I beg to move,
That this House
has considered holiday hunger schemes.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and a privilege to have the chance to discuss such an important and timely issue.
Last week, children in the Potteries and across the country were home for half term. It would be nice to be able to use the phrase “enjoying their half term”, and I am sure that for many that was true, but not for all, because among their number there were children who returned to school yesterday hungry. For them the half term was not a week of theme parks and family outings, but of empty days and empty stomachs. That might sound shocking—indeed, it is—in a country as wealthy and as prosperous as ours, but it is all too common, and it is the awful reality of holiday hunger. I raised the issue in the House in my first question as a new Member in 2015, but neither time nor repetition have lessened the impact of the heartbreaking statistics that drove me to act.
Some 31% of children in my constituency are born into poverty. A third of parents across the country skip meals so that their children can eat during the school holidays. More than 1.3 million children on free school meals during term time find that that genuine lifeline is snatched away from them for 14 weeks of every year, with the summer holidays proving to be a potential nightmare. Behind each of those statistics lie the stories of those children: of wasted summers and wanting bodies; of children returning to school malnourished; of weeks spent in hunger and isolation because mum and dad cannot afford time off work or the extra meals that come from six weeks without the security of the classroom. There is no adjustment to the welfare system to compensate for the additional cost of 10 meals per week per child. With the cost of childcare during the school holidays, not to mention new school uniforms and other essentials, too many families are tipped into crisis.
It would be easy to dismiss the need for the schemes, but I have seen and heard the reality, not only from the examples that have been talked about nationally, including by the wonderful Lindsay Graham, but from seeing families who walk for miles to access the schemes in the summer months because they cannot afford the bus fare. I have seen mums queuing for more than an hour before the scheme was due to open so that they would be first in line; children who thought they needed to steal food from the holiday club so that they had something to eat that night; and grandparents at the end of their tether because childcare has fallen on them and they do not know how to stretch their pension to feed their grandchildren, and they do not want to tell their own children that they are struggling financially.
In my constituency, a wonderful scheme was provided by the Salvation Army this summer. We expected 30 children to turn up. The scheme opened at half past eleven. At 10 o’clock there were more than 30 people outside, but there was not enough food. The wonderful Tesco delivered food and its staff came to volunteer. During that one session more than 100 people turned up, which shows the level of demand that we have.
It is not just the heartbreaking stories that should us drive us to act. The impact on the long-term attainment of my wonderful children should be front and centre for the Education Minister. Not only does youth malnutrition impact on long-term health outcomes; it also has a direct impact on young people’s attainment, not least the fact that if young people stop using cutlery or writing implements for weeks at a time, they lose dexterity and muscle memory, which affects them on their return to school. Some of them, especially younger children, will not know how to hold a pen. Research suggests that the children who do not receive appropriate nutrition during the school holidays could return in September more than four weeks behind academically than they were in July, making it much harder for them and their families and for the teachers who have to help them catch up.