From start to finish the school day is about preparing children and young people for the world ahead of them, and within that time period, ensuring that they are ready and able to learn; yet, having a hungry tummy will be detrimental to all of that.
That is why over the last 10 years, I have banged the drum for universal free school meals which are hot, healthy and nutritious, because of the importance they can have on a child’s education, health and wellbeing and also their behaviour and readiness to learn.
Another appalling, yet predictable, winter crisis is in full swing.
More than 100,000 patients have so far waited more than 30 minutes in the back of ambulances upon arriving at A&E. That’s more than one in eight of the patients rushed to hospital this winter.
Almost every hospital in England has consistently had dangerously few free beds. Average bed occupancy this winter has been at 93.9 per cent and in the week ending January 14, that peaked at a staggering 95.7 per cent. That’s more than 10 per cent above safe levels.
Britain has a long way to go in order to create an education and skills system fit for the modern world. And if that was urgent before the EU referendum, now we are leaving it is critical that we prepare the foundations for a new settlement.
As the Fabians have highlighted, globalisation, changing demographics and shifts in global demand are radically altering the nature of work. Governments must keep up with these changes. But a lack of investment in adult skills and lifelong learning by our government means that we are falling behind other developed countries.
January is not just a time for sober reflection; it is also a time for clarity and determination, renewal and ambition. Though many resolutions fall by the wayside, others are worth keeping. I believe that in 2018 there should be a new resolve to tackle child poverty and begin to fulfil more of our nation’s potential.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies forecasts that by 2022 there will be 5.2 million children living in poverty – nine children in every class of 30. Some 128,000 children are homeless, and a further 1.6 million are living in over-crowded, temporary, and run-down housing. These statistics are frightening and the reason for them is clear. Despite being an essential institution, the welfare state is too often seen as an unwanted burden.
Subtly, in recent decades Britain has transformed. Our towns and cities have become, as the academics Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker put it, two Englands, with increasingly different views and priorities. This widening gulf was most starkly illustrated by Brexit, but the differences go much wider and cover social attitudes on issues from immigration to civil rights and political differences.
The roots of this lie in changing demographics. As our cities have grown younger over the last 25 years, our towns and villages have grown older. Between 1981 and 2011 our towns and villages lost more than a million people under the age of 25. In contrast the core cities gained 300,000. Over the same period the number of over 65s in our towns grew by more than two million.
On the wall of Jonathan Ashworth’s office is a whiteboard itemising the woes of the National Health Service: the four million patients on waiting lists, the continually missed A&E targets, the 80,000 operations cancelled in 2017. As the 70th anniversary of the NHS’s creation approaches (5 July), Ashworth believes the service is in its worst state for two decades. “It’s not a winter crisis, it’s an all-year-round crisis,” the shadow health secretary told me when we met in parliament.
Although the Conservatives have formally protected health spending since 2010, the NHS has still endured the longest period of austerity since its foundation. Historically, expenditure has risen by an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but it rose by just 0.84 per cent in the last parliament (and will rise little more in this one).
There are 24 hours to save workers’ rights from a Tory Brexit. Today MPs will vote on the Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill. This Bill is not about whether or not we are leaving the European Union – that question is settled. It is about the type of country we are after we leave.
Are we a Britain that believes in equal opportunity for all or one that doesn’t?
Are we a country that supports people in work or a country that doesn’t?
Take back control did not mean giving the extreme Brexiteers in Theresa May’s government the power to rip up workers’ rights behind closed doors.
The government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill is simply not fit for purpose. As Labour has emphasised over many months and in many hours of debate in the Commons, the Bill falls short of its core aim to provide legal continuity and certainty once we have left the EU.
One glaring example of this is the failure to transpose the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law after we leave the EU.
Last November, the government published its much anticipated industrial strategy. It was long on words, but extremely short on specific commitments to lay the basis for a prosperous country. One of the most significant omissions from the 254 page document was any reference to Britain’s defence sector, even though this sector is of enormous actual and potential importance.
The reason for this omission was, I am told, because the Ministry of Defence (MoD) intended to publish a ‘refresh’ of its defence industrial policy. This came out just before Christmas, but only complemented the earlier publication in that it was equally vacuous.
Much of what Esther McVey has said in the past, and her record as a DWP minister in the coalition government, meant that her appointment as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will alarm all those who believe in a more compassionate and empowering society. But as the rollout of Universal Credit (UC) creaks on, perhaps there is a chance she’ll be outspoken enough to acknowledge that its central purpose is floundering - under UC, work simply doesn’t pay - and bold enough to take radical action.