Robert Halfon: Delivering social justice means feeding children properly. We’re not doing so – and we must.

7 Oct

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Combating child food hunger should be as much a priority for this Government as its work on improving education standards. After all, we know the two are interlinked. Unsurprisingly, the evidence shows that hungry children not only do not learn at school, but have damaged life chances later on.

In 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimated that around 2.2 million people in the UK have limited access to food, due to a lack of money or other resources. Magic Breakfast, the charity implementing the Government’s National Breakfast Programme, has calculated that approximately 1.8 million children are living in food insecure households.

The economic impacts of Covid-19 have only exacerbated the problem of child hunger. According to the Children’s Commissioner, 88,000 children were living in households where jobs had been lost in April this year. Many parents, who have worked hard their entire lives, found themselves unemployed and, for the first time, struggling to provide the next meal for their children.

The Food Foundation’s September 2020 report showed that the Government’s furlough scheme undoubtedly protected many families from going hungry. But their May polling data also suggested a 250 per cent increase of households experiencing food insecurity since lockdown measures came into force.

School closures have placed further additional financial pressures on parents. Where childcare arrangements were too costly, or didn’t fit around work commitments, many parents reduced hours or even left jobs to care for their children at home. Families also had to provide home learning resources, and cover increased electricity and food bills.

Marcus Rashford has been a powerful voice in the debate on child hunger, calling for a long-term, cross-party strategy from the Government.  His impassioned letters to MPs resulted in the Government’s extension of free school meals over the holidays and at the start of September he endorsed the National Food Strategy’s recommendations. He emotively described his own mother’s struggle to put food on the table. Working full-time, earning minimum wage, their family still “relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals and the kind actions of neighbours and [football] coaches.”

Some Conservatives question the role of the state in addressing child hunger, or argue that the Government’s welfare system already acts as a safety net for those falling on hard times. But, as Lord Krebs’ report revealed, when the Government’s own calculations of welfare payments do not cost in the provision of a healthy diet, in line with its recommended Eatwell Guide, we are not even giving families on Universal Credit a fair chance.

Second, child food insecurity has a big impact on a child’s education. Kelloggs’ report, A Lost Education, found that if a child arrives at school hungry, teachers believe they lose one hour of learning time a day. Add to that the impact of the lockdown on education inequalities – early analysis by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in June estimated that the attainment gap could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to school closures – and these children are at great risk of being further left behind.

However, a control trial has shown showed that pupils in schools supported by breakfast clubs made an additional twp months’ academic progress over the course of a year.

Third, the economy pays a high price, too. In terms of education alone, Kelloggs have calculated that “the grip of hunger could potentially cost the English economy at least £5.2 million a year through teachers losing teaching hours to cope with the needs of hungry children”.

In the long-term, there is enormous cost-benefit to improving education outcomes. Around a quarter of working-aged adults (approximately 9 million people) have low basic numeracy and literacy skills. Studies at Loughborough University indicated that £3.5 billion is lost in tax receipts from people earning less as a result of leaving school with low skills ,and child hunger costs the economy £29 billion a yearyear.

At a total price-tag well exceeding £1 billion a year, the three National Food Strategy policies endorsed by Rashford and his Task Force of prominent retailers and manufacturers are a tough sell to a Treasury spending unprecedented amounts to salvage our economy from the wreckage of the pandemic. But there is already money that could be put to better use.

First, consolidation is key. Over the years, the Government has applied sticking plasters to the crisis of food insecurity, resulting in a spaghetti junction of schemes spanning nearly every department. Putting welfare benefits to the side, we have Free School Meals, Universal Infant Free School Meals, the School Milk Subsidy Scheme, the Nursery Milk Scheme, the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme, Breakfast Club funding, Healthy Start Vouchers and, during Covid-19, the Hardship Fund and the Holiday Activities and Food Programme. No wonder the Children’s Commissioner called for a “clear, joined-up plan to reduce food poverty”, during our Education Committee session on Tuesday.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many of these schemes are operating with cost-spiralling inefficiencies. The Healthy Start scheme, for example, suffers from extremely poor uptake. This is, in part, because of its archaic bureaucracy. Eligible pregnant women and parents of under-fours must complete and submit a paper application form (which has been particularly hard in lockdown for those who can’t get to a library to print out the forms).

Low participation in the scheme has created a significant underspend (2018/19 saw £28.6 million unused). Surely we can do much more to market the scheme, accelerate its promised digitisation and introduce automatic enrolment (with an opt-out), to ensure that support reaches those in need.

As an initial, basic step, we need proper data collection. The Health Department’s answer to my written question seeking the total expenditure on Healthy Start vouchers in England revealed that information is only held for 2018/19, raising concerns about the Health Department’s grasp of the situation.

Second, the Sugar Tax is forecast to generate a healthy £340 million revenue in 2020/21 – £1 billion over four years. Ringfencing this funding offers a perfect opportunity to extend Free School Meals over the school holidays, estimated at between £281 million and £670 million/year.

If we, as a state, acknowledge that certain children need food during term-time with the provision of Free School Meals, what changes over the summer holidays? In fact, we know that the financial pressures on parents only increase during this time.

As the Taxpayers’ Alliance has shown, the levy on everyday sugary food and drinks disproportionately impacts those from disadvantaged families, as low-income households tend to drink more sugary drinks and the tax takes a greater share of their income. Using this revenue for Free School Meals or for a long-term Holiday Activities and Food programme has appeal in redistributing money back to those families hit hardest by the levy.

Third, the sceptics amongst us will point out that the conglomerates on Rashford’s Task Force are getting a great deal of good PR, without putting their money where their mouth is. The Evening Standard estimated that supermarkets throw away around £230 million worth of food each year. There is a real opportunity here for the supermarkets, wholesalers and manufacturers, to take on a much bigger role in combating child hunger.

As Conservatives, we need to address this social injustice. This is not about an expansion of the welfare state, but simply ensuring all our children are properly fed. As the pandemic has shown, if we don’t have a safety net at the bottom of our ladder of opportunity, what is the point?

Bella Wallersteiner: Let the young work, play and be free of the rule of six – while older people learn to live with the virus

29 Sep

Bella Wallersteiner is Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Greg Smith MP.

The social compact is crumbling: for the first time since the 1960s young people are challenging the fundamental tenets that hold society together. This is not the sneering anarchy of the Sex Pistols in the 1970s or the solipsistic hedonism of the New Romantics in the 1980s, but the start of a new revolution as young people come to understand the scale of their betrayal by government and the media.

Having complied with lockdown, infantilised by their return to childhood bedrooms and enforced celibacy for six months, they accepted their loss of income from summer jobs, the imposition of travel restrictions and even the boredom and banality of online learning in the absence of lectures and seminars.

School leavers had the additional stress of Centre Assessed Grades and the application of a flawed algorithm, followed by a scramble for university places. In the blame-game which followed, no one has taken responsibility for this fiasco, there is no sign of an official enquiry and it is far from clear how exams will run next year.

During lockdown, altruistic young people worked in food banks, collected prescriptions, and went shopping for elderly neighbours who were shielding. Many were inspired by the example of Captain (now Sir)co Tom Moore to raise funds for the NHS (usually the Government’s responsibility). They stayed away from beloved grandparents in the knowledge that transmitting the virus to the elderly could have fatal consequences.

Instead of receiving praise for demonstrating grit, resilience and kindness, young people are now being vilified. Students are being blamed for the return of Covid-19 – even though viral transmission rates rose dramatically in the weeks before schools and universities re-opened. The media is awash with sanctimonious reports of illegal raves, student house parties and the collapse of social distancing.

Now that universities have re-opened, students are blamed for local spikes in transmissions. The response has been to lock down halls of residence and cancel lectures, face-to-face teaching, and social gatherings. After months of subservience to the will of the state, young people are beginning to question the lazy rhetoric that we are all in this together, we must follow the science and Covid-19 kills indiscriminately.

Rishi Sunak has exhorted us to face up to our fears. He is right. We now know far more about this virus than we did in March. Public awareness of the risks, and how to navigate them, is also much greater. The truth is that the virus has revealed fault lines in society between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, those with access to gardens and those who must make do with the local park. The science of epidemiology has proved as reliable as Jeremy Corbyn’s memory of being present, but not involved, in laying a wreath to honour members of the Black September terror group.

What we do know for certain is that this virus discriminates by race, weight, age, and overall health – it is racist, fattist, gerontophobe and Darwinian. Statistically, young people are relatively unaffected by Covid-19: the susceptibility of individuals under the age of 25 to the disease is less than half that of adults aged over 25. Not only are young people less likely to succumb to the illness, they have a lower propensity to show clinical symptoms when they do contract the coronavirus.

Neither is it clear whether spikes in cases among the young inevitably lead to increased deaths among the older demographic. Yet it is the young who are being told to self-isolate in student halls across the country, even after they have tested negative. Grinch-like finger-wagging authorities threaten to cancel Christmas unless students comply with increasingly draconian restrictions.Predictably, the laboratory for these policies is north of the border: where Scotland leads, England inevitably follows.

It is about time we had an honest conversation about segmenting the population with more targeted protection for the elderly and vulnerable. Young people should be actively encouraged to get on with life, build up some herd immunity and bolster our limping economy. Young people are the entrepreneurs, pacesetters, and problem solvers of the future – they will be vital to our recovery from this crisis.

But the consequences of not releasing this potential soon enough could be catastrophic. The impact of lockdown on mental health, especially among adolescents and young people, has yet to be determined. It is clear, however, that the removal of support networks and the cancellation of summer activities has led to an increase in the number of referrals for depression, self-harming and suicide.

In times of economic crisis, it is young people, with less experience, who are the first to be let go. Record numbers of young people are claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and the economic impact of the virus on young people’s prospects is already starting to show.

Our response to Covid-19 could create a lost generation destined for long-term unemployment and mental health problems. It is depressing that those most vulnerable, the elderly and those with underlying health issues, are still at risk.

What is unnecessary, and indeed immoral, is to disrupt the lives of young people who could be released from the strictures of the Coronavirus Act. We need to stop berating the young for pushing the boundaries, testing the limits of what is allowed and setting themselves free. Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? Let the young work and play, and even, dare I say, meet in groups of seven at their local Wetherspoons, while the rest of society adjusts to learning to live with the virus.

Bella Wallersteiner: Let the young work, play and be free of the rule of six – while older people learn to live with the virus

29 Sep

Bella Wallersteiner is Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Greg Smith MP.

The social compact is crumbling: for the first time since the 1960s young people are challenging the fundamental tenets that hold society together. This is not the sneering anarchy of the Sex Pistols in the 1970s or the solipsistic hedonism of the New Romantics in the 1980s, but the start of a new revolution as young people come to understand the scale of their betrayal by government and the media.

Having complied with lockdown, infantilised by their return to childhood bedrooms and enforced celibacy for six months, they accepted their loss of income from summer jobs, the imposition of travel restrictions and even the boredom and banality of online learning in the absence of lectures and seminars.

School leavers had the additional stress of Centre Assessed Grades and the application of a flawed algorithm, followed by a scramble for university places. In the blame-game which followed, no one has taken responsibility for this fiasco, there is no sign of an official enquiry and it is far from clear how exams will run next year.

During lockdown, altruistic young people worked in food banks, collected prescriptions, and went shopping for elderly neighbours who were shielding. Many were inspired by the example of Captain (now Sir)co Tom Moore to raise funds for the NHS (usually the Government’s responsibility). They stayed away from beloved grandparents in the knowledge that transmitting the virus to the elderly could have fatal consequences.

Instead of receiving praise for demonstrating grit, resilience and kindness, young people are now being vilified. Students are being blamed for the return of Covid-19 – even though viral transmission rates rose dramatically in the weeks before schools and universities re-opened. The media is awash with sanctimonious reports of illegal raves, student house parties and the collapse of social distancing.

Now that universities have re-opened, students are blamed for local spikes in transmissions. The response has been to lock down halls of residence and cancel lectures, face-to-face teaching, and social gatherings. After months of subservience to the will of the state, young people are beginning to question the lazy rhetoric that we are all in this together, we must follow the science and Covid-19 kills indiscriminately.

Rishi Sunak has exhorted us to face up to our fears. He is right. We now know far more about this virus than we did in March. Public awareness of the risks, and how to navigate them, is also much greater. The truth is that the virus has revealed fault lines in society between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, those with access to gardens and those who must make do with the local park. The science of epidemiology has proved as reliable as Jeremy Corbyn’s memory of being present, but not involved, in laying a wreath to honour members of the Black September terror group.

What we do know for certain is that this virus discriminates by race, weight, age, and overall health – it is racist, fattist, gerontophobe and Darwinian. Statistically, young people are relatively unaffected by Covid-19: the susceptibility of individuals under the age of 25 to the disease is less than half that of adults aged over 25. Not only are young people less likely to succumb to the illness, they have a lower propensity to show clinical symptoms when they do contract the coronavirus.

Neither is it clear whether spikes in cases among the young inevitably lead to increased deaths among the older demographic. Yet it is the young who are being told to self-isolate in student halls across the country, even after they have tested negative. Grinch-like finger-wagging authorities threaten to cancel Christmas unless students comply with increasingly draconian restrictions.Predictably, the laboratory for these policies is north of the border: where Scotland leads, England inevitably follows.

It is about time we had an honest conversation about segmenting the population with more targeted protection for the elderly and vulnerable. Young people should be actively encouraged to get on with life, build up some herd immunity and bolster our limping economy. Young people are the entrepreneurs, pacesetters, and problem solvers of the future – they will be vital to our recovery from this crisis.

But the consequences of not releasing this potential soon enough could be catastrophic. The impact of lockdown on mental health, especially among adolescents and young people, has yet to be determined. It is clear, however, that the removal of support networks and the cancellation of summer activities has led to an increase in the number of referrals for depression, self-harming and suicide.

In times of economic crisis, it is young people, with less experience, who are the first to be let go. Record numbers of young people are claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and the economic impact of the virus on young people’s prospects is already starting to show.

Our response to Covid-19 could create a lost generation destined for long-term unemployment and mental health problems. It is depressing that those most vulnerable, the elderly and those with underlying health issues, are still at risk.

What is unnecessary, and indeed immoral, is to disrupt the lives of young people who could be released from the strictures of the Coronavirus Act. We need to stop berating the young for pushing the boundaries, testing the limits of what is allowed and setting themselves free. Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? Let the young work and play, and even, dare I say, meet in groups of seven at their local Wetherspoons, while the rest of society adjusts to learning to live with the virus.

Ros Altmann: What Ministers should do to ease the plight of small landlords

7 Jul

Baroness Altmann is a Conservative peer.

Around eleven million people in England live in private rented housing.  Covid-19 has caused considerable anxiety for many tenants who fear its impact on their finances and their ability to keep up rent payments for their current home.

I welcome the policies that stopped tenants being made homeless during the emergency lockdown. The Government rightly decided to suspend evictions in the rental market for a period of three months to provide security to tenants and to ensure that the lockdown worked, backed by a financial package of support for tenants who were struggling to continue paying their rent. This included the furlough scheme and increases to the Local Housing Allowance and Universal Credit.

The Government recently decided to extend the ban on evictions by a further two months, pending the outcome of a judge-led working group that is looking at how to protect those most at risk from Covid-19, while also ensuring landlords can regain possession of their properties in legitimate circumstances.

All these steps are welcome, and have contributed to the vast majority of tenants (90 per cent according to the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA)) being able to pay their rent as normal. It has given tenants a breathing space during this unprecedented national lockdown. But a blanket ban on all evictions is not without its victims.

After so many months, I do wonder whether the Conservatives need to do more to show support for some of the landlords (especially small ones who own only one or two properties).

Many may have been relying on rental income for their retirement or other purposes and are struggling to pay their own bills, while their tenants are not paying rent, or are causing damage and disturbance. Even in such cases, all landlords are currently powerless to take action to protect themselves.

Anti-social tenants who blight the lives of neighbours, communities, fellow tenants and landlords alike cause real distress.  As one tenant recently wrote on twitter: This is a total disaster. I’m living in a shared house with a nightmare tenant. We all want her gone, as does the landlady. Her anti-social behaviour is driving us and the neighbours up the wall. She was due to go on 1st July. I can’t put up with it for another two months.”

The current eviction ban, while protecting tenants, leaves many private or social landlords, especially those who had tenants building rent arrears prior to the lockdown, struggling.

Consider a buy-to-let landlord, who owns just one property, with a tenant who did not pay rent for a few months before lockdown and has not paid since. Having already had to wait to bring a case to court, and then faced delays with getting an order enforced (on average about 6 months) followed by five months of the repossessions ban, the landlord will have received no income for over a year.

Yet they must still meet costs such as licensing fees, insurance, and maybe even utility bills for the property. It is therefore hardly surprising that 29 per cent of landlords are reporting some degree of financial hardship according to the NRLA.

I believe the Government should now draw up plans for the coming months, once the eviction ban is lifted. Tenants who have struggled to pay their rent will be worried about their future whilst landlords with troublesome tenants or rent deficits will be looking for much-needed relief. The following framework of measures could show greater concern for the plight of small landlords, while also helping tenants who do their utmost to behave responsibly:

  • The Government should clearly re-state that tenants must, wherever possible, continue to pay their rent as normal. It is not realistic to suggest the Government should simply suspend the all rental payments because of the pandemic. Such suggestions reflect an assumption that all landlords are wealthy or large firms who can afford to receive no income from their properties. This is certainly not the case and denying people any income from their properties is unsustainable, and possibly illegal.
  • Government should offer landlords and tenants additional support, including mediation, to agree rent repayment plans where arrears have built as a result of the Covid outbreak. This would help prevent some repossession cases coming before the courts, which is important because sustaining tenancies wherever possible should be a priority.
  • Government should urgently consider Court reforms so that possession cases are heard more effectively and speedily. There is a huge backlog of cases and courts will struggle to meet the demand for hearings. This would, therefore, be an ideal time for major reforms, including a focus on modernisation, such as introducing online hearings and making better use of web based arbitration. Court reform is an essential part of ensuring the Government’s Renters’ Reform Bill works, and it has been well over a year since the consultation on developing a housing court closed, so a response is urgently needed.
  • Finally, we need clear plans to deal with the rental market if localised lockdowns are required to combat future Covid-19 outbreaks. The courts may, for example, want to pause repossession cases in those circumstances, but if this happens, landlords and tenants need clarity on the precise areas affected and the likely timeframes for any pause.

The private rented sector plays a vital part in housing the nation. Some seek to paint a picture of tenants and landlords in constant conflict, but in the vast majority of cases they have been working constructively to address the challenges of Covid-19. Once the immediate crisis measures are relaxed, the proposals I have outlined here could engender a sustainable balance between the rights of renters and of landlord. But Conservatives also need to bear in mind the political realities, and must avoid causing long-lasting problems for landlords.