Kate Green – 2020 Speech on Free School Meals

The speech made by Kate Green, the Shadow Education Secretary, in the House of Commons on 21 October 2020.

I beg to move,

That this House calls on the Government to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021 to prevent over a million children going hungry during this crisis.

I am very pleased to open today’s debate on such an important motion on behalf of children across the country who are at risk of going hungry and of all the families worried that their children will be hungry over the school holidays.

The truth is that we should not be having this debate at all. In the summer, when this issue was debated in this House, the Government saw sense, did the right thing and ensured that no child would go hungry over the summer holidays. This time, however, despite many families facing even more challenging circumstances now than they did four months ago, shamefully the Government are walking away from their obligation to hungry children. In their hearts, hon. Members on the Government Benches who rightly supported the extension of free school meals over the summer holidays know that. They will also know that the thousands of families who rely on free school meals to help them to make ends meet will watch with great interest how they vote this evening. I am aware that there are some right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches who are indicating that they will vote in favour of this motion. I commend them for setting party politics aside and I hope that by the end of this evening many more of their colleagues will join them.

More than 1.4 million children benefit from free school meals. Nearly 900,000 eligible children live in areas now subject to tier 2 and tier 3 covid restrictions. Their families face an upcoming furlough cliff-edge, an inadequate replacement system and the deep fear of growing unemployment. So the question for Members on the Government Benches is simple: are they absolutely confident that support is adequate and that no child in their constituencies will go hungry?

Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)

Does the hon. Lady consider this to be a temporary measure while the covid crisis continues or a permanent measure that would be on the statute book indefinitely?

Kate Green

I am grateful to the hon. Member. Initially, I would suggest that we urgently need a measure that will take us through this half term and the remainder of this academic year. We understand that nobody can predict how the virus might progress over the coming months, but it is crystal clear that what we need to vote for tonight is an urgent emergency measure to protect children and families who are struggling.

Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)

I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene in the midst of her excellent oration. There are 3,891 children in Slough who are known to require free school meals. ​Does she agree that if feeding those children over the summer was the right and humane thing to do in the middle of a pandemic, surely it is right and honourable to feed them over the winter when their parents are struggling to put food on the table and more than 1 million children could potentially go hungry? Or does she think that the Prime Minister has merely changed his priorities once again?

Kate Green

My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point, and he is right to draw attention to the Prime Minister’s view on this matter, because Downing Street said just the other day:

“It’s not for schools to provide food to pupils during the school holidays.”

I cannot believe I have to spell this out: it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that children do not go hungry, and they do not stop being hungry just because the school bell rings for the end of term. Surely our constituents send us to this place as Members of Parliament to vote to ensure that the children who most need our help at any time of year are protected.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)

The hon. Lady is making a passionate and thought-through speech. Does she agree that the holiday periods are always a difficulty—whether or not there is a pandemic—for those children from families on free school meals? They always need that support, and that should be something we are doing irrespective of the pandemic. In my constituency, 40% of the entire workforce are on furlough. The cliff edge is coming in a few days’ time, when the number of people desperate for support will increase massively. Is it not therefore right that we take action today?

Kate Green

That is right. The debate this evening is urgent. Let me say to Members on the Government Benches: please put party politics aside tonight and for the sake of our children vote to extend free school meals. After all, since the summer holidays, exactly as we have just heard, the situation has got worse and more desperate for millions of families.

While the provision of free school meals is being closed, the gravy train is still open for business—with £7,000 a day for consultants working on a test and trace system that does not work, £130 million to a Conservative party donor for unsafe covid testing kits, £160 million of profits for Serco and an increased dividend for its shareholders, because the Government threw good money after bad on a test and trace contract that is robbing the public. Yesterday, a Business Minister said that extending free school meals was not as simple as writing a cheque, but why is it that the money only runs out when it is hungry children who need it?

I am surprised there is not greater recognition on the Government Benches that families across the country are finding it very difficult to manage. It was, after all, only a matter of weeks ago that national newspapers were full of briefings from friends of the Prime Minister reporting anxiety about how he had to provide for his family. He had a new baby and, with the loss of his lucrative newspaper columns, his friends said it was a strain to manage on his £150,000 salary as Prime Minister.

It is frankly contemptible that the kind of concern we read in the national newspapers for the Prime Minister’s finances is not extended to the millions across this ​country who are genuinely struggling. Imagine being a parent of one of the more than 3,000 children in the Prime Minister’s constituency who benefits from free school meals. To read one week about how hard it is to make ends meet on £150,000 a year and then to see the provision of a free meal for your child taken away a few days later is utterly inexplicable.

The fact that we need to have this debate is a sign of repeated failures on the part of the Government—a failure of compassion, a failure of competence, not recognising the challenges that parents face and not giving them the support they need to provide for their children.

Dr Kieran Mullan (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)

There are roughly 14 million people living in relative poverty this year. In 2000, there were roughly 14 million people living in relative poverty. Why were Labour not able to fix the problems of relative poverty when they were in power?

Kate Green

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like me to enlighten him on the poverty figures during Labour’s period in office. In 2010-11, there were 3.5 million children living in relative poverty. Today, the figure after housing costs is 4.2 million. I would advise him to be very careful about quoting child poverty figures to Labour Members.

We have a failure of leadership today—a failure to be clear and unequivocal. No child should go hungry in one of the world’s richest countries, but where the Government have failed to show leadership, many others have stepped up to do the right thing. As the Member of Parliament for Old Trafford, I am very proud to pay tribute to Marcus Rashford. I congratulate him on his late winning goal last night and I hope that he will score another late victory today when we vote on Labour’s motion. I congratulate and thank the many others across the country who are acting and campaigning to end child poverty and food poverty.

Kevin Hollinrake

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Green

If the hon. Member will forgive me, no—I will make progress and let others in.

It gives me huge pride to see people come together and take action where the Government are failing to do so. Co-operative schools are already committing to providing free school meals over the holidays. That represents the very best of the co-op movement—a movement built on support for one another, on people helping their neighbours in their community and doing what is right for the most disadvantaged. Will the Secretary of State follow their example?

Colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government, in Northern Ireland and in some parts of Scotland have already committed to providing free school meals over the holidays until Easter. Again, I ask: will the Secretary of State follow their example? Catering staff across our schools have worked flat out to fulfil their essential role in providing free school meals. They are among the many low-paid workers we have learned to depend on during the pandemic, but many feel that their jobs and livelihoods are at risk. Will the Secretary of State tell us what steps are being taken to protect and support the jobs of school catering staff and others who deliver this support to our children?​

Before the pandemic, there were over 4 million children growing up in poverty. In the months ahead, that will only increase. Child poverty is a pandemic of its own. It is a pandemic that reflects the great evils still haunting our society—a society blighted by wages that are not enough for working families to make ends meet, a housing crisis that creates insecurity and a social security system cut to ribbons by the Conservative party.

I recognise today’s proposals are not a silver bullet, and they will not end child poverty. They are a sticking plaster, but one that is badly and urgently needed—needed by the 1.4 million children who could go hungry without them and by families worried about putting food on the table—so will the Secretary of State do what is right and take this first small step to ensure that over a million children do not go hungry this Christmas?

As I said at the outset, the Government should never have let things get this far. They still do not have to. The Secretary of State can stand up now and do the right thing. He can listen to Labour, to campaigners and to families across the country, withdraw his amendment and support our motion. Sadly, I do not think he will do so. Yet months ago, Marcus Rashford asked the question that started this debate and that saw the Government extend free school meals over the summer. Today I ask—[Interruption.] Oh, don’t be silly! The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) knows perfectly well that the one thing I am not is frit. Today I ask the Secretary of State the same simple question: can we all agree that no child should go to bed hungry? I commend our motion to the House.