Sharon Hodgson speaking in the Backbench Business Debate on the Government's upcoming Childhood Obesity Strategy - 21st January 2016
Image copyright Parliamentary Recording Unit 2016
As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food, Sharon spoke about the need for school food to be seen as an integral part of the Government's upcoming Childhood Obesity Strategy by looking at the evidence already out there of the benefits of a healthy school meal, especially one that is free, along with addressing child holiday hunger - which has become a growing problem in the UK in recent years.
Read Sharon's speech in Hansard here: Sharon Hodgson Childhood Obesity Strategy Debate 2016
Text pasted below:
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on proposing and securing this important debate, and she will be pleased to hear that I agreed with almost everything she said. Many here in the Chamber will be aware of my strongly held passion to provide all children with a hot and healthy school meal, especially one that is free. The debate around the Government’s impending childhood obesity strategy, both here in Parliament and in the outside world, has focused on the reformulation of foods that are high in sugar and salt and the introduction of a sugar tax. Although I support those measures, I want quickly to discuss how school food can play a significant role in addressing the obesity crisis facing our children today.
I want to say at the outset—I am sure people are thinking this, if not here then definitely on social media—that I am rather overweight myself and that some may say I should practise what I preach. I do try. But that is why I am so passionate about this agenda: I know how much harder this becomes as you get older. I was allowed to adopt bad habits that are hard to break, and that shows why we need to educate the next generation to do much better.
School food has played a role in public policy for more than 100 years. It was first discussed in this place in 1906 when Fred Jowett, former Member of Parliament for Bradford West, used his maiden speech in the Chamber to launch his campaign to introduce free school meals when compulsory education was being rolled out. That led to the passing of the Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906, which was originally Jowett’s private Member’s Bill.
Jowett’s campaign was driven by his experience as a member of the Bradford school board, where he witnessed the malnourishment of children who then fell behind their more affluent peers. Here we are, more than 100 years later, and those arguments are still being made today.
I was just thinking the same as my hon. Friend about how far we have come in some respects but not in others. She will be aware of the private Member’s Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). Does she support it?
Yes, that private Member’s Bill is an excellent initiative, and should be adopted by the Government and local authorities. It is very simple to share the data that we already have on families who are entitled to benefits, to ensure that the entitlement of their children to the pupil premium is not lost when universal free school meals are rolled out. That is a very important point.
Although we do not always think about obesity in this way, it is a form of malnourishment. What we are seeing today is very similar to what we saw more than 100 years ago, with children lacking the right nutrients to see them living a healthy childhood and growing into healthy adults. That is especially concerning given that today more than one third of children are leaving school overweight or obese.
The school setting is one of the most important interventions in a child’s life; it is where we nurture and educate future generations. Why should we not feed these children so that they are fuelled to receive the best education and life chances possible? That notion was strongly supported by the previous Labour Government, who introduced a raft of measures that addressed the food eaten by children in our schools. They included nutrition-based school food standards that provide children with the proper nutrition to learn, fully-costed plans to extend our universal free school meal pilots, and the introduction of healthy, practical cooking on the national curriculum.
Although much, or all, of those measures were scrapped when the coalition Government were formed in 2010, it was very welcome when, in 2013, the school food plan was published, calling for the reinstatement of lots of those measures as well as new and improved measures in our schools to address the health of our children. Those included introducing food-based standards for all schools, training head teachers in the benefits of food and nutrition, improving Ofsted inspections on school food, and the roll-out of universal free school meals for primary school children, when funding was found.
As we know, that funding was found, thanks to David Laws and the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg). Fortunately, universal infant free school meals were secured by the Chancellor in the comprehensive spending review. All those measures came out of concerns for the health of our children and the growing obesity crisis, especially given that 57% of children were not eating school lunches. Some were opting to take in packed lunches, only 1% of which met the nutritional standards of a hot lunch, while others were opting to go off site to eat junk food at local takeaways.
As research has found, health problems associated with being overweight or obese cost the NHS more than £5 billion a year, and, with obesity rates continuing to rise for 11 to 15-year-olds, especially in deprived areas, it is now clearer than ever that we need seriously to address childhood obesity.
Giving children a healthy and balanced diet during the school day can only be a positive intervention in helping to address obesity. I cannot stress how strongly I believe that one of the most important interventions to help address health issues in childhood is universal free school meals.
The hon. Lady mentioned that children are consuming junk food from outlets near schools. Does she believe that councils should have powers, as part of planning guidance, to take action on junk food outlets being so close to schools?
Yes, I do. I really welcome that intervention, because it not only makes the point, but stresses it very strongly. Some councils are very good and introduce byelaws to ensure that burger vans cannot pull up outside a school, and that, if there is already a number of takeaway shops nearby, no more can open. Matters such as that need to be addressed by councils.
The pilots introduced by the previous Labour Government in Durham and Newham to look into the benefits of universal free school meals found many benefits to a child’s health, and research continues now that we have universal infant school meals. The pilots in Durham and Newham found a 23% uptake in vegetable consumption at lunchtime and a steep decline in the typical unhealthy packed lunch foods. For example, there was a 16% decline in soft drinks and an 18% decline in crisps. Those are all-important figures that the Government should remember, and both the Department of Health and Department for Education should look further into how best they can use the vehicle of universal free school meals to help improve children’s health.
Although universal free school meals are protected in the Government’s comprehensive spending review—this followed a concerted campaign by school food campaigners, myself and others in the House—there is another area that the Government must consider when looking to improve the health of our children: holiday hunger. Children are in school for just 190 days of the year, and the rest—a total of 170 days—is totally down to their parents. Some may say that that is how it should be and that when we lock the school gates for the holidays it is none of our business what children eat, whether they eat or what they get up to. None the less, with the growing use of food banks in school holidays and the reports that children return from the longer school holidays noticeably thinner and unhealthier, the issue is one that we can no longer ignore.
If there is a push for better food provision in our schools, then we need to be doing much more during the holidays so as not to undo the hard work that goes into improving the life chances of children during term time. That is why the school food all-party group, which I chair, has established a holiday hunger task group, which last year launched its “Filling the Holiday Gap” guidelines to provide organisations and local authorities wishing to provide food during holidays with the resources to offer healthy and nutritious food. Late last year, it published its update report, which called for action to be taken by the Government.
When the Government’s childhood obesity strategy is published, I hope that there will be significant mention of the benefits that school food, especially universal free school meals, can have on a child’s health, and of how it can be used to address the growing childhood obesity crisis. There is evidence out there to support using universal free school meal provision to its fullest, instead of squandering its potential, to improve the health of our children.
This is a moment when the Government can really make a difference to children’s lives and I hope that all options and avenues will be pursued so that children are given the healthy food that they need to fuel their education and to make them as healthy a version of themselves as possible so that they grow into fit and healthy adults.
Sharon Hodgson speaking in the Backbench Business Debate on the Government's upcoming Childhood Obesity Strategy - 21st January 2016 Image copyright Parliamentary Recording Unit 2016 As Chair of the All-Party...
Sharon Hodgson speaking in the Backbench Business Debate on Children in Care - 7th January 2016
Image copyright Parliamentary Recording Unit 2016
As Shadow Children's Minister, Sharon spoke on behalf of the frontbench on how best we can help prevent children entering the care system and keep families together through better early intervention and prevention programmes and more support on offer to kinship carers, extended family members who look after children.
Read Sharon's speech in Hansard here: Sharon Hodgson MP Children in Care Debate 2016
Text pasted here:
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this debate. It has been a short, but very thoughtful one. Our attention has rightly been focused on how we can best help and support struggling families and prevent children from entering the care system.
This debate is timely, given the research published at the end of last year by the University of Lancaster. The research found that one in four women return to the family court after previously having a child removed by court order, and that the number of new-born babies subject to care proceedings has doubled during the past five years. Those findings are backed by the Department for Education’s own figures, which show that the number of children in care has reached its highest since 1985. The total population of children now in the care system is 69,450.
The significant increase in the number of children entering the care system is seen by many, including the Education Committee’s report on child protection in 2012, as a reaction to the tragic death of Baby P in 2008. That is supported by figures showing that the majority of children enter care due to neglect or abuse. This tells us that more must be done to support parents at the earliest opportunity to avoid situations such as those of Daniel Pelka, Baby P and the many other high-profile cases about which we have heard in recent years.
We must have a serious rethink about the current strategy to support families and about how the huge social, personal and economic costs of children going into care can be avoided. Although it cannot be denied that there are circumstances in which the best-case scenario for a child may be to be taken into care, based on the risks of remaining in the family home, that does not mean that we as a society should not feel ashamed of this failure to support all families.
There are two areas that the Government must consider when it comes to reducing the number of children entering the care system—a more comprehensive early intervention and prevention strategy, and improving the support on offer to kinship carers.
There is an old African proverb with which I am sure all hon. Members are familiar: it takes a whole village to raise a child. That reminds us of our collective duty to offer support and help to those families who need it the most. When abuse and neglect are cited as the main reasons for a child being taken into care, it is clear that comprehensive early intervention and prevention programmes are needed to reduce the threat of a child’s abuse or neglect in the family home and to avoid the eventuality of a child being taken into care.
Addressing issues about nurture and early family life is championed in “The 1001 Critical Days” manifesto. The all-party group of much the same name is steered passionately by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). He was in the Chamber earlier, but he is not in his place at the moment. The manifesto calls for more support to be given to families to help nurture and support a healthy family environment for children to grow up in. I hope that the Minister has had the chance to read this excellent manifesto. If not, I am sure his hon. Friend will send him a copy of it forthwith.
A National Audit Office report in 2014 cites one of the previous Labour Government’s greatest achievements, Sure Start children’s centres, as a key measure to help to reduce the number of children entering care. The family-focused vision of Sure Start centres brings together specialists, professionals and practitioners to provide parents with vital information on how to overcome the struggles of being new parents and how to cope with challenging family circumstances in order that they do not fall apart and descend into situations in which a child may be removed from the family home. However, according to an investigation last year by the Children’s Society and the National Children’s Bureau, cuts to Whitehall budgets have meant that overall spending on early intervention programmes has fallen by 55%, or £1.8 billion, since 2010.
The short-sightedness of cutting early intervention budgets is detrimental to the vision all hon. Members share, but which was laid out full well in “Early Intervention: The Next Steps”, the seminal report from 2011 by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). He highlighted the top 19 intervention programmes as a blueprint for government. The top of the list was the excellent family nurse partnership programme, which was piloted and which has since been rolled out a little—it needs to go much further to become universal.
Since 2010, almost 800 Sure Start children’s centres have closed. Many more are mere shells of their former selves—the “caretaker and bottle of bleach” model, as I like to call it, means that they are classed as open but not quite as we know it. The Government are sifting through the responses to their consultation into the future of Sure Start centres. In the light of the lack of progress since the my hon. Friend’s report, it is concerning that the hollowing out of Sure Start centres and the devastating cuts to intervention programmes that families rely on, such as parenting classes, drug and alcohol abuse support, and domestic violence services, have not been cited as causes when trying to understand the increase in children entering the care system.
Although a push for greater early intervention schemes is vital to addressing the increase in children entering the care system, there will still be situations when children must, sadly, be removed from the family home for their own safety. When a child is placed into care, all efforts must be made to ensure that they are safely placed with extended family members in a kinship care arrangement where possible, instead of within the care system.
It is estimated that 200,000 children are being raised by kinship carers across the UK. A significant number of children are being looked after by their grandparents or other relatives, but there has been little development in Government support for kinship carers that mirrors, for instance, recent announcements on adoption. Allowing a family member to care for a child instead of that child going into residential or foster care is important for the development of the child, but it can also help to reduce the strain on local children’s services, the budgets of which have been devastated by cuts. That does not mean that kinship carers should be seen as a cheaper option for providing care to children but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) made clear in his speech, kinship carers save the country millions upon millions of pounds by providing care to their kin.
Many kinship carers become so due to emergency circumstances, which means that the costs for raising that child, such as the immediate cost of providing a bed for the child to sleep in, clothes to wear and uniform for school, are not factored in to their household budgets. That is exacerbated when kinship carers must give up their jobs to look after their kin. The largest survey of kinship carers last year found that 49% of respondents had to give up work permanently. An analysis of the 2011 census found that 76% of children living in kinship care were living in deprived households.
The lack of joined-up thinking is laid bare when the same kinship carers who were told to give up their jobs are chased by the Department for Work and Pensions or ATOS and sanctioned for not looking for work, as my right hon. Friend said. I am gravely concerned about how both kinship and foster carers will fare when the Government’s proposed two-child policy comes into force. I echo what he said and plead with the Minister for exemptions for both kinship and foster carers if that policy goes ahead. That is why it is so important that the Government explore how the financial costs of being a kinship carer can be alleviated by allowing better access to funds and entitlements that are already available to adopted or foster children, who share similar adversities to children in kinship care, so that their development is not hindered or regressed.
The Government must also look at the process of placing a child with a kinship carer. Although new guidance for local authorities published last year is helpful in calling for more identification of potential family carers, there is still no statutory duty on local authorities to explore those options. That means that many local authorities look into kinship care only after a child is placed in the care system, causing avoidable upheaval for the child and the extended family.
There is a duty on all of us to ensure that every child, no matter what their circumstances, has a safe and nurturing home in which to spend their childhood. However, that is clearly not the case for tens of thousands of children who are currently in care, but who could have avoided entering the system in the first place. Continuing to fail those children is not an option. We cannot fail them; we are their village and we need to help raise them. I hope that the Minister realises that this is his moment to really make a difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in our society. I hope that he makes it count.
Sharon Hodgson speaking in the Backbench Business Debate on Children in Care - 7th January 2016 Image copyright Parliamentary Recording Unit 2016 As Shadow Children's Minister, Sharon spoke on behalf...
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