Thank you for contacting me about child and food poverty.
Children should grow up in an environment with no limits to their potential and we must continue efforts to reduce poverty, including child poverty. Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, quick action has been taken to support families. Over 11.5m people have been kept in their jobs through the furlough scheme, while welfare changes worth over £7.4 billion were quickly introduced. Last year, the £500m local authority hardship fund was established and a £63 million local welfare assistance fund was also created so that councils can help those struggling to afford food and other essentials. While some of the help you mention was instigated at the start of the pandemic, further support has been introduced as it has progressed. As you would expect, discussions are ongoing across government about the best way to support people.
Last month an additional £500 million was made available to create a winter hardship fund for vulnerable households Government launches £500m support for vulnerable households over winter - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).
Significant steps are also being taken to support people into work or to develop their working opportunities, particularly through the Plan for Jobs – Plan for Jobs - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/plan-for-jobs. This provides funding to ensure more people get tailored Jobcentre Plus support to help them find work and to build the skills they need.
I welcome the creation of the £2.9 billion Restart scheme, accessible to people of all ages and which commenced on 28 June 2021; with referrals to providers from 12 July. The scheme provides intensive and tailored support to unemployed people who have been out of work for over 12 months in England and Wales, to help them into work.
JCP support to find work includes the Sector-based Work Academy Programme (SWAP), which is for benefit claimants of all ages in England and Scotland and comprises pre-employment training, work experience and a job interview in a placement lasting up to six weeks. SWAPs help participants retrain and pivot towards surging sectors to meet employer demand wherever they live, opening the door to jobs and potential careers they may not have otherwise considered.
The Job Finding Support (JFS) is another online valuable tool which provides one-to-one support across Great Britain to help those who have recently become unemployed find work. Recognising that many of those who are currently looking for work have been in continuous employment for many years, JFS aims to address any skill gaps and help people move rapidly back into work.
These significant measures are all designed to support people and as we have seen recently, the number of vacancies is increasing and the OECD has indicated that the UK is the fastest growing economy in the G7, which all create the circumstances in which job creation opportunities are enhanced for those not in work and those wishing to move into alternative employment.
As you may know, ministers commissioned an independent review into the food system in the form of the National Food Strategy. Part One of that review was published in July 2020 and it gave recommendations to support this country through the turbulence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Part Two of the independent review sets out proposals for measures to combat obesity and improve overall health of children and adults, as well as proposals for specific initiatives to educate children about nutrition at school. My ministerial colleagues will now carefully consider the report's conclusions and respond with a White Paper within six months, setting out priorities for the food system.
The national free school meal voucher scheme last year and this year has meant that eligible children continued to receive nutritious food during periods of school closure, and during the holidays. As students have returned to schools and colleges, those who are eligible will now receive free school meals in their educational settings. In cases where eligible children cannot attend school as they are self-isolating, schools should continue to provide free school meals support.
This is on top of support to protect 11.2 million jobs through unprecedented income support schemes and boosting welfare support by billions, including through the temporary increase to Universal Credit of £20 a week. I am pleased that this increase to the standard allowance was extended, alongside both the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, until this month. More than £230 million has also been given to councils to assist those struggling to afford food and essentials.
I am also encouraged that the Holiday Activities and Food Programme has been extended until Christmas 2021, with up to £220 million being made available to local authorities. This will mean all children eligible for FSM will have the option to join a holiday-time programme that provides healthy food and enriching activities.
In the longer term, Ministers are implementing the recommendation from the National Food Strategy to increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers. These vouchers support pregnant women or those with children under four who have a low income and are in receipt of benefits to buy milk, fresh fruit and vegetables. As of April 2021, Healthy Start payments increased from £3.10 to £4.25.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.