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.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this important debate.
Child poverty has been rising in the UK, with a quarter of all children now living in poverty—more than 3.4 million children. Of those children, 75% are from working families. When children in our society face poverty as they are growing up, society as a whole suffers as a result. Yet, since 2010 there has been little, if any, intervention to stem the insecurities facing many families on the poverty line. As we begin the road to recovery after the pandemic, there is the opportunity for real change, but the perfect storm is coming for families across the UK as we approach the new tax year, with skyrocketing energy bills, an increasingly expensive weekly shop, a hike in national insurance and a cut to universal credit. This complex situation will mean that many more families will face strains on their household budgets and risk falling into food insecurity.
Not every child living in poverty facing food insecurity is eligible for free school meals. In the north-east, one quarter of children in poverty are not eligible for a free school meal according to the narrow £7,400 household income threshold. Meanwhile, 150,000 children across the country with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) live below the poverty line but remain ineligible for free school meals because of their immigration status. There was a temporary reprieve for those children during the pandemic; I plead with the Government to make it permanent.
We will all know that hungry children cannot learn, but this simple phrase is becoming a complex reality for far too many children and young people across the country. The burden of the gaps in the provision of free school meals often rests on schools that are having to subsidise parents who cannot pay—something that is not sustainable. Urgent attention must be paid to addressing the shortcomings in school food provision, to ensure that all children experiencing poverty have access to a hot, healthy and balanced meal each school day.
The recent levelling-up White Paper gave warm words to the importance of school food in combating health inequalities such as malnourishment and obesity. The prevalence of obesity has risen markedly since the start of the pandemic, no more so than for children from deprived and left-behind areas. It is a stark reality that the cheapest food is often the most calorific. It is far more expensive to fill up hungry children with healthy food. To give a quick example, four chocolate muffins are £1 in supermarket; six apples are usually £2.
The warm words of the levelling-up White Paper are not matched by reality. Over 1,300 Sure Starts have closed since the Conservatives got into government. At their peak, Sure Starts prevented more than 16,000 hospitalisations of children every year. We need more than warm words form the Government. Children and families experiencing poverty must be at the heart of levelling up. They need security and real policy changes, so that every child has the opportunity to do well in life. They need a Government who truly believe that poverty is not inevitable and act with passion every day to make it history.