Diana Johnson – 2020 Speech on Free School Meals

Below is the text of the speech made by Diana Johnson, the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, in the House of Commons on 16 June 2020.

The reason the Government are in such a mess on this issue is that they did not put together a strategic plan for education and children at the start of covid-19 in the way that they did for the economy. I recognise the work that they have done on that with furloughing and so on.

I congratulate Marcus Rashford and all those who have campaigned for many years to make sure that during school holidays, children can receive food if they need it. It is rather sad that it has taken the covid pandemic to force the Government to acknowledge that holiday hunger has existed for many years. People such as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on school food, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), and campaigners such as Lindsay Graham have been talking about it for many years. It is also worth the House knowing that in the 1960s and 1970s, provision was made during holidays for children who were on free school meals, so the idea that it has never happened before is not correct.

I care deeply about this issue. Some 24% of children in Hull are on free school meals, against a national average of 15%. In my constituency, at least one in three children live in poverty, with 3,600 children on free school meals. In previous years, under previous Labour Administrations, Hull City Council introduced free school meals for all children in primary and special schools because it recognised that for children to do well academically, they need to have good nutrition. I pay tribute to it for that work.

I also remind the House that in 2009, I was an Education Minister in the last Labour Government. One thing that we did then was to introduce universal free school meal pilots in Durham and Newham. Sadly, when the coalition Government came in, they scrapped those pilots, but they showed a clear link. We all want to see our children do well and grow up healthy with a good education.

I have several questions for the Government. I want to make sure that my local authority gets its fair share of money. When will the allocations be made? Will the schools that found the Edenred system difficult to deal with be reimbursed for the work that they are doing to ​support children and families? Will the support continue indefinitely now that we recognise that holiday hunger exists? Finally, why has Hull never received a penny from the Government’s £9 million scheme for holiday activities, even though it has applied and is the fourth most disadvantaged area in the country? Some £999,000 has gone to Suffolk and £766,000 to Hampshire, but in Yorkshire and the Humber only Leeds has received any money at all.