Children’s Future Food report debate

27th June 2019

Nadhim Zahawi responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on the Children’s Future Food report which resulted from an inquiry co-ordinated by the Food Foundation and led by the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on School Food, and Hunger and Food Poverty. 

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) on securing this important debate and thank all colleagues who participated in the inquiry, including the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). We have heard contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson).

I welcome the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) to his role as shadow Minister for children and families. We may come to our roles from different policy perspectives, but we share a passion for wanting to do the best for the children and families whom we ultimately serve.

I know that hon. Members in the Chamber have a sincere and long-held interest in this area. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead was a member of the inquiry, and I thank him for his work and his continued significant contribution to shaping my tenure in office and, of course, to children’s health and wellbeing.

The inquiry’s report is the result of a detailed and thorough examination of how we ensure that all children and young people have access to healthy and nutritious meals. I extend my thanks to all the children, young people, practitioners and, of course, researchers who were involved in its production. I also thank the many hon. Members on both sides of the House, and colleagues in the other place, for their contributions to this important work.

I was pleased to attend the launch of the report in April, at which I was truly privileged to be fortunate enough to meet some of the young food ambassadors in person. I was moved by their experiences, and impressed by their confidence and clarity in setting out how they will continue to make an impassioned contribution in this area. I look forward to continuing my engagement with them.

The Government share the inquiry’s overarching aims. All children should be able to access healthy, nutritious food at home and at school, as that is an essential part of building a country that works for everyone and in which every child and young person can reach their potential. The Government are already taking many steps to support children in accessing nutritious food and leading healthy lives. Of course, I recognise that there is much more that we need to do and can do.

When I spoke at the launch of the report back in April, I committed to providing a formal response in the autumn school term. Earlier this month, I again met representatives from the inquiry to discuss the recommendations further, and I have asked my team to work with the Food Foundation, including on exploring how we might provide greater oversight of children’s food by involving the inquiry’s young food ambassadors, as well as with other relevant Government Departments —my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned cross-Government work earlier.

I look forward to providing that formal response in the coming months. In the meantime, I wish to highlight some immediate actions we are taking. On 7 June, I wrote to all schools in England to highlight the inquiry’s findings and to remind them of their responsibilities in relation to school food. Many schools are, of course, already delivering excellent practice in this area, including through creative menu options and a focus on healthy eating across the curriculum, and by making it easy for children to enjoy free school meals.

In my letter to schools, I highlighted the importance of creating a positive lunchtime experience by ensuring that dining areas are welcoming places and by giving children a genuine voice in shaping this provision. I also stressed that no child should be stigmatised because they are eligible for free school meals—the right hon. Member for Birkenhead is passionate about that—and that there should be no limit on the healthy meal choices available to these children. I also described my shock on hearing from some young people that they do not have access to free drinking water at school and often have to buy a bottle of water, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) mentioned. Schools are legally obliged to provide access to free drinking water on the school premises at all times, as I made very clear in my letter.

The Minister has quickly gone on to the important topic of having free water in schools, but was he also shocked about how poorer children—we do not know how many—lose entitlement if they are not in school on a given day, as the credit on their card for a free school meal is cancelled? I hope the National Audit Office will be looking at this issue; will he and the Department also do so?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that point. I intend to address that matter later in my remarks.

Finally, my letter highlighted the range of resources and guidance that is available for schools, including on meeting the mandatory school food standards and supporting children on free school meals, and curriculum resources for schools to help children to lead healthier lives. The Government have recently taken significant action to ensure that all children can access healthy food at school and beyond.

On the Minister’s point about ensuring that schools deliver the healthy food required under standards set out in the school food plan, will the Minister ensure that Ofsted is suitably tooled up and equipped with the most knowledgeable staff, so that when they go into schools to do their inspection, no school will be rated as outstanding unless its food delivery and the food given to children is outstanding?

The hon. Lady makes her point powerfully, as she has done in the past. She is right—we have to look at every lever available to make sure that we nudge school leaders towards the best behaviour in delivering healthy food.

In 2018, our holiday activities and food programme awarded £2 million to holiday club providers to deliver free healthy food and enriching activities to about 18,000 children across the country, as was mentioned earlier. Following the success of this first year, we have more than quadrupled the funding for the summer of 2019. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned, we are working with 11 organisations in 11 local authorities across the country—I am happy to write to her about those organisations. Both the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said that they were disappointed that there had not been a successful bid from their constituencies for a holiday activities and food co-ordinator. I am sure they will appreciate that there has been a lot of interest in the programme from organisations, but my team is happy to talk to bidders who want more detail and feedback on their bids so that we can keep pushing forward in this area.

I am also proud of my Department’s breakfast clubs programme. We are investing up to £26 million to set up or improve 1,700 breakfast clubs in schools in the most disadvantaged areas of the country, with the clear aim that those clubs stay sustainable over the longer term. The clubs ensure that children start the day with a nutritious breakfast. Such breakfasts not only bring a health benefit, but help children to concentrate and learn in school. I have visited one of these breakfast clubs, and one positive outcome from it was a rise in school attendance, with the fact that parents brought in their children early delivering much better attendance numbers. The children and teachers whom I visited were overwhelmingly positive about the benefits of such clubs.

We also remain committed to ensuring that the most disadvantaged children receive a healthy lunch at school. Last year, more than 1 million disadvantaged children were eligible for and claimed a free school meal, and that important provision has recently been expanded in three significant ways. First, in 2014, we introduced free meals in further education colleges. Secondly, in the same year, we also introduced universal free school meals to all infant children in state-funded schools. Thirdly, under our revised criteria for free school meals, which were introduced last April, we estimate that more children will benefit from free meals by 2022 compared with under the previous benefit system. In fact, numbers released today show that 1.3 million children are benefiting from free school meals.

On the point made earlier by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, one recommendation in the inquiry’s report was that any unspent free meal allowance should be carried over for pupils to use on subsequent days. Schools absolutely have the freedom to do this if their local arrangements allow for it—indeed, Carmel Education Trust in the north-east has adopted the practice. The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important point, however, and we should look into the matter to see how we can get all schools to adopt a similar practice, if they can. I should highlight that free school meals are of course intended as a benefit in kind, rather than as a cash benefit, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman understands that better than I do. Our critical interest is that schools meet their legal requirements to provide free and healthy meals to eligible children every day.

My Department is responsible for setting the mandatory school food standards, which have been mentioned. They require schools to serve children healthy and nutritious food. The standards restrict foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar—both you and I, Mr Deputy Speaker, could benefit from fewer foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar. We are currently in the process of updating the standards, working with Public Health England to deliver a bold reduction in the sugar content of school meals. This is part of a wider Government plan to tackle childhood obesity. Sadly, as was mentioned in the Westminster Hall debate, the other side of coin with regard to children going without food is obesity among the most disadvantaged families and their children.

The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland has described the Scottish child payment, which was announced yesterday, as a

“game changer in the fight to end child poverty.”

Will the Minister think about whether he could bring in something similar to help with child poverty throughout the UK?

I am very much of the mindset that we should share best practice throughout the four nations, and I intend to visit to Scotland to look at what is being done there and to share what we are doing in England, too.

Many of the young people involved in the children’s future food report queried why unhealthy food is cheaper and more readily available than healthier choices. Through our childhood obesity plan, the Government are taking forward significant action on the advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods to children.

In the few minutes I have left, I shall address some of the direct questions I was asked. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead asked about the future of the holiday programme, which will of course be part of the spending review considerations. We have already learned a tremendous amount from this year’s and last year’s programmes on holiday activities. That evidence will help me in my discussions with the Treasury.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned the programme’s value for money. Our independent evaluation of the programme will report on that early next year. I am conscious of the time, however, so while I have detailed responses to her points and those made by other hon. Members, I will write to them rather than taking any more of the House’s time.

I am enormously grateful to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead for securing the debate and all colleagues who participated. The Government are already taking important and significant steps, and we will continue to do so, while working with all those involved in this important report.

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