Addressing Child Poverty

and Food Insecurity

Supporting our families and their children

24 October 2020

Response from Sir Peter to concerns regarding child food insecurity

Constituents have asked for a link to my views on ‘Supporting parents; supporting children’ including meals for children in and out of school.

On the 6th of October, I was an early signatory to the cross-party Early Day Motion 972: Tackling Child Food Insecurity. Later, I co-signed a cross-party letter on Free School Meal entitlements calling on the Department for Education to extend Free School Meals to all children from families in receipt of Universal Credit as well as to extend Free School Meals permanently to children from low-income migrant families with No Recourse to Public Funds.

Constituents and I share continuing interest in support for families and households with children.

Views are expressed about how to achieve better, safer lives.

These are issues I spoke about in my first speech in the House of Commons.

These concerns are why I agreed to chair the Church of England Children’s Society and why I led the Family Allowance Movement and why with many charities I founded Family Forum.

 

I came into public service and political campaigning on the issue of getting the then Labour Government to introduce family allowances for the first child in each family.

Trade unions made clear to Government it was their job to represent the interests of trade union members and their families. The Labour Chancellor Denis Healey argued wrongly that the married man’s tax allowance was sufficient. It was not, for obvious reasons. The campaign with which I was associated was successful.

Family allowances became child benefits. I campaigned to make them normally payable to the mother, rather than an offset to a father’s tax if parents lived together.

Free School Meals were first established in 1906. There have been changing eligibility requirements; the purpose has remained – to provide a nutritional meal to children to help them learn, develop and enjoy school.

Children who are tired or hungry at school struggle to concentrate. We all want improved physical and mental health outcomes.

The Labour Party use Opposition Days to raise issues of their choice, sometimes accompanied by media campaigning, often encouraged by 38 degrees, that aims to achieve political gains rather than finding agreed lasting solutions to real problems.

The debate from the House of Commons on Wednesday the 21st of October is available to play or to read online. The vote was not for a Bill or an Act of Parliament. It was not a binding vote which could have had effect. 

Midday meals and breakfast clubs are important. They should not be contentious nor politicised. Already, £74.09mil extra support has been given to West Sussex County Council to tackle issues related to Covid-19 – including the provision of food and other essentials for families in need. Government can make clear the levels of support already provided, ring-fencing if necessary. I support localised responses to child poverty.

I have made my view clear to the Prime Minister. Every child needs three nutritious meals a day. I support the parent(s) in this responsibility.

 

For decades, whether popular or fashionable, I have consistently argued that parents need the resources, the respect, the encouragement and the examples to do what they know is right.

 

No child should go hungry and, given the unprecedented additional level of funding, no child will go hungry. We can applaud the local businesses and charities that have offered free food for local families going through difficulties. We can hope, with confidence and sincerity, that such offers will not be necessary.

 

My belief is that households need an income to support their children responsibly, that there is a need to have free school meals. On balance, if there are extra resources, I prefer they go to families to help them in fulfilling their responsibilities. There are critical and specific ways the Government can and should support families.

 

In April, the Government temporarily extended Free School Meal eligibility to all children in families in receipt of Universal Credit and to those from low-income families with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ so that the scheme would benefit the most disadvantaged communities across England. I have made clear my wish that the Government should make this extension permanent. I prefer genuine solutions to sophisticated problems.  Details on these changes in entitlement can be found: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-free-school-meals-guidance/guidance-for-the-temporary-extension-of-free-school-meals-eligibility-to-nrpf-groups.

 

These issues can be kept under review. There really is not a major dichotomy between Labour and Conservatives in supporting children at home and at school. Calmly and gently, we can use social media and other media to work constructively with all colleagues and interested parties in reaching positive progressive ways forward.

 

To those who are interested and have made their views clear, I wish you well and share in your passion and concern.

For completeness, here too is a letter received from the Secretary of State for Education outlining the Government’s position: do please consider its points.

 

Support for Children, October 2020

 

Government is committed to ensuring that young people have the support and opportunities to succeed for the future. This ranges from delivering a world class education, ensuring they have the skills to succeed in their future careers and providing some young people a nutritious lunchtime meal to support children to learn, concentrate and achieve at school. We spend over £550 million a year in England, through the National Funding Formula, to ensure that disadvantaged children benefit from this important provision.

 

Free School Meals provision has been in place for more than a century. Eligibility criteria for Free School Meals were recently consulted on in 2017, following the roll-out of Universal Credit. Prior to this, Free School Meals were linked directly to legacy benefits and tax credits with certain criteria. Universal Credit replaced six benefits with one payment, streamlining bureaucratic application processes, while also removing the working hours’ cliff edges which stopped people from taking on extra hours.

 

Depending on circumstances, a couple with two children in rented accommodation could earn £40,000 while still receiving Universal Credit, due to the tapering rate which means welfare payments gradually reduce when your income grows. This was taken into account when setting the threshold, enacted in 2018, of £7,400 (equivalent, depending on a family’s exact circumstances, to an income of £18,000 to £24,000, once benefits are taken into account).

 

Support through Coronavirus:

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic - while schools were largely closed during lockdown - we provided substantial additional funding to eligible families through the National Voucher Scheme. The total amount of supermarket vouchers redeemed by families was over £380 million. Further to this, we temporarily extended eligibility for free school meals to children from families with no recourse to public funds, an arrangement that we are continuing whilst we undertake a review.

 

This was alongside a range of measures, including our extensive support package including:

• The income protection schemes which have so far protected 12 million jobs and people at a cost of almost £53 billion.

• Strengthening of our welfare safety net by adding an additional £9.3 billion this financial year, which meant an extra £1,040 for families on Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits.

• Providing £63 million in welfare assistance funding to local authorities to support those families with urgent needs.

 

Next Phase:

The vast majority of pupils are now back in school, and kitchens are open to provide healthy, nutritious meal options to all children, including those eligible for Free School Meals. We have put additional guidance in place to ensure we support eligible free school meal pupils who are having to self-isolate during term-time, asking schools to work with their caterers to provide food parcels for those required to stay at home. Food parcels take the place of vouchers now kitchens are open, as the funding for this support is with schools, and its vital we support our school catering services.

 

Free School Meals have only ever been intended to support eligible pupils attending school during term-time, and we think it is important that these arrangements return.

 

We believe that the best way to support families outside of term time is through Universal Credit rather than the government subsidising meals for families in their own homes.

 

School leaders have worked incredibly hard during this pandemic and it is not reasonable or sustainable to also ask them to provide food or undertake additional action when they are closed for the holidays.

 

Such action would bring an additional cost of around £20 million for each school holiday week and create new and significant organisational workforce burdens on the vast majority of schools.

 

Government remains committed to supporting children and families, and for the last three years we have supported disadvantaged children through our Holiday Activities and Food programme. This summer, the £9 million programme supported around 50,000 children across 17 local authority areas with free healthy meals and enriching activities. You might ask why we have invested in summer provision?

 

We know that the long summer break is the time when families most welcome support, but more importantly it is when children will most benefit from engaging activities so they return to school ready to learn in September. This year we also provided further support by extending our successful Breakfast Club programme, supporting schools in disadvantaged areas.

 

On top of delivering Free School Meals to those pupils in most need, we also provide free school milk to those eligible, and the school fruit and vegetable scheme has also restarted now schools have returned.

 

Our educational support to those who are economically disadvantaged remains steadfast. Since the introduction of the pupil premium in 2011, we have provided more than £18 billion to support schools in their efforts to narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers. Between 2011 and 2019, against a background of rising standards, the disadvantage attainment gap had narrowed by 13% at age 11 and 9% at age 16. It is anticipated that the attainment gap will have widened as a result of the pandemic, which is why we are investing £350 million in the National Tutoring Programme, offering high-quality small-group tutoring to disadvantaged pupils who have fallen furthest behind due to time out of the classroom.

 

Further to this, we are focused on supporting the continuation of high-quality childcare which supports children’s development and helps parents to work.

 

Early education is a crucial building block to set a child up for life.

 

We should be enormously proud that since 2013 the proportion of children that achieve a good level of development at the end of reception year has gone from one in two, to nearly three out of four children.

 

We know this period has been challenging time for all, which is why we have taken substantial measures to support families.

 

Yours sincerely,

Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education with Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

 

Returning to my own words, do please understand that my small caring team and I are dedicated to helping constituents and those for whom they care.

 

Generally, email campaigns that encourage a blizzard of messages have the secondary effect of making it difficult to identify and to have the time to respond with help and advice to individual constituents and their families at times of worry and crisis.

 

Do be in contact when we might be able to assist. When asked in a campaign to write, you could kindly and helpfully ask the organisers to write once directly; they could then send to you my response if they chose?

 

I wish you well.

Sir Peter Bottomley

Member of Parliament for Worthing West

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