Westminster Hall speech on regional inequalities and child poverty
Image copyright, Parliamentary Recording Unit, 2022.
Sharon Hodgson MP - spoke in a parliamentary debate about regional inequalities and child poverty held in Westminster Hall, called by Labour colleague Liz Twist, MP for Blaydon.
The debate couldn’t be more relevant at the current time, when children in the North East have the second highest poverty rate in the UK, and 51% of Washington and Sunderland West households with children are in receipt of UC or Working Tax Credit. Many of these families were struggling before the pandemic, but a toxic combination of low incomes, a cost-of-living emergency and the Government’s £20-a-week cuts to universal credit has sent many families into crisis. Speaking in the debate, I focused on the provision of free school meals – a quarter of North East Children in poverty are not eligible for a free school meal. Hungry children cannot learn, and I wanted to make it clear that the Government’s talk of levelling up is meaningless when thousands of children in poverty are being left behind. Food insecurity must be addressed.
Sharon recently spoke at a conference held by Durham County Council's Education department on child poverty, where she spoke about her work on addressing child hunger as Chair of the School Food APPG.
You can read Sharon's speech below:
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Thank you for inviting me along to speak to you today.
We’ve already had an excellent opening presentation by Lorraine, and I am also looking forward to hearing from our next speaker, Sara Bryson from Children North East on poverty proofing the school day.
Unfortunately, I won’t be able to stay for the whole duration of your conference – as I need to be in Parliament later this afternoon - but I do wish you all the best with today.
There are many pressing priorities as a politician when it comes to addressing issues that affect us as a society, yet for me, it is vital that we dedicate as much time and energy as possible into addressing the issue of child poverty – which is one of the most persistent and damaging issues we face as a country.
It has been one of my many ambitions since being elected 11 years ago to do all I can to tackle this issue once and for all.
This has included campaigning against the lack of choice for parents when buying their child’s school uniform when schools restrict options to an overly priced supplier, which to me is all about the underhand selection in some schools to only have a certain ‘type’ of pupil attending their school.
One of the main areas of poverty that I am currently working to develop policy around is food poverty, especially child hunger.
Food is a vital component in all of our lives.
It is important to help sustain ourselves, keep us healthy and fuel us for the day ahead.
This is no different for children.
That is why I have been a passionate advocate and supporter of providing children and young people with the much-needed food and nutrients that can help them succeed in life, both in and out of school, but also teaching them the essentials around food and cooking, which can all help address food poverty.
This has mainly been done through my work as the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food, which for the last five years has championed policy interventions around children and food in our schools from universal free school meals, improving the inspection of food in our schools by Ofsted and championing better provision of food education across all Key Stages.
More recently, the APPG has steered ahead on a pertinent aspect of child hunger, known as holiday hunger, with the setting up of the Holiday Hunger Task Group which has helped drive forward the agenda on child holiday hunger and championed the development of policy to address this growing issue.
That is why I am delighted to be speaking to you all today.
Over the next 20 minutes or so, and in the following Q&A, I will touch on the work of the APPG and what support those in the room today can give to the APPG, along with the Task Group, to achieve our goal of no child going hungry.
But first I want to discuss the wider issue of child poverty and child hunger in the UK to help set the scene of why the APPG has acted to address this issue.
According to figures released by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) last year, absolute poverty will increase from 15.1% in 2015-16 to 18.3% in 2020-21.
This is compounded by predictions from the Resolution Foundation who fear that 200,000 more children will enter into poverty during this calendar year – the majority coming from working households.
If this trajectory was to play out, then it would be a damning indictment of the current Government, and the previous Coalition Government, who failed to address this issue meaningfully following the work in the last years of the Labour Government when we passed the Child Poverty Act in 2010.
This Act set out four legal duties on the then Government and any future Government to work towards key targets on poverty by 2020, which included less than 10 percent of children in relative poverty and less than 5% of children in absolute poverty.
These targets were important for us to work towards, and if possible exceed, and get to a place where no child was living in either relative or absolute poverty.
However, back in July of last year, we saw the then Work and Pensions Secretary make a decision that the child poverty targets set out in the Act would be replaced with a new duty to report on levels of educational attainment, worklessness and addiction, rather than relative material disadvantage.
Whilst measuring these areas is important as they are commonly experienced by those living in poverty and by children from disadvantaged backgrounds; it beggar’s belief why we should consider withdrawing the duty to report and monitor material disadvantage also.
Abolishing these legal targets will not see poverty disappear from our society and will not solve the growing crisis that we are watching unfold in this country, instead poverty will just go unmonitored, unchecked and unrestrained .
These changes will make poverty an issue which is unchallenged and will fail to allow us, as Parliamentarians and civil society, to react with the right kind of policy to help tackle poverty before it becomes worse.
By failing to address poverty in a meaningful way, Parliamentarians and the Government are failing those very children that we are elected to help protect by creating a society that enables them to become well-rounded and successful adults.
Poverty is an issue which affects the life chances of children as they grow-up, through negative impacts on their health, education, and social and emotional wellbeing.
By sitting back and doing nothing, we are consigning those disadvantaged children to the same future as their parents by failing to break the cycle that traps generation after generation in poverty.
A report published back in 2013 found that child poverty costs the UK at least £29billion each year, and this doesn’t include the unmeasurable lost opportunities of every child who continues to be trapped in poverty.
The findings are stark and should act as a reminder of how important it is to continue the push to end child poverty. Not only for every individual child, but for society as a whole.
Research has also found that children from poorer backgrounds lag behind their more affluent peers at every stage of education.
By the age of 3, poorer children are estimated to be nine months behind those children from wealthier backgrounds.
And by the Department for Education’s own figures, by the end of primary school, pupils who are in receipt of a free school meal are estimated to be almost three terms behind their peers, rising to five terms at age 14, and by 16, this amounts to being 1.7 GCSE grades lower than their peers from more affluent backgrounds.
In regards to health, poverty is highly associated with a high risk of both illness and premature death.
Children from some of the poorest areas of the UK weigh 200 grams less at birth than those from the richest areas.
And poorer health over the course of those children’s lifetime will impact their life expectancy, with children who go on to have a career in a professional environment living 8 years longer than those who have an unskilled job.
Poverty also plays a part in the breakdown of communities and social cohesion, which are important to healthy and flourishing local communities.
For children from low-income families, they are often the ones who miss out on what many of us take for granted, such as school trips, not being able to invite their school friends round for tea, or families not being able to afford a one-week holiday away from home – regardless of if it is abroad or here in Britain.
Figures show that 1 in 3 families with young children in the UK are unable to afford a week’s holiday, with more than a million families not able to afford a day out during the summer.
These figures are deeply concerning, and are, reflected in my experiences as a local Member of Parliament.
Not long after being elected in 2005, I visited one of my local schools, in one of the more disadvantaged parts of my constituency, where I sat and had a conversation with the Headteacher about the experiences of the children at his school.
It really hit home when he told me that the children wouldn’t even leave the estate over the summer holidays, not even venturing to the Metrocentre or to the seaside at South Shields or Sunderland.
This failure to allow children to experience what other children may take as the accepted norm can cause tensions in school environments, from bullying from their peers or social isolation because they are seen as different or poor – when you are poor as a child you never want to admit it.
Not only does it cause social tensions, but it can have a lasting impact on a child’s educational attainment.
Providing children with experiences outside of what they are used to is only ever going to be beneficial to their life through broadening their horizons and allowing them to experience culture, history, and art to help make them realise that there is more to life outside of their estate – which becomes their entire world
Now turning to child hunger, which has always been a persistent issue in this country, and schools have always played a vital role in addressing this issue.
Child hunger and the intervention that schools can make goes as far back as 1906 when the then Member of Parliament for Bradford West, Fred Jowlett, used his maiden speech in the House of Commons to launch a campaign that would introduce school meals, not just that they should be free for the poor, but that there should be some form of provision in school in the first place.
Jowlett used his maiden speech to highlight his work on the Bradford’s School Board where he witnessed malnourished children falling behind their peers and argued that with the introduction of compulsory education, it was down to the Government to provide those children with the food necessary to sustain themselves throughout the school day.
Ironic how things have failed to change more than 100 years on.
Jowlett’s intervention led to the passing of the Provision of School Meals Act in 1906, which established a national strategy for local authorities to provide school meals for the very first time – and especially to the most disadvantaged children in our society.
Since then we have seen countless moments where school food has taken a step forward, and helped us address the issue of child hunger.
And I put myself in that camp right now as someone who is determined to drive forward the provision of food in our schools to help address child hunger, as I understand just how important food is to a child’s development.
Two of the most recent interventions into this century-old campaign have been: the publication of the School Food Plan by John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby and the Feeding Britain report by my Parliamentary colleague, Frank Field, in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
Firstly, turning to John and Henry, after their tour of England to understand and see first-hand the food provision on offer in our children’s schools and after much research and fact-finding missions, they set out to write their report.
In their findings, they found:
- 57% of children were not eating school lunches at all
- Only 1% of packed lunches met nutritional standards of hot dinners, and;
- Studies have shown that hunger affects concentration and well-nourished children fared better at school.
And after all the lobbying I had done to get the universal free school meal pilots in Durham and Newham – which were sadly scrapped by the incoming Coalition Government in 2011 - I was delighted when I picked up the report on the day of its publication and saw it say:
“Recommendation 17 – the government should embark upon a phased roll out of free school meals for all primary school children, beginning with the local authorities with the highest percentage of children already eligible for free school meals.”
And to this very day, I will never understand how they got Michael Gove, the then Education Secretary, to agree to that recommendation. I was even more surprised when the Government then agreed to actually roll-out universal free school meals in 2014 albeit to just infant classes – all thanks to a deal between Cameron and Clegg over the Conservative’s pet project of a marriage tax allowance.
I have been a long-time advocate of universal free school meals, understanding the social, health, educational and behavioural benefits this policy can bring but also how vital it is to address child hunger.
As the pilots in Durham and Newham showed, healthy food was consumed more often.
Vegetable intake at lunchtime increased by 23 percent, whilst consumption of soft drinks fell by 16 percent and crisps by 18 percent.
Though the research is still proving the health benefits of this policy, it is undeniable that feeding a child a healthy school meal at lunch will have a knock-on effect on their health – helping to reverse health inequality trends connected with poverty.
Even in education terms, the children in the two pilot areas were two months ahead of their peers in other areas, whilst 4% more children achieved their expected grades at Key Stage 2.
Yet, with schools open for 190 days of the year, the other 175 days are just as important to help maintain the positive intervention seen through universal infant free school meals and healthier school food, and not allow holiday hunger to reverse this important work.
This is an area which needs a lot of policy development to ensure that children don’t fall back during the school holidays and return to school behind their peers in terms of their education and their health.
There are many who think that when the school gates lock for the school holidays, that it is none of our business about how a child eats, or doesn’t in some cases, when they are at home.
Yet, the evidence is clear, there is a growing problem and we cannot and should not allow it to continue.
This was referenced in Frank Field’s report from 2014 – which I mentioned earlier – which cited evidence provided to them that showed children from low-income families were often going hungry before school, which was exacerbated by a lack of routine and organisation at home.
Frank’s report recommended that Local Authorities should automatically register children of eligible parents for free school meals, as this also helps with maximising pupil premium funding – something which Frank has subsequently championed with his 10 Minute Rule Bill in Parliament.
Other recommendations called for the Government to cost the extension of free school meal provision during the school holidays – something that I very much welcome and believe the Government should look at further to understand the costings of how this could be achieved in the future.
There have also been countless studies and surveys which have highlighted the growing concern of holiday hunger.
A Kellogg’s survey from last year found that:
- 39 percent of teachers said pupils in their schools did not get enough food over the school holidays, and;
- A third of parents had skipped a meal so that their kids could eat during the school holidays.
Pair this with the huge increase in the use of food banks over the summer holidays, where food bank usage by children is nearly 30,000 for the financial year 2015-16 here in the North East, compared to 23,000 in 2013-14.
That’s a 30% increase in just two years.
That is why, just like with addressing issues that I mentioned earlier about the impact of poverty on a child’s life chances, we cannot allow the hard work gone into a child’s attainment during school terms to be reversed during school holidays, just because some people think it is a step to far.
Those children won’t think that. All they think about is having a meal in their tummy that will sustain them and perhaps something to do other than roam the streets of their estate for 13 weeks every year.
That is why, as I mentioned at the beginning, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School, which I chair, set up the Holiday Hunger Task Group after writing a position paper in 2013 which highlighted our concerns.
It was our belief that we must understand this issue further and develop practical policy for Parliamentarians to consider implementing.
The expert panel which makes up the Task Group and is led by Lindsay Graham has gone from strength to strength.
In June 2015, the Holiday Hunger Task Group held its first conference with academics, charities, local authorities and specialists all coming together to launch the Filling the Holiday Gap guidelines.
These voluntary guidelines were published to be used by any organisation, local authority or school who wish to provide food during their holiday provision, such as summer camps, holiday clubs or educational fun days, and use the guide to provide the healthiest and most nutritious food possible to ensure those children received that vital healthy meal they need.
The guidance was met with great support, and following its publication the Task Group published their Update Report in November which provided a snapshot of holiday provision – which included food – and current on-going research across the UK.
This included activities provided here in Durham by 17 churches through the Communities Together scheme, which included activities such as drama, crafts, sports and cooking and as part of the programme, they fed over 3000 children and adults with healthy picnics, BBQs and full two course homemade meals.
The report also called on the Government to do more to help develop holiday food provision and carry out research into the scale of child hunger in the UK and the effects it has on learning.
Currently the APPG’s Task Group, with the support of Northumbria University, is undergoing a mapping exercise to help understand the scale of holiday provision in England.
This will allow us the chance to fully understand where there is provision and where there is not.
It will also help us highlight best practice across the country so that it can be shared amongst local authorities, organisations and schools to ensure that the best possible provision is in place to help those children who need our support during the school holidays.
This will be an important step forward in our work on child holiday hunger and will give us evidence that can be used to push ahead on this agenda, especially lobbying the Government; and I hope that everyone in the room today can help with this.
Poverty is not inevitable.
Poverty is a symptom of lack of action, lack of innovative thinking and lack of political will by government to tackle the issue.
If the Government cannot harness action in these three areas to help address child poverty, and child hunger, then we will continue to see swathes of the next generation and the generation after that continue to be trapped in this perpetual cycle of poverty which is not only bad for them and their families but us as a society.
Instead of allowing people to languish and become despondent members of society, we should be reaching out a hand to them and supporting them to reach their true potential.
No child, no matter their circumstances, background or need, should be allowed to wallow in poverty and miss out on the opportunities that life in this great country of ours can bring.
Children deserve the best childhood possible, and we owe them just that.
That is why I hope following today’s conference that we all go out there and lobby this Government to do the right thing and make sure that no child is left hungry or in poverty.
Sharon Hodgson MPs report - Apr-May 2016 - number 85
Read Sharon Hodgson MP's report - News from Westminster - Apr-May 2016 - number 85