“Child poverty is a pandemic of its own” – Kate Green’s free school meals speech

Below is the full text of the speech delivered to the House of Commons by Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green this afternoon.

I am very pleased to open today’s debate on such an important motion – on behalf of children across our country who are at risk of going hungry, and all the families worried that their children will be hungry over the school holidays. But the truth is we should not need to be having this debate at all. In summer, when this issue was due to be debated in this House, the government saw sense, did the right thing, and ensured no child would go hungry over the summer. But this time, despite many families facing even more challenging circumstances now than they did four months ago, shamefully, the government is walking away from its obligation to hungry children.

In their hearts, honourable members on the government benches, who rightly supported the extension of free school meals over the summer holiday, know that. And they will also know that the thousands of families who rely on free school meals to help them make ends meet will watch their votes tonight with great interest. The right honourable member for Harlow and honourable member for Newton Abbot have said they will vote for this measure. I commend them for setting party politics aside to do the right thing, and I hope many more of their colleagues will join us.

Over 1.4 million children benefit from free school meals. Nearly 900,000 eligible children live in areas subject to Tier 2 and Tier 3 restrictions. Their families face a furlough cliff-edge, an inadequate replacement system, and the deep fear of growing unemployment. So the question for members opposite is simple. Are they absolutely confident that support is adequate and that no child in their constituencies will go hungry?

We do know what the Prime Minister thinks. Downing Street said: “It’s not for schools to provide food to pupils during the school holiday.” I cannot believe that I have to spell this out. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that children do not go hungry. They don’t stop being hungry just because the school bell rings for the end of term. And surely our constituents send us as MPs to this place to vote to ensure that the children who most need our help – at any time of year – are protected? So let me say to members opposite: put party politics aside tonight, and vote to extend free school meals for the sake of our children.

After all, since the summer holidays, the situation has got worse, more desperate, for millions of families. But while the provision of free school meals is being closed, the gravy train is still open for business. £7,000 a day for consultants working on a test and trace system that doesn’t work. £130 million to a Conservative Party donor for unsafe Covid testing kits. £160 million profits for Serco, and an increased dividend for shareholders, because the government threw good money after bad on a test and trace contract that’s robbing the public.

Yesterday a business minister said that extending free school meals is not as simple as writing a cheque. But why is it that the money only runs out when it is hungry children who need it? And I am surprised that there isn’t greater recognition on the government benches that families across the country are finding it difficult to manage. It was only a matter of weeks ago that national newspapers were full of briefings from friends of the Prime Minister reporting anxiety about how he’d provide for his family. He had a new baby and, with the loss of his lucrative newspaper columns, his friends said it would be a strain to manage on his £150,000 salary as Prime Minister.

It is, frankly, contemptible that the kind of concern we read in the national newspapers for the Prime Minister’s finances is not extended to the millions across this country who are genuinely struggling. Imagine you’re a parent of one of the over 3,000 children in the Prime Minister’s own constituency who benefits from free school meals. To read one week about how hard it is to make ends meet on £150,000 a year, and then to see the provision of a free meal for your child taken away a few days later, is utterly unjustifiable. The fact that we need to have this debate is a sign of repeated failures on the part of this government. A failure of compassion. A failure of competence in not recognising the challenges parents face, and giving them the support they need to provide for their children. And a failure of leadership not to be clear and unequivocal that no child should go hungry in one of the world’s richest countries.

But where the government have failed to show leadership there have been many others who have stepped up to do the right thing. I pay tribute to Marcus Rashford – as the MP for Old Trafford, I congratulate him on his late winning goal last night, and I hope he will score another late victory today when we vote on our motion. And I congratulate and thank the many others across the country who are acting and campaigning to end child poverty and food poverty. It brings me huge pride to see people come together and take action where the government are failing to do so.

Co-operative schools are already committing to providing free school meals over the holidays – that represents the very best of the coop movement. A movement built on support for one other, helping your neighbours and your community, doing what is right for the most disadvantaged. Will the Secretary of State follow their example? Colleagues in the Welsh Labour government, and in Northern Ireland and some parts of Scotland, have already committed to providing free school meals over the holidays until Easter . Again, I ask, will the Secretary of State follow their example?

Catering staff across our schools have worked flat out to fulfil their essential role in providing free school meals. They’re among the many low paid workers we have learnt to depend on during the pandemic. But many feel that their jobs and livelihoods are at risk. Can the minister tell us what steps are being taken to protect and support the jobs of school catering staff, and others who deliver this support to our children? Before the pandemic, there were over four million children growing up in poverty. In the months ahead, that number will only increase.

Child poverty is a pandemic of its own. It is a pandemic that reflects the great evils still haunting our society. A society blighted by wages that are not enough for working families to make ends meet, a housing crisis that creates insecurity, and a social security system cut to ribbons by the party opposite. Today’s proposals are not a silver bullet, and they will not end child poverty. They are a sticking plaster, but one that is badly and urgently needed. Needed by the 1.4 million children who could go hungry without them. By families worried about putting food on the table.

So will the Secretary of State do what is right, and take this first small step to ensure that over a million children do not go hungry this Christmas? As I said at the start, this debate should not even be happening. The government should never have let things go this far. They still don’t have to. The Secretary of State can stand up now and do the right thing. He can listen to Labour, to campaigners, and to families across the country, withdraw his amendment, and support our motion. Sadly, I do not think he will do so. Yet months ago, Marcus Rashford asked the question that started this debate, and that saw the government extend free school meals over summer. Today I ask the Secretary of State the same simple question: can we all agree that no child should go to bed hungry? I commend our motion to the House.

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