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In fact, only water is allowed to be drunk in schools there. That meant educating the parents, helping low-income and immigrant communities to learn to cook properly and banning the advertising of unhealthy foods on the metro. It is a city-wide approach that is producing results, as is happening in Leeds—encouragingly, we learnt last week that the poorest children are starting to lose weight the fastest. There is hope that lessons from Amsterdam are coming over to the UK.


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I hear what the hon. Lady says about people living in food poverty. We have to make sure that people have enough income to eat properly. We need what I would call prosperity with a purpose and inclusive growth—there is no point running a free market system that does not benefit the people working in it. That has to be part of what we are about; it is what I am about, and I know it is what the Minister is about in his role in Government. There is more we can do. We need more of that.

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Let us look around the world and take best practice. Let us not just leave this issue to the free market alone. Let us encourage the people who are doing the right thing, such as Mr Leeflang in the Netherlands, and encourage UK retailers to follow his excellent example. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East Kerry McCarthy for securing this important and very timely debate, and for her excellent opening speech. A huge number of people attended the launch, including a number of us here, and the Minister, who everyone was pleased to see.

I co-chaired the inquiry with the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire Dr Whitford , and my hon. The report is unique, because it is the first to include children and young people from low-income backgrounds—in fact, it is all about them and their voices. They shared their experiences of food insecurity and hunger with such bravery, and ensured that not only their voices but those of their friends and peers who had experienced food insecurity were heard.

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They were so articulate in telling us about their experiences at home and school. They told us things that shocked even the most hardened and clued-up MPs on the inquiry committee; I think a number of us shed a few tears at those sessions. I cannot mention all the things we heard during the inquiry, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East has already highlighted a number of them, so I will focus on three things that stood out: free school meals; the availability of free water, which we have already heard about; and the affordability and availability of food at home.

Members will know that I chair the all-party parliamentary group on school food. My hon.


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Friend the Member for City of Durham, who helped me set up that group 10 years ago, is one of its vice-chairs. We have campaigned for more than a decade with Members across the House to ensure that children have access to a hot and healthy meal during the school day. I am pleased that that campaign has developed to include provision for breakfast and meals throughout the school holidays for the poorest children. I was also pleased to see that two of the successful bids—those from Gateshead Council and StreetGames in Newcastle—were from the north-east. It will be really interesting to follow those programmes and see the difference that I know they will make to some of the most disadvantaged children across the country.

However, I want to focus on the provision of free school meals. That rate was introduced in and has not increased since, so pupils have to stretch their allowance further each year to get a meal. However, the young food ambassadors told us that, more often than not, the cheapest food on the menu is the unhealthiest food. As the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire Andrew Selous said, we see the same in wider society with supermarkets and takeaways, for example. One young ambassador told us that she would usually get a sausage roll, chips and beans, because that was all she could afford on her free school meal allowance that would actually keep her full.

She was looking for fullness, not healthiness. The Minister will know that that is not the best example of a nutritious meal for a young person who is growing up and preparing for an afternoon of lessons.

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It is fine once in a while, but we do not really want a child to be eating that day in, day out just because it keeps them full. Will the Minister therefore have cross-departmental discussions with his colleagues to ensure that, especially in schools, the cheapest food is not the unhealthiest food on the menu, so pupils on free school meals have the opportunity to eat the same healthy food as their peers, even if some healthy items have to be provided at a loss?

The situation in schools must be different from the situation in the supermarkets. We also heard that schools did not value lunch time as part of the day but saw it as an inconvenience to be rushed and got over with. Unfortunately, for thousands of children, the only meal they get each day is the one they eat at school. That is not right, but we know it is the case, so school meals should not be rushed or dismissed. However, the young ambassadors told us that they sometimes had their lunch time as late as 1pm. That is an excruciating time for someone who has gone to school hungry to wait—even we cannot always wait until 1pm—and makes it impossible for them to concentrate on lessons in the morning.

Most shockingly, we also heard that those very same pupils then had only a half-hour lunch break, a lot of which was spent queuing for food. If they had not finished their meal by the time the break was over, they were made to throw the remnants of their food in the bin. Imagine that—imagine having to throw some of the only meal that is available to you that day in the bin because you do not have time to eat it.

It is just gut-wrenching. One young ambassador also told us that pupils could be forced to take their detentions during their lunch break, further limiting the time they have to eat. Schools should not turn lunch time into a chore, something for pupils to dread or a time to punish pupils. Lunch time should be an integral part of the day—a time for children to get nourishment, to wind down and to spend time socialising with their friends. Let me be frank: children simply cannot learn if they are hungry and thirsty.

That takes me to my next point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East eloquently raised—its absurdity has exercised a number of us. We must remember that children from low-income families who are on free school meals are not the kind of children who have fancy reusable water bottles that they can refill as and when.

They may also be from chaotic homes and, as we heard, some of them are child carers who have many responsibilities before they get to school, so finding a bottle to fill will not be foremost in their mind. In fact, it was the consensus among the young ambassadors that, even if they did have a reusable water bottle, there were no facilities at school where they could fill it with fresh water.

The Minister heard that for himself when he met the young ambassadors at the launch of the report. I know he was shocked by that and said it was against school standards, but that is the reality that those children face. Sadly, I am sure the situation is the same in other schools. If a child manages to bring a water bottle to school, there is often nowhere to fill it, so they have to buy another bottle.

We were also told that, similarly to food, unhealthy drinks options such as juice and milkshakes are available and—guess what? In the Netherlands, where the healthy food programme is called Jump-In, they allow only water in schools, they get parents on side, and they are very successful. There is indeed a lot we can learn from other countries. Friend the Member for City of Durham and I visited Sweden at the start of our parliamentary careers, and that is what drove us to campaign to improve things here.

In Sweden, not only was all the food free and healthy, but there were not millions of choices, so it was affordable to provide. The children all ate it, and there was water and milk on tap, totally free.

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Clearly, there is a disparity in the messaging to pupils. They are told they have to eat healthily but they feel that a healthy diet is totally unaffordable for them. That brings me to my final point, which is about the availability of affordable food at home. Some 4. That is a fact. That means that one in three children lives in a household that struggles to afford to buy enough healthy food to meet the official nutritional guidelines.

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It is outrageous that a healthy diet is so far out of reach for millions of families. One young ambassador, who was a child carer, told the inquiry that food was so scarce at home that she rationed her food so her mum and siblings had enough to eat.

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I hope the Minister agrees that that is not a position any child should be put in. Finally, will the Minister commit to setting up an independent food watchdog to look at these issues, to cost policies and to prevent children from going hungry? I will not go into those asks, because my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East spoke about them in detail. As the report highlights, if we do not act now, we will lose an entire generation to food insecurity and hunger—and, in turn, obesity, because hunger and obesity are two sides of the same coin: malnutrition.

I implore the Minister to act now to help future generations. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.