We need radical community based approaches
On Wednesday I spoke in an Opposition Day Debate in which I raised the very serious and complex issue of child poverty and the need for serious and complex solutions.
Short-term proposals designed to grab headlines do nothing more than undermine the significant steps that have already been taken, and the further longer-term steps that must be taken. This is one of the reasons I'm on the advisory board for the Early Years Healthy Development Review, through which an evidenced based approach to giving children and families the best start in life will be developed, this is the most effective way of beating poverty.
"The motion calls on the Government to extend free school meal provision throughout the school holidays until Easter next year. Although on the Order Paper this is a debate about free school meals, even if the motion passes, the result will not be more free school meals.
To risk stating the obvious, during the holidays schools are closed, and they do not provide physical meals—free or otherwise—to any child. Let us be clear: what is really being called for here is an extension to the voucher scheme that would start in half-term next week by giving supermarket vouchers to parents of children who are eligible. That is not the same as providing a daily nutritious meal to a child in a school environment to help them get the most out of their education. It is important to recognise the difference between free school meals and what they are for, and supermarket vouchers.
The initial supermarket voucher scheme was set up in March and was not an attempt to solve child poverty, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) rightly pointed out, is a matter for the welfare system, not our schools.
No one denies that child, and therefore family, poverty does exist, or that we should be doing everything that we can to bring people out of it—I will talk about that more in a moment—but the initial voucher scheme was a practical, administrative response to the unforeseen necessity of closing schools for an indeterminate period. No one suggested at the time that it was anything other than a temporary measure.
The truth is that far too many families do not have enough. They do not have enough money, enough food or enough help.There are many and complex reasons for that, and, sadly, to suggest that supermarket vouchers will somehow fix it is like putting a sticking plaster on a serious wound.
But what will work?
When the welfare state was launched, the vision was to provide a safety net for those who found themselves out of work and to help them get back on their feet, but now we find ourselves in a position—pre-COVID, anyway—where far more of our welfare budget is spent on those in work than those out of work. In other words, at present, work is not always the route out of poverty that it should be.
How do we help people into better paid and secure work, and away from the addiction, the family breakdown and the social issues that all too often trap people in poverty? Education is part of the answer, and I commend my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary for the catch-up schemes, but research shows that the barriers to good work are not just material or educational poverty; lack of social, relational capital prevents many people from finding a way out.
Child poverty is a serious and complex issue; we need serious and complex solutions.
While many schools were closed during lockdown and over the summer holidays I welcomed the Government's decision to extend the school meals vouchers through the National Voucher Scheme, but a more sustainable approach was always necessary, an approach that did more than supermarket vouchers ever could. This is why I welcomed the additional £9.3 billion provided in this financial year to strengthen the welfare safety net, through this families can receive an extra £1,040 via Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits. And, specifically in the context of this debate, the £63 million in welfare assistance.
I don’t believe that anyone, especially any child in this country, should go hungry, and that is why I am asking the Government to extend its package of Emergency Welfare Assistance to local authorities to cover the coming months, and to deliver more support to communities and charities so that targeted local assistance can continue. This is, I believe, the best and most effective way of helping children in urgent need.
*Holiday Activities & Food Programme*
The Government will be extending the Holiday Activities and Food programme which provides a healthy and nutritious meal to children alongside educational activities during school holidays. This programme was delivered during the summer with great results and so will be expanded and continue until at least the end of 2021. It addresses both food poverty and educational disadvantage.
*COVID Winter Support Grant*
Following on from previous support for Councils, the Government has announced the next wave of financial support to Local Authorities. This money will enable locally targeted support to the families where it is most needed this winter, whether that be for food, bills, or housing costs. The funding is being given directly to Local Authorities to support those in our communities who are most in need, regardless of whether they have previously qualified for other forms of support.
This means a further £2million for Sheffield City Council and over £900,000 for Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council.
Action taken to date:
- £63 million has been provided in welfare assistance funding to local authorities explicitly to support families with food and essentials (£774,649 to Sheffield City Council, £350,618 to Barnsley Metropolitan Council).
- around £9 million has been provided through the summer Holiday Activities and Food programme, supporting around 50,000 children across 17 local authority areas with free healthy meals and enriching activities
- further support has been provided through our extended Breakfast Club programmes
- in addition to the Free School Meals programme, free school milk continues to be provided to eligible students, and the school fruit and vegetable scheme has restarted as schools return
- over £18 billion has been provided to support schools in their efforts to narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers.
- £350 million is being invested in the National Tutoring Programme to minimise the impact of the coronavirus on the attainment gap
- almost £53 billion has been provided through the income protection schemes - so far protecting 12 million jobs and employees