free school meals and support during school holidays all need to be joined up, looking at whether they are fit for purpose.

Last March, I raised with the Minister the clawback of unspent money from free school meals. I am unclear yet that things have changed. Things will not change until the level of in-work poverty is properly addressed in this country. It drags the country down not only economically, but socially and morally. It now seems as if there is appetite for real change and real justice from the Government.