Asking the Tories to help feed our kids was like talking to a brick wall. But Labour can lead the way on holiday hunger

Ruth Smeeth
Hunger poverty food
Today marks the beginning of the half term holidays. So I have a question for you. What is happening to those kids who qualify for free school meals this week? What are they eating and what activities are they doing. For far too many the answers are not enough and sitting at home. It simply isn’t good enough in one of the richest countries in the world.
Earlier this month I was proud to have an opportunity to raise the issue of Holiday Hunger on the floor of the House of Commons in my first adjournment debate. This is a massive issue across our country and one that is close to my own heart.

In my own constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove 31% of children are living in poverty. A third of our children are born into families living hand-to-mouth, struggling to make ends meet, struggling to pay the bills, struggling to feed their kids.

This is not just a problem in North Staffordshire, it is a national scandal. The statistics are stark, with 6 in 10 parents on incomes of less than £25,000 saying they have struggled to afford food outside of term time. That rises to 73% for parents on the lowest incomes (less than £15,000). A third of parents have skipped a meal so that their kids could eat during the school holidays.

That’s why I used the opportunity to ask the government to work constructively with myself and the many committed campaigners seeking to put an end to Holiday Hunger in the UK. I want the government to support further research into the impact of food poverty over the school holidays on educational attainment, and to provide innovation funding to support pilot schemes in the worst affected areas. Sadly no such commitment was forthcoming.

In his response the Minister stated that we “should never dilute our determination to tackle child poverty in all its forms”. But it is actions, not words, that will determine whether or not our children are going hungry. And the reality is that the deeds of this government have consistently shown that their commitment to tackling child poverty has in fact been diluted to homeopathic levels.

It is frankly outrageous that this Government can claim to be committed to abolishing child poverty when tax credits are facing the axe and free school meals are increasingly under threat.

In fact, so committed is the Government to tackling child poverty that it has scrapped child poverty targets altogether. This recent downgrade means the government will no longer set any targets based on levels of material disadvantage. In a cunning ruse, Iain Duncan Smith has also declared that the ‘Child Poverty and Social Mobility Commission’ will be renamed the ‘Social Mobility Commission’. He is seeking to alleviate the condition by abolishing the word, and is not even prepared to accept a correlation between financial hardship and a child’s life chances. But whatever the Tories might like to claim, poverty in the UK is real and growing.

I was disappointed by the response I got from the Government, but the fight doesn’t end here. We’ve placed an Early Day Motion calling for financial support to pilot community projects in the worst affected constituencies, to develop a solution for holiday hunger. I will continue to work with people from all parties and none to ensure that our kids are not going hungry.

This is a national crisis, and it deserves a national response. But if the Tories will not support measures to ensure our children are being fed, then it is up to us to lead the way.

Labour should seize this opportunity to put child food poverty front and centre in our fight for a fairer society. We need to show people the impact that cuts to tax credits and free school meals will have to the most vulnerable in our society. But we are also in a position to make a real difference now, not just in 5 years time.

Right across our country, in councils and assembly chambers, Labour is in a position to provide funding and support to tackle holiday hunger. I’d urge Labour authorities to recognise the scale of the problem and to do everything in their power to tackle it.

This is about people not politics but child food poverty could and should be at the heart of our campaign priorities in 2016, from City Hall to Holyrood.

Nowhere is the myth of One Nation conservatism more readily debunked than on the streets of our capital, where hungry kids in hand-me-down clothes play amongst the skyscrapers and town houses of the global elite. In London alone it is estimated that 600,000 children are affected by Holiday Hunger. So I would urge Sadiq Khan to seize the opportunity to make this a central pillar of Labour’s mayoral campaign.

And across the border in Scotland, after eight years of SNP rule, child poverty remains entrenched and educational attainment is the lowest in the UK. We need to lay bare the failures of the nationalists and show that it is Labour that is committed to tackling the inequalities that remain in our society.

As the 2016 elections gather pace, we need to make the dividing lines clear: between a Tory party making the working poor even poorer, and a Labour party that is committed to tackling the deep rooted problems of poverty and attainment in our communities.

We don’t need to wait for the Tories to develop a conscience. Labour can and must lead the way on tackling the Holiday Hunger crisis.

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