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Make breakfast clubs a priority in child poverty fight, government told

Welfare system reforms which "focus on families" could unlock the potential of England's children, Rachel de Souza told peers.

Rachel de Souza talking about child poverty

Rachel de Souza speaking to the Lords' public services committee. Image: Parliament TV

Breakfast clubs at school should be prioritised to protect vulnerable children and cut child poverty, the Children’s Commissioner has told the House of Lords.

Speaking to the Lords’ public services committee, Rachel de Souza set out her vision for transforming the lives of children across England.

“We need to look at the material conditions in which children are living,” De Souza told the peers, calling for a benefits system “focused on families”.

The former headteacher said the £20-per-week universal credit increase should be reinstated for those who receive the child component of the benefit. The uplift, introduced in March 2020 for all claimants peaking at six million,was “of greater proportionate benefit to those without children”, she said.

Lords grilled the commissioner on her plan for kids and how it would be funded, but De Souza defended her recommendations.

“There are few quick wins in supporting vulnerable children,” she said. Her office’s research revealed that around 70 per cent of vulnerable children – defined as those who have been on a child-in-need plan or in touch with social services in the past six years – are in receipt of free school meals, indicating a “causal” relationship between poverty and vulnerability.

Well over four million UK children live in poverty. Last week’s universal credit cut could push 200,000 more kids into hardship, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said.

De Souza referenced both her experience as school staff and her own childhood when warning against warped perceptions of children living below the breadline.

“A middle class child with a mother who has mental health issues might be perceived as a young carer, whereas if that’s a child from a poor background, they’re more likely to be perceived as ‘child-in-need-with-problem’,” she said.

The commissioner also recommended an auto-enrolment system for free school meals (FSM) to stop qualifying children from falling through the gaps.

Children whose families have no recourse to public funds – meaning they cannot claim state support because of their immigration status – were not entitled to FSMs before the pandemic. But last year the government temporarily changed the rules to allow those vulnerable kids to get free lunches.

This should be made permanent, De Souza said.

“I want those children identified at the beginning of their school careers,” she added. “We can remove stigma and get them fed too.”

Lord Filkin challenged the commissioner on which of her recommendations would deliver “the best cost-benefit” because it would be too expensive to introduce all of her ideas.

De Souza said she had considered her recommendations and their “political context” carefully, but agreed with senior adviser Martin Lennon that “the return on breakfast clubs is very well proven”.

It is also time for a wider review of the cost of living, according to the commissioner, the same week energy bills, food costs and other essentials soared in price.

Researchers observed “financial strain on a much wider group of children than expected” in the Children’s Commissioner’s national survey earlier this year, she said.

“It’s very touching, actually. We heard from children and found that many – even from the most disadvantaged areas – often didn’t talk about their own situation,” she added.

“Instead, they talked about the impact poverty has on other children and their parents. This generation is very caring.”

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