I am very concerned about children in Leeds going hungry during the school holidays and that’s why I strongly supported Labour’s proposal in Parliament on 21st October to provide free school meals for this half term, Christmas and Easter. As my colleague Kate Green said, “It is the Government’s responsibility to make sure that children do not go hungry.”

I think it was shameful that the Government voted it down and it has rightly faced a huge amount of criticism, not least from Marcus Rashford who has been leading the campaign with such moral clarity. It was one of those moments when lots of people took notice of what had happened in Parliament and it was also a reminder that the decisions taken by the MPs we elect do have profound consequences for our lives.

I also find it inexplicable because back in the summer, the Government changed its mind and did provide free school meals over the long holiday. This made a big difference to the lives of many children and families in South Leeds, but if it was the right thing to do then, that I find it very hard to understand why it’s not the right thing to do now, especially given the worsening economic impact of Covid on jobs and family incomes.

Last year over a million people across the country had to use a foodbank, and the pandemic has increased need, not least because local unemployment has soared since March. Nationally, over 50% of those using Trussell Trust food banks at the start of the pandemic had never needed one before and families with children were the hardest hit. A third of households with children have experienced a drop in income due to Covid and despite the additional support that has been announced to replace the furlough scheme, how exactly is someone on the minimum wage meant to cope when their income has been cut by one-third but all their bills are still there? And don’t forget all those people who got no targeted help at all because they fell through the cracks of the furlough and self-employed schemes.

All is not lost, however. Following the vote, there has been an extraordinary response in our city from the public, the council, the voluntary sector, businesses and the Leeds United squad. With one voice they have said ‘we’re going to do our best to help’. From the offer of meals by big name brands and local restaurants, the Healthy Holidays programme run by the Leeds Community Foundation and Leeds City Council, the work of our local foodbanks and the money being raised by the Leeds United Supporters Trust and others, this collective determination to do something practical to help tells us two very important things about Leeds. The first is that we don’t have to wait for Westminster to act; we can try and do it ourselves. And the second is that we have an extraordinary strength of community spirit and determination when faced with the prospect that some of our children will go hungry in the holidays, not because their parents don’t care but because they don’t have enough food to eat.

Finally, if we keep up the pressure then I believe the Government will have to change its mind, but if they don’t do so then we will bring the matter back to Parliament. We are not giving up.

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

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