The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)
Will you, Madam Deputy Speaker, pass on our birthday wishes to Mr Speaker, as I understand it is his birthday today?
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) on promoting this Bill and making such a clear case for change. As a new Minister, I hope that I am able to emulate his exemplary and tireless commitment to improving outcomes for disadvantaged families, and I wholeheartedly applaud his ongoing efforts in this area.
Let me set out what this Government have done to tackle poverty and disadvantage. Last April, the Government published their “Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families” strategy, which focused on measures that tackle the root causes of poverty and improve children’s welfare. Tackling poverty, and its root causes, is a key priority for this Government, and we know that for most people work represents the best route out of poverty. Unemployment has not been lower since 1975, and the proportion of workless households is at its lowest since records began. Our welfare reforms are working. Let me give an example. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation has shown that our national living wage lifted 300,000 out of low pay last year. That is the biggest uplift out of the lowest bracket since 1970.
We recognise, however, that there is more to do, and the Government are committed to delivering a country that works for everyone. I am, therefore, keen to work with the right hon. Gentleman and other stakeholders to help the most disadvantaged pupils to have access to activities and healthy meals during school holidays. That has the dual benefit of ensuring that children have access to healthy food and enabling them to gain skills and experiences that can unlock future opportunities.
My Department’s breakfast clubs programme is one area in which we are already exploring how we can tackle that issue. The programme will not only expand breakfast clubs in at least 1,500 disadvantaged schools; it will also promote innovation through projects that focus on addressing access and delivery barriers and improving the health and education outcomes of disadvantaged children. I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we must look at how best to ensure that the most disadvantaged pupils have access to activities and healthy meals during the school holidays.
I am, therefore, pleased to confirm today that the Government will launch research, as the right hon. Gentleman has requested, into how best to ensure that more children from disadvantaged families benefit from healthy meals and enrichment activities during the holidays, including through targeted pilots. The programme will include engagement with stakeholders and will enable us to assess the impact of Government intervention.
Where I differ with the right hon. Gentleman is in his belief that primary legislation is required to address the issue. I do not believe that that is the case. Moreover, it would not be sensible to impose a duty on local authorities to deliver such provision until we have more evidence about the scale of the issue, the most effective ways of tackling it, and, of course, the costs and burdens associated with doing so.
The Government therefore oppose this private Member’s Bill. However, as I have already confirmed, the Government will support the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal to investigate the best way to ensure that the most disadvantaged children have access to activities and healthy meals in the school holidays. The research programme will include funding for a targeted pilot programme, as he and I have discussed. That will allow the Government to consider if and how they should intervene in the long term. That programme of work will focus on the best and most cost-effective ways to address the issue, with an emphasis on securing the best possible value for money.
We will ensure that we do that by maximising the use of existing resources and focusing on targeting those areas in greatest need, building on the good work that is already under way in many local communities. However, only once the findings from the evaluation are available will it be possible to reach an informed view about next steps. We will want to consider these findings carefully, taking account of value for money. Before we have the evidence, it would not be right for me to make any commitment today to further action, either in terms of introducing a national policy or placing a duty on local authorities to offer such provision along the lines proposed by the right hon. Gentleman’s Bill.