This week, I called on colleagues to work cross-party to tackle child food poverty during a Westminster Hall Debate.
It goes without saying that no child should go hungry and we, as Members of Parliament, must work together to find an effective policy solution to this. This policy cannot be something that simply just makes us look good or a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. It needs to be about making a material difference to the lives of the most vulnerable in our communities.
Looking back over projects of past governments, it is clear that it is local government’s knowledge of their communities that makes a crucial difference to how we reach the most needy. This is something I know personally from 22 years as a local councillor, 20 of those leading services to support vulnerable children.
I have spoken with foodbanks and local authorities implementing the Government’s response, who have said that having that flexibility – providing funding so that local authorities can make the difference – has been appreciated.
We have total cross-party agreement about the need for action on this and we now must ensure that we have effective policy responses that make a difference for the better in the lives of struggling families and our most vulnerable children in this country.
My full contribution can be read below:
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. In the opening speech we heard about the fact that in this country—one of the six wealthiest in the world, and a country that has among the cheapest food in the world—any child or any family should not face a problem with food poverty, and I entirely agree. As Members of Parliament, we need to share our challenges and our ideas about how we implement an effective policy solution to that fact. I recall how, during my time in local government, the last Labour Government included councils such as mine to support the development of local food banks. They recognised that for many families, despite there being cash loans available, a relatively—at the time—generous benefit system and widespread access to free school meals, that support simply was not reaching all children.
We must also recognise that the implementation of policies intended to address child poverty has not always resulted in a material change in their circumstances and, in particular, the circumstances of the most vulnerable children. I commend the Government and the Minister for responding not by taking a one-size-fits-all policy approach through free school meals, but by providing financial support to local authorities. It is those local authorities that best know the circumstances of their area and those of their most vulnerable families, and are therefore best placed to ensure that the support that is provided makes a material difference to the daily life of those children. It would simply be a disgrace if we were to take an approach where we implement a policy and pat ourselves on the back, but that policy has not put a meal in the belly of a hungry child, or helped a family facing chaotic and difficult circumstances to turn their lives around.
Over the years, through the approaches we have taken to everything from the troubled families project under the coalition Government to the initiation of the Sure Start programme under the last Labour Government, we have learned that it is about having that local knowledge, experience and understanding of circumstances. I commend the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government for the policies they have implemented, because in the context of Scotland those things are right. However, we also need to recognise that in England, where there is not the equivalent—an English Parliament—it is our local authorities that know the circumstances in their communities and are best placed to make the crucial difference.
Certainly, having visited my local food bank and spoken to people in my local authorities who have been implementing the Government’s response, running the programmes to tackle the risk of holiday hunger and engaging with schools, this element of flexibility—providing funding so that local authorities can make the difference—has been much appreciated. It has demonstrated that some families are far more needy than we might have thought, and others have been able to turn their situation around with a relatively small amount of support.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) highlighted, it is right that we recognise that there is no real party political disagreement about the need for action on this; there is total cross-party agreement. We need to make sure that we have effective policy responses that make a difference for the better in the lives of our most vulnerable children in this country. We need to focus on what we agree on, and in my view, that is what the Government’s policy approach to date has entirely been about.