NHS Healthy Start: South Shields MP calls for auto-enrolment for scheme helping parents buy milk

A North East politician has put forward a private members bill in parliament to introduce an auto-enrolment to the NHS Healthy Start scheme.

South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck told ministers there are currently 200,000 parents who are eligible for the support but are missing out on it, leaving £53m of funding unused.

She claimed failures by the government are letting down parents and children.

The scheme provides babies, young children up to four and pregnant mothers with access to baby formula, fruit and vegetables, but the MP claimed recent switches to digital systems have caused issues and take-up has been affected by communication, bureaucracy and the stigma attached.

The government said it has helped more than two million people out of poverty since 2010, including 400,000 children.

Emma Lewell-Buck MP, speaking in Parliament. Credit: House of Commons TV

During her speech in the House of Commons, Ms Lewell-Buck said: "It has been widely reported that in desperation some parents have resorted to theft of baby milk and formula or are watering it down.

"That this is happening in a country as rich as ours should make the benches opposite not only feel shame, but spur them into some action to help those in need.

"The government know who is eligible and they claim they have the funds. Automatic enrolment would increase take up, ensuring the millions sat in the Treasury allocated to these mothers and babies is exactly where it should be."

Child poverty has almost doubled in the last year, with four million thought to be living in poverty. It comes at a time of rising inflation, with baby formula going up 12.5%, whole milk rising by 26% and fruit and veg increasing by nearly 20%.

Lauren Griffiths, with her daughter, who said the cost of living was challenging for her family. Credit: ITV News

Lauren Griffiths and her husband both work as paramedics, but even they have found the increased cost of living challenging. She does not know if she is eligible for the support.

The South Shields mother told ITV News: "I’ve got two young children at home and we’ve noticed the food bill doubling, if not tripling on certain things.

"We’re having to cut back on the niceties that I wanted to give my children, just because of how much certain items are now, like even the milk, bread, things like that, what you need, it’s just too much to afford."

Kelly Warren said the cost of running medical equipment for her son who has a disability, leaves her with very little to spend on food, so the NHS scheme has been a massive help.

She said: "It gives you a little bit extra to spend on like fruit, vegetables, which you can make soups out of, sweet treats, you know, having fruit instead of having chocolate bars. Everything is helping at the minute. Every little help is a help at the minute."

According to Lewell-Buck around 27% of households with a child under the age of four have experienced food insecurity in a month this year. Campaigners told ITV News it is vital that early years children have the best start in life, with healthy, nutritious and varied diets.

Cost of baby formula, fruit & veg and milk have all risen substantially in the past year Credit: ITV News

Orla Delargy from the anti-poverty charity Sustain, said: "It’s really important that in the early years children have a good diet and that’s obvious, because they are growing really fast in the early years, but not just for their growth now, but also in the future.

"Programmes like this get children accustomed to eating fruit and vegetables, a wide range of it, improve their diet and it sets their dietary tastes for life, which means that they’re set up to good health in later years too."

A government spokesperson said: "We have helped nearly two million people, including 400,000 children, out of absolute poverty since 2010, launched a £94billion cost of living support package worth around £3,300 per household, and are boosting our childcare offer to help more parents return to work and keep more of their earnings.

"In April 2021, the value of Healthy Start rose from £3.10 to £4.25 per week, providing additional support to eligible pregnant women and families with children aged under four to make healthy food choices.

"Eligible children aged under one can each receive £8.50 in total per week, a rise from £6.20 a week."

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