Gavin Williamson – 2020 Speech on Free School Meals

Below is the text of the speech made by Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, in the House of Commons on 16 June 2020.

In this House we all understand the profound impact that this pandemic has had on people’s lives. Supporting those on lower incomes and vulnerable families is at the heart of everything that we do as a Government. We have taken unprecedented action to support individuals and also to support families. We stepped in to pay the wages of over 9 million people through one of the most generous schemes anywhere in the world. We have launched self-employed income support schemes. We have increased universal credit and working tax credit by over £1,000 a year, injecting more than £6.5 billion into the welfare system. This Government have been firmly and wholeheartedly ​on the side of those who need help and support at every stage of this pandemic. We have provided millions of families with the support they need to pay their bills, keep their homes and feed their families. At times of crisis, we must think, above all, about the most vulnerable in our society. No one in this House, on either side of the Chamber, ever wants to see a child go hungry. We are all united in that simple view.

Let me remind hon. Members of the Conservative party’s record on free school meals. From 2014, free school meals were offered to further education students for the first time ever in the history of the free school meals programme. We extended free school meals to all infant children in England’s state schools, and an extra 1.5 million children are now receiving a healthy school lunch as a result of that decision. In our response to covid-19, we have for the first time provided free school meals for those who are currently at home.

We must remember that free school meals are not about providing financial support for families; they are there to support a child’s education. Receiving a healthy, nourishing meal is a critical way of helping a child to focus and to learn in school. It helps to enable a child to fulfil their potential, which is essential if we want to break the cycle of poverty from which far too many children right across the country suffer.

Ben Bradley (Mansfield) (Con)
Share
My right hon. Friend is correct to say that the will to support these vulnerable children is felt across the House and that it unites us all. I have one concern that I hope he will alleviate. Many of the most vulnerable children do not live in happy, healthy households. We often find that those children—the ones that schools normally look out for—are in a position where their parents are not necessarily going to use those vouchers in the right way, and the current system seems to have no safeguards against that. My constituency has one of the highest levels of domestic abuse and one of the highest levels of addiction anywhere in the country. Can we add, before the summer, a mechanism to ensure that the vouchers are used for healthy meals for vulnerable children?

Gavin Williamson
Share
I can assure my hon. Friend that measures are in place to ensure that the vouchers are not used for things such as alcohol, cigarettes or gambling. That is an important protection. He touches on an important point, because one of the greatest strengths of our free school meals system, where children get a free meal at their school, is ensuring that it is a healthy meal and it is there to support the child.

Tim Farron
Share
I just want to press the Secretary of State on the same point that I asked the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) about. The issue with free school meal vouchers, particularly in rural communities such as mine, is that someone may live in Sedbergh and not have a supermarket for which they have voucher within 10 miles. Can we look again to make sure that this U-turn, which I massively welcome, is valuable to every child, no matter where they live?

Gavin Williamson
Share
The hon. Gentleman is probably aware that we have already made it clear to schools that they have flexibility on this and that they would be reimbursed any costs if they needed to procure vouchers from a different retailer.

Ms Angela Eagle
Share
Will the Secretary of State give way?

Gavin Williamson
Share
I will make some progress.

It may be that the retailer was in a sparse area and there were no other retailers that the family were able to use, or the family were in an area where there was not a list of available retailers.

Several hon. Members rose—
Share
Gavin Williamson
Share
I ask hon. Members to give me the opportunity to make some progress.

We have understood that, in holiday time, there is a need to offer a wide range of support. This summer, tens of thousands of disadvantaged children will receive additional support through our holiday activities and food programme, which is available thanks to £9 million of Government funding.

Matt Vickers (Stockton South) (Con)
Share
I am incredibly grateful that disadvantaged youngsters in my area will benefit from this support, but my local council was recently unsuccessful in a bid to the holiday activities fund; will my right hon. Friend review that bid and meet me so that we can guarantee that the most disadvantaged youngsters across Stockton benefit from a summer of experiences and opportunities?

Gavin Williamson
Share
I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that issue. What we have been doing on the holiday activities programmes is an important step forward. To pick up on something that the shadow Secretary of State mentioned, it is not just about feeding; it is about supporting young people in so many different aspects of their learning and broader health outcomes.

Jonathan Gullis
Share
My right hon. Friend will be well aware that in Stoke-on-Trent we have the wonderful Hubb Foundation, run by Carol Shanahan, the owner of Port Vale football club. Linking with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), I urge the Secretary of State to look into how we can expand the holiday programmes so that every town, city and village has some access to great programmes that not only help with health and wellbeing but do educational work to help the most disadvantaged in our communities.

Gavin Williamson
Share
I am very familiar with the schemes that have been run in Stoke-on-Trent and have had the opportunity to meet Mrs Shanahan, whom I commend, as well as a Stoke-on-Trent City Council and its leader Councillor Abi Brown, who have played such an important role in the opportunity area that we have established in Stoke-on-Trent, which is making a real difference to so many children’s lives. I would be happy to discuss in more detail with my hon. Friend, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), how we can make sure that, with holiday activity programmes, we can make a difference to children’s lives, not just through food but through activities.

Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
Share
Further to the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), the Government have done ​a huge amount on free school meals over the past 10 years and we should be proud of that. These are unprecedented measures for unprecedented times, but the best place for free school meals is in school, so will the Secretary of State confirm his intention to get all pupils back to school in September?

Gavin Williamson
Share
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as we would always expect from a Staffordshire Member of Parliament. He is right that the best place for free school meals to be delivered is in schools, where we can ensure that the very best is given to the child, and that emotional and educational support is wrapped around that child. That is why we need to ensure that every effort is made to ensure that all schoolchildren are back in schools for September.

Joy Morrissey (Beaconsfield) (Con)
Share
Does my right hon. Friend agree that having children in school is essential to closing the inequality gap? I wish to highlight the excellent work of the Lighthouse in Bourne End, which works with children with learning disabilities and helps them with their summer programme. We need more programmes like that to help people to get back on track and to help vulnerable children. We do not need to throw extra things at children so that they can work at home; we need them back in school with their teachers, learning in a secure environment where they can grow and the inequality gap can close.

Gavin Williamson
Share
My hon. Friend is correct in her assessment: the best place to really benefit children is school. She is also right to highlight the amazing work that is done by so many voluntary organisations throughout the country.

Patricia Gibson
Share
The Secretary of State will perhaps recall that last year the Children’s Future Food inquiry was published. One of its recommendations was that an independent UK watchdog for children’s food should be established immediately, so that we have committed and energetic leadership to deliver for children. Such a watchdog has not been established; are there are any plans to establish one? What are the obstacles to doing so?

Gavin Williamson
Share
I will write to the hon. Member with the details on that.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con)
Share
Will the Secretary of State give way?

Gavin Williamson
Share
I should make some progress, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, because I am very conscious that Mr Deputy Speaker requested that we keep our speeches short.

Next summer, I want to be looking at how we can do so much more to support our children by making sure that we see a greater and larger roll-out of our holiday activities programme, including through the new £1 billion fund that we pledged in our manifesto to help to create more high-quality childcare, after-school clubs and support during holidays. But I think we all understand that this is not a normal year. Schools have been closed as part of the essential measures that we have taken to defeat this deadly virus. We took that action in order to save lives, ​but I knew when we took that decision that our focus had to be on those who were most disadvantaged. That is why we were one of the first countries in the world to keep schools open for children from the most vulnerable backgrounds; it is why we invested more than £100 million in remote education, including delivering laptops and internet access to some of the most disadvantaged children so that they can continue learning—I very much want to look at how we can start to expand that and do more to ensure that all children have the support they need; and it is why we took swift and decisive action to ensure that we could continue free school meals for eligible children who were staying at home.

Jason McCartney
Share
On behalf of the 13,532 vulnerable children on free school meals in Kirklees, I thank my right hon. Friend for his announcement today about continuing free school meals through the summer. As Marcus Rashford said, this is not about politics; it is about doing the right thing for vulnerable children and their families. Will my right hon. Friend continue to focus on doing the right thing for these children?

Gavin Williamson
Share
I assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to focus on doing the right thing. That will be the key aim of all this.

My hon. Friend makes a really important point about the vulnerable children right across society. I would like to take the opportunity to thank the many teachers and teaching assistants, the social workers who have worked so closely with schools, and the police who have identified some of the children who are most vulnerable—those who needed someone to take the opportunity to reach out to them and make sure that they came into school and had a safe place to come. They have done a magnificent job, and I think everyone in the House is deeply grateful for the triumphant and heroic efforts that they have all made.

Paul Bristow (Peterborough) (Con)
Share
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the support that teachers and schools have offered to vulnerable people goes much further than just a free school meal? Some of the most vulnerable children in schools in Peterborough have received regular phone calls from their teachers making sure that they are okay and they are looked after during this difficult time.

Gavin Williamson
Share
This is where we need to drive things further, to build up layer upon layer of support for children who are not in school to make sure that they are constantly learning, that they do not fall behind and that they constantly move forward in their education and benefit from the world-class education we have in this country.

Many schools have done an amazing job of keeping free school meals going through either food collections or deliveries. Where schools were unable to do that, we set up the national free school meals voucher. That scheme was established at pace, and over £150 million-worth of vouchers have been redeemed through it.

Alongside the voucher scheme, we continue to provide schools with all their expected funding, including funding to cover free school meals, and most schools right across the country have continued provision in school for those children who are most vulnerable. On top of that, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural ​Affairs has provided an additional £63 million for local authorities to help those who are struggling financially to pay not just for food but for other necessities at this incredibly difficult time.

Although many children are now returning to school thanks to the outstanding efforts of hard-working teachers and all those who work in schools, we are not yet out of this crisis. In schools, homes, workplaces and, above all, the NHS, people up and down the country are still making extraordinary sacrifices to overcome this deadly disease.

Free school meals have always been a term-time provision, and that is what they should be, but while we are in extraordinary times, we must not be bound by the constraints of what normally happens. A Government should always listen to the people who need them most. I would like to extend my particular thanks to Marcus Rashford for using his public position to amplify the voices of those who must and should be heard. By speaking out for the less fortunate and raising the phenomenal total of over £20 million in just a few days, he represents the best of Britain and is a role model for all the children who look up to him for inspiration.

We should never be ashamed to listen. I am pleased to announce that we will provide additional funding for a covid summer food fund, to enable children who are eligible for free school meals to claim a six-week voucher. As we prepare for schools to reopen fully in September, we will ensure that no child goes hungry. As we move forward, we will continue to do all we can to support disadvantaged children through not just free school meals but a long-term and sustained programme of catch-up activities, to close the educational gap, which has widened during this period, and ensure that every child in this country can achieve their full potential. We are finalising those plans, and I will shortly be in a position to outline them to the House. We will not be moving our amendment, and I commend this motion to the House.