Slow benefits and low pay leave our children unfed

The need for food parcels escalates at the start of each school holiday

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The Independent Online

History does repeat itself. A century has passed since Mildred Bulkley highlighted  in her ground-breaking study, The Feeding of School Children, that for poor families the absence of school meals during the holidays resulted in much of the benefit derived during term time being undone.

But that was yesteryear, wasn’t it? Since then, the expansion of the welfare state was meant to have guaranteed a minimum income which would provide fail-safe protection against hunger, all year round. This protection, it was thought, would ensure that no child need suffer hunger in the holidays.

Yet last year, when I co-chaired a cross-party inquiry on hunger in this country, it emerged that the need for food parcels escalated at the start of each school holiday. Were it not for the foot soldiers of the food bank movement, the number of hungry children by now would have reached catastrophic levels. 

So I propose a three-point plan of action against child hunger during the school holidays.

First, the Government must deliver benefits and tax credits more promptly, and apply sanctions more fairly. These two moves would, by the next school holiday, halve the numbers of families needing to rely on food banks. But the Government is moving in the opposite direction. New claimants of Universal Credit will have to wait six weeks for their first payment to arrive. 

Second, given the urgency of the problem, our cross-party group has helped set up local schemes to provide food and fun activities for children during the school holidays. Four pilot projects in Birkenhead fed 120 children over the Whitsun holiday. We intend to expand these projects in the summer holiday. 

Third, we need to mount a serious assault on low pay. The Government should ask the Low Pay Commission to investigate whether a Living Wage could be set and implemented for the lowest paid staff in Britain’s most profitable industries. They could thereby afford to feed their children all year round, and need not rely on their local food bank when the school bells ring for summer. 

Frank Field is the Labour MP for Birkenhead