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?