Gavin Williamson – 2020 Speech on Free School Meals

The speech made by Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, in the House of Commons on 21 October 2020. He was replying to the speech made by Kate Green.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

“notes that schools are now fully operational following the covid-19 outbreak, and will continue to offer free school meals in term time; welcomes the substantial support provided by the Government to children worth £550 million annually; further welcomes that this support has been bolstered by almost £53 billion worth of income protection schemes, and £9.3 billion of additional welfare payments; notes that eligible families have also been supported throughout lockdown through the receipt of meal vouchers worth £380 million while schools were partially closed, alongside the Holiday Activities and Food Fund; and further supports the Government in its ongoing activities to help the most vulnerable children in society.”

As we all know, this is a unique and hugely challenging period that our nation faces. We understand the profound impact that the pandemic has had on people’s lives. Supporting those on lower incomes and vulnerable families is very much at the heart of the Government’s response. I recognise and understand the strength of feeling around this issue, both within this House and more widely. I would like to take this opportunity to outline the significant steps that we have taken to support children during the pandemic and the package of support available from the Government for families who might otherwise be facing hardship.

As my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer have both made clear throughout this period, the Government will continue to support people affected by coronavirus. We have taken unprecedented action to support families and jobs, as we take measures to tackle this virus. That is ​why we have undertaken the most radical overhaul of our welfare system since Beveridge, by introducing universal credit, ensuring that work pays for everyone. If we had not taken those bold actions—actions that were opposed by Labour at every single stage—this country would not have been in a position to support those families and individuals, who are most vulnerable in society.

Karin Smyth (Bristol South) (Lab)

May I take the Secretary of State back to children and schools? As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) has outlined, schools are anchors in the community. School leaders are already overburdened by much of what they are having to do, but they are already doing much of it. This week I visited FareShare South West in Bristol, which reaches out and uses community anchors to feed children and families. We have a golden opportunity to use schools as community anchors. The Secretary of State needs to see this differently and do that, and also include nurseries and children’s centres—the anchors for families. He needs to reconsider.

Gavin Williamson

I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting another Government initiative—FareShare receives considerable support from the Government, as do such schemes as Magic Breakfast, in recognition of the important role that the voluntary sector plays in provision and support for schools and children. Let me also take this opportunity to thank not just the teachers and support staff in her constituency, but those in all our constituencies, who have done an amazing job in ensuring, despite opposition from Labour on numerous occasions, that every school has the opportunity to open and that children can go back, as we have been able to do so.

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con)

As my predecessor as candidate in Blackpool North and Fleetwood, my right hon. Friend will know that I have some 6,000 pupils reliant on free school meals in my constituency, and I am deeply disappointed by the decision that has been taken at the moment. Will he commit to pushing in the comprehensive spending review for a much more strategic approach that rolls out the school holiday activity fund nationwide—a universal approach to tackling child poverty that does not just stigmatise those on free school meals?

Gavin Williamson

My hon. Friend raises a really important point, which I was going to come to, about the important role that the holiday activities and food programme has played in making a real difference for children. This debate should not be just about food; we have to look at different ways that we can support children and families. Children, often from the most deprived backgrounds, are sometimes in a situation over the long summer period of not being able to have the level of support that we would like to see all children benefit from, and we should look at how we can roll out that programme more into the future. It has been very successful in the previous two years and we would like to see how we can do more in the future.

Mr Dhesi rose—

Gavin Williamson

I am looking forward with enthusiasm to turning to the hon. Gentleman, but let me just finish addressing the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard).​

As my hon. Friend will know, we have invested a considerable amount of money in the opportunity areas, which are looking at some of the real long-term challenges that we have in Blackpool as well as in 12 other areas right around the country. I would be very happy to sit down with him to see how we can link up what we are doing with the Blackpool opportunity area, and the progress that we are making on that, in addressing some of the concerns that I know he has.

Let me make just a little more progress, and then I will hand over to the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who I know is keen to get in. I was talking about universal credit and how it has been such an important part of our response to the covid crisis. If we had not had universal credit in place, the job of the Department for Work and Pensions and the whole of Government would have been so much more challenging in being able support everyone in this country. By tapering benefits and providing work allowances to those facing the greatest barriers to work, we ensure that people are always better off in work. Something that is often forgotten is the number of barriers that we inherited and had to deal with when we came to power back in 2010, as a result of the legacy of the last Labour Government.

That is why between 2015-16 and 2019-20, we have taken 1.7 million people out of tax. Yes, we on the Government side of the House believe that tax cuts are good, and they benefit the poorest in society by taking them out of tax. We provided approximately 32 million people with a tax cut by raising the personal tax allowance to £12,500. I personally, and I think a lot of Government Members, think that helping 32 million people is a good thing.

Mr Dhesi

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words and for allowing me to intervene. Food bank usage is predicted to be 61% higher this coming winter than it was last winter. That is a mere prediction. It will take a lot more than free school meals to sort out this poverty crisis, but does the Secretary of State agree that that is the least we can do to help support struggling families?

Gavin Williamson

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a man who has great passion and belief on the subject of education and how we support the most vulnerable people in society, and he raises an important point about how we can support those people. Our view is, clearly, that the best way of doing that is through the universal credit system and ensuring that we have a welfare system that works for everyone in this country.

As I touched on, we have raised the personal tax allowance to £12,500 to ensure that those on the lowest incomes benefit, and at the same time we have raised the adult national living wage to £8.72, up from the adult national minimum wage of £5.80 at the start of 2010.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con)

I very much welcome the support being given to poorer families, but the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs looked at covid and the food supply, and there is no doubt that it is hugely challenging for the poorest in society to get food at the moment. Does the Secretary of State accept that some of these families are very challenged, and that if we give them money, it does not necessarily get to food for children—[Interruption.] No, it does not. Therefore, I think school meal vouchers ​are a good way of getting food out to those families that really need it, so will he re-look at meal vouchers for Christmas?

Gavin Williamson

That is what is so incredibly important about our free school meals programme, which originally came into existence in 1906 and has evolved considerably since. The programme has the raised the standards of what children receive and has expanded to support so many others. It is an important part of what we deliver. I will touch on that later in my speech.

Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD) rose—

Gavin Williamson

I know that the hon. Lady is eager to intervene—I am sure that it is an interchangeable point that she can probably make at any time in my speech. If I could make some progress, I will give way to her later.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we have been prioritising supporting jobs. We are helping employees to get back into work with an £1,000 bonus for employers if they keep on a member of staff. We are doubling the number of frontline work coaches, and putting in place a new job support scheme to protect jobs and businesses that are facing lower demand over the winter due to coronavirus. We are determined to build back better, which is why we have introduced a £30 billion plan for jobs, including the £2 billion kickstart scheme to help 250,000 16 to 24-year-olds on universal credit to get a foot on the jobs ladder.

Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD) rose—

Gavin Williamson

I am going to give way to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) before the hon. Lady, but first I will make just a little bit more progress.

In this unprecedented time, the Government are proud to have injected £9 billion into the welfare system, because we on this side of the House recognised that action needed to be taken to protect and support those who are most vulnerable. That support has been targeted at those on low incomes, and includes increasing universal credit and working tax credit by up to £1,040 for this financial year, which benefits more than 4 million households. We have also provided an additional £63 million in welfare assistance funding for local authorities to support families with urgent needs, including over the October half-term.

Munira Wilson

I was not going to make an inter-changeable point; I actually wanted to pick up on a point that the Secretary of State made earlier in his speech about raising the income tax personal allowance. Given that he is making such a passionate defence of what was a Liberal Democrat policy in the coalition Government, perhaps he might follow another Liberal Democrat policy—that of the Education Minister in Wales, Kirsty Williams, who has extended free school meals until April next year—so that some 2,000 children in my constituency of Twickenham will not go hungry in the holidays this winter.

Gavin Williamson

The hon. Lady will probably remember that it was a coalition Government that the Liberal Democrats were part of. We are proud that the UK Government have provided free school meals to ​those who have needed them for over a century. They are an essential part of our education system, supporting 1.4 million students from the lowest-income families to learn and to achieve in the classroom.

This Government have always recognised the importance of free school meals. That is why it was the Conservatives, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats—the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) may want to intervene at this point—who, in September 2014, extended free school meals to disadvantaged further education students for the first time ever. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, schools have continued to receive their expected funding to cover both free school meals and universal infant free school meals.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)

I was not going to make that point, but it was actually another example of a policy that you guys definitely did oppose, and which we managed to persuade you to do. But that is not my point.

My point is about support for children, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, when it comes to their learning. It is clear that young people who have no access to learning technology at home fall further behind than those who do have access to wi-fi, laptops and larger screens. There are 2,300 children living in poverty—below the poverty line—in my constituency, yet only 116 PCs were delivered to support them. Should not the Secretary of State look at that provision again, so that people from poorer backgrounds do not fall further behind at school?

Gavin Williamson

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about learning for children. He has the privilege of representing a beautiful and rural part of the world, and he know some of the challenges that come with that. Beauty can often disguise some of the poverty that sits behind it, and he is right to mention some of the challenges around how we support schools. We have extended the laptop scheme, making more available. In total, close to 500,000 laptops will be made available for schools, and we continue to work with the sector to do everything we can to support schools in the delivery of remote education.

Kevin Hollinrake rose—

Gavin Williamson

I will give way to my hon. Friend, but I hope Members will forgive me if I then make some progress.

Kevin Hollinrake

These are obviously exceptional times, but temporary solutions tend to become permanent. By the way, it was not me who called the shadow Secretary of State “frit”—I wanted to clear that up. If Opposition Members are suggesting a permanent right to free school meals during the holidays, why did they not introduce such a provision during their many years in power? Should we have an honest conversation with the public about whether such a measure would require raising taxes to pay for that increased welfare?

Gavin Williamson

My hon. Friend raises important points about what is temporary and what is permanent. Indeed, there seems to be some disagreement here, because the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston ​(Kate Green) seems to be moving away from the motion that she tabled. I was a little confused about whether she was developing her policy at the Dispatch Box, or whether her policy is stated in the motion.

There are real challenges around youngsters and tackling poverty, and Conservative Members are intent on ensuring that we put in place actions to deal with those issues, and that families, children, and individuals get the support they need. The best way to do that is through the welfare system; the best way to do that is by supporting people into work, as that is always the best route out of poverty.

Kate Green rose—

Gavin Williamson

I will make some progress, and then I will give way to the hon. Lady. In March we took the unprecedented step of asking schools to close to all but a very small number of children. Given that children were expected to study from home in such an unexpected manner, we took swift and decisive action, and invested significant funding to ensure that we could continue free school meal provision for eligible children. We also, temporarily, extended eligibility for free school meals to children from families with no recourse to public funds—an arrangement that we have extended into the autumn term while we undertake a review. It is right that such extraordinary measures were put in place at the start of the pandemic.

Now that pupils are back in schools, kitchens are open once again to provide healthy, nutritious meals to all children—including those eligible for free school meals—aiding their academic performance, and supporting attendance and engagement. We have also set out in guidance information for schools and caterers to support free school meal pupils who are self-isolating, through the provision of food parcels to those children.

Kate Green

I simply wanted to ask the Secretary of State, in the context of what he was saying about his party’s determination to reduce child poverty, whether he agrees with his colleague who, today at lunchtime on the BBC, said that there have always been hungry children, as if that were somehow a reason not to take action.

Gavin Williamson

I think it is fair to say that Members on both sides of the House are united in their commitment to drive out poverty and to make sure that children do not go hungry. We will do everything we can to support families and help them to do well and to succeed, and to provide them with a world-class education system driving up standards. That is what drives Conservative Members and always will.

David Simmonds (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) (Con) rose—

Gavin Williamson

I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)

Order. The Secretary of State has been incredibly generous with interventions, but there are 43 Members on the call list and we would like to get them in. There will be time limits, by the way, so please keep that in mind.

David Simmonds

Was the Secretary of State moved, as I was, by The Times “Red Box” article that Marcus Rashford wrote? Did he find it quite striking that the ​anxiety and difficulties that he described in growing up, with his mum’s worry about feeding the children, took place entirely under a Labour Government who claimed that eradicating child poverty was their front and central policy?

Gavin Williamson

My hon. Friend points out that this is a challenge that both parties face. There is a sense of commitment on the Conservative Benches to make a real and long-lasting difference to this, and that is what we will do.

We have sent out our guidance information to schools about how they can be supporting children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. We understand how important this is. It is a continued focus of this Government and always will be. Schools are an integral part of our local communities. However, free school meals have only ever been intended to provide support during term-time periods while children are engaging in activity and learning. The provision of a healthy school meal helps children to concentrate and learn, as most recently evidenced by the pilot programme in 2012 that led to the introduction of universal infant free school meals in 2014. This complements a wider range of Government support that responds more directly to the challenges faced by families on lower incomes, and is further supplemented by the additional support in place as a direct result of the pandemic.

Wera Hobhouse rose—

Gavin Williamson

I do apologise, but Mr Deputy Speaker has been quite clear about wanting me to make progress, and I would best do so.

During the unprecedented and unpredictable period at the start of the pandemic, it was right that extra measures were taken to provide free school meals during the holidays, but we are in a different position now that we have welcomed all pupils back to school. We know that the long summer break is the time when families most welcome support, and when children will most benefit from engaging activities so that they are ready to learn when they return to school in September. For the past three years, we have supported disadvantaged children with free healthy meals and enriching activities through our holiday activities and food programme. This summer, the £9 million holiday activities and food programme supported about 50,000 children across 17 different local authority areas. We have also provided £63 million in welfare assistance funding to local authorities to support families with urgent needs. This funding was passed to councils in July to provide local access to funding for those who need support, including families facing financial challenge.

Education is the No. 1 route to opportunity and prosperity. We invest more in the education of disadvantaged children to give them the very best chance in life, both through the weighted national funding formula and the £2.4 billion annual pupil premium. We have invested £1 billion in the covid catch-up fund, including investing in the national tutoring programme, which will offer high-quality small-group tutoring to disadvantaged pupils who have fallen furthest behind. We are equally determined to encourage the continuation of high-quality childcare, which helps parents to work and is a critical building block in children’s development. We are proud that since 2013 the proportion of children ​achieving a good level of development at the end of reception year has gone from one in two to nearly three out of four.

However, we recognise that these are unprecedented and difficult times for some families, and that is why the Government have significantly strengthened the welfare net. We have put in place additional welfare measures worth around £9 billion in this financial year, including increasing universal credit and working tax credit by up to £1,040 for this financial year, benefiting more than 4 million households. These welfare measures sit alongside our extensive support package, including the income protection schemes that have so far protected 12 million jobs at a cost of almost £53 billion for England alone. This is one of the most significant interventions by any Government in the western world. We recognise how important it is to protect not only jobs but families, and that is why we have taken these interventions. Taken together, it is clear that the Government have taken significant and unprecedented action to support children and families at risk of hardship during this period.

Free school meals are, and always have been, about supporting children with a meal to help them to learn when they are at school or, indeed, currently at home learning. However, it is our support through universal credit and our comprehensive welfare system that supports families. I have outlined a significant series of actions from across Government to support families who may otherwise struggle in the light of a pandemic, including £9 billion in welfare, £53 billion for job support measures, £63 million for local authorities to help those with urgent needs and £350 million to help the most disadvantaged students to catch up at school. Those are just a few things that this Government have put in place to support those who are most disadvantaged. They represent a direct financial response to the pandemic and demonstrate that the Government are doing everything possible to support those who need help. I encourage Members from across the House to support the Government as we tackle this pandemic and the impact it has on people across society, and I commend our amendment to the House.