The Covid pandemic has shown a light on the entrenched levels of inequality, deprivation and poverty in our country. In particular, it has highlighted the lack of support and early intervention services available to vulnerable families and children.
I have long been an advocate for early intervention to ensure that families build resilience, strength and support for one another, especially children. By intervening early in families that are struggling, we can prevent a slow decent into more damaging behaviours that can result in family breakdown, job loss and a life of poverty and deprivation.
As a Magistrate in Hastings, I saw this first-hand and it broke my heart to see the breakdown of families before my eyes. These were families that had been failed by being offered no early support to help with the challenges and perceived insurmountable crises they were going through. And it particularly afflicted the children, whose education suffered, general health and wellbeing deteriorated and whose life chances were much reduced.
I wanted to get elected to sort this out. To find ways of early intervention and support for vulnerable families and children. I therefore welcome the Government’s recent announcement about the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, Healthy Start Scheme and Holiday Activities and Food Programme as I, along with many of my colleagues raising this with Government, have always felt that a targeted package is the best way to provide real support for families in need.
I am pleased that the Government is ensuring that the hardest-hit children and families will get extra support this winter, with councils given new funding to ensure that vulnerable households do not go hungry or without essential items. Come December, a £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme will be distributed to councils to help the families and individuals who need the support the most over the winter months, as well as provide food for children who need it over the holidays. East Sussex County Council will receive £1,594,931 of this funding, 80% of which is ringfenced for support with food and bills.
Local councils know which groups need support and are best placed to ensure that appropriate holiday support is given, but in view of the pandemic it may be that the list of those who need help may be greater than usual. The challenge will be to ensure that the children and families who need this support are identified - the funding will mean little if it does not get to those who really need it. I am sure that local authorities will be working with local charities, schools and community groups to raise awareness of the support available.
I am also delighted that the Holiday Activity Fund programme, which has been running since 2018, will be expanded to cover the holidays, including the Christmas holidays, in 2021. This means that children all over England will receive a healthy and nutritious lunch as well as enriching activities. The wrap around support that this Programme provides would benefit children from disadvantaged and at-risk families and help tackle the causes, not just the symptoms, of their challenges.
In addition, the Healthy Start scheme will increase from £3.10 to £4.25 per week from next April. This scheme supports pregnant women or those with children under 4 years of age who have a low income and are on benefits, to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. This will help people boost the long-term health of their children.
This package of holistic support amounts to nearly £400 million for our most needy individuals, children and families. It is one of the most generous and ambitious support packages of this type ever and two of the actions outlined above flow directly from the National Food Strategy commissioned by the Government in June 2019.
Getting children and families right, strengthening families – whatever their type - is one of the driving forces that tipped me into national politics. We should be doing everything we can to help create strong, safe and stable families because for children who experience a poor start in life through poverty or neglect, abuse or otherwise, or whose education is interrupted, their life chances are severely diminished. But there is much more to do, and these recent announcements will only help disadvantaged families get through this current Winter. We need a longer-term plan of Family Hubs to support families, which I am working on with colleagues in Parliament.