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Free School Meals

Volume 512: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Brooks Newmark.)

I am pleased to have secured this debate on free school meals because it allows me to highlight a shameful decision by the coalition Government. Despite the current financial situation facing our country, an extremely strong case can be made for the provision of universal free school meals. The fact that the Government are choosing to limit and cut that provision instead of widening it seems to be a step in the wrong direction, not just because of the provision’s health and educational benefits to pupils, but because of its the financial benefits for the least well-off in society.

My involvement and that of my hon. Friends in the Chamber started in 2006, not long after I was elected to the House. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and I, with around a dozen other hon. Members, went on a fact-finding visit to Sweden, primarily to find out more about the Swedish health and education systems, and particularly free schools. While in Sweden, my attention was captured not by free schools, but the country’s school meals policy. Free school meals have been available there to all children for several years. The take-up is approximately 85%, and we were amazed to see children not only tucking into a healthy, nutritious meal, but serving themselves from a buffet and working together to help to clear away plates and wipe the tables. Those children were seven.

Pupils and teachers eat together as a class on a rota system so that there are no huge crowds at lunch time, which is an important part of the day for continued learning and socialising, not only with one other, but with the teacher. The system provides an opportunity for teachers to have time to themselves—they spend 40 minutes in the staff room when the children go out to play—and the children do not load up on sugary snacks and then sit down to afternoon study while metaphorically swinging from the lampshades. It was interesting that although my hon. Friend and I returned from Sweden excited and convinced of the benefits of universal free school meals, the new Secretary of State for Education returned from his visit to Sweden considerably more excited about free schools.

Since 2005, there has been a sea change in our attitude to the healthiness of school meals, thanks partly to the high-profile campaign by Jamie Oliver. The changes since then have been crucial. The food provided to children who choose school meals is, more often than not, fresh, nutritious and locally sourced. That is a far cry from the profit-driven mentality that previously dominated school meal provision and led to children eating such monstrosities as turkey twizzlers. That was only the first part of the necessary change, and when we had made school food healthy, it was our duty to ensure that as many children as possible ate it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that eligibility is a key issue? Newham is fourth highest on deprivation indices for child poverty. Around 46.9% of our children live below the poverty line, but only 29% are entitled to free school meals.

Exactly. I shall come to that, and it is why I call for universal free school meals.

Last week, an Ofsted report found that although the quality of school meals had increased, the take-up of free school meals by those entitled to them remained low because of stigma, complexity and some families’ constant movement in and out of entitlement. I received free school meals from the day I started school until the day I left, so I can speak about the stigma from personal experience. Even today, a significant stigma is attached to receiving free school meals, and expanding access to all is the fairest way of eradicating that stigma.

One in five children who are eligible for free school meals do not receive them. In addition, a swathe of forgotten children is not entitled to them, although they definitely live in poverty. A healthy packed lunch might be too expensive for their parent or parents, who might be in a low paid, full-time job and rushing about doing their best to look after their children. Universal free school meals are undoubtedly the best way to address all those problems, but they would do more than that; they would ensure that all children had a healthy meal during the school day. Some parents may be able to shop at Waitrose or Marks and Spencer, but it does not follow that their child’s lunch box is healthy. A ready meal from Marks and Spencer may cost more than a ready meal from Asda or Tesco, but it is still a ready meal, and we should not assume that all children go home to healthy food just because they have an upmarket postcode.

That is why my colleagues and I have campaigned so strongly on the matter for the past four years. We have lobbied incessantly. We lobbied the Child Poverty Action Group to take up the cause, and I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) in the Chamber today and look forward to hearing her valuable contribution to the debate. Believe it or not, the issue was not always popular. There were objections even in my own party to rolling out free school meals regardless of household income. However, it remains the fairest way to ensure that all children below the poverty line, however that is measured, receive a healthy meal during the school day.

I chased Cabinet Ministers through the voting Lobby to try to convince them of our crusade to such an extent that they pre-empted me before I had even said a word by telling me that the matter was still being considered, and eventually to tell me that it was with my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), who was writing our manifesto. I need not say what happened next, as I am sure that hon. Members can imagine, but I became his shadow and was always ready to extol the virtues of universal free school meals.

The first big success for our campaign came at the Labour party conference in 2008 when my right hon. Friends the Members for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) announced the introduction of three pilots for free school meals, all to be local authority match funded. Two pilots were for universal free school meals; Durham and Newham bid for them and were lucky enough to secure them. My hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham and for West Ham (Lyn Brown) played a great part in that. The further pilot involved raising the threshold to the agreed poverty line to ensure that more children in poverty qualified for free school meals, and that went to Wolverhampton.

Those pilots have been under way for nearly a year. They have been hugely successful, especially those involving universal free school meals in Newham and Durham, where take-up is 75% and more than 80% respectively. The majority of primary school pupils in those boroughs therefore receive a hot, healthy, nutritious meal instead of the sugary, additive-laced snacks that some children are given in their packed lunches.

Has not the research also shown that extending entitlement universally leads to not only increases across the board—that is obvious—but increases among those who would have been entitled anyway, as demonstrated in the 2006 Hull experiment?

My hon. Friend is right, and I will come on to the Hull experiment.

The quality of packed lunches is usually dependent on cost, but do not take my word for that, Mr Weir. Research by Professor Derek Colquhoun of the university of Hull showed that it is not always possible for families to access, let alone afford, fresh food for their children. The alternative of paying for school meals may cost almost £20 a week for a family with two children—money which those still living below the poverty line do not have.

I look forward to hearing more about the success of the Durham and Newham pilots from my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham and for West Ham. Unfortunately, due to the recession, universal free school meals did not make it into our manifesto, but our party gave a commitment in the 2009 pre-Budget report to extend the universal free school meals pilots to at least one in every region and permanently to raise the access threshold everywhere else to £16,190 to enable a further 500,000 children to have a free, hot and healthy lunch every day. That approach would also lift a further 50,000 children out of poverty, which was welcome news as far as my colleagues and I were concerned. Such a measure would also be an important first step on the way to universal entitlement, and I welcome it as still affordable, even during a recession.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is even more important to extend that entitlement during the recession? In my constituency, the average income is £16,000 a year, which means that the average family is living in poverty. However, if someone works and earns £16,000 a year, their children are not entitled to free school meals. It is harder for those families to go back to work because they lose the entitlement, which for many is equivalent to about £600 a year. If the coalition Government want to get more people back to work—although the forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility showed that their Budget will put 100,000 more people on the dole—one important measure would be to extend the entitlement to free school meals so that parents who go back to work can claim it for their children.

My hon. Friend raises an issue that I was coming to—I fear that she makes the point better than I would have done. A lot of hon. Members in the coalition Government are not getting that point, but hopefully the contributions that my hon. Friends and I make today will put paid to that.

Confusingly, although the new Government committed themselves to meeting the child poverty targets set by the previous Government, the Secretary of State for Education announced on 9 June that the coalition Government would not be going ahead with the additional pilot schemes, or the extension of schemes to include more low-income families. That is devastating news for the families concerned. The extension would have eased the transition into work for many parents—my hon. Friend has just spoken about that—and supported the Government’s wider drive to improve educational and health outcomes among the least well-off in our society. It seems that the Education Secretary wants to follow in the footsteps of a former Conservative Education Secretary, who became well known—indeed infamous—overnight with the tag of “milk snatcher”. Today’s Education Secretary shall for ever more be known as the “meal snatcher”.

Entitlement to free school meals usually ends when a family moves off benefits and into low-paid employment. That gives rise to an extra cost of around £300 a child per year, just when families are trying to make themselves better off through work. Furthermore, 60% of children in poverty have at least one parent in work, so the majority of children who live in poverty today do not benefit from free school meals. That is a shocking statistic, but it is true.

The decision announced by the Government is spectacularly short-sighted and I urge the Minister to reconsider it as a matter of urgency, particularly considering that the coalition’s stated aim is to decrease the number of people on benefits and increase the number of people in work. That is a laudable goal, but it will never be reached with such poorly thought out policy decisions.

A measure that would have raised 50,000 children above the poverty line has been scrapped, thereby exposing the Government’s claims to promote fairness as nothing but empty rhetoric. How can increasing the number of children living in poverty in 2010 help the Government to meet their 2020 target for eradicating child poverty, especially after a Budget that, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows, disproportionately affects the very poorest? I was even more disturbed to see a leaked memo suggesting that money that would have been directed to the poorest families for free school meals is now being redirected to help the middle classes to parachute their children out of mainstream schools and into free schools. That is a particularly galling example of money being directed away from the disadvantaged towards the comfortably off and away from a scheme that would have lifted children out of poverty to one that will do nothing of the sort but will pander to middle-class parents who still bemoan the loss of grammar schools in leafy London boroughs.

Following this debate, and with the successful campaign that is being led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), the Government will choose to reinstate the changes to free school meal provision that were announced by the previous Labour Administration. That would be welcome news, but I would like the Government to go even further and seriously consider the case for universal free school meals. It is all too easy to dismiss the argument by saying, “We haven’t got the money to do it”. Tough spending decisions should be a matter of prioritising, not slashing budgets for ideological reasons.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and her cogent argument for universal free school meals. Does she agree that an additional spin-off effect would be that if each child was able to access a free, nutritious and healthy meal, it would help in the battle against childhood obesity? Tackling that was a target of the previous Government, and hopefully it is shared by the present Government.

That well-made point is another that I was about to come to. I am sure that hon. Members from all parties agree that the education and health of our children is of utmost importance. That more than justifies the admittedly considerable spending commitment that such a policy would entail. It is estimated that obesity costs the NHS £3.5 billion a year and the figure is set to rise, so this is a cost worth paying to save money in the long run.

Even at a time when the deficit needs to be cut, we cannot forget the social implications of the decisions that are made by the Government—by a coalition Government no less. They are a broad church that goes from left-leaning Liberal Democrats to right-leaning Thatcherite Conservatives through all colours in between. One would think that a coalition with the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable) at its heart would produce fiscally sound social policies and that the last thing that it would do would be to increase child poverty. Alas, I fear not. One only has to look north towards Hull to see that the Liberal Democrats have form on such matters.

In 2004, the Labour council in Hull introduced universal free school meals. It had to get a dispensation from the then Labour Government to do so as that took place prior to the passage the Education and Inspections Act 2006 which, by changing “shall” to “may” in a line of legislation, made it possible for universal free school meals to be introduced by any local authority anywhere in England.

That first pilot scheme was a huge success. Those successes were chronicled by a number of academic papers, the most notable of which is the work I mentioned earlier by Professor Derek Colquhoun from the university of Hull. If I started to go into detail about how positive that evaluation was, there would be no time for anyone else to speak in the debate. I will therefore not do so, but I strongly suggest to the Minister that he look it up—it is a very good read.

What happened next? Sadly for the children of Hull, Labour lost control of the council after three short years to the Liberal Democrats, who promptly and savagely, and without remorse, scrapped the free school meals initiative. Once again, there was a charge for access to the lovely hot and healthy school meals to which the city’s children had become accustomed. That was greeted with outrage from local parents, who had not realised that that was what the Liberal Democrats would do. Does not this all sound strangely familiar? Lo and behold, here we are again. What happens as soon as they are in government? The Liberal Democrats, aided and abetted by their Tory masters, are at it again. Time and again, they are literally taking food out of the mouths of society’s poorest children.

I am just about to finish.

I notice that no Liberal Democrat Member is present in the Chamber to try to defend their part in this atrocity. I hope that the Liberal Democrats are proud of themselves and of the fact that such policies are what they seem to have come into politics for—they do it time and time again. I hope that their ministerial salaries and cars are worth it and that all the hard-working people up and down the country who voted Liberal Democrat are happy with the decisions that their elected representatives are taking on their behalf. In future, the mantra will not be, “Vote Lib Dem, get Tory”; it will be, “Vote Lib Dem, increase child poverty”. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanations.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this very important debate. I, too, shall start with our visit to Sweden, because that was a turning point in our realisation that universal free school meals could be delivered and that a society would consider that the norm for how children are treated at school. My hon. Friend is right that we came back very excited about the possibility of mounting a campaign. It is pleasing to see in the debate today that the organisations and agencies that are firmly focused on alleviating child poverty, such as Barnardo’s, the Child Poverty Action Group and Save the Children, have thrown their weight behind the campaign to secure universal free school meals and to protect what we have achieved so far. It is worth reiterating the substantial progress made in the last Parliament.

We had three pilots, two focusing on universal free school meals for primary school children in Durham and in Newham, including the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). Significantly, we had the promise of a further roll-out to cover at least one local authority in each region, and we had free school meal entitlement elsewhere being extended to primary school children of working parents in receipt of working tax credit with a household income below £16,190. That was to roll out throughout 2010 and 2011.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, the extension of free school meals would have lifted 50,000 children out of poverty, but critically it would have increased incentives to work. Without the extension, families moving off benefits into work would be hit by costs of about £210 per year per primary school-age child, so the new Government’s decision sits very uneasily with their policies, about which they tell us frequently, to move people off benefits into work. Barnardo’s and the other agencies make that point strongly. The Government need to consider how to make work pay and ensure that it does, but they also need to go further by examining how we reduce education and health inequalities. Almost all health professionals have criticised the Government’s decision on free school meals, saying that it is an enormous setback to the reduction of education and health inequalities.

My hon. Friend and I may have been spearheading the campaign in the past three or four years, but I must pay tribute to Save the Children, because it first made the argument for free school meals in 1933. It is dreadful that almost a century later, we have not achieved that goal. Save the Children points to the fact that the UN convention on the rights of the child, which every country in the world has now signed, states that Governments are under a duty to

“provide material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition”.

That convention applies to this Government as well to those elsewhere. Save the Children also points out that 60% of children living in poverty have at least one parent in work, so most of them do not benefit from a free school meals entitlement that is linked to out-of-work benefits. Therefore, we need an answer from the Government about why they have taken this decision when they are trying to move people off benefits.

Before coming to this place, I did quite a lot of work involving focus groups with women about going into work, being out of work and so on. One of the shocking things that I found was that women had accessed the labour market because they had been told that they would be able to afford to do that and find money on top to enable them to make a better life for their families, but in reality they were in much more debt than they had ever been in before in their lives, because the hidden costs, such as the loss of free school meals, were not taken into account when their benefits were calculated and the figures done. Does my hon. Friend agree that the £690 to £1,000 that a family can save through free school meals can be pivotal to whether a low-income family are able to stay in the labour market?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and shows how critical it is to have policies such as free school meals in place when trying to move people off benefits and into work.

The coalition promised to prioritise fairness when implementing cuts and to meet the 2020 target of eradicating child poverty, but deeds speak louder than words and it is appalling that one of the first acts of the coalition Government has been to attack the poorest in our society by cancelling the extension of the free schools meals programme. Furthermore, that will not help to close the attainment gap in schools. The previous Government went some way towards improving standards in school across the board and improving attainment levels, but sadly an attainment gap still exists. The position is that 26.6% of the poorest children passed five good GCSEs compared with 54.2% of better-off children in 2008-09, and that is pretty much the case across the board.

If we want to reduce the attainment gap, we must ensure that all children at school are given an equal chance, and results from the pilots in Durham show that free school meals are contributing enormously to reducing attainment gaps. That is because they help children from low-income backgrounds, who may not have good nutrition, to concentrate more in the classroom. In my constituency, every school has free school meals, and I have visited many of those schools in the past few months. There is not one head teacher or one teacher who is not tremendously supportive of the programme. They say that, even at this early stage, it is making a real difference to concentration levels and children’s ability to perform successfully.

The real argument for universality is how it applies across the board. No stigma is attached to free school meals in that case, and many of my local schools have 100% take-up, but the greatest advocates for the programme are the children themselves. When my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson) visited Durham with me to look at the programme, we talked to many of the children, and we found that it was the children in the school who were the advocates and ambassadors for the programme. Of course they had the odd grumble, but generally speaking, at the age of seven, eight and nine, they recognised the value of the programme. They talked about how it was encouraging them to eat healthily and to develop social skills. They liked being able to sit down with their friends and teachers and have their lunch. They said that they were pleased because they no longer had to bring packed lunches, and there was no longer segregation in the school between those having school meals and those having packed lunches.

My hon. Friend talks eloquently about the difference that free school meals have made in her constituency. Does she agree that as well as free school meals, which are important, breakfast clubs in schools are making a huge difference? However, certainly in my constituency, schools rely on support from the local education authority and the Department for Education to be able to continue those breakfast clubs. Does she share my fear that we are starting to descend a slippery slope and that the support for breakfast clubs, which also help children’s concentration and break down some of the barriers that she talked about, is likely to be at risk in future?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; indeed, we were discussing it on the Floor of the House yesterday, when it was noted that the cuts being made to area-based local authority grants are already affecting the extended schools budget, which many local authorities use to support breakfast and after-school clubs.

I honestly wish that the Secretary of State for Education or one of his Ministers had come to my constituency before announcing their policy, because it is impossible to witness the free school meals system in practice, to see how successful it is and then to cut it.

The GMB produced a helpful progress report on free school meals in February, which demonstrated that the free school meals service in Durham was employing 140 additional staff and that food was being sourced locally. Furthermore, it was much more cost-effective to deliver free school meals as a universal, rather than means-tested, service. The system ticked all the boxes because it also helped to educate children and their parents about how to eat properly.

In this time of scarce financial resources, the Government should surely be looking at policies that tick a whole range of boxes and which are cost-effective. Powerful arguments can be made that free school meals are a good investment for the future and that they help to reduce long-term health and education inequalities.

In Newham, our children were starting to eat different foods from those that they had eaten previously. Mothers were telling me that their children no longer demanded the chicken nuggets that we heard about earlier, but wanted to eat healthier foods that were cooked from scratch with mum and dad in the kitchen at the weekend. Families’ purchasing power was changing because they were eating more cheaply, and the nutritional value of the food that they were eating was changing, too. Regardless of whether we want them to, children dictate what a family eats.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I hope the Minister will consider.

I want to finish by asking the Minister a number of questions. How will the Government help parents into work without considering the need for free school meals and other such programmes? What will they do to improve health inequalities among children if they do not use free school meals to alter the behaviour of children and families? Why on earth have a Government who said that they were committed to fairness and alleviating child poverty started by attacking families on low incomes? Importantly, how do the Government propose to close the attainment gap and reduce inequality without considering nutrition in schools?

It is an absolute pleasure to speak in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing it. She and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) have been long-standing collaborators of mine on this subject. I was very pleased to work with them on it when I was the chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, and I am delighted that we will continue to work together on it in the House. I guess that I should declare that I remain a member of the CPAG, and I am a strong supporter of its work and what it stands for. I am pleased that, following my departure, the CPAG remains as committed as ever to the cause of free school meals, as part of its wider “2 skint 4 school” campaign.

I very much welcomed the announcements that the previous Labour Government made over a number of years to improve the quality of, and eligibility for, free school meals. One of the most important years in the development of policy was 2005, with the establishment of the School Food Trust, which heightened awareness of the importance of this issue on a number of policy fronts. We should pay tribute to the trust for also playing an important role in driving up nutritional standards, which is something that every Member will want to applaud.

Of course, the Labour Government’s policies were important in other ways. Investment in our school infrastructure enabled a number of schools significantly to improve catering facilities, which could increasingly be brought back in-house. I was recently delighted to have the opportunity to visit the wonderful new kitchen at Acre Hall primary school in my constituency. To my great delight, Theresa, the school cook, has offered me the chance to join her and cook lunch for the children. I am very much looking forward to doing that in the next few weeks, when I expect that I will learn a great deal about how to peel carrots in bulk.

Perhaps the Labour Government’s most important initiative was the extension of eligibility for free school meals. With my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West, I strongly welcomed the direction of policy travel that that represented. I am deeply concerned that the announcement that the Secretary of State for Education made the other day represents a reversal of that direction of policy travel, which is something that we must all be very anxious about.

I was particularly interested when the Secretary of State explained that the pilots would not be further extended because the evidence of a link between the provision of free school meals and educational attainment remained unproven. It is certainly important that educational attainment is one of the gains of extending the right to free school meals, and the evidence does in fact suggest that there are improvements in cognitive ability, concentration and learning behaviour. Early on in the Hull experiment—researchers confirmed this later—teachers reported a calmer learning environment, with children more engaged, including in the often difficult classroom period in the early afternoon. It is therefore wrong to suggest that the educational gains are unproven. Moreover, it is wrong to judge the provision of universal free school meals on educational attainment grounds alone, important though those of course are.

We must also be aware of the health gains, because standards of nutrition in school meals have risen significantly since 2005. Hon. Members should contrast that with the packed lunches that many low-income parents are still forced to provide to their children, only 1% of which meet the standard of today’s school meals.

We have also heard about the importance of the socialising and behavioural gains that we see in our schools when more children eat lunch together. Children learn to converse and to look out for one another, and they learn good courtesy and table manners. Importantly, children who are having lunch in school are not hanging around the chip shop at the end of the road—something that is particularly significant in secondary schools.

It is also important to consider school lunch in the context of the broader curriculum, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham said. There is the opportunity to link lunch to education about diet, nutrition and cooking. Many schools have used the extension of school meal programmes to bring more parents into schools, so that they and their children learn to enjoy cooking healthy meals together.

There are important sustainability gains in extending the reach of free school meals and in the opportunity that that creates for cooking locally, on-site, with less transport of ingredients. It also offers schools the opportunity to source from local producers, which boosts the local economy. The extension of free school meals is an important job-creation opportunity. Working in school kitchens is a particularly desirable form of employment for many parents, especially mothers. The flexibility of the work—the fact that it takes place in term time and obviously coincides with the times when the children are in school—makes it a good source of additional local jobs.

It is highly regrettable that those additional gains were not mentioned by the Secretary of State when he said that the gains on educational attainment grounds were unproven. Even if that had been true—in my view the evidence shows that it is not—it is highly regrettable that the much broader social and environmental gains were not considered, too. Most importantly, I guess, for many of the families whom I have talked to, are the economic and financial consequences for family budgets of extending eligibility for free school meals.

School meals represent good value, and many hon. Members present in the Chamber will believe that a hot lunch at £1.90 or £2 a head is good value; and that is right. Still, however, for many low-income working parents, who may perhaps be raising two or three children, that £1.90, £2 or £2.20 added up over the week can be unaffordable. Larger families are a group already at higher risk of child poverty. Undoubtedly, for some of those families, the cost of providing lunch for their children is a component of that greater risk. It is a matter of regret that we are not taking the opportunity to deal with that.

As my hon. Friends have said, one of the most significant concerns for us is the position of low-income working families. I very much regret the decision not to roll out the provision of free school meals to more children in such families. Even the pilots under the previous Government were, I confess, limited and did not go far enough in my view in relation to provision for secondary school kids. Almost no secondary school child in this country in a low-income working family has been able to get a free school meal. The recent announcement by the Secretary of State means that we have lost substantial potential gains to do with creating work incentives and ending child poverty: as has been mentioned, the measures would have lifted a further 50,000 children out of poverty; there would have been wider social and economic gains, too.

The opportunities and options for extension are quite numerous. Many MPs have long argued that, as a first step, free school meals should be extended to all families on working tax credit. That would make a significant difference. We could also consider families in receipt of housing benefit and council tax benefit. As the Minister knows, those are in-work benefits, too. We have significant reasons for supporting the Government’s own back-to-work and work incentivisation agenda, with extending the entitlement to free school meals.

I alluded to take-up in an intervention earlier. The wider the eligibility, the greater the take-up across the board, including among those children who would be entitled to free school meals even on the most limited eligibility criteria used some years ago. I think that I am right in saying that the rate nearly doubled in Hull among such children—those who would have been entitled anyway. That significant increase in take-up shows the absolute power of universal provision; some of us find that we are making that argument repeatedly in different contexts. We can understand why take-up increases when eligibility is widened; my hon. Friends have alluded to the reasons. There is less stigma: if their friends are having lunches, children will go along, too, and have lunch with their mates. Administrative simplicity is another factor. It is as true in this context as in any other that means-testing brings complexity and shuts out people who should be entitled. Of course, schools—hard-pressed to meet budgets—will be very pleased about anything that reduces administrative costs.

I want to explore the extension of free school meals into the wider educational environment, which is another thing mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham when she talked about extended schools. Many schools have in recent years extended their support to families by providing longer hours, with out-of-school breakfast clubs and after-school events. It is of great concern to me that pressures on funding resulting from the Budget and other cuts being announced will put those extended school activities at considerable risk.

The Minister has long been a strong proponent of the benefits of out-of-school and extended school activities. I remember hearing him say early on that schools in his constituency would want to take advantage of such moves and would be unwise not to. We will not necessarily lose extended school activities completely, but I am concerned that the poorest children may not be able to afford to participate: the children who could benefit most from those activities will be exactly those who will be shut out. We need some guarantees about funding for extended and out-of-school provision, and that must include providing for the children taking part to eat together—healthy snacks, breakfast or supper—where that is part of the plan.

Breakfast clubs have a particular significance in that context. They play an important role for many low-income families, and hon. Members should welcome several aspects of those clubs. They have attracted considerable support in many areas—in the private sector as well as the voluntary sector. In my constituency, a major employer is Kellogg’s, which has put millions of pounds of support into helping school breakfast clubs. It is incredibly committed to their future and extremely anxious about what the Government intend for them. It has highlighted to me its concerns about some of the language used by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who suggested that breakfast clubs might not be desirable for a number of kids. I am sure that it would be good for children to have healthy breakfasts at home, wherever possible, but for all sorts of reasons at all sorts of times that is not possible for every parent. We must be able to build on provision that has proved a considerable success in many schools and that has given some of our most deprived kids a strong start to the school day. I hope that we shall receive assurances from Ministers in the next few weeks about extended school activities—funding for them and enabling the poorest children to participate in them more broadly—and about the role that free school meals will play in offering that.

I think that everyone understands the financial pressures and the fact that we can expect public spending cuts. However, the pain of those cuts, as my hon. Friends have repeatedly told the Government, must not be borne by the poorest; but I very much fear that that will be the exact consequence of not extending the provision.

I am concerned, too, that we are seeing a massive policy step backwards; although the direction of travel in recent years has been at times hesitant or a little stop-go, it has none the less been broadly progressive and positive. Having seen such progress, it is a matter of huge regret to find things suddenly being put in reverse.

My concluding plea is for Ministers to consider again their plans for the provision of free school meals, and to do so with fully open minds. I want their minds to be open in the context of child poverty; I want their minds to be open in the context of improving working centres; and I want their minds to be open in the context of children’s health—and, of course, their learning and educational attainment. Unfortunately, the Conservative-Lib Dem Government has a bit of a track record in not having an open mind.

Several hon. Members have spoken of the fate of the programme in Hull. One of the most shameful aspects of the Lib Dem attempt to stop that programme early was that they did not wait for a proper evaluation to be made; only after the campaigning efforts of parents and others were they forced to finish the programme, so that a proper research basis could be established for the success that it had enjoyed. The governing parties have form for not evaluating programmes properly, and I know that the Minister will not want to be associated with that.

I hope that the Minister will offer some reassurance—for a start, to the many working families who are anxious about the many financial pressures that they already face. In that context, extending free school meals to more of those low-income working families would be a step towards the long-term provision of universal free school meals. That would be widely welcomed, and I hope that the Government will consider doing so.

I thank you, Mr Weir, for giving me the opportunity to speak for the first time under your chairmanship.

I shall speak only for a short time, as I am most interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson) has to say, as the free school meals pilot in the area that she represents was stopped by the Liberal Democrat-controlled council. I also want to hear what the Minister has to say. It is only a failure of the imagination that stops the Government understanding the importance of free school meals, both for their nutritional and social value to the children and for their economic value to hard-pressed working families that struggle from day to day to make ends meet.

I represent one of the poorest parts of the country. Newham has the fourth highest level of child poverty in the country: 30,525 under-16s live in families with less than 60% of national median household income before housing costs. Despite that, only 29% of children in Newham are eligible for free school meals under the current system. In Newham, 46.9% of children are living below the poverty line. We are talking about the working poor—families that go out to work but do not earn enough money to make ends meet. Their children suffer as a result, and it is their future that we are talking about today. They have the same right to fulfil their potential as every child in this country, and the free school meals programme was a tiny way of making that possibility a reality for some.

This is about families struggling to keep their heads above water. We might not understand what £600 or £1,000 a year means to a working family because it is less than some of us would spend on a weekend away. For the families that I represent, however, it can make the difference between surviving and not surviving. That is the likely damage of taking away the universal free school meals programme. Prior to the pilot, more than one in six children living in poverty in my constituency was not entitled to free school meals. I find that shocking, and I hope that the Minister agrees.

To my working families, the universal free school meals programme represented savings of between £690 and £1,000 a year. Families who are not working or who work less than 16 hours a week and have an income of £16,000, however, would be eligible for free school meals. I do not want to take that from them, but the current system offers no incentive to work and presents a barrier to people who have taken the first steps into work.

Research carried out by the London borough of Newham shows that if, prior to the pilot, eligibility had been extended to all who claimed benefit, of any kind, an extra 2,094 households would have been eligible. Each of those households would have saved on average £614 per year—9% of the group’s typical weekly pay. As a direct result of the pilot, figures from March show that 75% of pupils in Newham are now taking up free school meals. In 16 schools, the uptake is now more than 80%, and in some it is as high as 90% or more. I hope that we one day reach the 100% level mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). It has to be good news.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said eloquently in her excellent contribution, only 1% of the packed lunches that children take to school—not only in Newham, but throughout the country—meet the nutritional standards set for school meals. As a result, those children who are not eligible or who do not claim free school meals, and whose parents are unable to afford nutritionally balanced packed lunches, are eating less nutritionally valuable food than their peers. That has an impact on their health and ability to concentrate.

The impact of a healthy meal on behaviour and concentration, and therefore on academic performance, has been discussed this morning. There is a high level of consensus about the fact that to thrive at school, children need to be well nourished throughout the school day—through breakfast clubs, which were mentioned earlier, as well as free school meals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston stated, the recent study by the School Food Trust found that eating healthy school lunches in modern dining rooms can improve pupils’ concentration by almost 20%. That has to be good news for the children and their educational achievement. However, in so many ways it is also good news for us all—in productivity at work, in the sort of work that people can get as a result of their education and, as was alluded to earlier, in many other social aspects of life. The impact is on not just the few, but the whole of society.

On take-up, in Newham it was obvious that a key factor in children deciding to take up the offer of free school meals was whether their best mates did so. I know that things have moved on and are a lot better than when I was at school, but it can be extraordinarily humiliating for a child to have to claim free school meals. It is stigmatising for families to have to go through that sort of inspection. I remember a woman at my surgery being in floods of tears because she had recently become ineligible for free school meals; she had ratcheted up a bill that was far beyond her reach to be paid as a lump sum. She was being humiliated almost daily, being harassed by members of staff attempting to get her to pay for school meals that had not been taken. Obviously, with the change in eligibility rules, such a situation will no longer arise. However, she told me that she could no longer afford to work, because she could not take the hit on free school meals as well as having to pay all the other costs associated with going to work.

I have been listening intently to my hon. Friend’s extremely good speech. Does she agree, however, that sometimes school staff, lunchtime supervisors and canteen staff risk their own careers by regularly giving food to children who they know are not getting meals? In other words, we also see a positive side from staff.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The story that I related stuck in my head because it was so different from the other stories that I normally receive from parents. Bills such as the one I mentioned are often torn up and put in a waste basket and do not become an issue. Even the small amounts of money charged by breakfast clubs across the country are often not taken from families who are known to be struggling.

Stigma, combined with the complexity of administering a free school meal system to the poorest members of our society, is discouraging take-up, which explains why there was only a 50% take-up from those who were eligible in Newham before the pilot. Let me pay tribute to Sir Robin Wales, the leader of Newham council, who, despite the threats of massive budget cuts by this Government, recognises the importance of free school meals to the children of Newham and will use his ever decreasing budget to extend the pilot. I pay tribute to him because he truly understands the impact of free school meals on the children that he and I represent. He and his council will do all that they can to ensure that the widest section of our children will be eligible for free school meals, because the impact on opportunities at school and on a healthier life in the future is so significant.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Weir. I welcome the Minister to his new role. He was an assiduous shadow spokesman for children, and I wish him well in the months and years ahead.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate and on her excellent contribution. She set out very well the reasons why there is such support for free school meals and for the pilots to be extended. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) on her campaign work. They have both campaigned year in, year out for the pilots to be set up and ensured that there was the evidence base to persuade the Government that they needed to make the universal free school meal offer to children in this country. They should be congratulated on their persistence.

I should like to pay tribute to the other speakers in the debate. With her background in the Child Poverty Action Group, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) gave us a very informed contribution and a straightforward approach to the matter. Free school meals deal not only with educational attainment but with the issues around reducing child poverty.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) set out very clearly the practical effect of the pilot on her constituents. She correctly paid tribute to Sir Robin Wales, the mayor of Newham, who has a personal commitment to ensuring that the pilot, which has been running in the constituency since last September, continues at the end of the two-year period if at all possible. The contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) and for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) also showed a commitment to the children in their constituencies and to getting free school meals.

Let me start by saying why I feel so passionately about the subject. As the MP for Kingston upon Hull North, I saw the effects of the “Eat Well Do Well” scheme that was in place for three years. It gave all primary and special school pupils the right to free healthy school meals. We are talking about not just lunches, but a healthy breakfast club, fruit at break time and healthy snacks for children doing sport after school. Over the three years that we were lucky enough to have such a scheme, we saw the effects on both the learning and the long-term health of those children who, unfortunately, do not always achieve as much as they should at school. In the long term, the health inequalities in my city need to be addressed by early intervention schemes such as free healthy school meals. As other hon. Members have pointed out, that scheme was abandoned by an incoming Liberal Democrat council. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said, it did not even wait for the results of an evaluation before it made its informed decision. It just decided to scrap the scheme. The pilots that the last Government set up are a useful tool for incoming Ministers to assess what has happened and to make some informed decisions about the future direction of free healthy school meals.

The last Labour Government understood that good nutrition and a healthy diet were very important to young children. If we get such things right early on, we will reap the benefits by having people who will not get sick at a young age, who cannot work, who are on benefit and who do not achieve as much as they should educationally. There are all sorts of health and educational benefits to be gained if we invest early on. As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said, 1.5 million children in the United Kingdom are overweight or obese at the moment. If we do not grapple with that issue, we will see an explosion in medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. We all have a vested interest in doing what we can as early as possible to ensure that children have the best possible start.

We have talked generally about free school meals. My hon. Friends have addressed the stigma, the fact that children who are entitled to free school meals do not always take them up and the cost, especially for families on low incomes. The school census in 2009 showed that of the 16% of nursery and primary school pupils who were eligible for free school meals, only 13.6% took them up. In secondary school, 13.4% of pupils were eligible for free school meals, but only 10.3% took them up, so that is a real issue that needs to be addressed.

The previous Labour Government recognised the need to improve nutrition in schools for all pupils. For the years 2005 to 2011, they invested £650 million to help support the cost of healthy school lunches, to build or refurbish kitchens in schools and to improve dining facilities. Where pupils eat their lunch is an issue. They are put off school meals if the environment is not very nice. Moreover, investing in catering staff and lunchtime supervisors is important. I was very fortunate to attend a meeting of lunchtime supervisors that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South organised in his constituency. As he said, those supervisors play a valuable role in looking after pupils, who, through no fault of their own, cannot have school lunches—either because of cost or because their parents have not bothered to apply for the free school meals. Those supervisors have such an important role to play, and I am very proud that we wanted to work with those catering staff, to ensure that their role was recognised and that they received all the training that they required.

It was indeed a pleasure to have my hon. Friend come in her ministerial capacity to Gladstone primary school in my constituency to meet lunchtime supervisors and staff from across my constituency. Does she recall some of the comments made by those staff about situations in which children were passing out in the playground because they had not eaten, in some cases for a couple of days? Situations such as that are horrific. We are in the 21st century, not in Victorian times, yet we sometimes have to wonder what time we are in. Does she recall those conversations with staff?

Absolutely. Those conversations made me even more committed to the idea of looking at the evidence about free school meals, ensuring that we have a proper evaluation of the pilots that are running in the city of Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton and making a strong case for free school meals, so that those situations do not recur. That leads me very nicely on to the free school meal pilots, which we have heard quite a lot about in this debate, especially from my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham.

I was very fortunate, as the Minister responsible for those pilots, to visit all three of the pilot areas and to speak to the children, teachers, parents and the governors of the schools involved, to see what the effect of those pilots was within the school environment. The effect was very positive, and I very much look forward to seeing the evaluation of those pilots, which will be carried out by the National Centre for Social Research. The Minister is a very fair and open-minded gentleman. I know that he will look at that evaluation, and I very much hope that he will see the benefits to children in those pilot areas and that he will want to increase the availability of free school meals to children around the country.

I want to consider the Wolverhampton pilot in particular today. As other Members have said, that pilot was set up to look at the eligibility criteria and to extend them, so that parents who were receiving working tax credit and who had an annual income of up to £16,190 would become eligible for their children to have free school meals.

I also want to pick up on comments made by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), who was a shadow Secretary of State for the Lib Dems when we had the Department of Children, Schools and Families. He said at that time that 500,000 children living in poverty are not entitled to free school meals. He also said:

“It is outrageous that half of our poorest children are missing out on free school meals. For the most disadvantaged children, a school dinner can be the only hot meal they get… The Tories caused this problem in the 1980s when they changed the rules to deny free school meals to half a million children living in families who were working but on low incomes. The Government must now look at restoring the entitlement to free school meals to this group—including to families on working tax credits.”

It is very interesting that the right hon. Gentleman said that.

I looked through the coalition agreement to see what the coalition is saying about school food and school meals. I was very disappointed that, in section 26 of the coalition agreement, there was no mention at all of school food and school meals, despite the right hon. Member for Yeovil making it very clear what he wanted to happen. I also looked under the public health section of the coalition agreement—section 25—where it sets out that

“The Government believes that we need action to promote public health, and encourage behaviour change to help people live healthier lives.”

What better way is there to do that than by introducing free school meals? Unfortunately, however, there is no mention of free school meals in the coalition agreement.

Will the hon. Lady confirm that, in fact, the Government are not proposing to scrap the pilot, nor indeed—contrary to some impressions given in some places—to scrap free meals? The pilot will continue, but we are not extending it. It turns out that the promise to extend the pilot was an unfunded promise by the former Government. Having inherited bankrupt public finances, it would be irresponsible to continue to do something for which there is no money.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman, because I think that the promise to extend the pilot was a funded promise. At the end of last year, the pre-Budget report set out very clearly that, because of the success of the pilots in Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton, it was absolutely right and proper to extend the pilots, so that there would be one in every region of the country. We would therefore have gained further evidence on which to make a very informed decision at the end of the two-year pilot about whether free school meals really work for our children and help to achieve the last Government’s goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020.

It is very unfortunate that the new coalition Government have said that they are committed to the goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020, yet a number of policy announcements that they have made in the past few weeks seem to fly in the face of that commitment. For instance, tax credits have been cut, child benefit frozen, free swimming for children and the child trust fund abandoned, and the extension of the free school meals pilots is now being abandoned. [Interruption.] I must finish.

On increasing the eligibility for working families tax credit, which was a very sensible approach that would fit in very well with the coalition Government’s attempt to get people into work, it was very short-sighted indeed to abandon that policy, as many hon. Members have said today. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who was a Minister in the previous Government, made it very clear not only that that policy would get 50,000 children out of poverty at a stroke, but that it was the most cost-effective way of doing so. The Department for Work and Pensions had worked through various models and that approach was seen to be the best.

I am very much looking forward to what the Minister has to say about why the coalition Government have taken the step of abandoning that policy so early on and why they have not allowed the extension to the pilots that was announced in the pre-Budget report in December 2009 to go ahead, so that we could build up the evidence base. I have heard lots from coalition Ministers about how they want to make decisions based on evidence, so it is very unfortunate that the opportunity to acquire that evidence has just been recklessly abandoned.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate. She is a passionate advocate for children and young people. She served on the Children, Schools and Families Committee for more than two years, and I know that she shares the ambitions of everyone in the coalition, and indeed of everyone across the House, to obtain a better future for all children in this country. She and I have sparred in Westminster Hall on a number of subjects, ranging from the repatriation of the Lindisfarne Gospels, which I think we discussed some time ago, to many issues affecting children. I also thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson), the former Minister, for her kind words. I think that this is the first time that we have experienced this juxtaposition in a debate since the election.

We have had a good-quality debate today, with very powerful and well-informed contributions from the hon. Members for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for West Ham (Lyn Brown). We have also heard some interesting references to Sweden. Everybody who travels east to Scandinavia seems to come back with different interpretations of what is good there and what could be transferred to this country. Of course, there has also been mention of turkey twizzlers on more than one occasion; such a reference is inevitable when one talks about food and young people.

I agree that free school meals have an important role to play in addressing poverty and inequality, and I do not think that anyone is disputing the importance of their role. Like the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, who opened the debate, the coalition Government are committed to closing the attainment gaps that exist in our society, not least in education, which is so important to ensuring that every child gets the best start to their life.

However, before we discuss in detail why free school meals and healthy eating in schools are so important, I just want to address head-on a particular issue that has been raised about free school meals. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West referred to a “leaked memo”—there seem to be lots of leaked memos at the moment. It has been suggested that the budget for free school meals will be diverted to the new free schools that we are looking to introduce. At this stage, it might be helpful to remind hon. Members of the very strong and positive commitment that was made in the House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education in direct response to that point. He said:

“Under no circumstances will I take for the free schools programme money intended to extend free school meals to poor children. That money will go towards raising attainment among the poorest children.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 27.]

I shall clarify further what the Secretary of State said.

I would like some clarification of what that actually means. The Secretary of State says that he will not take money from free school meals to put into free schools because he wants to put it into raising attainment for poorer children. Does that mean that the free school meals budget is under threat because it will be used to pay for a different scheme, idea or notion?

No, and I will come to that. It means exactly what the Secretary of State said. Money for free schools will not come from any of the budgets around free school meals. The money that will now not be used for the extension of free school meals, which was never budgeted for, will be used for other methods of improving educational attainment within our schools and closing the gap which, as the hon. Lady agrees, is essential.

I will give way once more, but if I give way an awful lot, no one will get to hear the answers that many Members wanted.

We need more clarity. The previous Labour Government said that the extension of the free school meals pilots next year would cost £85 million and the new Government say that it will cost £125 million. The gap is only £40 million. If the £85 million is there, what will it be spent on? I think that that is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) was making. Will that money be used for something else? Will it be used to pay down the deficit? For what, precisely, will the money earmarked for the scheme—money that the Minister has said is available—be used?

If the hon. Lady is patient, she will hear more detail.

Over three years, the extension of the scheme would have cost £295 million, for which the previous Government did not budget. That is a simple fact. It was immoral of the previous Government to lead people to believe that they could extend the free school meal programme without making any provision for funding it. Furthermore, in this debate, hon. Members have not just been talking about extending the free school meal entitlement; they have been talking as though the last Government wanted a universal free school meal entitlement. That was never a manifesto commitment. If hon. Members are now talking about a universal free school meal programme, where will that money come from? Which programmes would they cut? They cannot have it both ways.

To return to the points that many hon. Members want addressed, I will clarify exactly what the Secretary of State for Education said. He has reallocated £50 million in direct funding from the harnessing technology grant to create a standards and diversity fund, thus reinventing a fund set up by the previous Government in 2006, but stopped in 2009, that was intended to create diversity of provision in the school system. The fund will now provide capital funding for free schools until 31 March 2011. Funding for free schools beyond that will be a top priority for the Department in the forthcoming spending review. I would like to make it clear that the new free schools will be funded on a basis comparable with other state-funded schools and that, as is the case now, money will follow the pupil within the funding system.

To return to the issue of free school meals, we are of course extremely disappointed that we cannot proceed with the previous Government’s proposal to extend the free school meals pilots. It would be good for more children to have access to free school meals. I agree with hon. Members that there is no doubt that free school meals help families and children in need across the country. However, the previous Government underfunded the programme to the tune of £295 million over the next three years, and we are not prepared to cut front-line budgets to support an as yet unproved scheme. We have therefore taken the difficult decision, from this September, not to extend free school meals to maintained nursery and key stage 1 pupils from working families on low incomes. We have also decided not to provide funding from central Government for the further five local pilots mentioned.

Let me be clear: we are absolutely not taking free school meals away from anyone who is eligible. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West said that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would become known as the meal snatcher. No child currently eligible for free school meals will lose that entitlement. Nothing is being taken away. However, the extension that the Labour Government promised but failed to fund will now no longer take place.

Does not the Minister accept that that in itself is a significant blow to many low-income families who expected that, from this September, their stretched family budgets would have been helped by the extension of the pilots, which will now not take place? Does he not regret that?

That was a false expectation given by the previous Government. The biggest disappointment is that those people have been misled about something that was never funded. We are not taking free school meals away from anyone who is eligible, nor are we changing the rules for determining eligibility. All those who currently qualify for free school meals will continue to receive them.

We have taken what we believe to be the most important decision: schools should use their budgets this year to focus on our priority of improving attainment, which is key to improving the life changes of all children. Not extending free school meals or continuing with additional pilots will free up £160 million this year—if the hon. Lady who asked the question will put down her BlackBerry and listen to my answer—and we can use that money more effectively and directly to improve attainment in our schools.

Although we will not be extending free school meals, we are still interested to know whether there is a case for expanding the scheme. That is why we are committed to continuing the ongoing pilots in Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton that started in September 2009. I have been to Newham, and I will certainly repeat hon. Members’ praise of its mayor, Sir Robin Wales, not only for what he has done with free school meals but for the free musical instrument programme, which is particularly interesting and something that we want to consider further. The pilots will be carefully evaluated so that we can learn the lessons from them in order better to assess the case for increasing eligibility in the future.

Although we cannot extend eligibility, we would like to see a rise in take-up. At present, many eligible pupils—we estimate nearly 600,000 children, or a quarter of those entitled—do not take up their free school meals. That situation must change. Is it an issue of stigmatisation, as hon. Members have suggested? I am interested in the imaginative use of technology. For example, at Roseberry college, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for City of Durham, a new cashless payment system removes any potential stigma and has increased the take-up by eligible pupils from less than half to more than 90%. That interesting example could be replicated throughout the country. I hope that all would agree that our schools should do everything they can to ensure that eligible pupils take up their entitlement.

Good free school meals are important not just to tackling poverty, but to ensuring the health of our children. They often represent the only nutritious meal in some children’s day. That is why it is vital that schools continue to serve healthy food and ensure that their pupils eat well, which extends beyond the quality of the meals. Ofsted findings and surveys by the School Food Trust, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, show that it is not nutritional changes that put children off school lunch, but poor dining facilities and organisation. If there is nowhere to sit, if the queues are long, if the dining rooms are unattractive or if there is not enough time, children will not eat properly.

School meals also have an important social element. The lunch hour should be a proper part of the day—we view that as a priority. It should include time to eat a good meal, to exercise and to socialise. We know that children do not perform as well in the afternoon without a good break, and we agree that school meals can have social benefits. I am pleased to report that some progress is being made. An Ofsted report last week found that good progress has generally been made towards meeting the standards for school food. That is good news, especially for children benefiting from free school meals.

Despite being unable to extend free school meals, we as a Government are absolutely committed to fighting poverty and raising the life chances of the most vulnerable in our society. Section 14 of the coalition document, which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North did not mention, confirms the Government’s commitment to ending child poverty by 2020. Although the previous Government can be commended for the introduction of the Child Poverty Act 2010, which both coalition parties supported, we are disappointed by the latest figures showing that 2.8 million children in this country were still in poverty in 2008-09. The previous Government spent a substantial sum on tax and benefits in an attempt to raise people above the 60% poverty threshold, yet the evidence shows that that simply did not work. We believe that the best way to tackle child poverty is to address the root causes: entrenched worklessness, economic dependency, family breakdown, educational failure, addiction and debt.

I am almost out of time, so I will not.

Those are only some of the drivers of poverty. Our approach must be able to tackle each of them. We will do so by taking a multi-faceted approach that recognises the different factors that trap people in poverty. Only by doing so can we effectively and sustainably improve outcomes for children. That was why the Prime Minister announced an independent review of poverty in the UK, led by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), whom his hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned in not particularly glowing terms. The review will consider what the Government can do to improve the lives of the least advantaged people in our society. We will be working closely with other Departments to ensure that we tackle the issue head-on. At the heart of the programme is a commitment to spending more on the education of the poorest.

That is why we are introducing the pupil premium. It was one of the first things promised by this Government and it will tackle head-on the problems of the most disadvantaged pupils by helping them get the education they desperately need. The pupil premium is supported by the Conservatives and was championed loudest by the Liberal Democrats. By giving resources to school leaders and teachers—the people who matter most in extending opportunity—we can ensure that our most disadvantaged pupils have better life chances than ever before.

I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West for securing the debate. We as a Government are committed to ensuring that pupils can eat good, healthy food.