Child Food Poverty — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall on 24th May 2021.

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[Relevant documents: oral evidence taken before the Petitions Committee on 21 January, on Child Food Poverty, HC 1112. Written evidence: transcript of a conversation between the Chair of the Petitions Committee and Marcus Rashford MBE on 18 January, on Child Food Poverty, HC 1112. Correspondence with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, on Child Food Poverty, reported to the House on 18 December 2020, HC 1112. Correspondence with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions relating to child food poverty, reported to the House on 20 May.]

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 4:30 pm, 24th May 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.

I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address, which is westminsterhallclerks@parliament.uk. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee 4:31 pm, 24th May 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 554276, relating to child food poverty.

I had hoped to be present in Parliament to open the debate. However, there has unfortunately been severe disruption on the east coast main line between Newcastle and London, caused by cows on the line. I am grateful to House staff for facilitating my virtual contribution to this incredibly important debate.

Child food poverty has become an issue of huge public interest during the covid-19 pandemic, as is shown by the fact that 1.1 million people have signed this high-profile petition started by Marcus Rashford. I commend Marcus for his campaigning on the issue. He has used his immense platform and personal experience to bring this long-overlooked issue to the forefront of people’s minds, uniting fans of football and others behind his call today.

The terms “child food poverty” and “food insecurity” are used quite frequently now, so I will start by setting out exactly what we mean when we use those phrases; I think it might come as a shock to some people. A standard way to determine food insecurity, and one that is used by the UK Food Standards Agency and in many other countries, is to ask people three straightforward questions: have you had to skip meals because of a lack of money or not being able to access the food that you need? Have you gone hungry and not eaten for those same reasons? Have you gone for a day without eating for those same reasons?

The executive director of the Food Foundation told us in a survey from September that 14% of households with children fell into the moderate or the severe category following their responses to those questions. That is around 2.3 million children right here in the UK. Child food poverty is not about families who rely on low-cost ready meals or who lack access to healthy food; it is about children who are forced to skip meals and go hungry because their parents or carers cannot afford to feed them.

It is a shocking reality that we live in a country where there is no shortage of food—only a shortage of money to pay for it. That is an incredibly serious issue. Although the unprecedented circumstances of the last 14 months have certainly made things worse and put a spotlight on childhood poverty as never before, the problem was with us before any of us had ever heard of covid-19. Sadly, I fear it will be with us long after we come out of lockdown.

The petition has three key asks of Government: provide meals and activities during all school holidays, expand free school meals to all under-16s when a parent or guardian is in receipt of universal credit or an equivalent benefit, and increase the value of healthy start vouchers to at least £4.25 a week, which has already happened, and expand the scheme.

The decision to provide £221 million of funding for the holiday activities and food programme during Easter, summer and Christmas 2021 was very welcome, though it must be said that it took heavy cajoling from Marcus Rashford and from campaigners and colleagues in the House to make that happen. It is still not clear, however, whether the Government expect to make that funding a long-term commitment beyond 2021. Will the Minister confirm that today?

Until this year, local authorities had to engage in competitive bidding for a £9 million pot for holiday activities and food funding, which covered only around 50,000 children in England. That gave no certainty to low-income families, and there can be no going back to it. Also, the Government have not directly responded to the petitioners’ request to expand the eligibility criteria for free school meals and healthy start vouchers. I am happy to be corrected by the Minister, but it seems clear to me that there are currently no plans to do that.

During our evidence session with Marcus Rashford, he explained that from his own experience

“it’s impossible to learn and to develop” in a school environment “if you’re hungry” and do not have the right foods. He emphasised that food is important not just for effective learning, but for removing the anxiety of not knowing where your next meal is coming from. We also heard that up to 1.2 million children could be living in poverty but not be eligible for free school meals, so they are forced to rely on poor-quality food or go hungry. The Trussell Trust told us that during the year before the pandemic hit, it distributed 1.9 million food parcels.

We also heard that people with illnesses and disabilities are massively over-represented at food banks because the benefits system is not catching them. Will the Minister explain why the Government are not looking at expanding the free school meal eligibility criteria, as the petitioners ask, given all the evidence of the families who face food insecurity and who are forced to rely on food banks, but are missed by the current criteria?

Specifically on healthy start, the Government increased the value of the vouchers from £3.10 a week to £4.25 from April, meeting a key ask of the petitioners, which is welcome, but there are real concerns about trends in uptake. National statistics are not available, but figures provided in response to a written parliamentary question that I tabled show that uptake has declined in every north-east local authority over the last four years, even as child poverty has been increasing in every one of them. In the year before the pandemic, uptake fell by more than 15% in Newcastle. The Government plan to replace the physical vouchers with a digitised version, so what assurances can the Minister give that the lowest-income parents will be able to access digital vouchers?

One of the issues with uptake is that local authorities are charged with identifying and promoting the vouchers to local families, but owing to the roll-out of universal credit they no longer have access to all the data that they once had, and I understand the Department for Work and Pensions will not share the universal credit data. The chief executive of Tower Hamlets recently gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee and suggested that the DWP should use universal credit data automatically to passport families they know are eligible for healthy start vouchers, but that is not happening at the moment, perhaps because the vouchers are the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Care. It seems ludicrous that such bureaucracy is preventing children from accessing healthy food, so will the Minister commit herself to raising the matter with colleagues and getting it sorted?

That brings me to a broader theme that is seriously hampering efforts to get to grips with the issue—the lack of clarity on who exactly is responsible for the Government’s policy on child poverty. We are grateful that the Minister will respond to the debate, but she is at the Department for Education. How does that fit with the Work and Pensions Secretary’s recent letter to the Petitions Committee in which she said that the DWP is co-ordinating the

“cross-Government approach to tackling poverty”?

How does that co-ordination work in practice? What process do Departments go through to review the role and effectiveness of targeted measures such as free school meals that fall within the remit of another Department?

The Government have, with some cajoling, implemented several welcome, temporary measures to support the families struggling with the cost of food. It should not have taken that level of campaigning and pressure to shame the Government into action, but I think we would all agree that normalising emergency food aid as the primary way to deal with the effects of child poverty is not something we should aspire to as a country. That is stigmatising and it is not sustainable.

What Marcus Rashford and the 1.1 million people who signed his petition want is a long-term plan to support families facing food poverty, over and above those temporary measures, because parts of our country were facing a growing child poverty crisis before we had ever heard of covid-19.

It is not enough for Ministers to refer vaguely to a levelling-up agenda whenever child poverty is brought up. It lacks definition and, as far as I can tell, it has no metrics by which we can track performance. We hear a lot about getting parents into work as a solution, but most parents of children living in poverty are already in work.

Marcus Rashford said he started the petition to “give families hope” and so that they could see that “the Government are listening”. So, I ask the Minister, are the Government listening? There is no shortage of food in this country, but for far too many there is a shortage of money to buy it. If we really want to tackle child poverty, that is what we need to address.

That will require action on unemployment, insecure work, welfare reform, education and social inequality, and more, but the first step is for the Government genuinely to commit to tackling the issue, with no more empty promises, re-presenting of facts or redefining of parameters. Only the Government can solve this by working across Departments and using every lever they have to create a better present and future for children living in food poverty. Will the Minister, on behalf of the Government, commit to that today?

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

The debate is very heavily subscribed. It is not my method to impose a time limit, but if Members kept their comments to under three minutes—preferably to two and a half minutes —everyone would get in. You will be able to see a clock, which will help you to know when it is advisable to finish. If people take too long, those at the end will not get in.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 4:41 pm, 24th May 2021

May I start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone? I congratulate Catherine McKinnell, who is Chair of the Petitions Committee, on which I am proud to serve, on securing the debate and thank her for her introductory remarks.

During my career as a teacher, I was responsible, as a head of year, for the wellbeing of hundreds of children, so the issue we are debating is incredibly close to my heart. From my eight years as a teacher, I know how important it is for children to get the support they need and make the most of their lives. That is why, when we look back at the pandemic, we should think about the fact that, so far, the Government have issued over £380 million-worth of vouchers that have been redeemed for free school meals, which was entirely the right thing to do, particularly as children were not in school as we had asked them to stay at home.

We should also think about the £170 million given out through the covid winter grant scheme, which did a fantastic amount of work across the Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke area, and the uplift of standard universal credit weekly allowance by £20, which has been extended until the end of September 2021.

The petition has gathered a mass of national support. I want to focus on the holiday activities and food programme, of which I am a huge advocate. In my constituency, I am lucky to have the Hubb Foundation, run by Carol Shanahan and Adam Yates, a former professional football player. Since 2017, it has gone above and beyond, introducing programmes to ensure kids have activities that improve their mental and physical health, and receive a meal during the day. It works closely with schools to target those children who are most in need.

I believe we can also help by shortening the school summer holiday break. A report I wrote for Onward, which I know the Minister has seen, estimates that on average UK families spend £133 per week in childcare. Reducing the six-week break to four weeks would put £266 back in parents’ pockets. That would help to cover the cost of the summer break and help to prevent the widening of the attainment gap, which we know happens in the long summer holiday, particularly between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers.

In Stoke-on-Trent, we received over £1 million from the covid winter grant scheme, which helped 18,640 children through free school meal vouchers over Christmas and February half-term. Money also went to the Hubb Pots project, run by the Hubb Foundation, which provided up to 150 families with a slow cooker, ingredients and recipe cards for one meal a day for 12 weeks. Such action will ensure that families can continue to benefit independently and in the long term, because education is so important. We need better home economics education in our schools, so that children understand how to cook on a budget, how to prepare food and how to store it, so that food lasts longer in the fridge and the freezer. That will go a long way to ensuring that those young people have better access.

I thank the Minister for coming to Stoke-on-Trent, where we received £1.4 million for holiday activities. She visited Ball Green Primary School with Councillor Dave Evans and Councillor Abi Brown to witness the fantastic work of the Hubb Foundation, which provided 140 activity sessions across the city of Stoke-on-Trent—one of the largest programmes in the country. It was brilliant to see the confidence that the children were gaining—not only in the skills they were learning, but in the cooking that they were learning from.

I send another big shout out to Port Vale Foundation, which has given more than 300,000 meals to families throughout the pandemic. It won the English football league’s community club of the year award—rightly so, because in Stoke-on-Trent we wrap our arms around every single man, woman and child in our city, and we take very seriously the care and support that they need.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck 4:45 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and I thank my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell for leading this very important debate.

Can I begin by saying that child poverty is a political choice? It could be eradicated within weeks if there was the political will. We live in the sixth-largest economy in the world, but the wellbeing of our kids is not a priority. We have to ask ourselves why that is the case. Why has it taken time for the Government to come forward with legislation on the right to food—the right to eat? We know that the Government should be ashamed that kids are going hungry, food banks are on the increase, schools’ food budgets are continually being cut, and class sizes continue to get larger. Unemployment is on the rise, and precarious work is more common now than it has ever been. There is a lack of quality housing, and mass evictions are just around the corner. Fire and rehire is running wild, and the benefits system is not fit for purpose. Soon, the £20 uplift in universal credit will be cut. What an absolute mess.

I understand better than most that we should never believe what we read in the newspapers, but we heard only this weekend about a senior Member of Parliament getting £27,000-worth of takeaways delivered to his house by a delivery driver on a hired pushbike. That figure is utterly amazing. It is more than the average yearly salary of many of my constituents, some of whom have more than just one job in order to make ends meet. For the record, the MP voted against free school meals to feed our kids.

We live in a society where 4.3 million children—31%—live in poverty. That figure is up 200,000 from the previous year, and up half a million over five years. Some 37% of children in the north-east live in poverty, which is the second-highest rate in the UK, behind London. The north-east saw the UK’s steepest increase in child poverty—a rise from 26% in 2014-15 to 37% in 2019-20. All 12 north-east councils are in the top 20 such local authorities in the UK; there have been huge increases.

Let me reiterate that child poverty is a political choice. Despite the tiring and monotonous rhetoric about levelling up, the Government have shown no sign of tackling the endemic child poverty in left-behind communities across the country.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich 4:49 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I will keep my remarks brief. I would very quickly like to point out that I commend Marcus Rashford for his campaign. He has clearly increased the profile of the issue and shone a spotlight on it, but we must not lose sight of the fact that when the food poverty strategy was commissioned, it was already tasked with the job of looking at many of the things that have come to light and that the petition calls for.

I think back to summer 2020, when my hon. Friend the Minister visited Ipswich because we were a pilot scheme for the holiday activities and food programme. During that visit, she said that her ambition was to extend that programme across the country, and she also spoke about the food strategy. The idea that all this support was cobbled together at the last minute because of Marcus Rashford is false. Although his role needs to be highlighted, it is incorrect to say that was not part of the Government’s plan, because it absolutely was.

When we look at the final copy of the food poverty strategy, we see that many of its recommendations have been delivered, such as expanding the holiday activities and food programme, and increasing the amount of the Healthy Start voucher. The Government asked the food poverty programme to look at all of that, and that is what has been delivered.

I have respect for all hon. Members across this House, whatever their political persuasion—whether on the left or the right—and I do not think there is a single one of them who does not care passionately about the welfare of disadvantaged children in our constituencies. They will be hurt by the idea that young people are struggling—perhaps more now than before—because of the pressures of the pandemic. In my constituency there is significant deprivation, and many young people depend on those vouchers and on that support. But it is important to recognise that most Governments around the world, whether on the left or the right, have this problem. The idea that it is a political choice is completely wrong. That is the politics of the playground.

To solve this problem, we have to work together. The idea that Conservative MPs are callous figures who do not care about our young people and are starving our young children is, as I say, the politics of the playground. I hope that we have left those ideas in the last year. Look at where we are now, having rolled out the new holiday activities and food programme. We should look to work together in partnership.

Conservative Members did not vote to starve children; we voted on a non-binding Opposition day motion, which was followed by the most ambitious package of support ever provided by a Government in this area: £170 million went to grant schemes; £2 million of that went to Suffolk; and £800,000 was spent providing support via vouchers. That left £1.2 million for other interventions, such as helping families in need to get white goods or to pay their heating bills. It is a mischaracterisation to say that this is about political choice; it is a reality we face, and it that will be addressed only if we work together across party. There is not a Member in this place who is not pained by the struggles faced by some families and young people in greatest need. Let us work together, support the Government where they deserve it and challenge them when needed.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland) 4:52 pm, 24th May 2021

This year alone, Renfrewshire food bank has provided more than 9,000 food parcels. Of those parcels, 2,500 went to children. According to the Government’s own statistics, the number of children in my constituency living in poverty is 2,598. I mention that because, comparing the Government’s figure with the number of food parcels that the food bank provided to children, we see a difference of only eight, yet this Government maintain with a straight face that there is no link between their policies and the rise in food bank dependency. There is clear uptake by people who never expected to be dependent on its services during the pandemic, particularly those who have been left out of any Government support.

The reality is that poverty can pounce on anyone at any time. Once it seeps into someone’s life, the ramifications are painful, debilitating and long-lasting, both physically and mentally. Thanks to our Scottish Parliament, we are seeing some relief in Scotland, where we already have free school meals and are now seeing that extended to all children in Scotland. The difference in direction of our Governments could not be starker: while the Scottish Government set a target to eradicate child poverty in statute, the UK Government have scrapped targets altogether.

Since I was elected, we have had 29 debates on child poverty. This is the 30th. I am tired of this Government’s indifference to the consequences of their actions. I am tired of the Scottish Government having to spend millions protecting people from policies that they did not vote for. I am tired of local unpaid volunteers having to plug the holes gouged out by this Government. But I am still nowhere near as tired as the children living in poverty, because, most of all, poverty is exhausting.

In my maiden speech, I said:

“Food banks are not part of the welfare state—they are a symbol that the welfare state is failing.—[Official Report, 14 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 775.]

Six years on, what has changed? The fact that this Government knowingly force people to be dependent on the generosity of strangers to literally eat is barbaric. We cannot punish people out of poverty; we have to support and empower them. People in poverty are not the problem; the Government who ignore them are. And if this Government still will not act after 30 debates, then it is time they moved aside for those of us who will.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner 4:55 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. In the opening speech we heard about the fact that in this country—one of the six wealthiest in the world, and a country that has among the cheapest food in the world—any child or any family should not face a problem with food poverty, and I entirely agree. As Members of Parliament, we need to share our challenges and our ideas about how we implement an effective policy solution to that fact. I recall how, during my time in local government, the last Labour Government included councils such as mine to support the development of local food banks. They recognised that for many families, despite there being cash loans available, a relatively—at the time—generous benefit system and widespread access to free school meals, that support simply was not reaching all children.

We must also recognise that the implementation of policies intended to address child poverty has not always resulted in a material change in their circumstances and, in particular, the circumstances of the most vulnerable children. I commend the Government and the Minister for responding not by taking a one-size-fits-all policy approach through free school meals, but by providing financial support to local authorities. It is those local authorities that best know the circumstances of their area and those of their most vulnerable families, and are therefore best placed to ensure that the support that is provided makes a material difference to the daily life of those children. It would simply be a disgrace if we were to take an approach where we implement a policy and pat ourselves on the back, but that policy has not put a meal in the belly of a hungry child, or helped a family facing chaotic and difficult circumstances to turn their lives around.

Over the years, through the approaches we have taken to everything from the troubled families project under the coalition Government to the initiation of the Sure Start programme under the last Labour Government, we have learned that it is about having that local knowledge, experience and understanding of circumstances. I commend the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government for the policies they have implemented, because in the context of Scotland those things are right. However, we also need to recognise that in England, where there is not the equivalent—an English Parliament—it is our local authorities that know the circumstances in their communities and are best placed to make the crucial difference.

Certainly, having visited my local food bank and spoken to people in my local authorities who have been implementing the Government’s response, running the programmes to tackle the risk of holiday hunger and engaging with schools, this element of flexibility—providing funding so that local authorities can make the difference—has been much appreciated. It has demonstrated that some families are far more needy than we might have thought, and others have been able to turn their situation around with a relatively small amount of support.

As my hon. Friend Tom Hunt highlighted, it is right that we recognise that there is no real party political disagreement about the need for action on this; there is total cross-party agreement. We need to make sure that we have effective policy responses that make a difference for the better in the lives of our most vulnerable children in this country. We need to focus on what we agree on, and in my view, that is what the Government’s policy approach to date has entirely been about.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 4:59 pm, 24th May 2021

I welcome this opportunity to highlight rising food insecurity among children. Relative child poverty has risen sharply. The Resolution Foundation found that nearly half of families with three or more children were in relative poverty after housing costs in 2019-20, and the family resources survey, which covered food security for the first time this March, shows that 43% of universal credit claimants have low or very low food security, so we have a big problem. In the year to last March, the Trussell Trust distributed 1 million emergency food parcels to children. The Independent Food Aid Network, with food banks outside the Trussell Trust, told the Work and Pensions Committee this month that demand last year was more than double that of the year before.

Troubled by those developments, the Work and Pensions Committee set up an inquiry on children in poverty. Our next public evidence session will be on Wednesday. Last December, Ben Levinson, headteacher of Kensington Primary School in my constituency, told the Committee that the plight of families with no recourse to public funds and other pressures compelled the school to set up a trust to provide food packages and parcels for the needy. Kellogg’s has told us that 18% of schools have started a food bank since the pandemic began.

These problems in childhood lead to attainment and health problems later. The University of Liverpool health inequalities team told our inquiry that it has repeatedly found strong evidence of a causal relationship between child poverty and

“mental health problems, cognitive disability, overweight and obesity, and longstanding illness.”

In 2014, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reported that poorer children were far less likely to achieve high levels of educational attainment. Dr Kitty Stewart from the London School of Economics recently told our Committee that

“money itself makes a difference to children’s outcomes”,

partly because poverty causes stress and anxiety among parents, making it harder for them

“to focus on children’s needs, listen to them, help with homework and so on.”

I support the Sutton Trust’s call for universities to have access to free school meals information, so that they can take account of these issues in admissions decisions. Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner, who is due to give evidence to the Committee again on Wednesday, has called for a return to better joined-up working between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. We need a clear Government focus on tackling the growing problem of child poverty.

The extension of free school meals at the start of the pandemic to families with no recourse to public funds was exactly the right thing to do. I hope that will be made permanent. I know that the Minister’s Department is looking at that, together with the Home Office. It would be very helpful if she could let us know today where that review has reached.

Photo of Ben Everitt Ben Everitt Conservative, Milton Keynes North 5:02 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to follow Stephen Timms, and to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone, I think for the first time. I give the customary recognition and thanks to Catherine McKinnell, who opened the debate.

I think I need to start by saying that wanting all children to have access to nutritious and filling meals is not a party political issue. Not wanting children to go hungry does not define which political party we are in, but how the political debate has been conducted around the issue sadly has. As of March this year, our data highlights that 6% of children live in households with very low food security. That does not mean that 6% of children are going hungry all the time, but it does mean there is a risk that they might.

This may upset some people, but there has been a lot of discussion about what levelling up actually means, and I think in the context of this debate it is appropriate. For me, it is all about equality of opportunity. It is about the opportunity for someone to move their family and their children out of that low food security category. That is why it is something that we should focus on. Jobs, income and security for families are our mission, and our mission is clear.

This is an excellent petition, and I am pleased that we are debating it. It is right to highlight this issue, and it calls for three clear things: expanding access to free school meals; providing meals and activities during holidays, in order to stop holiday hunger; and increasing the value of and expanding the Healthy Start scheme. I thank Marcus Rashford for highlighting the challenges facing families across the United Kingdom, and I agree with his point that it is hard for a child to learn at school if they are hungry.

First, on expanding access to free school meals, the critical point that we need to consider is that the view has been taken to support not only children but their whole families during this crisis. The role of the family is important in our society—it is about jobs, income and security for families.

Secondly, on providing meals and activities during holidays, the holiday activities and food programme has provided healthy food and enriching activities to disadvantaged children, and it has been expanded in England this year. Supporting children in the summer holidays means that we are supporting families and relieving them of the burden of childcare in either cost or time, so that parents can focus on work.

Thirdly, Healthy Start scheme payments have increased, which is a good thing, and the Government are committed to increasing the funding for Healthy Start vouchers across the period.

This is an important topic. Nobody here wants to see children go hungry. We are making progress, and we all agree that there is more work to be done. I look forward to working collaboratively with colleagues to ensure that our ambition to level up opportunity across the United Kingdom can be measured in a real reduction in food insecurity for families.

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead 5:06 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate, although it is a source of shame on this country that we are having to discuss this issue at all. The fact that over 900,000 food parcels were delivered to children in the last year, in one of the richest countries in the world, is a national scandal, and responsibility lies squarely at the feet of this Government.

This issue has a special resonance in my constituency, where over a third of all children are living in poverty. In fact, there are few communities in the country more left behind than the north end of Birkenhead. Here, a male resident can expect to live 11 fewer healthy years than the national average. The typical household income after housing costs is just £16,000, and over half of all children are living in poverty.

The pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but it is particularly bad for young people living in north Birkenhead and the many communities like it. For too long, they have borne the brunt of an austerity agenda that has decimated frontline services. For many of these children, a school dinner is the only hot meal they can rely on in a day, and with schools closed and unemployment soaring, covid-19 has plunged many of them into deprivation and food poverty.

These young people desperately needed this Government to be true to their word and ensure that no child was left behind as we battle this virus, but time and again this Government have had to be shamed into taking even the smallest steps to support these children, whether that is extending free school meals over the summer holidays or maintaining even temporarily the £20 uplift to universal credit. I welcome the Minister’s presence here today, but she should know that defending this Government’s disgraceful record on child hunger is an almost impossible task.

As public health restrictions are eased, I look forward to visiting schools across my constituency. I will be meeting the dedicated educators and support staff who everyday bear witness to the devastating impact that child hunger has on their students and, of course, I will be speaking to the young people who sit at the very heart of this debate. When those children ask me why we have a Parliament and a Government, I would like nothing better than to be able to say, “To look after you,” but in all conscience, I cannot do so while this Government continue to let so many children languish in poverty and hunger.

I urge the Minister to do everything she can to ensure that the blight of child food poverty is stamped out once and for all. That means listening to organisations such as the Trussell Trust and making the £20 uplift to universal credit permanent. It means heeding the calls of my hon. Friend Ian Byrne and incorporating the right to food in the national food strategy. With 72% of all children struggling with food poverty having at least one parent in employment, it means delivering on the promise of an employment Bill that can end, at long last, in-work poverty.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland 5:09 pm, 24th May 2021

There is no political divide in the desire to grapple with the perennial issues of childhood poverty and child hunger. We can describe child poverty as a perennial since the definition of it is a relative term—a child growing up in a household whose income is less than 60% of the national median. It is as much a commentary on the spread of household earnings as an indicator of want. But childhood hunger is an absolute—either a child is hungry or not. And no child in this country should be hungry.

The reasons for childhood hunger are complex and it will hamper our ability to address those causes properly if we choose, for political campaigning reasons, to over-simplify them. They include unemployment, a sudden change of family income, chaotic finances, drug dependency, poor access to good-quality food shops, poor food education, the breakdown of relationships and low pay in employment. I do not have time today to go into the raft of Government measures that have supported children and families through covid and beyond. I will focus on overall income, because if these things that I have mentioned are the causes of child hunger, then the solution to the majority of them is to focus on the overall income of low-income families.

I say that because providing for one’s children is at the heart of what it is to be a parent. If the state takes responsibility away, it also takes away dignity and self-reliance— it diminishes parenthood. As a parent myself, one of the key life lessons I try to give my own children is that of personal responsibility, so we should be wary of intervening in such a way as to undermine the ability of parents to do the same—storing up, as it will, trouble for the next generation of parents.

The Government must ensure that employment truly is the answer to food insecurity, and for that to be the case employment simply needs to pay enough. I am glad that it was a Conservative Government that introduced a national living wage and it is right that the Government should build on the early foundations to increase the national living wage over a timeframe that allows businesses to adapt their models to accommodate it. This year, the national living wage has increased above inflation yet again to £8.91 per hour and it will continue to grow until it reaches £10.50 by 2024—two thirds of median earnings, which is enough to lift families above child poverty, as it is defined.

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend David Simmonds when he says that local authorities are best placed to help the most vulnerable families. However, universal credit, as a stepping-stone to readily available employment at a wage that is enough to get on with the basics of life, is the policy that will help to lift most families out of food insecurity.

I look forward to the publication of part 2 of the national food security paper and I welcome the Government’s undertaking to produce a White Paper within six weeks of its delivery. However, when seeking to provide long-term solutions to child hunger, I hope that the review will bear in mind the value and responsibility of parenthood, and make sure that its recommendations support parents in their role as the most important teachers of the next generation.

Photo of Beth Winter Beth Winter Labour, Cynon Valley 5:13 pm, 24th May 2021

A staggering 4.3 million children in the UK currently live in households below the poverty line, according to the End Child Poverty coalition, and of the four UK nations Wales has the highest level of child poverty. In my constituency of Cynon Valley, 35% of children live in poverty, well above the UK average of 30%.

The rising levels of inequality, poverty and hardship in our country are no better illustrated than by the shockingly increasing prevalence of food poverty in the UK. It has been estimated that 2.4 million children in Britain are at risk of malnutrition as a result of living in poverty. Words cannot describe how incensed I am by that, and we should all be filled with anger about the fact that we in the UK, one of the richest nations in the world, have allowed this situation to arise. We should be ashamed that food banks have been normalised in this country; it is a political choice and a shocking indictment of us.

The benefits of free nutritious school meals for children are well known: the health and wellbeing of our children; improved educational attainment; and boosting local economies. I must commend the Welsh Government for the work they have done to date on tackling child poverty. We are the only country in the UK to have a scheme providing universal free breakfasts in primary schools in Wales, and the Welsh Government are the first in the UK to provide such provision during school holidays, which has now been extended until Easter 2022. And that has been achieved in spite of decades of underfunding and austerity from Tory Governments.

However, more can and must be done throughout the United Kingdom, drawing on the excellent and tireless campaigning of organisations here in Wales—the anti-poverty coalition, Child Poverty Action Group and the Bevan Foundation—and especially at a UK level on the work of my hon. Friend Ian Byrne, Baroness Chakrabarti and fan-supported food banks in Liverpool. I call on every nation in the UK to enshrine the right to food in law, which could include an immediate expansion of eligibility for free school meals to all children in families receiving universal credit or equivalent benefits; a move towards the provision of universal nutritious free school breakfast and lunch for every child in compulsory education; and the school kitchens to become community kitchens; welfare benefit system changes that give people security and dignity, including but not limited to a permanent £20 uplift to universal credit, which should be extended to legacy benefits; and piloting universal basic income following the lead from Welsh Government.

I recognise the cost implications, but they are not insurmountable. We can afford it; we are the fifth richest country in the world. Why not introduce a wealth tax—a windfall tax—on covid profits and end tax evasion and avoidance by the rich? There is another way. We need to get our priorities right as a country, and I am determined to do everything I can in collaboration with others to end the scourge of child food poverty.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 5:16 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, in a debate on one of the most important issues facing our country. We Members of Parliament will rarely debate anything as pertinent and pressing as child poverty.

We already know that the rich list has come out this week and shown that the wealth of the richest of our society has increased exponentially while tens of thousands of families saw their income slashed. I must disagree with many Members today—this is a political issue. Among the figures which stood out in the rich list was the fact that the UK’s richest person, Sir Leonard Blavatnik, saw his wealth increase by £7.2 billion last year to some £23 billion, in the same period that 4.3 million children languished in poverty. It is not just the lack of money in the pocket, it is the terrible stigma of child poverty. The fact that one individual can gain so much wealth so quickly while millions exist in abject poverty is frankly obscene and reminiscent of Dickensian levels of poverty from a bygone era which has no place in modern Britain.

Even more harrowing is the fact that these levels of poverty are not just the result of Brexit or the covid-19 pandemic. Figures released in March by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation show that poverty among children had been a rising trend for six years prior to the terrible pandemic: 31% of all children growing up in poverty, an increase of 600,000 since 2013-14. In my borough of Haringey, huge levels of inequality are in sharp focus—an increase of 1,748 kids becoming eligible for school meals since the autumn, adding to the total number of over 8,000 or 20% of all children. In the same report, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that three-quarters of children growing up in poverty are from a working family.

What is the solution? First, the living wage should be paid by all employers who can afford it. Why cannot the big supermarkets pay the living wage, whether £10.85 in London or £9.50 outside London? Secondly, we need more controls over ever-rising energy prices in our homes. We should keep transport affordable. Why should water bills keep going up month after month? Let us keep them below inflation.

The most expensive childcare in Europe is in the UK. Discretionary housing payment cuts mean people go into unnecessary debt. There is more debt around unaffordable buy-now pay-later schemes which are promoted all over the place, without any control on their advertising.

I am disappointed that the Government have done away with the industrial strategy. We need growth in the economy, higher wages, and more provision of universal things. The reason everyone loves the NHS is because it is universal. Let us bring in universal school meals, as my hon. Friend Beth Winter mentioned. Let’s bring in universal housing, where we can, and really address the issue with some energy.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington 5:19 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell on securing this important debate. I also pay tribute to Marcus Rashford. I have no doubt that if he had not lent his support to the campaign, it would not have moved the Conservative politicians in the way it did. I also want to single out for special praise my good and hon. Friend Ian Byrne who has championed the right to food campaign and for its inclusion in the national food strategy.

This debate is particularly timely, as it comes after the publication of shocking new data about child poverty in the north-east. Last Thursday I attended a virtual briefing that was organised by the End Child Poverty coalition and the North East Child Poverty Commission and that revealed that in the three years before the covid-19 pandemic, the north-east had the second highest rate of child poverty in the UK, having an average of 37% compared with the UK average of just over 30%. The north-east saw the biggest increase in child poverty from 2014-15 to 2019-20. It rose by more than one third, from 26% to 37%, meaning that it has risen from just below the UK average to be the second highest rate of any region. More than one third of that increase came between 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Let me say to Conservative Members who have spoken in the debate that this is the defining issue of our time, and it is not happenstance that so many children have been driven into poverty; it is a direct result of Government policies. Closing Sure Start centres and depriving local authorities of the means with which to support children are deliberate policies of this Government, and this is the consequence.

Of the 20 parliamentary constituencies across the United Kingdom with the highest increases in child poverty from 2014-15 to 2019-20, more than four fifths are in the north-east. Child poverty in my constituency of Easington rose 10.7 percentage points, from 26% to 37%.

Like other MPs, I pay tribute to the volunteers and those who have stepped into the gaps, but they are trying to paper over the cracks of Government and their agencies failing to do their job. Urgent action is needed. That means supporting children by boosting child-focused support such as child benefit, which has lost 23% of its value since 2010. We need to reverse the planned £20 cut to universal credit. To help struggling families, we should extend free school meals to all families in receipt of universal-credit-equivalent benefits, legacy benefits, and to those with no recourse to public funds.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member) 5:22 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I commend Catherine McKinnell for securing this important debate. We all know that this Tory Government are never short of, or far from, a scandal, but this petition raises one of the most shameful scandals—4.3 million children living and growing up in poverty in the UK. That is nine pupils in every classroom of 30. It is an absolutely outrageous statistic for one of the world’s richest countries.

The Government can start to address this woeful record today by expanding access to free school meals to every child under 16 who currently lives below the poverty line, and by implementing the recommendations from the national food strategy to provide meals and activities during holiday periods to stop children going hungry. I must commend North Lanarkshire Council in my own constituency for its groundbreaking Club 365, which facilitates play and nutrition throughout holiday periods, and has been in place for the past couple of years.

Furthermore, the Government could increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers and expand that scheme today. Tens of thousands of families in the United Kingdom every year are not getting enough food to live on and are being forced to turn to non-state, charitable aid. Of course, we see the rise in food banks across every constituency in the UK.

It can be no coincidence that this new phenomenon of growing hunger has emerged alongside a wide range of draconian policies from the UK Government and the restructuring of the country’s welfare system since 2010. With reductions in welfare support year on year, the number of people, including families with children, going hungry is rising at an alarming rate and constitutes a troubling development in the world’s fifth largest economy.

New figures published by the Department for Work and Pensions on household food insecurity showed that between 2010 and last year, 19% of children lived in households with either low or very low food security, and of those children in poverty, 38% are in households with low or very low food security. That is new and stark data, and it is a stark reminder that child poverty has been rising in every part of the UK, even before the pandemic struck. The challenge now for the Government is to take every possible step to ensure that no child is born into a life of poverty.

Unlike the Tory Government, the Scottish Government have taken bold steps to address child poverty. The introduction of our new Scottish child payment, which is unique across the UK, has been described by many anti-child poverty charities as absolutely game changing in the fight against child poverty. The payment, worth £40 every four weeks, has already benefited thousands of families on low incomes in Scotland. Additionally, the Scottish Government are providing support worth around £5,000 by the time a child turns six through the Best Start grant, Best Start foods and the Scottish child payment.

Time is beyond us, so I will just conclude by saying that the UK Government need to recognise that endemic poverty is neither accidental nor inevitable. Social security is a fundamental and inalienable human right. The safety net that it provides has never been more important, and nor has it ever been more scandalous and unnecessary that so many children in our society are continuing to go hungry.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I call Ian Byrne. Please, no more than two and a half minutes.

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Labour, Liverpool, West Derby 5:26 pm, 24th May 2021

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and I thank my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell for introducing the petition to the House.

Today we are debating the need to end child poverty, how we have reached this point and how we can fix it, because of the efforts of a footballer from Manchester who experienced poverty growing up and never forgot. I pay tribute to Marcus Rashford for his transformative work, which has put child poverty right at the top of the political agenda and which has resonated with and united people across the country. In Liverpool, West Derby, 6,487 children live in poverty—a heartbreaking 34%. That figure, which is from the Child Poverty Action Group, represents the level before the pandemic, and the effects of the virus and attempts to control it have hit the poorest hardest in terms of jobs and income. The picture is likely to be even worse now.

As parliamentarians, we must act, and we must push for systemic change. The Government must tackle the root causes of food poverty, such as the current system of universal credit and legacy benefits, which we know provides nowhere near enough support for families to afford food, and which has built-in delays that leave people with no means of support for weeks on end. We must tackle the current system that led to the Government initially denying children free school meals during the holidays—a system that has still not fully met the asks of the petition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North outlined in her speech.

Part of that systemic change includes putting our “right to food” submission into the national food strategy, and then into legislation, so that the Government are obliged by law to ensure nobody goes hungry, and so that they are never able to deny children their right to food again. We should guarantee universal free school meals, including a breakfast and a lunch, for every child in this country. Universal provision would avoid the bureaucracy and stigma of means testing our school-age children and would help all to achieve their full potential.

As I have said, we need systemic change in order to achieve the end of child food poverty. The great Nelson Mandela said:

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

The time for sticking plasters is over, and the Government must listen to the voices of the 4.3 million children in poverty. That is when the heartbreaking figures will shame the Government.

Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:28 pm, 24th May 2021

I was appalled to hear some of the earlier speakers suggest that this is not a political issue. I want to thank Marcus Rashford and the 1.1 million people who have signed the petition. When it needs 1.1 million people to sign a petition to call for a debate, it absolutely is political. We are one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Despite this, UNICEF—an organisation that is responsible for humanitarian aid to children worldwide—launched an emergency response to the UK. There would have been no need for that if this issue was not political. There would have been no need for 1.1 million people to have signed the petition.

In the year 2020, Bradford Metropolitan Food Bank gave out 20,000 emergency food parcels, including to constituents in my constituency of Bradford West. That represents a 67% increase. The injustice of child food poverty cannot be permanently addressed by emergency food parcels and generous donations from local businesses such as those in Bradford West and across the country. The Government must commit to eradicating child food poverty, and should not go ahead with their plans to scrap the £20 universal credit uplift. I have said it before, and I will say it again: it is clear that a cut to the £20 increase risks plunging children and families into food poverty and further destitution. It is just not good enough. The Child Poverty Action Group has stated that lifting the two-child limit and the benefit cap would lift hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty, and an increase to child benefit would substantially reduce poverty.

The Government cannot allow children to bear the burden of the pandemic while people are losing their jobs. People need food security. Jerome Mayhew talked about the dignity of parents. If the Government want to give real dignity, they should reverse the austerity, give people what they are entitled to, build back, and level up properly so that people such as those in my constituency do not continue to suffer because of the Government’s failures.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I am grateful for the self-discipline that Members have exercised in this very important debate, but we have run over slightly to get every Back-Bencher in. Front-Benchers, could you take one minute off your maximum allowance? I call Patrick Gibson. [Interruption.] Sorry—Patricia. I read what is in front of me. I apologise.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 5:31 pm, 24th May 2021

I have been misgendered in better places than this, Mr Bone. I am delighted to participate in this debate, and I thank Catherine McKinnell for her comprehensive exposition of the shocking issue of child poverty. It should be a cause of shame and embarrassment to us all that, in 2021, across the UK some of our children are still going hungry.

It is clear that the current welfare system simply does not fulfil its avowed aim, which is to assist those who are able to work to re-enter the job market. It seems that the route to achieving that has been woefully misunderstood. Otherwise, there would be no five-week wait for support. There would be no so-called advance payments, which those who eventually receive universal credit, and who are already on the breadline, are forced to pay back, throwing them further into financial distress and consequently further away from the job market. No reputable lender would lend money to those living on welfare because they do not have sufficient means to repay, yet the DWP is content to lend money to claimants in the full knowledge that repayment will cause even further financial distress and reduce their means of returning to the job market. Why on earth would someone design a system in that way?

As a great admirer of Charles Dickens, I think it is worth remembering that he criticised the new Poor Law of 1834 as being unable to elevate the conditions of the poor, and was concerned that the law pushed the poor further into poverty while the rich became richer. It is all starting to sound very familiar. In Dickens’s times, we had philanthropists and public donations to relieve hunger. Today, we have replaced that with food banks. Even now, in 2021, we know that there are children in our communities who turn up to school hungry. We know that the poverty in which they live goes well beyond the material.

Material poverty is the midwife to so many other privations that our children suffer as well as hunger. It brings with it poverty of self-esteem, poverty of opportunity, poverty of cultural experiences, poverty of family support and poverty of potential. Children who grow up hungry sadly lose their innocence long before they should, yet it seems to be the case that those with the power to address that are content in the belief that they are doing all that they should to address it, as did those on the Poor Law boards during the 1800s.

The logic seems to be that if someone is poor they could improve their poverty if they really, really tried. Therefore, to some extent their poverty is a choice. The only folk who could believe that are those who have never gone without. For a variety of reasons, not everyone is able to dig themselves out of the pit of poverty. Sometimes the obstacles are simply too great, and most children living in poverty are in homes where a parent is working.

To improve matters, we could fix elements of universal credit, which traps families in poverty and keeps them out of work. We could replace advance payments, which are in reality loans provided to those with no possible way of repaying them without being driven into a pit of debt. We could replace those payments with loans that are not repayable, or we could get rid of the five-week wait so that claimants can be paid more quickly and can look after their families, and we could do more to promote the real living wage instead of the pretend living wage that we currently have.

In Scotland, the SNP Government are expanding free school breakfasts and lunches to every primary school pupil. Best Start food payments across Scotland are increasing, and eligibility will increase by about 50% to all in receipt of universal credit. Alongside that, we have a UK Government that scrapped targets to reduce child poverty, but in Scotland we have ambitious targets to eradicate child poverty. The Scottish child payment of £10 per week per child for those on qualifying benefits will increase to £20 per week per child, assisting 450,000 children across Scotland. Meanwhile, the UK Government refuse to commit to retaining the £20 uplift in universal credit. They are scrapping targets to reduce child poverty while presiding over a rise in the same.

Despite their limited powers, the Scottish Government understand that with the Trussell Trust handing out a food parcel every two and a half minutes, the status quo is not an option. More can and should be done to tackle child poverty and hunger. Hungry children are robbed of the opportunity to be happy children and are scarred in ways that we cannot always see. The Minister can forget trying to close the attainment gap if childhood hunger is not tackled. Hungry children’s education suffers. Their life chances and health outcomes, even in later life, suffer. Their self-esteem suffers, and their ability to reach their potential and contribute all they can to their community suffers. The cost of hungry children is far more expensive to the state than that of feeding our children. The social cost is almost incalculable. The UK Government’s welfare policies are hard for Scotland to swallow since they are served up to us on a plate by a Government we have repeatedly rejected.

As someone who grew up in grinding poverty, I can testify personally to the ill effects that it brings beyond what can be seen on the surface. In Scotland, real efforts have been made by the Scottish Government, with their limited powers, to tackle child poverty and child hunger, but more can and should be done by the Westminster Government. Some 85% of welfare powers are reserved to Westminster, so I urge the Minister to ensure that ways to tackle child poverty and child hunger that will actually improve the lives of children and their families are implemented as a priority, otherwise, just as Dickens pointed out with regard to the new Poor Law of 1834, the current system will not elevate the conditions of the poor, but push people further into poverty while the rich become richer. Despite what anybody else might say, these decisions are political decisions.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Education) 5:38 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell for moving the motion, and the more than 1 million people who signed the petition to end child poverty, including 3,000 of my constituents in Hampstead and Kilburn. I also thank colleagues who have contributed to the debate. Our country owes a huge debt of gratitude to Marcus Rashford MBE, whose powerful advocacy has pushed the issue to the forefront of our political debate and forced Ministers to confront it, as my hon. Friend Ian Byrne pointed out. Many more children would have gone hungry last summer and Christmas if it were not for his efforts.

We know that the Prime Minister enjoys stretching the truth from time to time, but one of the most maddening claims that he has ever made was that no child would go hungry during the pandemic. As we have heard today, that could not be further from the reality, with 200,000 children forced to skip meals in the early months of covid-19. Some 2.3 million children live in households that experienced food insecurity this winter, and more families than ever are having to rely on food banks to feed their children. As my hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said, no child should go hungry in a country as rich as ours. But they are, and in increasing numbers.

Although we should focus on making sure that hungry children are fed, we need to understand that this food poverty is a result of poverty itself, which has been rising dramatically since 2010. Some 4.3 million children were in poverty at the start of the pandemic—up 500,000 from five years earlier. In that period, child poverty rose in every region in England, with shocking high rises in the north-east, where an astonishing 37% of all children were in poverty at the start of last year, as my hon. Friend Grahame Morris pointed out so powerfully. In practice, that means that many more parents are struggling to put food on the table—despite their best efforts—with all the dreadful consequences that brings for the child’s health, wellbeing, development and education, as my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms outlined.

The truth is that rising levels of child poverty are a direct result of policy choices over the last decade, which we knew would eventually lead to this outcome. As my hon. Friends the Members for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and for Bradford West (Naz Shah) said, this is a political choice. Both Members powerfully made the case for food security for children in their constituencies. Since 2010, the Government have slashed the social security system to ribbons. Universal credit was designed in a way that punishes ordinary families, with its five-week wait, two-child limit and other design flaws. They have presided over an economy where wages have been stagnant while housing costs soared. The predictable result is that communities all over the country have been forced to set up food banks, the use of which has skyrocketed in recent years.

If we continue along the current course, the Resolution Foundation projects that three-quarters of a million children could be added to the already swelling ranks of those living in poverty by 2024. That must be avoided at all costs, but there is no sign that a change of approach is coming. As my hon. Friend Beth Winter pointed out, having failed to uplift legacy benefits, including disability support, the Chancellor still will not confirm that he has scrapped the plan to cut universal credit from October this year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North argued so powerfully, it is shocking that we have no shortage of food in this country, only a shortage of money to buy it. We will never be able to abolish child poverty without tackling the root causes of poverty, but there is a lot more that the Government could do to get food to hungry children.

I turn to the points in the petition. I am delighted that Marcus Rashford and others have been able to secure an uplift in the value of Healthy Start vouchers. At present, hundreds and thousands of eligible families are missing out on the vouchers, and Ministers have a responsibility to ensure that the support gets to those who need it. The same goes for free school meals. Clearly, the Government need to do more to ensure that those who do not qualify for free school meals can get the food support they need. Labour wants to replace universal credit with a fair and compassionate system that delivers support to those who need it. The hardship of the pandemic has exposed the need to ensure that all children can get free school meals during the holidays, although Ministers have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept that and do the right thing.

Although I welcome the countless U-turns that the Government have made in the face of public pressure, their holiday activities and food programme in its current form offers only 16 days of food support over the summer, and will not guarantee that all children who qualify can access it. They need to rethink. I hope the Minister will rethink and give a proper guarantee of support in the pandemic.

Making sure that no child goes hungry should be our national mission, not an unfounded boast bandied about by the Prime Minister as a smokescreen for the fact that so many children are skipping meals and relying on food banks. Our children need fewer warm words and more warm meals. That will require far better and more compassionate leadership on issues such as free school meals, as well as a Government who are serious about tackling the root causes of the hardship and financial insecurity that families face. I hope, for the sake of our children and generations to come, that we get that very soon. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about the petition.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 5:44 pm, 24th May 2021

As ever, Mr Bone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank everyone who has signed the petition for securing this important debate, and I thank Marcus Rashford for launching the petition, which promotes the crucial work of the National Food Strategy’s independent review. This Government are dedicated to supporting all children and families, especially the most vulnerable. The Government are fully considering all the recommendations of the National Food Strategy, and I am pleased to be able to report on the actions already taken on the recommendations that are covered in this petition.

During this pandemic, this Government have not only been listening; they have been acting. The Government have taken substantial action to provide additional support to families and children at this incredibly challenging time, including investing an additional £7.4 billion last year to strengthen the welfare system, because supporting those on lower incomes and vulnerable families and their children is at the heart of this Government’s response. The petition calls on the Government to ensure that Healthy Start vouchers are worth at least £4.25 a week. That has already been done: from April, Healthy Start payments increased from £3.10 to that £4.25 a week. The scheme supports pregnant women and those with children under the age of 4 on lower incomes to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, and the Government are developing a digital approach that will make it much easier for families to apply for, and use, this Healthy Start benefit.

When it comes to holiday activities and food, the petition calls on the Government to provide those meals and activities over the holidays. Again, this is an area on which we have taken action. Families welcome support during school holidays, especially in the long summer break. Children benefit from engaging holiday activities, which help them to be ready to learn when they return to school. I am therefore delighted that after three years of our developing these schemes through really successful pilots, we are now able to expand the holiday activities and food programme all across England this year. The programme launched this Easter in every local authority, and will provide support this summer and Christmas, too.

The programme is available to children in every local authority in England. It provides not only food, but opportunities to have fun and make new friendships—things that children have so missed out on this year. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to visit clubs in Ipswich, in Stoke, and in my own constituency and elsewhere in Essex. I have seen at first hand the real benefits that some of those vulnerable children get from attending the clubs. Those activities are a vital component of our recovery work and of levelling up, because these kids build their confidence, which helps them to tackle the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. I ask Members please not to diss these clubs, but to get behind them in their constituencies and support them and their children.

Thirdly, the petition calls for the free school meals eligibility criteria to be further extended. During term time, the Government already support schools to provide a free school meal to over 1.6 million pupils from the lowest-income families, because that helps them to concentrate, learn, and achieve in the classroom. The Government have already extended free school meals to more groups of children than any other Government for the past half century. We extended free school meals to all infant children back in 2014, and to students at further education institutions from disadvantaged backgrounds at the same time. During the pandemic, we further expanded free school meals eligibility to many of those families who have no recourse to public funds.

Stephen Timms asked for an update about our review of support for no recourse to public funds families, which—like so many other areas—involves work from all sorts of different Departments. However, he knows that the review is progressing, that it is drawing conclusions, and that we hope to report back soon. He knows this because he met the Secretary of State for Education just a few weeks ago to discuss that review. So, yes, we are doing this work, and we will work not only with other organisations but across parties, because this issue is about getting the best support for children and it should not be a party political issue.

During the pandemic we also made sure that those who become eligible for free school meals can get immediate access to those meals. As well as lunchtime meals, the Government support more than a quarter of a million children with our breakfast clubs in more than 2,450 schools in the most disadvantaged areas of the country. We have recently announced another £24 million to continue and expand our breakfast club programme.

Throughout the pandemic, we spent almost £0.5 billion on food vouchers, so that children had access to food when schools were restricted from opening. My colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions have also provided local authorities with an additional £269 million of local welfare funding.

As my hon. Friend David Simmonds pointed out, local authorities know their local needs best. This funding has helped local authorities to provide targeted support to families and individuals, keeping them warm and well fed. Its principal focus is on supporting disadvantaged children and families, both in term time and in the holidays. The scheme will run right through until 21 June, which is the end of this stage of the road map.

Our expanded holiday activities programme will run this summer, in every local authority in England, and we are exploring any additional support that may be needed through the summer. Fundamentally, it is right that free school meals remain primarily targeted at those on the lowest income, but the Government will fully consider eligibility, alongside the other recommendations of the national food strategy.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I cannot take interventions because we are really short of time, and I want Catherine McKinnell to have time to respond.

Education is the No.1 route to opportunity and prosperity. Because this Government believe in levelling up for young as well as older age groups, we invest more in the education of disadvantaged students so that they can unlock the best life chances. Our weighted national funding formula and the £2.5 billion spent annually on pupil premium funds academic interventions as well as important pastoral initiatives.

Furthermore, we invested £1 billion in the covid catch-up fund, including investing in the national tutoring programme, which offers high-quality tutoring to small groups of disadvantaged pupils who have fallen further behind. Just a couple of weeks ago, I saw this programme first hand working with a group of five-year-olds and helping with their early language skills. We are working on this project with 40% of our primary schools across the country. The national tutoring programme is making sure that those children who need it most get the best send-off on their education journey.

As my hon. Friend Jerome Mayhew pointed out, work is the best route out of poverty for families. After taking into account housing costs, a child living in a household where every adult is working is about four times less likely to be in absolute poverty than a child in a household where nobody works. Therefore, through my colleagues at DWP, we are doubling the number of work coaches to help people find a job. Our brilliant kickstart scheme is offering work placements for 16 to 24-year-olds and the skills Bill not only unlocks new opportunities for young people, but, through the lifelong learning grant, it will open up opportunities for people of all ages to access new skills and opportunities, and find better paid jobs. All of this helps families and children.

I am grateful for the support that hon. Members have given this agenda today. I thank everybody who contributed to the national food strategy, especially Henry Dimbleby for his leadership. I am delighted, as hon. Members might have heard in the tone of my voice, about the roll out of the holiday activities and food programme. I hope hon. Members will get behind those programmes in their constituencies this summer.

As agreed at the start of the review, the Government will fully consider all the recommendations of the national food strategy and we will respond more fully following the next and final report, which is due in the summer. The Government are taking a wide range of comprehensive measures to support children and their families at this very difficult time. The health and the happiness of children will remain at the heart of Government as we build back better from this pandemic.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee 5:54 pm, 24th May 2021

The Minister crammed a lot into her response, but I did not hear a commitment to extend free school meals and healthy start vouchers, to continue the holiday activity funding or to expand the food programme—the three asks in the petition. Each one of these demands is recommended in the Government-commissioned national food strategy review. Indeed, Marcus Rashford has tweeted during the debate to say,

“It’s confusing that we are debating the implementation of government-commissioned findings. Gov did the research. Gov gathered the data. And solutions were formed from that (NFS). I endorsed them…so what’s to debate? Let’s discuss the findings and discuss the solutions.”

However, we have listened to Conservative Member after Conservative Member, including the Minister, say that this is a cross-party issue, that it is all very unfortunate and that no one wants to see children going hungry, but that it is not political. I agree that politics is at its best when we pull together in the same direction, but the fact is that we would be doing the ever increasing number of children growing up hungry and in poverty—on this Government’s watch—no favours at all if we did not call it out.

There is no shortage of food in this country, and children are not going hungry because they cannot get food. They are going hungry because their families cannot afford food, as they are stuck in a cycle of insecure work, lack of opportunity and high cost of living, and they are let down by a social security system that is failing in its most basic function. The most important step the Government could take to address child food poverty is to address child and family poverty, with a proper joined-up strategy across Government.

We are one of the richest countries in the world, and there is nothing inevitable about millions of children going hungry in this country, but unless we get to the root of the problem—rather than just treating the symptoms or, worse, failing to take responsibility for it—it is a problem that will not go away. The Government need to step up now.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered e-petition 554276, relating to child food poverty.

Sitting suspended.