8 May 2019
Report of the Children’s Future Food inquiry debate

Nadhim Zahawi responds on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate on the Report of the Children’s Future Food inquiry.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this important debate. I know it is an issue close to her heart, as a member of the committee for this important inquiry. I also take this opportunity to thank the young people and everyone else who contributed to the report.

I thank two people who are not in the room, Lindsay Graham and, of course, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), for their work in this area. The right hon. Gentleman certainly left an impression on me from the moment I got this job as the Children and Families Minister, and much of the work on the holiday activities and food programme is testament to his passion and commitment to this area.

I attended the launch of the inquiry’s report the other week—it has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members—and I was especially lucky to meet some of the young food ambassadors in person. They have been mentioned several times today, and I want to echo what has been said, extend to them my congratulations and state my commitment to continue to listen to them as they continue their work. I was struck by the bravery of those young people, how articulate they were and their commitment to work with one another to improve the lives of other children in their communities. I know that many of them, including Dev, whom the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) mentioned, are interested in pursuing a career in politics. All I can say is that if that is the calibre of politicians in the future, we are in safe hands.

The Government are committed to delivering a country that works for everyone, and all children should be able to access healthy and nutritious food at home and at school. I am determined to ensure that we target our support as effectively as possible towards the children who are most in need.

Dr Whitford

Will the Minister give way?

Nadhim Zahawi

I have very little time and I want to address a number of the issues that were raised and, obviously, give the hon. Member for Bristol East a couple of minutes to respond, so I apologise, but I will not give way now. If I can at the end of my speech, I will certainly take interventions.

Clearly, there is much more to do. That was highlighted in the report, which raised some serious and important issues that we need to address. At the launch event, I promised to take the report away to consider it in detail and to formulate an official response. Although this speech does not constitute our formal response to the report, what I can say is that I have asked my team to work with the Food Foundation to look into setting up a working group to explore how we might provide greater oversight of children’s food, involving the young food ambassadors and other relevant Departments. I am happy to meet representatives of the Food Foundation to discuss that in more detail before the end of this month—diaries permitting, of course. I will also write to schools to remind them of their responsibilities on school food, including the need to provide access at all times to free, fresh drinking water. That issue has been mentioned several times today. I will respond formally to the report by the start of the new school year. That will give us a chance to test the response with the young food ambassadors when they meet in the school holidays. My Department is committed to ensuring that all children can access healthy food, both at school and beyond, and has put in place significant resources to ensure that that happens.

The holiday activities and food programme is exploring how we can better support children and young people during school holidays. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) mentioned expanding it. This is the second year of our research, and we will continue to try to understand what works. Last year, we awarded £2 million, as he mentioned, to holiday club providers to deliver free healthy food and enriching activities to about 18,000 children across the country. We have more than quadrupled the funding for the summer of 2019, when, as people may have heard earlier today, we will work with 11 organisations in all the regions of England. I am pleased to be able to tell the House, if hon. Members have not already heard, that the organisations and areas that we will be working with this summer are StreetGames in Newcastle—that organisation was mentioned by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson)—Gateshead Council; the Leeds Community Foundation; Transforming Lives for Good, in Bradford; Edsential in the Cheshire West and Chester area; the Happy Healthy Holidays consortium in Birmingham; Barnardo’s in Leicestershire; Suffolk County Council; Family Action in Croydon; the Romsey School in Hampshire; and Plymouth City Council. Those organisations will co-ordinate and fund—

Dr Blackman-Woods

Will the Minister give way briefly?

Nadhim Zahawi

I will right at the end, I promise, if I can just get through this speech. There is a lot that I want to respond on, including why Bristol East, unlike Plymouth, did not get the funding—

Kerry McCarthy

And Durham.

Dr Blackman-Woods


Nadhim Zahawi

And Durham. The organisations that I have listed will co-ordinate and fund provision across their area to ensure that those who need it can access it. They will work with providers to ensure that they meet our new set of minimum standards, including that the food they offer meets school food standards, and that children and young people attending the clubs—and their families where appropriate—are being taught about the importance of healthy food and given the skills, through cooking classes, to ensure that they can put those lessons into practice at home.

I have spoken before about how enormously proud I am of the breakfast club programme, which has been mentioned today. We are investing £26 million. A good breakfast sets children up for the day ahead, as colleagues have mentioned, and where children do not get that at home, we are committed to ensuring that schools are able to provide it. The breakfast club programme is setting up or improving more than 1,700 breakfast clubs in schools in the most disadvantaged areas across the country. I recently visited one such club in Battersea, and everyone involved was overwhelmingly positive about the impact that the club has had.

Free school meals have been mentioned. The Government are also committed to ensuring that the most disadvantaged children receive a healthy and nutritious lunch time meal at school. Last year, more than 1 million disadvantaged children were eligible for and claimed a free school meal. We have recently expanded free school meal provision to include further education colleges and implemented, as the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire mentioned, universal free school meals for all infant children in state-funded schools in England.

We estimate that under our revised criteria, introduced last April, for free school meals, more children will benefit from free meals by 2022, compared with the previous benefits system. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale talked about that. We have also introduced generous transitional protections, so that all children will keep their free meals during the change to the new criteria.

Another recommendation from the report was that any unspent free meal allowance should be carried over for pupils to use on subsequent days. Free school meals are intended as a benefit in kind, rather than a cash benefit; our primary interest is that schools meet their legal duties to provide nutritious free lunches to eligible children. However, schools absolutely have the freedom to do this if their local arrangements allow it, and I know that Carmel Education Trust, up in the north-east, is one body that has adopted this practice.

My Department’s school food standards mean that the food that children and young people access at school is healthy and nutritious and foods high in fat, salt and sugar are restricted. We are going even further by updating the standards to reduce sugar content even more. Of course, I acknowledge that these issues are related more to child health and obesity. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke so eloquently about that and the relationship with diabetes and the scourge of that illness. But as we all know, obesity and poverty are related issues. Many colleagues have mentioned that they are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, many of the young people asked why unhealthy food is cheaper and more readily available than healthy alternatives. I was shocked to hear the young food ambassadors talking about not having access to free water at school, and I will include that in my letter when I write to schools.

My time is limited. I thank all colleagues who have spoken. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West spoke about free school meals and the allowance. We will look at that in the spending review. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) eloquently told his pineapple story, as I will refer to it, and quoted a young man named Aaron. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) referred to her own mother’s experience of being a school cook and talked about holiday activities, which I will hopefully write to her on. The hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) talked about behavioural challenges. I have been to that wonderful town to look at our opportunity area there.

I want to end there to allow the hon. Member for Bristol East to respond. The only other thing I will say is that I have lots of responses to colleagues’ points and I will write to them if I have not responded fully in my remarks today.