6 November 2018
Nadhim Zahawi responds to debate on holiday hunger schemes

Nadhim Zahawi outlines his commitment to working to explore how the Government can best support disadvantaged children and their families during the school holidays to ensure that all children have access to healthy food and are engaged and invigorated after the school holidays, so that they are ready for the new term.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) on securing this important debate. I know that she is passionate about this matter and was instrumental in establishing the Fit and Fed pilot scheme in Stoke-on-Trent in 2017. I will embarrass myself by attempting the accent, but hearing about Ay Up Duck was truly inspiring.

I also thank the many colleagues who have spoken. I think the local paper of the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) is already writing the headline, “The Sandwich Lady has DVLA on her hit list”. I have to say that for her, her team and her constituents to have delivered 10,000 meals this summer is truly admirable. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) contributed, and I am grateful for her courtesy in sending me a note to explain why she was slightly delayed in joining the debate. There were also many interventions from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who is no longer here. I did not agree with all of them, but some were worth noting, including those on his work in local government.

I reiterate the Government’s commitment to delivering a country that really does work for everyone. For most children, the school holidays should mean fun experiences and a chance to make memories with friends and family. We want to make sure that those opportunities are available to all children, regardless of their background.

Let me first set out what the Government have done on our key priority of tackling poverty and disadvantage. In 2017, we published the “Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families” strategy, which focused on measures to tackle the root causes of poverty and to improve children’s welfare. For most people, work represents the best route out of poverty. Unemployment has not been lower since 1975, and the proportion of workless households is at its lowest since records began.

However, we recognise that there is more to do. One of the Government’s guiding principles is to promote social mobility and to ensure equality of opportunity for every child. My Department plays a leading role in ensuring that a package of support for disadvantaged children is in place to help them reach their full potential.

We recognise the benefits of providing healthy food to disadvantaged children. Through our free school meals policy, more than 1.1 million disadvantaged children currently benefit from a free meal at school. In September 2014, we extended that to include disadvantaged further education students—that has not been raised in the debate, but it was clearly an area that we needed to extend to policy to—and to give free school meals to all children in reception and years 1 and 2 in England’s state-funded schools.

To get the best out of their time at school, children need a healthy breakfast. We have invested up to £26 million from the soft drinks industry levy to support the national school breakfast programme, delivered by Family Action and Magic Breakfast. Through that programme, we will set up or improve more than 1,700 breakfast clubs in the most disadvantaged areas of our country, focusing on our 12 opportunity areas. Last week, I visited St Mary’s Primary School in Battersea, 50% of whose children are on pupil premium, and saw for myself the advantage of a nutritious breakfast and activities, whether we are talking about maths, English or just running around the yard. One bonus, one upside, that the headteacher told me about was that attendance had increased.

I shall now talk about the subject of this debate—the holiday activities and food programme of work that my Department has committed to. I agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North that “holiday hunger” is the wrong title, which is why I prefer to talk about holiday activities and food. Earlier this year, in response to the private Member’s Bill mentioned by the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) and promoted by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), I announced work to investigate how to support the most disadvantaged children to access free healthy food and enriching activities during the school holidays. The purpose of that is to allow us to gather more evidence about the scale of the issue, the most effective ways of tackling it, and the costs and burdens associated with doing so. As a result, we will be able to make an evidence-based decision about whether and how we should intervene in the longer term.

As part of our 2018 programme of work, my officials have reviewed the available research evidence and engaged with national and local delivery partners. We have learned that the evidence base for the schemes, although still in its infancy, shows that they can have a positive impact on children and their families. We have learned that the most effective forms of provision seem to be those that deliver consistent and easily accessible activities and involve children and parents in the preparation of healthy food. Throughout that programme of work, we have engaged with those on the ground delivering this type of provision, those building the evidence base and those supporting providers. I am referring to people such as Carol Shanahan—she is absolutely brilliant and truly an inspiration and, alongside the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, set up the Stoke-on-Trent pilot in 2017—Lindsay Graham and Professor Greta Defeyter.

Our stakeholders have told us that providers want to work better with other stakeholders to improve targeting and referrals, and link up with other people who could support them, such as food providers. They told us that they want greater co-ordination across the sector to help to raise awareness of provision and to ensure that provision exists where it is most needed, so it is targeted. Providers need support to improve the quality of provision through the introduction of minimum standards, guidance, training and support. I think you will agree, Mr Stringer, that this is enormously powerful stuff.

In March, I announced a £2 million fund to support organisations to deliver healthy food and activities to children in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the country during the 2018 summer holidays. We awarded funding to seven organisations, which told us that, with that money, they were able to support about 280 clubs—including three in Stoke-on-Trent—reaching about 18,000 children. The information that we have gathered from the projects—from data on attendance reported by the projects, from visits to a small sample of clubs and from conversations with the organisations that we have funded—has helped us enormously in thinking about how we as a Government can add value in our 2019 programme.

We have today published figures evaluating the performance of the clubs. I am aware that there was some confusion about the number of people helped by the programme. Today’s figures relate to the number of children who have been helped by the scheme. They show that thousands of children—approximately 18,000—have benefited from the programme. In July, a figure of 30,000 was used. However, for one supplier, the figure estimated the number of times that children would be helped by the programme, so it was slightly misleading. I wanted to set the record straight on that.

We will be able to say more about what we have learned from the 2018 projects later this autumn when we announce our plans for the 2019 programme, but for me, the key messages from the projects that we funded this summer have been as follows. First, I want to pay tribute to and thank all the staff and volunteers involved in the clubs for what they achieved with limited time, resources and people. Secondly, there was huge variation in the types of provision on offer. For example, some clubs were open all day, every day over the holidays, but others opened for an hour or two over lunch a couple of days a week; my officials saw clubs in a range of venues that offered a range of activities. Thirdly, we want to preserve that variety and ensure that clubs can operate in a way that responds to the needs of those attending. However, it was clear that there are areas where the sector needs support and where a more strategic and co-ordinated approach could add real value and achieve real efficiencies, and that is what we want to focus on during the 2019 programme.

As an example of where greater support and co-ordination could help, I would like to focus for a while on the food aspect of provision. Many clubs benefited from having the facilities, knowledge, experience and volunteers to be able to prepare and cook delicious, healthy and nutritious food and snacks. Others had arrangements with providers such as Brakes’ Meals & More, which delivered healthy and nutritious food to them, saving them time in the kitchen. However, other clubs were not so lucky. My officials visited clubs with no on-site catering facilities and clubs that relied on food donations through schemes such as FareShare. That meant that it was sometimes harder for them to provide a varied menu of healthy and nutritious meals across the summer holidays. Healthy meals are so important if we are to tackle issues such as childhood obesity, which has been mentioned and which disproportionately affects children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead has just joined us in the Chamber. It is a privilege to have you here, sir. You were namechecked earlier in my remarks.

We intend to do much more next year to support clubs to deliver the healthy and nutritious food that is the key to supporting children’s health and learning, as well as to tackling obesity. Throughout 2018 we have listened and learned and, as a result, for our 2019 programme we are exploring options for establishing a grant fund. I think that this was one of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. We are looking to establish a grant fund to set up local co-ordinators of free holiday provision for disadvantaged children in a number of local authority areas across the country. Our plans are not yet confirmed, but we envisage that those co-ordinators will fund, support and promote free holiday provision in their area, aiming to ensure that there is enough to meet demand—one of the issues raised by the hon. Lady—to improve its quality, to increase awareness, promotion and targeting and to implement a more efficient and joined-up approach locally.

The hon. Lady also mentioned safeguarding, which I know many groups find challenging. We recognise the importance of safeguarding and are looking at how local co-ordinators can support providers on that, including through the use of minimum standards. We will also look at how we can disseminate best practice after the 2019 programme. As I said, the plans are not yet confirmed and we will look to publish further information about the 2019 programme and invite organisations to bid to become involved later this autumn.

Before concluding, I want to pick up on the point made by the hon. Members for Glasgow Central, for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and for Wythenshawe and Sale East on universal credit. A strong economy is the best route to raising living standards and giving everyone people the opportunity to make the most of their talents and hard work, no matter who they are or where they live. Since 2010, we have supported nearly 3.4 million more people into work. That is more than 1,000 people a day, every day, producing a record rate of employment and, as I mentioned earlier, the lowest unemployment since the 1970s. The introduction of universal credit will mean an extra 200,000 people moving into work, because work will always pay. It will add £8 billion per year to the economy when fully rolled out. The hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East mentioned disabled people. Around 1 million disabled households receive an average of around £110 more per month under universal credit.

In conclusion, I again thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North for securing this debate, highlighting this important issue and speaking with pride about the team in her constituency who have delivered above and beyond. We know that the school holidays can be particular pressure points for some families. I think this afternoon’s debate has spanned our approach to tackling disadvantage more generally, as well as some of the specifics about work we have undertaken on support for disadvantaged children during the school holidays.

I am fully committed to taking forward work to explore how we can support disadvantaged children and their families during the school holidays, to complement the Government’s package of support in schools for disadvantaged children. That will ensure that all children have access to healthy food and are engaged and invigorated after the school holidays, so that they are ready for the new term.

I hope that I have left enough time for the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North to wrap up.