Rebecca Long-Bailey – 2020 Speech on Free School Meals

Below is the text of the speech made by Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Labour MP for Salford and Eccles, in the House of Commons on 16 June 2020.

I beg to move,

That this House welcomes the Government’s decision to provide schools with their expected funding to cover benefits-related free school meals including the national voucher scheme over the Easter and May half-term holidays; notes the decision of the Welsh Government to guarantee each eligible child the equivalent of £19.50 a week up until the end of August to cover their meals over the summer holidays; and calls on the Government to continue to directly fund provision of free school meals, including the free school meal voucher scheme for eligible children over the summer holidays to stop children going hungry during this crisis.

It is a pleasure to open today’s debate on such an important motion—Labour’s call on the Government to provide free school meals over the summer holidays, so that all children can have a holiday without hunger. This is an issue that has gained significant traction over the past few days, with a chorus of charities, legal campaigners, Sustain and Good Law Project, Members across the House, good people tweeting all over the country and, of course, Manchester United star, Marcus Rashford. I am not only proud to be a Man United fan—that one of our own in Greater Manchester never forgot where he came from and used his profile to help those without a voice—but I am proud that he and those who have joined him have shown the very best that our country can be. I am delighted to say that the Government seem to have heard the cries and they appear to have done a U-turn on their decision to end the free school meal voucher scheme over the summer holidays.

I do have questions for the Secretary of State to address—not least, we need confirmation that the guarantee that free school meals vouchers will be provided over the summer holidays is concrete. However, as he will appreciate, this small win will be bittersweet overall if we do not now set about tackling the root cause of why many children are forced to rely on free school meals in the first place—poverty. Marcus, in his heartfelt letter, asked one important question yesterday:

“Can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?”

If we could all agree on that principle, there would be no debate to be had today.

I know that there are Members on the Government Benches—and, of course, on the Opposition Benches —who agree. They will tell stories of the horrific hardship that families in their constituencies have had to suffer daily. They will illustrate that to succeed in life, a child must have a bedrock of security, love and a full belly. They will transcend party lines to unify together in support of our children, showing the very best side of Parliament today.

Danny Kruger (Devizes) (Con)
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I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of this debate and of working across the House. I am sorry that this topic has become such a political football because it is one that unites the House, but surely the question is not whether to support the most vulnerable children in our society, but how we do that. Will she acknowledge that the Government are working hard with councils, with schools, with businesses and, crucially, with civil society to put in place a system of support and activity through this summer to ensure that children get the support they need?

Rebecca Long Bailey
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I thank the hon. Member for his comments. I await with bated breath the details of the Secretary of State’s summer scheme—I have some ideas to suggest to him for how it might be rolled out. Indeed, there is a wider suite of support that our children will need throughout the pandemic and as we exit lockdown. Tackling poverty is just one element.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)
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Is my hon. Friend as surprised as I am, if the Government always intended to do this, that they sent out the Transport Secretary and the Work and Pensions Secretary to embarrass themselves defending the indefensible?

Rebecca Long Bailey
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All I will say is that I am happy we have reached the point we have today, although it should not have taken a public campaign from a well-known national hero to push the Government into making this decision. That said, they have made that decision and we take these small wins where we can find them.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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I completely agree with the hon. Lady. It is really good news that the Government, as we understand it, are changing their position on the provision of free school meal vouchers over the summer, but does she agree that, to date, the system has been far from perfect? The contractor that has taken on this job has failed, for example, to provide children with vouchers for supermarkets in the villages or towns where they live. Does that not need to be fixed before the summer?

Rebecca Long Bailey
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The Secretary of State will be well aware of the issues with the Edenred voucher scheme —the fact that many families have arrived at supermarkets and been turned away, that many schools have had to step in when vouchers have not been readily available and fund school meals themselves, and that in many cases they have not received assurances from the Government that they will be recompensed for that monetary expenditure. Perhaps he can provide those assurances today.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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So far, the Welsh Government and Assembly have agreed to do it, the Scottish Parliament has agreed to do it, the Northern Ireland Assembly has within the last three or four hours agreed to do it, and at long last the Government here have agreed to do it. Society is measured by its attitude to those who are less well off. I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this forward and look forward to the Government’s participation and making this a success.

Rebecca Long Bailey
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I thank the hon. Member for his comments.​
These children are not just statistics. The vast majority are children in working families, where parents are working around the clock to cover bills but where there is never enough. They are the children of parents who perhaps cannot work, through no fault of their own, for reasons such as chronic ill health. They may be the children of communities that have suffered from generations of unemployment and who feel their hopes and dreams are unachievable, no matter how hard they try, because the jobs simply are not there.

Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
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I am sure the hon. Lady will agree that it is quite distasteful that the Government have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this point. I note she said earlier that it is ultimately about not just holiday hunger but the ingrained childhood poverty we see all around us. She talked about other measures being needed. Does she agree that one thing the Government might consider is replicating in England the Scottish child payment, whereby lower income families are given extra help and additional funds to pull them up so there is less need in the household?

Rebecca Long Bailey
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I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments. We take these small wins where we find them, but this campaign has demonstrated how the Government can be encouraged to change their position when we bring together our communities and key figures in sport, entertainment and so on, around an issue that our communities are passionate about. Let us move on as a House, tackle the root cause and move on together, united, to make lives better for these children.

Marcus was right in his letter yesterday. He spoke emotionally about his own story. He stated:

“My story to get here is all-too-familiar for families in England: my mum worked full-time, earning minimum wage to make sure we always had a good evening meal on the table. But it was not enough. The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked.”

He is right. The shameful reality is that for so many people in Britain today, no matter how hard they try, they cannot make ends meet. Opportunities are too few, wages are too low and bills are too high. Before the pandemic, more than 4 million children in the UK were living in poverty—that is nine out of every class of 30— and that is expected to rise to 5.2 million by 2022. Child poverty is a pandemic of its own in this country and one that has got far worse, unfortunately, over the last few years. Child poverty reduced by 800,000 under the last Labour Government, but the TUC found that, in 2019, that progress had been completely reversed, with the number of children growing up in in-work poverty alone having risen by 800,000 since 2010. Some 47% of children living in lone-parent families are in poverty, 45% of children from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are in poverty and 72% of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one person works.

Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)
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The Food Foundation has found that food insecurity has increased by almost 250% since lockdown began, affecting 5 million adults and 2.5 million children. While the free school meals U-turn is welcome, it is not enough. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that we need the Government to raise their game fast to protect the millions of people who are now going to face even more hardship?

Rebecca Long Bailey
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I thank my hon. Friend for her comments, and I completely agree. While today’s U-turn is welcome, it is merely a sticking plaster.

Work is often not a route out of poverty any more. Living in poverty does not mean people do not work or work hard, as some would have us believe. Shamefully, children go hungry every year, but this summer will be especially difficult for many families, as job losses and reduced incomes hit household budgets. Research from the Food Foundation shows that more than 200,000 children have had to skip meals because their family could not access the food they need during lockdown. The Institute for Public Policy Research has found that 200,000 more children are among those expected to be below the pre-virus poverty line at the end of the year.

It is very likely that, since the latest data became available, more than the 1.3 million children already eligible for free school meals will become eligible, with 2.1 million people claiming unemployment-related benefits in April alone, an increase of over 850,000 on the previous month. Indeed, in its coronavirus reference scenario, the Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted that the unemployment rate may rise to 10%.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con)
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Does the hon. Lady agree with me that no Government in history have created more jobs than this Government over the last five years, yet every single Labour Government have left power with higher unemployment than when they got into power? Should she not be grateful for the fact that we have a Conservative Government that will actually create more jobs than any Labour Government have ever managed to achieve?

Rebecca Long Bailey
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I thank the hon. Member for his comment, but I think he must have been asleep when I outlined the scale of child poverty, particularly the point I made about many children living in working households. A job might be a job, but it is not good enough if that job does not provide enough for people to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. That is what many families are going through across the country at the moment, so let us up our game on this.

Not only is it simply wrong for children to be going to bed hungry, but it is likely to heighten the already substantial gap in attainment between the poorest and their peers. “Newsnight” reported last week that the poorest children usually end up five weeks behind where they were at the end of term because of the usual six-week summer break. With potentially six months away from school, I dread to think what the impact of this period will be on the education of the most disadvantaged children this year, without urgent help.

The Government are said to be planning a big catch-up programme for the summer holidays, which will of course be welcome and I wait to see the detail. However, I would be grateful if the Secretary of State agreed today to ensure that, as part of this, he will develop a national plan for education, where local authorities are funded to make a summer holiday local offer to children and young people; where schools are provided with additional resources, such as an enhanced pupil premium to help disadvantaged children; and where public buildings such as libraries and sports centres are used to expand the space available to schools to ensure safe social distancing.

Tim Farron
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for being so generous in giving way. She makes a really important point. Of course, if there are 30 kids in a class, to do this carefully and safely may mean having to split it three ways. Does she agree with me that it is right that the Government fund not only the additional space that will be needed, but the additional teaching assistants we need to make sure that those children are properly looked after and taught?

Rebecca Long Bailey
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Indeed. The hon. Member makes an important point. Certainly, I would like the Government to look at sourcing these additional teachers, and encouraging qualified teachers who have left the profession to return to support pupils is certainly one such avenue.

Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
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As a qualified teacher before entering this House, I would be more than delighted to return to the frontline and help in any way I can. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) made a point about schools looking to expand. Rather than spend more money on portakabins and using other buildings, would it not be better—given that the science shows that children are more likely to be hit by lightning than tragically pass away from covid-19—to get all children back into the classroom in September in their school buildings, where we know they are safest?

Rebecca Long Bailey
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The Secretary of State has his first volunteer to provide targeted tuition for pupils come September. I look forward to seeing the hon. Gentleman in the classroom once again. I am sure that Members across the House agree that safety has to be the No. 1 priority, and I know that that view is shared by the Secretary of State. We have to work across the House, and the Government really need to start pushing the boundaries and creating a taskforce, with experts, teaching unions and school leaders, to look at how we can safely get children back into school. That will be the best place for them—emotionally and academically—but it is not a trade-off between safety and being back in school. We need to achieve both.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
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What we do not need from the Government is another rabbit-out-of-the-hat announcement. My hon. Friend has just set out the sorts of things that we need in place if we are going to reopen schools in September, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) just suggested. That would require the Government to set out a plan now and to start to engage with teachers’ unions, teachers themselves, heads of schools, local authorities and parents to create confidence that it is safe to send children back to school. That is what is lacking from the Government; they need to engage more widely if we are going to create the confidence that children can return safely.

Rebecca Long Bailey
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My hon. Friend makes an important point. This is about assuring parents, teachers, school staff, pupils and wider communities about safety, and ensuring that we get children back into school in a very safe way. To do that, we have to have a consensus, which is why I have repeatedly called for the creation of a taskforce to bring together all those in the education sector to come up with the safety principles that need to be put in place in schools to ensure their safe reopening, ​and to produce a national plan for education so that pupils receive the emotional and academic support that they deserve.

Let me turn to additional support measures. I would like the Secretary of State to look at future GCSEs and A-levels, and to have discussions with Ofqual about changes to account for the work that has been lost during this period in order to provide a fair assessment of young people’s attainment. We also need provisions in the event that there is a second spike resulting in pupils being sent back home and being unable to take exams in the usual way.

Jonathan Gullis
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As the hon. Lady will be fully aware, one of the biggest challenges is that although we have a curriculum, schools teach that curriculum in many different orders. How has she factored that into her suggestion for a potential change in the examination process?

Rebecca Long Bailey
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The hon. Gentleman may have missed my first sentence on that point; I think that the Government need to have discussions with Ofqual to look at how changes can be managed properly. He is right that different schools take different modules at different times, and different exam boards have exams set out in different ways, but the challenge is not insurmountable. These discussions need to start now, not at the last minute. We have already lost too much time.

I would also like the Secretary of State to look at blended learning. We do not know how long this pandemic will last and we need to provide for adequate home and school learning. I want him to work with the sector to look at the support that pupils will need both in school and at home, and at how much face-to-face contact can be provided remotely and in person.

On digital provision, we know that free laptops have been promised to year 10s and selected children, but I want to see a guarantee that every single child can access their work online. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that—at the very least—he will start with a commitment to providing devices to all children eligible for free school meals if they do not have access to a digital device?

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
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As my hon. Friend may know, only yesterday I presented to the House on a cross-party basis my Internet Access (Children Eligible for Free School Meals) Bill, which asks the Government to look at the means to provide internet access and devices for the 1.3 million children in England entitled to free school meals. Would she urge the Secretary of State to support that Bill?

Rebecca Long Bailey
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I thank my hon. Friend for her comment. I certainly would urge the Secretary of State to consider the points that have been made. I thank her for all the work that she has done on this vital issue. It is a sensible proposal and hopefully one that the Secretary of State will respond on today.

It is important not to forget that even children who have not been through very difficult circumstances throughout this pandemic will still have been profoundly affected emotionally. That is why we need to have a national plan for children’s wellbeing to provide emotional and mental health support when children eventually do ​return to the classroom. These are the building blocks of a national academic and emotional programme for children. Failing to provide the most basic support for children will undermine this effort. The fact is that no child can learn if they are hungry. That is why it is so important that this year, especially, the Government have stepped in to ensure that all children have a holiday without hunger and that they are funding free school meals over that period.

But now that there is a consensus emerging on the damage that child poverty does to the outcome of our children’s lives, I ask Members to truly address these issues. The two-child cap on child benefit and the five-week delay to the first payment of universal credit are cruelly blighting the lives of children and their families. Will Members now pressure the Government to address decimated school and local authority budgets and the closure of Sure Start centres? Will Members’ concerns on these issues be heightened now? Last month, a survey by the National Education Union told harrowing tales of children without coats and with ill-fitting, ripped shoes; children who were tired and thin; children with mental health issues unable to get help; children with bed bug infestations and rats in their homes. It is no surprise that these children often find it more difficult to learn, and no surprise that during lockdown they are likely to have fallen further behind than their peers. It is no surprise that over 1 million of these children do not even have access to a digital device.

Humanity has won a small battle today, but we have not won the war against poverty. I say to every Member here: remember why you are here; remember who put you in this place and why. We are ultimately 650 individual people elected by our communities to protect and improve their lives. We are the voice of the voiceless. That is the moral compass that should guide every one of our days in this place. This summer, when you wander through parks and streets in the place that you call home, with every child that passes you by, innocently unaware of the vast power that you hold over their life, you will wonder, are they hungry, are they suffering—did I speak for them when they had no voice?

We have the power to change those children’s lives—to speak up like Marcus Rashford did. We have seen the true power that campaigns can bring in encouraging the Government to change their position. We now have to build a consensus across this House that this country will not tolerate child poverty and that we will encourage the Government to bring forward a raft of economic and social policies with one aim—to eradicate child poverty.