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Free School Meals (Colleges)

Volume 546: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2012

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

I am sure that it will be a pleasure serving under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I am pleased to be doing so. I thank hon. Members from all parties who have taken the trouble to attend what I consider an important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) for the enormous amount of work that she has done on this issue, bringing it to public attention.

I hope that we have reached consensus across political parties that action is needed. The issue is simple. Those who are in school and go through to school sixth forms continue to receive free school meals and those who are in free schools or academies from 16 to 19 or in university technology colleges are entitled to free school meals, but those who are in general further education or in sixth-form colleges are not. That is so inequitable, unfair and discriminatory that I know that the Minister will say, “Time to put this right.” As it is unfair and discriminatory, it is unjustifiable. The Minister might say, “Why didn’t you do this before?” Do you know, there are times in life when it is best to put our hands up and say, “We should have done.”? Of course, we introduced the education maintenance allowance. I was Secretary of State when we introduced it and I am proud of it, and I am sorry that it has effectively been abolished.

I was proud of our Government’s taking steps to equalise funding, which the coalition Government are continuing, between those in different forms of 16-to-19 provision. That is welcome. We do not, of course, have a pupil premium for those aged 16 to 19. Had we such a provision, it might be possible to argue that youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds and low-income families would receive additional support, but they do not.

The issue is simple. Is it right that more than 100,000 young people, nationally, should be denied something—because they made a conscious decision or received proper careers advice and took up courses in sixth-form colleges and in further education—that those who continue into school sixth forms get automatically. Clearly, it is neither acceptable nor justifiable.

I hope that, with a smile on his face, the Minister—[Interruption.] I do not know how often he smiles.

I understand that the Minister is smiling now, and I hope that that will yield fruit. I know that the case that will be put over the next 85 minutes by hon. Members from all parties will persuade him.

We have two new sixth-form institutions in my constituency. One, known as Hillsborough college, is part of Sheffield college and the other is a free-standing sixth-form college called Longley Park. Both were established from 2004. Up to that time, my constituency regrettably had the third worst figures in the country for staying on in education post-16. Only Bristol South and Nottingham North were worse. A great deal of work was done by the Further Education Funding Council, which became the Learning and Skills Council, including, for example, research by Sheffield Hallam university on the causes and issues.

We were convinced that youngsters would stay on if there was an accessible institution, with support—the education maintenance allowance—and if their parents could be persuaded that youngsters would be supported in other ways. That worked. Both institutions that I have mentioned are now over-subscribed, contrary to what the cynics thought, and young people’s lives have been transformed. Now the colleges are worried about what is happening to the young people in terms of the careers advice that they receive, because careers advice has been in what might be described generously as an interregnum. I hope that, online or otherwise, advice will be more readily available.

Advice is skewed. Understandably, because it is human nature, schools with sixth forms do their best to persuade youngsters to stay in the school. If they can also say, “And you’ll receive free meals,” where entitlement exists and, “But if you take a different course or even the same one in a college, you will not receive free school meals,” that is bound to have at least some impact on a really disadvantaged family. That brings me to my final point, because I want other hon. Members to emphasise the situation.

I am one of eight children and, unfortunately, felt the embarrassment or shame of having to claim free school meals. Not only should those aged 16 to 18 in further education who qualify get school meals, but there should be a way to pay for those meals that does not single them out: a cashless payment of some sort. In Liverpool, Walton, extrapolating what happens in school, some 24% of those going into FE could be entitled. It is important that we de-stigmatise people on free school meals.

My hon. Friend is right. With the advent of new technology, it is possible to make the system sensitive, non-discriminatory and easy. Institutions with other facilities that are available to disadvantaged youngsters make them available appropriately and sensitively.

I hope that the Minister has the same view as my right hon. Friend.

Some time ago, on a Friday afternoon, I asked a group of 15-year-olds in Birkenhead what they wanted from school. I asked how many of them would have their next proper main meal at their school dinners on Monday. About 40% of that group would wait till Monday for their next main meal. That does not mean that some poor families are not good at budgeting and would not ensure that their children were well fed over the weekend, but it underscores my right hon. Friend’s point that, for many families on low incomes, it is difficult to make ends meet. We give child benefit up to the age of 19, and school dinner costs wipe out that additional sum given to families.

I hope that the Minister will, with a smile on his face—[Interruption.] He is smiling. I cannot believe that it would be impossible for him, looking at the Department’s budget over, say, the past three years, to find a spare £30 million at the end of the year and allocate it to the task that my right hon. Friend has brought to his attention.

I agree. I do not want to want to give away secrets, but there were times between 1997 and 2001, when I had responsibility for education, when I was told by officials that there was no chance of finding the necessary funding for small expenditure and schemes. I am sure that the Minister has found that to be so in the past two years. However, it is amazing, when suggesting taking away things that officials are particularly interested in, how the money suddenly emerges. I recommend that he think about that. The now Lord Heseltine mentions some interesting times when reflecting on his wily ways and getting his own way when he was a Secretary of State. I recommend that the Minister chat with him if he has any problems finding the resource.

Sheffield college, including Hillsborough college, takes on 47% of all the youngsters who had free school meals during their school life. Longley Park and Sheffield colleges between them have more than 1,000 youngsters who would have been entitled to free school meals had they been on a sixth-form course. That is clearly unacceptable, in particular given that Sheffield college has had to set up food banks to help students and that staff bring in food parcels for the youngsters, although, obviously, in a sensitive way behind the scenes. However, that is not a situation that we can countenance in 2012, whatever the deficit or the difficulties of the recession. I rest my case.

I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) on securing this important debate. I have huge admiration for him, in particular over his police community support officer reforms, although they are not the subject of the debate. I was sceptical about PCSOs, but now, having seen how they work in my constituency, I realise how successful they are.

I declare an interest: with the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), I chair the all-party parliamentary group for further education, skills and lifelong learning. I have also done a lot of work on apprenticeships since I was elected.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s main argument that there should be a more level playing field. I am a strong supporter of the Association of Colleges and of the college in my own constituency. Harlow college has achieved the best success rates in the country because it does everything that it can to help those from poorer incomes, with apprenticeship programmes for young people leaving care or for single parents returning to work and with its own version of free school meals, even though it has no such obligation and little funds.

I have two main points. First, the landscape of provision is fragmented, and part of the problem is the lack of good information about which pupils at further education colleges are most in need of free school meals. Secondly, we must make the moral case; for example, if the benefit were linked not only to attendance but to hard work and getting good reports from the teacher, it would prove to lower-earning taxpayers who subsidise benefits that the money was being spent wisely and that students were taking responsibility. I will look at each point in turn.

First, the problem is similar to an iceberg, in that we might be seeing only the visible tip. Harlow college in my constituency, for example, estimates that at least 350 of its students are in severe need of free school meals; those are young people who turn up to college hungry every day, and whose education is at significant risk as a result. Harlow college does not get funding directly to help such students, but it has used the new 16-to-18 bursary scheme, which replaced education maintenance allowance, to give some of them a food subsidy of around £1.20 a day, three days a week, through the campus canteen. That is not as generous as free school meals, but the college is doing what it can with a limited budget. Furthermore, in my constituency only one school has a sixth form, so the vast majority of children go to Harlow college.

The college principal, Colin Hindmarch, has no legal obligation to do any of that, and the money he gets is insufficient to provide full meals through the week, but he believes that what he does is necessary to help the poorest students. I admire many things about Harlow college and the principal, but, above all, the belief that everyone can get good results, no matter what start they have had in life, if the college gives support.

The problem, however, is made harder because the college does not know who is likely to be hungry. Eighty secondary schools send pupils there, and most of the schools do not share data on free school meals with the college, which therefore has to guess—in essence—who needs help and who is at risk. The Association of Colleges estimates the cost of extending the right to free meals to college students at around £38 million. As the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough said, much of that money could be found through efficiencies; for example, the free schools budget is running a surplus, so perhaps some of the money could be taken from there.

I want to emphasise what the hon. Gentleman said. The outside world listening to the debate will be shocked, but we get used to saying things and often not appreciating what the words mean. He said that some of the students in his constituency are hungry, and that would be true for many. As in Sheffield, two colleges in my constituency are in the same position—had pupils gone to the sixth form of their school, they would have free school dinners, but they do not get them at the colleges. In this day and age, in a very rich country, we are talking about some of our pupils being hungry. That is the most extraordinary state of affairs, which I hope will be borne in mind by the Minister when he replies. He is presiding over an education system in which some people are hungry.

As so often on social issues, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Those students are doing the right thing—they are going to college because they want to learn—but for them to go to college and not to have the money to feed themselves, through no fault of their own, is socially unjust.

The moral case for free school meals means that we need a fair deal between students and taxpayers, something that is respectful of both sides. We must help the hungry students, to give them the energy to concentrate, but it is also fair to ask them to work hard and to apply themselves, rather than to attend only; that was a problem with EMA. The welfare state fails when it becomes simply a handout—unconditional and too easily abused. At times, that can be deeply corrosive of public confidence, undermining support for helping the most vulnerable in our society. That is why I support reforms such as universal credit, because it is a proper contract. It says that it will always pay to work but also that welfare is conditional on genuine effort to find a job. I urge the Government to embed the same DNA in other entitlements, especially free school meals or alternatives such as the 16-to-18 bursary.

I am not arguing for the nanny state, because we can make a cost-benefit analysis. For example, in 2011 the Food for Life Partnership published academic research showing that a better uptake of free school meals increased school grades and, ultimately, the life chances of young people. Head teacher Seamus O’Donnell, who was involved in the pilot studies, stated:

“After lunchtime we used to have around 10 to 12 call outs for challenging behaviour in an hour. We did a survey two years ago after the pilot, and we were down to four. There was a correlation between improved food provision in school and better behaviour after lunchtime.”

The hon. Gentleman is generous to give way, given that I intend to speak, but I must respond to point out that in countries such as Finland all children, regardless of their background, get a free school meal up to the age of 18, and Finland has one of the highest levels of educational attainment in the world. We are not talking about the nanny state. Is there not a case for ensuring that children are able to learn while in the school environment?

That is where I differ from the hon. Lady. I believe passionately that free school meals should be available for people on lower incomes, especially those who go to FE colleges. As I have argued, we do not have a level playing field, and I do not accept the argument that the majority of taxpayers, who are lower earners, should subsidise school meals for those from wealthier incomes.

In conclusion, we cannot have FE colleges that are only for the wealthy—the problem is that only wealthy students who can afford school meals will be encouraged to go. There is a cost-benefit argument for some form of free school meals, or a subsidised canteen as in Harlow college, so I urge the Government to look at obliging schools to share data with FE colleges on which pupils need free school meals; more financial support for FE colleges, to level the playing field with sixth-form colleges and schools, and topping up the new 16-to-18 bursary scheme; and, finally, embedding the DNA of universal credit in entitlements such as free school meals, to show that it is a contract and not a handout. If lower-earner taxpayers are to make a contribution, it is only fair for students to offer something in return, such as the promise to work hard at their studies.

The Government have the ambition of 100% of young people aged 16 to 18 participating in education and training by 2015. The experience of Harlow college shows that fair provision of free school meals will be absolutely essential to achieving that.

I pay tribute to the eloquence with which my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) made the case for free school meals for young people in further education colleges. I remember him saying to me some years ago, before I was an MP, that everything that he did politically was referenced back to whether it would have a positive impact on the lives of people in Parson Cross, which is in his constituency. There is no better tribute to a political career than that. I am pleased to follow him and the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) in this debate.

The reforming Liberal Government of 1906 first introduced measures to give power to local councils to provide free school meals to children from poor families. By 1914, more than 158,000 were consuming a free meal once a day, but that was low compared with the number of poor children who needed free meals. The Butler Act—the Education Act 1944—made it an entitlement for pupils to receive a free school meal.

Eligibility for a free meal has traditionally applied to those whose families are in receipt of certain benefits or tax credits, and the latest estimates are that around 1.2 million children are entitled to a free school meal. It is not always about welfare dependency; it is about people on low pay who do not earn enough to feed their children and families. The entitlement developed slowly within the education system over the previous century, but the problem, and the key point, is that much of the older legislation does not apply to further education colleges. That creates an anomaly, of course, because the practical consequence is that young adults studying at FE colleges are not entitled to a free meal, while those studying in a sixth form enjoy the continuation of the benefit they accessed when they were in five-to-16 education.

There are 345 FE colleges in the UK, teaching some 634,000 students, and it is estimated that some 103,000 of those young adults would be entitled to a free meal. Broadly speaking, that is 13% of those attending college. In the two local authorities straddled by my constituency, the figures are stark. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough referred to the figures for Longley Park college, but 870 students—13%—at Sheffield college, which broadly covers the city, would be eligible for free meals. In Barnsley, 622 students—14%—are missing out on a free meal. Interestingly, new institutions such as academies, free schools, and university technical colleges, as my right hon. Friend said, are funded to provide free meals.

The statistics and proportions show that the anomaly disproportionately disadvantages those from poorer backgrounds. In part of my constituency, 73% of school pupils receive free school meals, but some pupils from the same background and perhaps from the same families do not because they attend FE colleges. There are two groups from the same socio-economic background. In Liverpool community college, that equates to 1,000 pupils. Does my hon. Friend agree that colleges are doing what they can, but Government intervention is needed to equalise the way the rules treat two different groups?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Another twist in the inequality embedded in the present situation is that youngsters at college are more likely than school sixth formers to come from poorer backgrounds, with 10.2% of sixth formers eligible for free meals. That means that the discrimination is against the majority of disadvantaged students, and that is the key point.

I am chair of an academy in Birkenhead, and although our figures are not quite as bad as those in Walton, almost 70% of pupils receive free school dinners. The academy does not have a sixth form, because we decided not to at the present time, so pupils must choose either to find a job, which is difficult in Birkenhead and Walton, or to go to the sixth form college or the metropolitan college. What those colleges do is terrific, but pupils do not receive free dinners. If they were in a school with a sixth form, they would not face that stark choice. Previous Governments of both parties encouraged Birkenhead not to have sixth forms, but to concentrate our efforts and expertise on two colleges.

My right hon. Friend is right. In Barnsley, we have only one sixth form, and the college is the main provider. In Sheffield in the past 30 years, most of the sixth forms have been in the south-west in Sheffield Hallam, which is one of the richest constituencies in the north of England. The case is made.

Students who attend college must often travel further to their place of study, which increases the cost of the commute, leaving less money for food. Overall, the truth of the matter is that a substantial proportion of the disadvantaged young are being discriminated against because of their post-16 education choice—when there is a choice—making it harder for them to achieve their goals and to secure their future as adults. It is important to remember that vocational choices are found more often in colleges than in sixth forms.

An objection to extending free meals to college students is that we would have to legislate, but it is the opinion of many who have looked at the matter that including FE colleges in the provision would not require legislation. This is despite Government—I use the word broadly—claiming that colleges are not classed as schools, so the students are not entitled to such provision. It is worth noting that under the Education Act 2011 an academy is not classed as a school. However, parliamentary answers indicate that funding agreements with academies provide the framework within which those institutions operate, and that they require academies to provide free meals to eligible pupils aged up to 18 years, or aged up to 18 before they start their course—I think the rule is up to 19 or 24. That effectively dismisses the Department for Education’s previous statements that only schools can provide free meals.

The Association of Colleges estimates that the cost would be £38 million. To put that into perspective, the Department for Education’s total budget is £56 billion, so the cost is equivalent to 1p for every £14 the Department spends. The cost is small change to the Department, and surely it must be affordable—the case has been made this morning—even in the context of so-called austerity budgeting.

That is particularly the case when considering the cost to the country of not providing free meals to eligible FE students. The Association of Colleges recently stated:

“The lifetime public finance cost of young people not participating in education, employment or training of those aged 16-18 is estimated to be at least £12 billion.”

The majority of those young people would, of course, attend college rather than a sixth form, and would take vocational courses, catch-up courses, literacy courses and so on. Their non-participation in post-16 education rightly worries us all. There is consensus on the need to deal with the problem. It should also be remembered that there is a significant cost if individuals do not participate in further education and therefore do not secure the skills and qualifications needed to gain quality employment.

The Association of Colleges also stated:

“We believe extending the right to free meals for College students aged 16-18 would encourage participation of this age group in education and training, which is especially important as the Government seeks 100% participation.”

Research by Barnardo’s has also found that many young people in FE do not eat at lunchtime; indeed in my constituency, Sheffield college, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough said, has had to establish a food bank with donations from college staff. On the other hand, Barnsley college uses learner support fund money to provide free meals—it does so independently—to those from families where the income is below £15,000. If there was an FE entitlement to free meals, that learner support fund could be used to help the broader needs of students who previously benefited from education maintenance allowance.

Behind the statistics, however, lie some disturbing and moving stories. John—not his real name—is a 17-year-old student at Sheffield college who lives in a hostel following family difficulties. He asked the college for help when he was struggling to afford to eat and had run out of money, and he received a token for free soup and a roll. He said:

“I found it a bit embarrassing going to collect the soup, and handing over the token. I felt like everyone around me knew my situation.”

John receives £112.50 in income support every two weeks, and he gets £20 education maintenance allowance. He pays £17 fortnightly for his hostel room, and he also has to pay for his food, travel and equipment. He says that he sometimes misses lunch at least once a week to save money.

My view is simple: the cost of implementing a scheme for free meals would be small and a fraction of the cost to the country of doing nothing. The present situation is grossly inequitable and needs reform. No logical argument can justify a situation in which a 16-year-old who is entitled to a free meal will get one if he or she registers at a sixth form, but will lose it if he or she enrols at an FE college.

I look forward to the response from the Minister, who I know is a reasonable man because I have sat on Committees with him—[Interruption.] He is smiling again now. I hope to hear details about when the Government will act to remove this discrimination from our education system. It makes financial sense, it is the fair thing to do, and it will help give youngsters from poor backgrounds a greater incentive to better themselves, thereby helping themselves and the country in the process.

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Davies, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) for the opportunity to take part in this important debate. As he rightly notes, it seeks to end an anomaly that penalises some of the most disadvantaged teenagers in our education system, including those in my constituency of Gosport who are committed to furthering their education and their opportunities in life at our great local sixth-form colleges.

St Vincent college provides a diverse education for more than 1,000 16 to 18-year-olds. It has been recognised by Ofsted as the heart of the local community, and it continues to offer a range of practical and innovative courses—such as last year’s successful marine skills course—that seek to attract those not in education, employment or training. As hon. Members may be aware, it also produced this year’s BBC “Apprentice” winner, Ricky Martin—of which it is very proud.

Despite the importance of this local college, however, its students are being served a raw deal because as a number of colleagues have pointed out, they are denied the privilege afforded to their counterparts in school sixth forms throughout the area—the simple right to a free lunch for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I believe that state of affairs persists as an anomaly and not as a deliberate policy. It makes no sense for new academies, university technical colleges and free schools to offer free lunches while pupils at sixth-form colleges are excluded, and such an anomaly needs to be addressed. As the principal of one of my local colleges highlighted, the lack of a good, nutritious lunch can harm concentration, undermine achievement and deter participation among the most disadvantaged students.

The anomaly also flies in the face of the Government’s wider record on education, which reflects the Department for Education’s absolute commitment to improving school provision, widening access, and prolonging participation in education and training. That record speaks for itself, with colleges that have been freed from bureaucracy, more than 1,776 academies open across England, and a 63% increase in apprenticeships in just one year.

I acknowledge the argument put forward by Ministers that sixth-form colleges often operate a more flexible timetable than comparable institutions, yet often that is precisely the reason why they need more support. The Association of Colleges estimates that three times as many students at college would qualify for a free lunch as in a school sixth form. Through their flexibility and diversity of subject provision, sixth-form colleges are clearly succeeding in attracting those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, and it is ludicrous that they are denied the resources to support those students.

Ultimately, it is not necessary to prove that offering free school meals to the most disadvantaged students is fair and right; that has already been established. There is no need to argue about whether a good, nutritious meal helps students in their studies because we already know that is the case. We need only to resolve why those fair and reasonable conclusions are applied to academies, free schools and school sixth forms, but not to colleges. The Government have made a firm commitment to improving educational opportunities for all young people. Addressing the anomaly of free school meals would be a small but crucial step towards delivering that commitment.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) on securing this timely and necessary debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who put her finger on it when she said that this is a raw deal. She then spelt out clearly and succinctly why that is the case and why it is not acceptable. It is a long-standing injustice and an issue that I have raised continually since I first came to the House two years ago.

From my 30 years’ experience of working with post-16-year-old students and four years as principal of John Leggott college in Scunthorpe, I know the direct impact that not having access to a college meal in the daytime has on concentration, attendance, retention, achievement and, inevitably, that young person’s progression to other things.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) described the case of John, who said that because he did not have access to a free meal—he met the criteria, but he chose to go to a college rather than a school—he skipped lunch from time to time. That will impact directly on his achievement. John is being disadvantaged by the system and that should not be the case.

If the eligibility of students who meet the criteria for free school meals depends on the type of institution that they attend, that is not only morally wrong but potentially piles disadvantage on top of disadvantage. To be fair, however, I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State for Education realise that the policy is indefensible because of their answers to questions in the House.

On 11 October 2010, I raised this issue, and the Minister—whom I am pleased to see in the Chamber today—stated:

“I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I share his view. We have committed to maintaining spending on free school meals this year. Further announcements will be made after the spending review.”—[Official Report, 11 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 14.]

There was clearly a little bit of hope that the anomaly was to be addressed.

The spending review came and went, and I raised the issue again. This time the Secretary of State answered my question:

“That is a fair point—”

I think he was busking at that point—

“As the hon. Gentleman will know, many FE colleges simply do not have the facilities to be able to provide free school meals; they do not have the cafeterias or kitchens in place.”—[Official Report, 28 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 59.]

The Secretary of State was not having one of his better days, because a parliamentary question to the Minister revealed that fewer schools than colleges have catering facilities, yet they continue to serve free school meals and get round that problem. In my consultation with the Association of Colleges, it demonstrated through a survey of its members that that problem of facilities could be easily overcome.

My hon. Friend raises a point about colleges not having the facilities to be able to cook. Does he agree that numerous young people are affected by the situation under discussion? In my constituency, 1,300 young people attend Bolton sixth-form college and 1,272 attend another college in Bolton. They would benefit from free school meals if they were at a school. We are talking about 3,000 pupils being affected.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She makes the point very well. Both the Minister and the Secretary of State know that the situation is not right. That is why, when the Secretary of State was in a corner, he produced an answer that was not up to his usual standard. On examination, it falls apart.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) was the last person to obtain a response from the Secretary of State. He raised the issue in October 2011. The answer had slightly changed by then. That is why I am going through these statements—to see the train of thought in the Department on this issue. At that point, the Secretary of State said:

“I am familiar with that anomaly; it is a situation we inherited from the previous Government. We are seeking to ensure that funding is equalised between colleges and school sixth forms.”—[Official Report, 17 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 622.]

By that point, it had become an anomaly; the reason for it was that it was there in the past. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, who did a mea culpa at the start of his speech. However, there are reasons why it is more necessary now than ever to deal with the anomaly. It is not acceptable. Students are being disadvantaged.

There are three reasons why the landscape has changed and why dealing with the anomaly is even more urgent. The first is the disappearance of education maintenance allowance. In all my years in education, I have never seen an initiative that has transformed to a greater extent the lives of individual students from disadvantaged backgrounds than education maintenance allowance. It had a direct impact on attendance, retention, achievement and progression. I know that from personal experience and from the analysis done by many organisations, including the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the AOC. However, the Government, in their wisdom, have chosen to take education maintenance allowance away and replace it with a much less effective bursary system, although I do welcome the bursary system. That change has exposed the disadvantage of not being able to access free meals even more than before. The existence of education maintenance allowance masked that disadvantage during the past 10 years.

The second reason the landscape has changed and there is now greater urgency is the raising of the participation age, which I was reminded of during the contribution from the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). With the raising of the participation age, all students will now progress on beyond 16. Therefore, it is even more urgent that the eligibility for free meals be equalised, because some of the students, or probably most of the students, who would not have progressed beyond 16 in the past will be the very students who should be eligible for free meals.

I come now to the third reason why the landscape is changing. The hon. Member for Gosport talked about the fragmented provision that we now have in the landscape. We have academies, free schools and university technical colleges. Students who go to those institutions can access free school meals. If a new post-16 free school or post-16 academy is set up, it can offer free school meals, but a 16-to-19 sixth-form college or further education college cannot. If I were still a principal of a sixth-form college, perhaps I would have a conversation with my governing body about dissolving as a sixth-form college and re-emerging as a post-16 free school or post-16 academy. Why would that not be a route that I might take? It would enable me to access better resources and provide a more level playing field for the young people of the area that I served.

Those are the three reasons why it is more urgent now to deal with this anomaly; there was still an injustice when my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough was Secretary of State. The three reasons are the disappearance of education maintenance allowance, the forthcoming raising of the participation age and the change in provision—the complete fragmentation—in the landscape of post-16 education.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge and the hon. Member for Gosport reminded us that the most disadvantaged young people are those most likely to attend the post-16 colleges that we are discussing. They are also the ones who are most likely to travel further, so they have greater travel costs. They do not have access to free meals, and there is no education maintenance allowance; there is a reduced bursary.

The hon. Gentleman has a distinguished record in education, and in the light of what he has just said, I think that he will understand what I am about to say. Thanet college, which takes many of my constituents’ children, takes students from some of the most deprived wards in the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the students whom we are discussing are the most disadvantaged and have to travel the furthest. What no one has mentioned so far is that those young people have pride. They do not like having to go to the college principal to beg for funding that in any event the principal does not have available to give them, so they spend what little money they have on travelling to college and then they go hungry. That cannot be right.

The hon. Gentleman makes his point extremely well. It echoes the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) about the stigma attached to claiming free school meals. However, navigating that territory, as my hon. Friend did and, indeed, I did, as another free-school-meals student in the past, is certainly not as bad as navigating the territory of food bank handouts, which hon. Members have described in the debate.

The hon. Member for Harlow described the situation in his constituency, where the majority of students staying on post-16 go to colleges. The situation is exactly the same in my constituency. More than 400 of my students go on to post-16 education in colleges; it is the main provision locally for post-16 education. If the students in my constituency and the hon. Gentleman’s constituency come from disadvantaged backgrounds, why should they not have the access to free meals that students in other constituencies have? Surely, that is not fair; surely, it is not right.

In Yorkshire and the Humber, 10,700 young people who go to colleges would be eligible but are not receiving free meals. In England, 102,700 young people are in that category; 13% of the students attending colleges in England would be eligible for free meals but are being denied them. The Government are hiding behind an anomaly; that is the language that they are using. I do not think, fellow Members of Parliament, that we can hide any longer behind an anomaly. It is time for action—time for us to do something about it.

I agree with the words of Toni Pearce, National Union of Students vice-president for further education, who said:

“There can be no justification for the basic inequity which says that you can’t get free school meals if you study at a college from the age of 16 to 18, but can if you study at a school sixth form. Eligibility for free meals should clearly be based on need—not on where you choose to study.”

She goes on to support the AOC campaign.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough talked about the hope that there would be cross-party consensus on the issue. We have heard a lot of consensus across the parties in the debate. I had the privilege of serving on the Select Committee on Education when I first came to this place and, as part of our investigation of 16-to-19 participation, we agreed unanimously, across the three parties represented on that Committee, with the statement that it produced:

“There is no logic in making free school meals available to 16-18 year olds in schools but not in colleges”.

I can add to the cross-party consensus by saying that I think that all politicians, on both sides of the House, would agree that anything that we can do to assist 16 to 18-year-olds in disadvantaged communities—those communities that are particularly affected by socio-economic problems—should be supported in an effort to help them to climb out of the poverty in which many of them live.

I absolutely agree.

Finally, because of my background in sixth-form colleges, I would like to touch briefly on the social mobility agenda. We all agree on social mobility. A report published next week by the Sixth Form Colleges Forum will demonstrate that sixth-form colleges have students more likely to have received free school meals and with lower prior educational attainment than school or academy sixth forms. The report uses UCAS data to show that over 30% of sixth-form college students who progress to higher education were from the least advantaged areas of the UK, compared with 23% of those who progressed from schools. In that context, and when schools and academies already receive more funding per student than sixth-form colleges, it makes little sense to disadvantage further an already disproportionately disadvantaged group.

Several Hon. Members: rose—

Order. Three hon. Members want to speak. I remind Members that I will call the shadow Minister no later than 10.40.

My input will be brief. I pay tribute to all those who have spoken so far, who clearly have great knowledge of this area. I want to add a Liberal Democrat voice to the all-party consensus and speak on behalf of my constituency of Redcar.

We are talking about discrimination and fairness. One thing that has not been mentioned clearly so far is that something of a postcode lottery is going on. In areas such as mine, which happen to have sixth-form colleges as the main form of A-level education, the ineligibility applies to virtually everyone who goes on to study. I recently hosted local sixth-form colleges from across the Tees Valley in Parliament. They feel unfairly targeted, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) said, and a bit lost between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which of course deals with further education colleges. His point about looking at whether they have the right status was mentioned in the discussion that I had, and free school meals are part of that.

In my area, we have a very good sixth-form college—Prior Pursglove in Guisborough—but the fact that it is in Guisborough means that an awful lot of children from Redcar and other local towns have to spend quite a lot of money to get there, which adds to difficulties if they do not get free school meals. Redcar and Cleveland college in my constituency provides further education, and it estimates that at least 240 of its pupils would qualify for free school meals. It could be double that number, because, as previous speakers have said, it is not always easy to get exact information about where free school meals are not available.

The 16-to-18 bursary helps, but it is very stretched. In deprived areas, such as my constituency, the money does not go far. In fact, the principal of Redcar and Cleveland college, Gary Groom, knowing this debate would happen, said:

“What would not be helpful would be for colleges to be asked to find the cost of free school meals from within the already reduced funds given to support learner hardship, this needs to be additional resource targeted directly at those learners that need it most.”

I support that. Colleges are doing a good job. Travel expenses are the main thing they have to use the money for, and as was said earlier, learners should not have to choose between travelling and eating. My area has a very high proportion of NEETs—people not in education, employment or training—in fact, one of the highest proportions in the country. It would particularly benefit from a change in policy.

In addition to 16 to 18-year-olds who are not in a school setting being a little forgotten, the situation means that people are making life choices based on the availability of free school meals in the various establishments, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) said. There is one small sixth form in my constituency, based around two schools. That sixth form is always full, and I am sure that the availability of free school meals is one reason. People are making choices based on that availability, rather than on what is best for them.

In areas such as my constituency, education is a key route out of poverty. Creating equal opportunities for young people was one of the main reasons why I came into politics. It is only a small part of the jigsaw, but it is an important one. I hope that the Minister will respond favourably to the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and a delight to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who has been a pioneer in so many aspects of 14-to-19 education. I am vice-chair of the all-party group on social mobility, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) highlighted, free school meals are a critical part of that issue.

I want to highlight some issues in Hackney that demonstrate the benefits of providing support to 16 to 18-year-olds and its impact on their life chances and those of their families in future. Hackney has seen a huge increase in achievement at 16 and 18. A decade ago, Hackney schools were a byword for low quality, with five A to C achievement well below the national average and some schools failing. We now have a range of outstanding schools, with achievements above the national average. Mossbourne academy is well publicised, but it typically achieves 84% five A to Cs, including maths and English. Those young people come from the estates in the surrounding borough, not wealthy areas. They come from a range of backgrounds, but predominantly poorer ones. Young people entering sixth form now get offers of places at leading universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.

When I was selected for Hackney South and Shoreditch, there was a debate at the time about university fees. I said at my selection meeting, “If only we could have the luxury of debating young people in Hackney going on to university,” because at that point, it was not happening in large numbers at all. We needed to invest earlier, and that investment has now happened. Young people are playing their part. They are ambitious and hard-working. Although there may be poverty in terms of money, there is no poverty of ambition. They need this bit of help; they need this barrier dealt with and they need a level playing field.

We know what a difference a good meal makes; my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) highlighted that point, so I will not go into detail. Magic Breakfast is a charity working in Hackney across primary schools, because we know that many children, for all sorts of difficult reasons—not only poverty, but chaotic family backgrounds—turn up to school hungry in the morning. Those young people are given something as simple as a bagel at breakfast club, or extra support at breaktime for those who do not turn up to breakfast club because their parents do not have the wherewithal to get them there. Teachers and head teachers tell me that that has made a major difference to achievement. We know that argument, so I will not go into it further.

In contrast to the constituency of the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), Hackney has a range of post-16 provision. We have BSix, which is a sixth-form college; sixth forms in schools and academies; 16 to 19-year-olds studying at Hackney community college, which is our local FE college; and the Boxing academy, which offers 14 to 16-year-olds provision when they are unable to cope in mainstream school. We have embraced the 14-to-19 agenda pioneered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough. Fourteen to 16-year-olds also study at Hackney community college, although they remain on school rolls, so are not affected by the issue.

From September we will be proud to open our first university technical college, on the same campus as Hackney community college, which sponsors it. That brings me to a major anomaly that demonstrates the ridiculous current situation. We will have a university technical college providing places for 14 to 18-year-olds on the same site as Hackney community college providing education equally for 14 to 18-year-olds, but particularly for the 16 to 18-year-olds on its roll. The same site, the same age. Students aged 16 to 18 at the university technical college will qualify for free school meals if they meet the criteria, but on the same campus students of the same age, possibly studying for the same qualification, at Hackney community college will not qualify. How ridiculous is that? As others have said, the Minister is a reasonable man. That situation demonstrates the ridiculousness of the anomaly and why it needs to be resolved.

Our sixth form college, BSix, has 1,500 students, 450 of whom receive bursaries under the bursary scheme. Previously, more than 70% of students received EMA, which was given out in similar numbers across Hackney sixth forms. There are still 568 students on EMA, and most of those will of course require bursary funding in future.

I want to touch on the points made forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) about stigma. It is degrading to young people to have to beg someone with whom they have an academic relationship, or the college principal, for help. Someone’s circumstances may change during the year, such as when a parent loses their job, and they must then lay all that personal stuff before someone they want to have a relationship with in the classroom, and beg for money. At that point the bursary fund may have been spent; there may not be money available. The system should not be put in the hands of principals. We had a perfectly good system under EMA, which worked, and I regret that it is gone. The bursary system that replaces it is an acknowledgement by the Government that they made the wrong decision.

Does the hon. Lady think that the answer would be a requirement for schools, and the local education authority, to share with the college those pupils who had free school meals at a previous school?

I am not quite sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making. If there were a centralised way—I know that the Mayor of London is looking at this—of managing a bursary scheme to make it more like a local EMA, that would at least take out the stigma. There is a benefit in that. I do not think that young people should be told to go to certain places, to share out the number of people receiving free school meals. In Hackney the percentage for free school meal uptake is so high that it would make no difference anyway, but if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that—I may have misunderstood his point—it would be the wrong way round.

At least 1,000 students at BSix alone would be eligible for free school meals for the next academic year, and that provision will need to be taken from the bursary fund. The raw figures show that 89% of the 450 students receiving bursary funds would be eligible for free school meals. To date in this academic year BSix has spent £96,315 on free school meals—nearly £100,000. That is 45% of its bursary budget, which, if it were a school sixth form, it would not have had to spend. That shows that there is a big cost, which is falling hard on young people.

We often talk about facts and figures, but I want to remind hon. Members of the human story. EMA was used by many pupils in Hackney for basic things. Happily, in London, there are certain travel discounts, or free travel, but there were issues about paying for food. One young woman told me that on a Thursday her EMA was used to top up the electricity key. It is as simple as that; it was used to have the lighting and heating working in the house, to enable her to study, and the family to live. The money was not used for luxuries.

I do not have time to go into other human stories, but I want to touch on the point that the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) made, when he talked about handouts with no strings attached. We need to think about free school meals, EMA and bursaries as they are now as an investment in young people, who will be the taxpayers of the future, paying for the pensions of the future. If we do not invest in them during the two years in question, and get them over the hurdles into further and higher education and better jobs, and skill up our work force, we shall be letting down our country and future taxpayers. About 22% of Hackney residents are under 16 and a third of them are under 24, so I appreciate the important and valuable contribution that young people make. It is a significant issue.

Overall, the Government profess to be in favour of choice. They promote free schools and talk about social mobility. In Hackney we have embraced that diversity of provision, but it is a false choice. If free school meals cost about £450 a year, and are provided in some settings, but not others, how will young people make their choices? Some will be forced to make a choice not, as the hon. Member for North Thanet said, for the right reasons, but simply on financial grounds.

I shall share my time, if I may, with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), so I shall be brief and make two points.

First, I want to address the argument put by the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon)—that if the concession is made we should link it to poorer pupils’ good attendance at college, and their effort. I wonder why he wants to draw that contract so narrowly. It may be, of course, that he is trying to mobilise support on his side, and, if that is so, good luck to him. However, if we believe that we should move to a society where duties beget rights, rather than one where rights may occasionally be accompanied by duties, should taxpayers not put the same requirement on all pupils at school or college? Should we not expect them all, if they turn up with a huge subsidy from us, to do their hard work and attend well, in the hope that they succeed well? There should not be a stigmatising effect, with that contract applying only to poor pupils.

My other point is addressed directly to the Minister, who is very busy—radically changing his speech, I hope. As we have said, many of us represent seats where there are many pupils from poorer backgrounds. Because of the provision of post-16 education, they do not have a choice to go to a sixth form or sixth-form college. They choose whether to continue in education, and, maybe, to become hungry.

I have a question for the Minister. We know he has his answer all written out for him, and we know that he will read it, despite what has been said today. My plea is that he should report this debate to his colleagues and tell them that he finds it intolerable to defend a situation in which some poorer pupils will be hungry during their college days, while they are trying to get further qualifications—as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) said, to lift their skills, get better jobs and pay our pensions as a result.

It is pretty scandalous that Foodbank estimates that by the next election it will be feeding 500,000 families who would otherwise be hungry. There is a new situation. Something strange and terrible is happening in our society, which we have yet to get to grips with. In one small way the Minister could do that, as a result of the debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) for initiating it. The Minister could say that he does not want again to defend Government policy that means that some post-16 students are hungry because they are studying.

I was not here at the beginning of the debate, because the Select Committee on Justice sat at 9.15. I want to mention two things.

I was for 10 years a governor of a college of further education, so I have some understanding of some of the issues and challenges faced by the students and young people attending them. I am pleased that my constituency has both Bolton college and Bolton sixth-form college, so there are a high number of students there. As I said earlier, 1,300 young people in the college come from disadvantaged backgrounds and would benefit from free meals, and in the sixth-form college there are 1,272.

The situation in my constituency is similar to that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales); many 16 to 18-year-olds go to a sixth-form college to complete their A-levels or further education. Not many schools cater for that. There are 300,000 people living in the Bolton unitary council area. The geographical area encompasses about 7 or 8 miles. Many students must travel at least 6 or 7 miles daily to attend college, often for vocational courses. Now they must additionally pay the cost of travel, and of course there is no money for free lunches. In many areas, many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are suffering. I urge the Minister and the Government to think about the fact that £38 million to provide free meals for 102,000 students is not a lot of money in the scheme of things. Surely that is an amount that they could find to spend on young people.

The value and necessity of the nutrition from a good meal has already been spoken of. It is fundamental for young people. I urge the Minister to reconsider. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) for giving me the chance to speak, as I have cut into his time. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), and congratulate him on obtaining the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) on securing this important debate and on his excellent speech. Indeed, we have heard a number of excellent contributions, which I sincerely hope will have persuaded the Minister of the merits of ending this anomaly.

I am aware that this issue has been around for some time. An amendment to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill in the previous Parliament, which was moved in the other place by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Sharp of Guildford, would have done what my right hon. Friend is calling for today. In the end, though, the noble Baroness was convinced to withdraw her amendment by my noble friend Lord Young of Norwood Green, who informed her that the issue was under review. That was back in November 2009, and the review was ongoing when the election was called. I assume that that work was superseded by the new Government’s plans, which culminated in scrapping not only EMA, but the planned roll-out of free school meals to all children living below the poverty line.

The Association of Colleges has recently launched its “No Free Lunch?” campaign, and it has been backed by the National Union of Students. The Association of School and College Leaders feels the same way, and Unison has been campaigning on this matter for some time now. The Children’s Society has also given its backing to the campaign and has tied it in with its “Fair and Square” campaign, which calls on the Government to ensure that all children in poverty, including those in poor working families, can get a free school meal from when they start school until they leave further education. That is something that we would be much closer to now had the Government not scrapped the planned extension of free school meals to households below the poverty line, which was due to begin in September 2010.

It is clear that the Minister’s colleagues on the Education Committee share the belief that this issue needs to be addressed. In their report, “Participation by 16-19 year olds in education and training”, they criticised the Government for their cuts to EMA and said:

“There is no logic in making free school meals available to 16-18 year olds in schools but not in colleges, and, while we recognise that the financial implications would make an early change of policy difficult, we recommend that parity of eligibility should be the medium to long-term aim.”

The Government have acknowledged that, but have not committed to doing anything about it, or even said that they would find it desirable to do so. Perhaps that could all change this morning when the Minister gets to his feet. I think that all Members present hope that he has some good news for us.

As we have heard, it is not as if the young people in colleges who were receiving free school meals in year 11 are automatically entitled to any money from the new bursary fund; the guidance for further education providers posted on the Department’s website last week makes that perfectly clear. The only groups that will be automatically entitled to financial assistance, which at £1,200 a year is only fractionally more than they would have got from EMA, are young people in care, care leavers, or those on income support and disabled young people getting employment and support allowance and disability living allowance. Young people who were previously receiving free school meals will be left to go cap in hand to their colleges for whatever is left from their bursary allocation.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. Does she also agree that a postcode lottery is in operation? Some colleges in rural areas or in very large areas will have high travel costs, compared with inner city colleges, where travel costs are lower. Therefore, the amount of money that colleges have available for free meals will be variable, depending on the nature of their area.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Some colleges have to raise funds to help support some of the poorest children, who need money for travel and, if there is anything left, for food.

The Minister may remember that we faced each other in a similar debate in 2010—we do not often do that, so I remember it well. It was on EMA and was called by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), in partnership with my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), whom we welcomed to the shadow education team a couple of weeks ago. In that debate, I spoke about the testimony of a number of young people who had attended a seminar that we had held in Parliament about how much EMA meant to them. Many said that the allowance barely covered their travel and lunch as it was.

A young man called Luke talked about students whom he knew who could not eat before or at college because their money did not go far enough. That is a point that is developed by a young carer quoted in a Barnado’s briefing for this morning’s debate. The young girl is studying four A-levels and dreams of becoming a barrister. She says:

“At college when I don’t eat I get really bored, I can’t focus and I feel faint or really tired.”

As participation rates increase, many more pupils will be in that position. Given what we know about the impact of hunger and poor diets on educational attainment, we can understand what will happen to their studies.

The Government need to do a lot more than just think about this matter. They need to go into colleges and find out for themselves just how many students are going hungry or having to eat cheap rubbish that is not good for them, and then think more about the merits of the argument that is being made today and that has been made by campaigners for the past few years.

If the end of EMA did not add impetus to this debate, the impending rise in the participation age surely does. Labour passed the Education and Skills Act 2008, which increased the minimum age at which young people in England can leave education—from next year, it will be at the end of the academic year in which they turn 17, and it will be up to their 18th birthday from 2015—and that is something that the current Government are committed to driving through.

As a result of those changes, young people will have to stay on full time from 2015 unless they are working for more than 20 hours a week or are on an apprenticeship, but those who choose to do so in a college will be at a distinct disadvantage. As we have heard from a number of hon. Members this morning, the vast majority of students who received free school meals in last year’s year 11 are now studying in non-school settings. According to the Association of Colleges, there are 103,000 such students in colleges, compared with 33,000 in sixth forms. The gulf will only grow wider, particularly given that young people who are eligible for free school meals are more likely to pursue courses in college rather than in sixth forms.

In their response to the Education Committee recommendations, which I cited earlier, the Government stated that they would review this anomaly, in conjunction with 16-to-19 financial support, as the rise in the participation age gets closer. Given that we are about 16 months away from the 2013 academic year and that the Department seems to operate in a chaotic manner under this Government, it is time that they got a move on.

There are issues with some 16-to-19 providers not having the kitchen capacity to prepare meals, which is an argument that the Secretary of State has used for not expanding eligibility. As the Minister will know from a press release that he put out while he was in opposition to try and rubbish the idea of improving nutritional standards in schools, which we were trying to do at the time, some school sites do not have the facilities to prepare meals. In those instances, they get meals brought in from other local schools, or they simply serve cold food. Having no kitchen is not an insurmountable challenge for schools in providing free meals, so I do not see why it would be for colleges. Indeed, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges told the Education Committee that all the members whom he had spoken to about this potential barrier had said

“if that provision was made they would make it available”.

In conclusion, the campaigners for free meal eligibility to be extended to children in non-school FE settings have been making a strong and logical case for a number of years now, but that case has become even stronger since the Government scrapped EMA. There is, of course, a cost associated with doing so. As we have heard, it is just under £40 million a year, according to the Association of Colleges. That is certainly a significant amount, but when we compare it to the amount that the Government cut from financial support for 16 to19-year-olds when they scrapped EMA, it is just 10%. The Government should look at the merits of investing money in free meals, rather than in other areas of expenditure.

I therefore hope that the Minister will now give an assurance to my right hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough and for Birkenhead (Mr Field), as well as to others who have spoken this morning, that he will take on board their arguments and put this anomaly to bed, or explain why he thinks that it is fair that large numbers of young people between the ages of 16 and 18 will be at a significant disadvantage to their peers and possibly going hungry by the end of this Parliament.

I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) on securing this important debate. He is a former and distinguished Education Secretary.

As right hon. and hon. Members will know, the origins of a school meals service can be traced back to the mid-19th century. Later in the 19th century and in the early 20th century, a number of provisions for both free and reduced-cost meals were introduced to tackle malnutrition in schoolchildren. During the war years, the school meals service was transformed in policy and scope to become a general service of mid-day dinners that was intended to benefit all children.

The Education Act 1944 placed local education authorities under a statutory duty to provide meals and milk to pupils at schools and county colleges that the authorities maintained. The details were set out in the Provision of Milk and Meals Regulations 1945, but only in relation to maintained schools. Those regulations also made provision for meals to be provided free of charge to pupils at maintained schools who met certain conditions.

The Education Act 1980 gave local authorities the power to provide meals free of charge to pupils at any school maintained by them whose parents were in receipt of supplementary benefit or family income supplement. The 1980 Act was repealed by the Education Act 1996, since when the list of qualifying benefits for free school meals has increased, to ensure that those children who most need free school meals are entitled to them. The current criteria for eligibility are where a child’s parents are on income support; income-based jobseeker’s allowance; an income-related employment and support allowance; support under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999; the guarantee element of state pension credit; or child tax credit, but not working tax credit. The child’s parents must also have an annual income not exceeding £16,190. That has resulted in 19.2% of primary and nursery schoolchildren and 15.9% of secondary schoolchildren qualifying for free school meals.

The introduction of universal credit will simplify the benefits system and mean that we have to change the way that we determine eligibility for free school meals. We have yet to decide what the new criteria will be, but we want to make sure that they are simple and make free school meals available to those families on the lowest incomes.

It might be to desirable to extend free school meals further—for example, to all children. I understand the argument for doing so; I have seen that practice working well in Sweden, where all children receive a free school meal as part of what they receive at school, like the stationery, the heating and the building. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) mentioned Finland. However, extending free school meals, for example, to all pupils whose parents receive the new universal credit, in line with the proposal from the Children’s Society, would cost around £1.6 billion a year. To extend free school meals to all pupils of school age would cost around £2.9 billion a year.

I will come to the issue of colleges in a moment, but I give way to the right hon. Gentleman first.

The Minister must know that none of us was arguing for extension of free school meals to every child. We were much more specific—

The Minister is reading from his script what I feared he would read out. Will he give this gathering in Westminster Hall today an undertaking that when he goes back to his next ministerial meeting he will ask his colleagues if they are happy that he, as their colleague in the Government, should have to stand up and defend a situation where some pupils, because they happen to go to a college rather than a sixth form, may be hungry?

If the right hon. Gentleman will be patient, he will see that although I am reading from a prepared script, I have manuscript changes to that script that I made during the debate. I was listening very carefully to all the arguments that were made.

I will continue. The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 moved colleges from local authority control into a more independent further education sector. Current legislation—the Education Act 1996—continues to provide free school meals only to pupils at schools maintained by a local authority. As was mentioned, academies and free schools are required to comply with free school meal legislation via their funding agreement. This provision also extends to students attending school sixth forms, because they are covered by the definitions of “secondary education” and “school”. However, it does not extend to pupils at independent schools, or to pupils aged between 14 and 16 who study at a college instead of a school. Pupils who are registered at a school but who also attend college are still covered and their school must provide free school meals if they meet the eligibility criteria.

As the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough has pointed out, free meals do not apply to students at sixth-form or FE colleges. The different legal status and independence of sixth-form and FE colleges bring with them other benefits, which the institutions themselves do not want to lose. That does not mean that we believe that students studying at sixth-form and FE colleges are any different from those attending school sixth forms. I understand and have sympathy with the argument made by Members including the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge that vocational courses are more likely to be found in FE colleges than in school sixth forms. As the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) pointed out, we recognise the anomaly. It is an anomaly, whether or not we put the word in inverted commas, but it is not a new anomaly. Indeed, it is one that previous Governments have not address did—I have to say that it was not addressed by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough when he was Education Secretary between 1997 and 2001.

I will acknowledge that. That was at a time when the Labour Government had just inherited a golden economic legacy—

No, as I am running out of time. As I was about to do, I acknowledge the honesty of the right hon. Gentleman’s hands-up confession.

The Association of Colleges is campaigning for the provision of free meals to be extended to all eligible FE students between 16 and 18. It estimates that it would cost £38 million to do so, although our own estimate is that it would cost significantly more than that. I sympathise with the arguments of my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and for Redcar (Ian Swales), which they made well in their passionate contributions to the debate. Although the sums that I have just quoted may seem small compared with the overall education budget, in the current fiscal climate it would be genuinely difficult to increase spending by between £35 million and £70 million, however desirable it would be to extend free school meals to students at sixth-form and FE colleges. Of course, we keep the matter under review and I will discuss the arguments that have been made today with my ministerial colleagues. That is the commitment that I give to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field).

In education, the absolute priority of this Government is to close the attainment gap between those from wealthy backgrounds and those from poorer backgrounds, and all our policies are funded with that one aim in mind, whether the policy is about reading, behaviour or tackling underperforming schools. Our priority is to devolve as much of the Department for Education budget to the front line as possible. That is why we have managed to maintain school budgets at flat cash per pupil, despite the very difficult spending review. In addition, schools receive the pupil premium, which is specifically designed to boost attainment—

I will finish this point and, if there is time, I will give way.

As I was saying, the pupil premium is specifically designed to boost the attainment of pupils aged under 16 from low-income families, and free school meals is the only per-pupil indicator of poverty that we can have. That amounts to some £625 million—

I understand that it is for schools; I will come on to the other point. That amounts to some £625 million in 2011-12, £1.25 billion in the following year, and it will rise to £2.5 billion by 2014-15. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough and the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge are right that no pupil premium applies to pupils aged between 16 and 19, but for students between 16 and 19 the disadvantage uplift—as it is called—and the additional learning support funding are the equivalent of the pupil premium.

The disadvantage uplift is intended to recognise that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may need extra support to close the attainment gap. The measure is based on the index of multiple deprivation for those living in the 27% most deprived areas, with students from more deprived areas attracting higher rates. In addition, we increased funding for disadvantaged young people and for additional learning support by £150 million in 2011-12, and that total funding is now £750 million a year. But again I must say that to help to tackle the budget deficit, we have had to make some very difficult decisions.

In the remaining time, I just want to point out to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge that annual bursaries of some £1,200, which have replaced education maintenance allowance, are being provided to the most vulnerable young people. Taking the example of John, the student at one of her local FE colleges whom she mentioned, if John is 17 and on income support, he qualifies for a bursary of £1,200 a year, which is actually more than he would have received under EMA. The most vulnerable young people, including people in care—