Kate Green – 2021 Speech on Remote Education and Free School Meals

The speech made by Kate Green, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, in the House of Commons on 18 January 2021.

I beg to move,

That this House believes that families need more support during school and college closures; and that those eligible should be guaranteed to receive the full value of free school meals for the duration of the school year, including during all holidays; and calls on the Secretary of State for Education to set a deadline to ensure that every learner has the resources required to learn remotely, and provide a weekly update to Parliament on implementing this.

Today, and at least until February half-term, millions of children have not attended school and will instead be studying at home. No one wants to be in this situation—we all believe that school is the best place for children’s learning and wellbeing—but for now, faced with a rising coronavirus infection rate, we understand that many children need to study at home. They, their families and hard-working school staff deserve to know that the Government are doing all they can to support them.

That is why we have brought forward a motion this evening that asks two fundamental questions: first, are the Government doing everything they can to support pupils to keep learning remotely; and secondly, are the Government doing everything they can to ensure that children do not go hungry when they cannot get a free meal in school? If the answer to those questions is no, which I believe it is, then Members, whatever their party, should vote for our motion.

These should be matters on which we can all agree. I am sure there is nobody in this House who does not believe that children should receive a world-class education and that every family in this country should be able to provide their children with nourishing meals, but the reality is that the Government have not done enough—too slow to secure digital access for those who need it, while overseeing yet another scandal in delivering free school meals to children in need of them. The Prime Minister and, indeed, the Secretary of State claimed to be outraged by images of food parcels they saw on social media last week, but I and my party are outraged at Ministers’ consistent and unforgivable failure to stand with children and families throughout this pandemic. Pupils and parents deserve a Government who are on their side. They deserve better than this Government.

I pay tribute to everyone who has gone above and beyond to keep children safe and learning throughout the pandemic—the teachers, leaders and support staff across our education system who have worked hard in extraordinary circumstances to keep children learning safely; and the parents who face the unenviable task of balancing work, educating their children and childcare, too often without the support they needed.

At the beginning of this pandemic, 1.8 million children did not have the devices or internet connections they needed to work from home and, in that first national lockdown, many of those children struggled to access remote learning. Despite the best efforts of teachers, school leaders and support staff, some children fell behind their peers because they lacked the basic resources to continue learning when they could not be in the classroom. The Secretary of State rightly started to provide some devices to some of those children. He set a target of providing 230,000 devices by the end of June last year. Not only did that fall far short of the number of children who needed them, but he did not even deliver all those devices on time. Perhaps he could have learned a lesson from the Labour Government in Wales, which repurposed existing orders and were supporting pupils with devices by the end of May, according to the independent Education Policy Institute.

Being less prepared than the Welsh Labour Administration may have been understandable at the beginning of the pandemic, but the Secretary of State’s inability to learn from his failures and from their success is inexcusable. Instead of redoubling his efforts to get devices to all the pupils who lacked digital access as quickly as possible, the Secretary of State waited until the new national lockdown this month to up his target and accelerate delivery, leaving hundreds of thousands of pupils not only out of the classroom, but out of learning. So I ask him: why were these laptops not being rolled out on this scale months ago? Why was he once again too slow to act to secure children’s education in the face of huge disruption?

Today, we have reached about 700,000 devices delivered against a target of 1.3 million. It does seem that the Secretary of State is finally beginning to learn from at least one of his mistakes. This time, he has decided not to set himself a deadline that he will simply miss, but he cannot shy away from his duty to those children, so can he tell the House now when all the devices will be in the hands of the pupils who need them? Can he guarantee that when that is done, every single child who was locked out of remote learning will be able to participate fully when they are not in the classroom?

This is not just an issue in schools. In colleges, we have heard of adult learners struggling to access remote learning and not being eligible for Government support. Universities UK, ucisa, GuildHE and Jisc have written to the Secretary of State in just the last few days to request urgent action to support the thousands of university students who are still unable to access their education online due to digital and data poverty. Will he tell us what he is doing to address this?

I would like to move to the second part of the motion on free school meals. The images of food parcels that we saw last week were scandalous. Ministers have said that they are outraged by them, but they refused to accept that responsibility for those images is a direct result of their own policies. They pushed for a food parcel-first approach and set guidance for parcels worth only a fraction of the £15 made available to providers for families to feed their children. They cannot devise and publish a policy and guidelines and then be appalled when they are implemented. Will the Secretary of State now take responsibility for what occurred and apologise to the parents who received those unacceptable food parcels?

The Secretary of State then managed to outdo himself, with not just one but two free school meals scandals last week. Only days after we all saw those images, it was reported that schools will not be providing free meals over the February half term. Of course, the Secretary of State voted against such a measure in October. We thought he had learned his lesson, but now he is letting down hungry children again. I know that he will cite the winter support scheme, but that scheme does not guarantee that every child eligible for a free school meal will get one every day of the holidays, and he cannot guarantee that no child will go hungry when they are out of school this half term.

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con)

I am listening to the hon. Lady carefully. I am sorry that she has not picked up the tone of her shadow DWP colleague, the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) —he got the tone right; she has not—but does she agree that there is clearly a long-term conversation to be had in this country about school holiday food for families in receipt of free school meals? It is something that never happened during the 13 years of the last Labour Government and that, to my knowledge, the Opposition have not pushed this Government on during the last almost 11 years of their being in office. Does she agree that there is a conversation to be had, sensibly, across the Dispatch Box and without the partisan nonsense, about the long-term provision of holiday food for some of the poorest children in our country?

Kate Green

I am aware that a number of organisations, representing food charities, anti-poverty organisations, educationalists and so on, have written to the Prime Minister suggesting a full review of that subject. I welcome that, and I hope that he will respond with the offer of the review that they are seeking. However, I point out that not only are we in the middle of the first global pandemic in 100 years, but that it is against the backdrop of rapidly rising child poverty. That is why the push to address the hunger that children are facing now has become more acute than ever.

I have a simple solution for the Secretary of State to the problem of holiday hunger, one that could solve the problem at the touch of a button: sack the companies that are providing a substandard service and just give parents the money—secure family incomes by using the existing social security infrastructure and put £15 a week into the bank accounts of the parents who need it to feed their children. He should put his trust in mums and dads, because we know that parents will do the right thing.

Anyone who has thought about these issues—I do not know about Government Members, but I have spent a large part of my career thinking about them—knows that cash transfers work. They improve outcomes for children, they remove stigma for families and they ensure that the full value of support provided goes to children. I know that there are some people—in October we discovered some of them on the Government Benches—who believe that parents cannot be trusted to use money responsibly to feed their children. That is wrong in every possible way. It is morally wrong to condemn families to insecurity and stigma. It is economically illiterate not to provide cash to families who most need it, and instead to slash their incomes in the midst of the worst recession that most of us will know in our lifetimes. And it is factually and empirically wrong to suggest that this money would not be spent by parents on food for children. So I ask the Secretary of State to do the right thing: to end the scandal of inadequate food parcels or vouchers that take days to arrive, and the scandal—in one of the richest countries in the world—of children continuing to go to bed hungry.

I want to turn briefly to the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. Let me begin by saying that there are some things in the amendment that I am glad to see—not least that he has finally listened to teachers and to Labour and started to move towards zero rating of educational websites, though quite why it has taken him so long, I do not know. First, the amendment asks us to note that the Government are

“committed to supporting families to feed their children during both term-time and holidays”.

It then mentions a voucher scheme that has been hit by repeated delays in an outsourcing fiasco, a winter grant scheme that cannot guarantee that every child will be fed and a holiday scheme that will not be in place for months. It condemns the food parcels we saw on social media, while failing to take any responsibility for the fact that they were in line with the Government’s own policies. It ignores the Government’s plans to slash more than £1,000 a year from family incomes by cutting the lifeline in universal credit, plunging hundreds of thousands of children into poverty.

Then the amendment calls on us to note all the progress the Secretary of State has made in improving digital access. It lauds his half-delivered target of delivering 1.3 million laptops yet gives us no clear timeline for full delivery. It notes the support given to schools but ignores the fact that schools up and down the country have repeatedly reported that they have not had the support they needed from the Government throughout the pandemic, whether it is on funding, testing, exams—the list continues. I am afraid the amendment is not credible. In fact, it is insulting to schools and families across the country, who will see through this attempt to give Government Members something to vote for while failing to support the entirely reasonable motion we have tabled.

Poverty is, sadly, endemic across our country. In every city, town and community, it blights the life chances of children, causes unimaginable hardship and insecurity to families, and weakens our economy. The pandemic has made the situation far, far worse, and it is appalling that today, we have seen with our own eyes that the Government are simply not committed to the task of ending child poverty.

Earlier this evening, Government Members failed to support Labour’s motion calling for the £20 uplift in universal credit—a lifeline that has kept millions above water over the past nine months—to be made permanent. The consequences are simple: families and children will be plunged into insecurity, hardship and poverty. I am giving Government Members a second chance to do the right thing this evening and to put children first by voting for our motion—a motion that asks for nothing more than the chance for every child to learn and for no child to go hungry.