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Healthy Start Scheme: Sustain’s key takeaways from House of Commons debate

MPs from across the political spectrum highlighted the necessity of the scheme to support vulnerable families in the UK and urged the government to take steps to maximise its reach and impact.

Young woman with small child buying tomatoes.. Copyright: andreonegin | shutterstock

Young woman with small child buying tomatoes.. Copyright: andreonegin | shutterstock

The debate in May, tabled by Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck, highlighted several key points:

Scheme Effectiveness and Coverage: MPs discussed the current effectiveness of the Healthy Start program and proposed expanding its coverage. There was a consensus on the importance of improving access to the program, especially for vulnerable families, to ensure children receive adequate nutrition during their early developmental years.

Funding and Resources: A significant portion of the debate focused on the need for increased funding and resources. MPs argued that the current level of support is insufficient to meet the needs of all eligible families. Proposals for additional funding were made to enhance the program's reach and effectiveness.

Administrative Improvements: There were calls for streamlining the application and distribution process of the Healthy Start vouchers to reduce bureaucratic hurdles and make it easier for eligible families to benefit from the program. Suggestions included simplifying the application procedure and improving awareness about the program among potential beneficiaries.

Impact on Health Inequalities: MPs highlighted the role of the Healthy Start program in addressing health inequalities. By providing essential nutrients to young children, the program helps to mitigate the long-term health disparities that can arise from poor childhood nutrition.

Collaboration with Local Authorities: The debate also touched on the importance of collaboration between the central government and local authorities. MPs emphasised the need for a coordinated effort to ensure that the program reaches those in need, with local authorities playing a crucial role in identifying and supporting eligible families.

The value of the Healthy Start scheme for UK families is an issue that spans party lines. Here are some key takeaways from MPs involved in the debate: 

Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol East, emphasised that "the Healthy Start scheme is a lifeline for many families, but it is currently underutilised and underfunded." She pointed out that only 64% of eligible families were enrolled in the scheme, calling for increased awareness and accessibility.

Dr. Luke Evans, Conservative MP for Bosworth, shared a similar sentiment, stating, "We must do more to ensure that every eligible family benefits from this vital program." He stressed the need for streamlined application processes and better coordination with healthcare providers to boost participation rates.

Jonathan Reynolds, Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, emphasised government must do better, arguing, "It is not enough to merely have these schemes in place; we must ensure they reach those in desperate need." He advocated for higher voucher values and broader eligibility criteria to encompass more families facing food insecurity.

Parliamentarians also discussed the positive impacts of the scheme, with several MPs recounting personal stories from their constituencies. Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields, highlighted how the vouchers had enabled a single mother in her area to afford fresh fruits and vegetables for her children, significantly improving their diet and well-being.

In response, Helen Whately MP, standing in for Andrea Leadsom MP, Under-Secretary of State for Public Health, Start for Life and Primary Care, acknowledged the issues raised and assured the House of ongoing efforts to enhance the scheme. "We are committed to reviewing and expanding the Healthy Start scheme to ensure it meets the needs of all eligible families," she said, promising to address barriers to access and increase promotional efforts.

The debate underscored a consensus on the importance of the Healthy Start scheme, with MPs urging the government to take concrete steps to maximise its reach and impact, ensuring no child is left behind in the fight against food poverty and malnutrition. 

Sustain and Sustainable Food Places have long pushed for the expansion of the scheme. New analysis by Sustain has found that nearly £60,000,000 had gone unclaimed across England, Northern Ireland and Wales. 

Together with the Food Foundation and other organisations advocating improvements to the Healthy Start scheme, Sustain is calling on Government policy-makers to:

•    move toward auto-enrolment onto the scheme 
•    increase the value of Healthy Start payments in line with inflation
•    expand eligibility to all families on Universal Credit, to mirror the Best Start Foods Scheme
•    expand eligibility to all families with young children with No Recourse to Public Funds who are on very low incomes.

Read our Healthy Start  policy briefing


Published Monday 3 June 2024

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