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No.10 should be able to tell Marcus Rashford who is in charge of children’s meals

There is not a department for feeding hungry children but that should not stop government dealing with the issue

There is not a department for feeding hungry children but, argues Jill Rutter, that should not stop government dealing with the issue

The government again finds itself on the backfoot against the UK’s 2020 breakthrough political campaigner – footballer Marcus Rashford MBE. In the summer he forced a government U-turn over providing vouchers for children eligible for free school meals in term time, and Rashford is now leading the campaign to continue providing food for the same children throughout the school holidays. Governments in Scotland and Wales are already funding meals this half term, and Conservative MPs are restive about being asked a second time to vote against provision over the Christmas holidays if Labour – who have already forced one Commons vote – puts down another motion.

Interviewed on the Today Programme on Monday, health secretary Matt Hancock paid the obligatory tributes to Rashford but then obfuscated, noting that: “Obviously, it’s not my area of policy to speak about?” Which begs the question, whose is it?

Gordon Brown’s government had a Department for Children, Schools and Families

Just over a decade ago, the answer would have been obvious. Ed Balls was the one and only secretary of state for children, schools and families and it would have rather clearly fallen to him to respond. DCSF was an attempt to create a department that was in charge of all aspects of child welfare. 

But it did not survive the advent of the coalition. Michael Gove wanted the department to get back to basics, and its name was changed back to be the Department for Education. It still is responsible for children’s services more broadly, as well as social mobility, but the focus of responsibilities is very much on children in education, rather than child welfare more generally – even though there is a parliamentary under-secretary for children and families with “school food including free school meals” listed amongst their job responsibilities. But the education department does not seem to see itself leading on this issue.  

Which other department might lead on hungry children?

There are three other departments with some responsibility, depending on how the issue is framed.

The first is Hancock’s own health department, which leads on childhood obesity. Poor nutrition is also injurious to child health, so maybe Hancock should step up to the plate.

But the underlying problem is that of child poverty. Eligibility for free school meals is usually passported through the receipt of benefits or tax credits. So if the problem of child hunger is a broader poverty question, then the department in charge of helping poor people is the Department of Work and Pensions and it might be expected to lead on the issue. When Parliament debated free school meals last week, secretary of state Therese Coffey wound up for the government in the debate.

Another candidate is potentially the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The government’s preferred answer when asked about the Rashford campaign is to point to the money allocated to local government in the summer and suggest that councils can use that to run appropriate local schemes (as opposed to repeating the summer’s national scheme). The problem is that the additional money is not enough to cover all the additional extra costs and lost income that local government has faced during the Covid-19 crisis.

Finally, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has just published a report on food – which identifies the problem of food security in poor families. But even if Defra identifies the problem, it lacks the levers to do anything about it.

The problem for the government is that the policy response looks like an unedifying game of pass the parcel, with no one taking responsibility. The risk is that all departments are simply looking to see where No.10 jumps next, with no-one coming up with a solution of their own.

Ministers cannot let children fall victim to Whitehall turf wars

Children are emerging as one of the long-term casualties of coronavirus – with poor children suffering the double whammy of their education being disrupted and their parents facing financial strain. But Whitehall is not well set up to take a rounded view of children’s needs. DCSF saw that as its role, but the emphasis in DFE is very much on children as learners.  

New Labour’s attempt to provide a joined up approach to early years – Sure Start – has fallen victim to local government cuts, and Andrea Leadsom’s review of the first 1000 days – which was commissioned by the health and social care department – has yet to report. 

That has left a gap. This is not a time for rearranging departmental deckchairs. But the prime minister needs urgently to order one of his ministers to take control and sort the mess out.

Next time Matt Hancock is asked who is in charge, he needs to be able to give everyone – including Marcus Rashford – a clear answer. 

Johnson government
Number 10
Institute for Government

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