Children’s Education Recovery and Childcare Costs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:37 pm on 7th June 2022.

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Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education) 5:37 pm, 7th June 2022

If the hon. Gentleman is good at maths, perhaps he could work out that one out of 13 is a far higher percentage than whatever it is—six—out of 350.

With children and young people having disproportionately suffered the impact of pandemic restrictions, and the Government having scrimped and saved on supporting their recovery, millions of children across the country are bearing the brunt of the cost of living crisis that we face. They cannot be let down again, which I why I tabled an amendment to the motion about the provision of free school meals. It is utterly shocking that in one of the richest countries in the world, in April this year more than 2.6 million children were living in households that had experienced food insecurity in the past month, according to a YouGov poll commissioned by the Food Foundation. That was an increase of over 5% in the three months between January and April 2022. No child in the United Kingdom should be going hungry, let alone 2.6 million of them. That is why, given the cost of living crisis that we face, the Liberal Democrats are calling on the Government to extend free school meals to all children in primary education and to all those secondary school children whose families are in receipt of universal credit.

I am proud that the Liberal Democrats in government delivered universal free school meals for every child between the age of four and seven regardless of income. All the evidence shows that hunger has a severe negative impact on children’s mental health, with studies linking it to increased anxiety and stress in primary children—and we know that is off the charts at the moment. It was bad before the pandemic, and it is even worse now. International studies have also demonstrated the need for well-balanced meals, which many families are simply unable to afford, to ensure strong brain development. It is important for children’s wellbeing and for their learning, yet we know that increasingly cash-strapped families are struggling to put food on the table. The policy outlined in the amendment would give a much-needed boost to families who are really struggling to put food on the table every day and ensure that every single primary child and all disadvantaged pupils in secondary education get at least one decent, healthy, hot meal a day.

There are also the social benefits of children coming together and eating the same meals together at the same time without, say, parents opting out at the primary level—it is a really important social intervention as well as academically and for their wellbeing—but there are already reports that some school meal caterers are talking about cutting portion sizes to cover the costs of free school meals. As I pointed out to the Chancellor a couple of weeks ago—needless to say, he did not address my point and he did not seem to take much interest in how children are going hungry and will get hungrier—the Tory Government have increased funding by a measly 4p over the past seven years since universal infant free school meals were introduced by the Liberal Democrats in government in 2014. So, yes, that is 4p in those years, and food prices have risen by almost 6% in the last year alone, so is it any wonder that we are hearing about caterers having potentially to cut school meal portions?

My concern is that for schools already struggling to make ends meet with spiralling energy bills, insufficient catch-up funding, rising children’s mental health needs and food price inflation, we will see cuts to teaching assistants and other staff, and less money spent on books, computers and other essentials. That is especially true of schools in rural areas, which are disproportionately underfunded. Councillors in the south-west of England regularly point out to me the inequality of school funding in their region.

I urge the Minister to look at this area and ensure that children from lower-income backgrounds do not suffer academically and in their wellbeing because they are going hungry during the cost of living crisis. Will the Government please consider expanding the remit of free school meals beyond infants to the many other children who are struggling with hunger daily? Every child deserves to grow up happy and healthy regardless of their background.

I want to touch on childcare costs. I cannot better the speech by Stella Creasy, and Siobhain McDonagh also made some important points. Here in the UK, we have the highest childcare costs in the world. We know that parents up and down the country are struggling to pay their childcare fees, and the crippling costs mean that many are unable to return to work. Earlier this year, Pregnant Then Screwed, which has been mentioned several times, did a survey of 27,000 parents and found that two thirds are paying more for their childcare than for their rent or mortgage. That is simply unsustainable for many households. That has resulted in 43% of mothers stating that they are considering leaving their job, and two in five said that they are working fewer hours than they want because of childcare costs. Some 80% of families who responded to the survey expect their childcare costs to increase in the next six months. That worry is backed up by research undertaken by the children’s charity, Coram.

The Government are trying to address the issue by looking at tweaking the ratios. Quite apart from all the safety issues thrown up by reducing the number of staff to children, if the Government think that the savings will be passed on by childcare providers to parents, they are living in another world. I have a three-year-old son and am absolutely delighted that I will not have to keep paying childcare costs after September, when he starts school. I pay for 27 hours of childcare a week. When he turned three, I thought, “Happy days! Apparently, I get 30 hours of free childcare, so I don’t have to pay for it anymore.” No: I am still paying at least half the bill I was paying before he turned three.

As many others have pointed out, the funding the Government give for those so-called free hours does not begin to cover childcare providers’ costs, particularly in London and particularly given that they are rising. It is a complete red herring when Ministers say, “We’re going to tweak the ratios and that will help to save money and provide more childcare.” Childcare providers cannot afford to pass that on.

I am in the fortunate position of being able to afford to still pay the £500 a month, as opposed to the £1,000 a month I was paying before, for 27 hours of childcare. Many families simply cannot afford that. I am also in the fortunate position of having an amazing husband who will stay at home and look after my son for two days a week; many families are simply not in that position. I urge the Government to address this issue head on and, instead of tinkering with ratios, look at offering a fair deal for parents in terms of quality childcare provision to give children the best start in life.

I could not possibly sit down, Madam Deputy Speaker, without saying a couple of words about children’s and young people’s mental health. Many in this Chamber will know that I have been banging on about that since the day I got elected two and a half years ago. We hear time and again from Ministers about how much they are doing to support children’s mental health, given the spiralling numbers. I give credit to the Government: they have put money into this area. The problem is that we are not necessarily seeing the impact on the ground. That is why I was so disappointed in the last Session when Conservative Members talked out my private Member’s Bill on presenting an annual report to Parliament on children’s mental health.

We have a fragmented system. We have some mental health support provision— we need far more at an early stage in the community and in schools—and then we have the NHS provision. The data is not joined up. It is sparse and patchy: we do not see what it translates to per head at a local level and we do not see granular detail of what some of the waiting times are for treatment at a local level. If we want to measure the impact of what the Government are doing and what we need to bridge the gap when children need to be suicidal before they get mental health support, we must measure and track far, far better the provision being put in place for our children.