Hilary Benn - Member of Parliament for Leeds Central
Half term hunger
It is the Government’s responsibility to make sure that children do not go hungry.” These were the words of my parliamentary colleague Kate Green when she moved the motion calling for free school meals to be funded during the autumn half term, Christmas and Easter holidays.
The Government has rightly faced a lot of criticism for voting the proposal down, not least from Marcus Rashford who has been leading the campaign. It was one of those moments when lots of people took notice of what had happened in Parliament and a reminder that the decisions taken by the MPs we elect do have profound consequences for our lives.
The odd thing is that back in the summer, the Government changed its mind and did provide free school meals over the long holiday. Like others, I really welcomed that decision because it 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 given the worsening economic impact of Covid on jobs and family incomes.
I’ve written before in South Leeds Life about the rising use of food banks. Last year it was over a million people across the country, but 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 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 tells us two very important things about our city. 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.
The campaign will continue, and if the Government doesn’t change its mind then we will press for another vote in Parliament before Christmas.
On a happier note, I greatly enjoyed my Zoom question and answer session with the Year 4 pupils of Westwood Primary School in Middleton the other day. They had obviously thought very hard about what they wanted to ask about my job and why I wanted to do it. We even managed to do a quick bit of mental maths in trying to work out how long it had been since women in the UK first got the vote. I’ve always believed that every single pupil should have the chance to visit the House of Commons at least once so they can find out what goes on in their – our – Parliament, but for the time being, in this Covid age, a Zoom visit will have to do. I’m very grateful to the school for making it possible.
First published in the November 2020 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here https://southleedslife.com/mps-notebook-half-term-hunger/