Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab) [V]
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?