The speech made by Emma Lewell-Buck, the Labour MP for South Shields, in the House of Commons on 14 October 2020.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require schools to provide breakfast club facilities; and for connected purposes.
I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Across England this morning, more than 2 million children—that we know of—will have arrived at school ready to learn with a gnawing hunger in their stomach. Their day will be marked with worry about when they and others in their family might be able to eat again. That will have a significant impact on their learning, because hungry children do not learn, no matter how bright and determined they are, and no matter how amazing or dedicated their teachers are.
Numerous studies have shown the links between nutrition and cognitive development, with hungry children suffering developmental impairments, language delays and delayed motor skills, not to mention the psychological and emotional impact, which can range from withdrawn and depressive behaviours to irritable and aggressive ones. The physical and mental health consequences for those stuck in this hopeless situation are dire and long lasting. Research conducted prior to the pandemic found rising levels of hospital admissions for children due to malnutrition and a resurgence of Victorian diseases associated with hunger. Research last year also found that children who went without breakfast tended to be overweight and obese.
Schools in my constituency have said that, without this Bill, they may have to charge for or cease breakfast provision next year. Research by the University of Leeds found that children who eat a regular breakfast achieve an average of two GCSE grades higher than those who rarely eat breakfast. Not only is the Bill the morally right thing to do; it clearly makes no long-term economic sense to deprive children of this vital meal. Stories of children going to school with a grey pallor, under-nourished, rummaging through bins for food and wearing threadbare clothing are commonplace. Schools in South Shields have told me that children complain of persistent hunger and stomach pains. One little boy turned up for school having only had a small piece of chocolate for his breakfast. For some, the last time they had any food was their school dinner the day before, and for many children on free school meals, waiting until midday is too long. As one teacher said, it is three hours too late.
We know the statistics, facts and reality of the grinding and increasing poverty in daily life for so many children in our country, and we know that this is not the fault of their parents. There is not a single mam or dad I have spoken to who is not totally heartbroken and ashamed that their child is going without, but I remind them and their children that it is not their shame; it is the Government’s, because these levels of hunger were and are avoidable.
Last year, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights expressed so clearly how the ongoing policies of austerity introduced in 2010, welfare reform measures and inaction on low-paid and insecure work have had tragic social consequences. That view is supported by 65% of teachers, who, when surveyed by Magic Breakfast, said they felt that the Government were not doing enough to help children at risk of hunger.
Coronavirus has exacerbated poverty levels. In the first five weeks of lockdown, more than 2 million children experienced food insecurity. Over 1 million more children have become eligible for free school meals, and a staggering 4 million children are now living in poverty. Many are hungry every single day of the year, with no let-up in sight. When I was a child protection social worker, it was the children suffering from severe neglect who would be struggling in this way, but now we are faced with a generation of children for whom the hopelessness of austerity and poverty are becoming the norm.
I am acutely aware that this Bill will not address the underlying causes of hunger; nor will it be a panacea for every hungry child, but it absolutely will ensure that those who currently go without that first important meal of the school day no longer will. It will make a huge difference for families such as one family in my constituency who were visited by the local Key 2 Life Food Bank; volunteers went to a bare and desolate home, where they found three children and their mam in dire need. When a food parcel arrived for them, the children began to rip at the boxes with their hands, shaking with hunger. When we think of these children, we should all be lost for words. How, as a society, have we ever allowed this to happen?
Research has shown that the benefits of breakfast clubs go beyond food. Teachers and school staff have reported that children often make new friends at these clubs and have time to share their worries with staff, and for many, they can complete their homework using a computer and in the warmth.
The School Breakfast Bill is a simple, costed Bill which will ensure that, when the Government’s current breakfast club programme expires in 2021, there will be enshrined in legislation a commitment to a more comprehensive, evidence-based programme of school breakfast clubs. The Bill will ensure that all state-funded primary and secondary schools in England where at least 50% of pupils are in the income deprivation affecting children index receive funding from the soft drinks levy to deliver breakfasts for every single child in the school, including those children with no recourse to public funds, who are currently, shamefully, excluded from free school meals. Additionally, the Bill will allow for any school that has demonstrated a need for the provision to request funding.
I have always believed in the transformational power of education. It is certainly not standard for children from my background to end up in this place. The power of education should never be underestimated. The food that fuels the ability to learn and develop should never be understated. This Bill will make sure that socioeconomic status is not a deciding factor in good educational outcomes. It will make sure that where some of our children begin in life is not always where they end up.
This small, simple Bill will have a profound impact on the lives of so many. It is supported by over 30 respected national organisations, Marcus Rashford MBE, Yusuf Islam—also known to many of us as Cat Stevens—and the Children’s Commissioner. Over 30,000 people have signed a petition in support of it, and over 70 Members across the House, including the excellent Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), also support the Bill. They all support it because they know that there is no justification and no argument robust enough to deny children a breakfast.
I want to say a big thank you to Magic Breakfast and Feeding Britain, which have worked tirelessly to make this Bill a reality. But the people who have really made the Bill possible are those parents and children who have been brave enough to share their pain with me. Despite the challenges they face, they have taken the time to use their experiences to try to make a difference for others. Their daily struggle should be something that we are all determined to change.
As I present this Bill, there will be children struggling to focus because their stomachs are rumbling. The persistent worry that comes with hunger will permeate their entire day. All of us in this place owe it to every single child who woke up hungry this morning and who will go to bed hungry tonight in one of the richest countries in the world to make sure that this Bill becomes law. I commend this Bill to the House.