Helen Hayes – 2020 Speech on Free School Meals

Below is the text of the speech made by Helen Hayes, the Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, in the House of Commons on 16 June 2020.

I pay tribute to Marcus Rashford this afternoon. It is not easy to speak about difficult personal experiences, but by doing so in such a powerful way, he helped to force the Government to act to stop 1.3 million children in England who are eligible for free school meals going hungry over the summer holidays. I also pay tribute to my local councils—Lambeth and Southwark councils—and to the many community organisations that have been working so hard since March to address food insecurity during the pandemic. They show the commitment, care and compassion in our local communities of which I could not be more proud.

While the Government’s U-turn is welcome, we should not be having this debate today, because coronavirus or not, no child should ever go hungry in the UK. Parents do not want to have to rely on a voucher scheme. They want the dignity and freedom to buy healthy, fresh food to nourish their children. Shamefully, childhood hunger and food insecurity are a huge problem in the UK, exacerbated by coronavirus, but a reality for many families, even without the pandemic. It is hard to understand the mindset of a Prime Minister who does not appear to see this as a top priority and who has to be pushed reluctantly into minimal action.

The voucher scheme is welcome and essential, but it is not a solution to food poverty. It is not reaching the thousands of families who fall just outside the income threshold for free school meals, or those who will not claim because of the stigma. We know that many of these families are also on low incomes, with precarious work, facing high housing costs and forced to rely on a social security system that prefers punishment over support.

The Government have a choice: they can keep lurching forward with disorganisation and wrong-headedness, forced to do the right thing only by intense pressure from our communities; or they can start to engage and plan now for a coronavirus recovery that builds back better, addressing structural inequality, low pay, insecure work, the high cost and insecurity of private renting and the ability of our councils to deliver the public services that we all rely on, and they could make sure that no child in the UK ever has to go to bed hungry again.