Nobody Should Rely on Charity to Eat
Last year I worked with the National Education Union to produce a Child Poverty report for my Wansbeck Constituency. Its findings were stark.
As always, the figures told their own bleak if slightly detached story, highlighting pockets of hardship where almost half of the children living there were classed as being in poverty. But the shocking testimony of teachers on the front line of this crisis were enough to bring a tear to my eye.
These told tales of teachers regularly feeding children, providing essential school stuffs, mending and washing clothes. They told tales of children without appropriate school shoes with one sent in with their grandmothers’. They told the story of a mother keeping her child off school as she was ashamed, she could not afford a bucket and spade for a trip to the beach.
It should be a mark of our eternal shame that in this, the 5th richest economy on the planet in GDP terms, yet millions of children are living in poverty. The very least we should be able to do as a nation is to ensure our children are fed.
2020 has been a difficult year for everyone. The pandemic has pushed those in poverty even deeper and its effects have forced some people who have never encountered the benefits system to require its safety net. Over the summer in the face of a positive and vigorous campaign the government u-turned to ensure children would be supported over the school holidays. Last week they let millions of children down by failing to ensure they would receive that same support again.
Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United and England striker, has led an inspiring campaign lending his profile and voice to millions of children who are overlooked. It has led to an outpouring of charity from local councils and businesses who have determined that no child will go hungry despite them themselves struggling under the restrictions. But whilst heart-warming, in a developed global economy, nobody should have to rely on charity to eat.
It is likely that the government will U-turn again before the Christmas break and that children in need of free school meals will once again be afforded the princely sum of £3 per day. When they do, we should never forget that it was working class communities that came together to feed them when the government refused.
We should also not think our job is done by winning this concession from a government who throws money around like confetti to line the pockets of their mates as they make a mess of the likes of test and trace. The truth is that free school meals are just one manifestation of child poverty that has become endemic in our communities. In fact, many of those who live in poverty do not qualify for free school meals in the first place.
COVID has shown that our existing economic model was unfit for purpose. In this time of great flux, we should redouble our efforts to ensure that the scourge of poverty in this country is eradicated once and for all. At a minimum, we should be ensuring that every single child in this country gets a free, hot nutritious meal every weekday, 52 weeks a year.
- Ian Lavery is Member of Parliament for Wansbeck in Northumberland, Chair of the Trade Union Group of MPs. He was Chair of the Labour party and also Labour Party Co-National Campaign Coordinator.