Nadia Whittome – 2020 Speech on Free School Meals

Below is the text of the speech made by Nadia Whittome, the Labour MP for Nottingham East, in the House of Commons on 16 June 2020.

The idea that children should not go hungry is one that most people would consider an issue of basic morality. I am glad that the Government have now conceded that the free school meals scheme should be extended to cover the summer, but given that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) was still arguing against this only a few hours ago, it is clear that this is not a moral change of heart, but a result of incredible pressure from campaigners such as Marcus Rashford and the Opposition.

I would like to ask the Minister about one aspect of the policy. There are many children in this country who have committed no crime but the crime of being migrants —an accident of geography—and who therefore have no recourse to public funds. These pupils have been temporarily eligible for free school meals during the pandemic; will the Minister commit to ensuring that that continues, not just this summer, but as a permanent change in policy?

It is telling that the Education Secretary should imply that children need access to nutritious, healthy meals only when they are at school. If it is wrong for children to go hungry, it is always wrong for children to go hungry, not just during a global pandemic and not only while they are at school.

Despite the very welcome U-turn, this Government are by no means let off the hook for their shameful and damning record on child poverty and hunger. In the sixth richest country in the world, there is no excuse for letting a single child go to bed hungry. The fact that 1.3 million children are routinely receiving free school meals shows that something is deeply wrong. We are a wealthy country, but that wealth is not fairly distributed; the wealthiest 10% in our country have about 45% of the wealth. That inequality is only increasing; wages for the majority have been stagnant for the past decade, employment is increasingly insecure and precarious, and we have a standard-of-living slide, all while the rich get richer.

Even though they may be fed this summer, we will still have approximately one third of children living in poverty. The Government typically respond to this by saying that the best route out of poverty is through work, but that is simply a meaningless platitude in light of the fact that most children who live in poverty have at least one parent in work.

The Conservative party is the party of the food bank and zero-hour contracts. The Living Wage Foundation calculates the real living wage—not the Government’s made up living wage—based on what people need to get by. It is set at £9.30 per hour outside London and that means that anyone paid below that is on a poverty wage.