In Britain today, no child need go hungry — particularly at Christmas. At the start of the pandemic, extraordinary measures were put in place to help vulnerable children, including extending free school meals when schools were partially closed.
While there has been considerable coverage of what Parliament did not agree, there has been less attention to what it did agree and what I supported. MPs backed an emergency package of support measures for families which is worth billions on top of Free School Meals. Parliament also endorsed ongoing activities to help the most vulnerable children in society.
But even now schools are operating at something close to normal, we must continue to find ways, alongside free school meals, to ensure children do not go hungry. Extra steps have been needed during the pandemic to help families in our area, including over holiday periods.
Free School Meals are intended to support children while they are learning and 99 per cent of schools are now back open. During the holidays, families must have a robust safety net, which can help them cope with the extra pressures of coronavirus. At the start of the pandemic, key benefits were boosted by over £1,000 per year for 12 months, part of a £9.3bn increase to the welfare safety net. Councils have also been given £63m to help those families most in need, including supplying food if that is appropriate.
I strongly believe that councils are well placed to ensure that struggling families are supported through these tough times. I’m pleased to see that some councils around the country are making use of the £63 million of extra emergency funding that has been given to councils to provide free meals over the October half-term for struggling families. This £63 million is in addition to the £3.7 billion of extra funding that councils have received to respond to the difficulties caused by coronavirus.
Marcus Rashford is to be congratulated for bringing the issue of food poverty into the light this summer and I’m glad his work has been recognised with an MBE. We all want to do what we can to alleviate child food poverty and as such I am pleased that the Government acted to ensure eligible children could still receive free school meals this summer.
The three policy proposals put forward by Mr Rashford's taskforce have been suggested in Part 1 of the National Food Strategy and Ministers are carefully considering these. I'm also pleased that the Schools Minister has said he would be happy to meet with Mr Rashford to discuss the issue.
As the pandemic evolves, the Government must remain open to additional support measures based on the need at the time. With winter approaching, I expect colleagues to continue in this spirit to support the most vulnerable children in a range of ways.