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Tax Credits (Free School Meals)

Volume 601: debated on Monday 26 October 2015

7. What assessment she has made of the effect of the Government's proposed changes to tax credits on the number of children accessing free school meals.

(901768)

14. What assessment she has made of the effect of the Government's proposed changes to tax credits on the number of children accessing free school meals. (901778)

Thanks to the growing economy, the number of children requiring free school meals is falling. We are currently assessing the effect of proposed changes to tax credits.

The proposed changes to tax credits will see 22,000 children in Scotland lose their entitlement to free school meals, although our First Minister has pledged to safeguard that entitlement. Will the Minister make a similar pledge to ensure that children from the most vulnerable backgrounds in the rest of the UK remain eligible for free school meals?

The hon. Lady will be aware that, in the rest of the UK, the majority of children who are entitled to free school meals have parents who are on out-of-work benefits. We are assessing the impact of the changes to tax credits, and there is nothing to suggest that people who currently receive free school meals will not continue to do so.

If children become hungry or undernourished as a result of missing out on free school meals, what effect will that have on attainment levels in the classroom and the life chances of future generations? What steps will the Government take to mitigate the long-term impact of these short-sighted cuts?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that eligibility for free school meals in Scotland is a matter for the Scottish Government. The Scotland Bill will give the Scottish Government power to top up or reverse tax credits, or to raise taxes, but they are noticeably silent about what they will do to ensure that such eligibility continues.

As the Minister correctly points out, free school meals in Scotland are a matter not for him but for the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Is it not odd to hear Members of the Scottish National party questioning the Minister about free school meals in England, when I cannot go to Edinburgh and question Ministers there about free school meals in Scotland?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. He highlights the delivery of our manifesto commitment to English votes for English laws, to ensure that English MPs rightly have their say on issues that affect England.

Does the Minister agree that welfare changes are an essential part of reducing the deficit, and far preferable to sacking thousands of teachers and closing schools, as we have seen in countries such as Greece and Portugal?

My hon. Friend makes an important point that was also highlighted by the Minister for Skills. In countries such as Greece that did not take grown-up, difficult decisions, teachers’ pay has been cut by 30% and thousands of schools have closed. This Government are taking the right decisions for the country.

As the Minister knows, free school meals are vital to ensure that many children have access to a hot and healthy meal every day. Recent reports from Kellogg’s and the Trussell Trust highlight that thousands of children who rely on free school meals in term time will go hungry during the current half-term holiday. Does the Minister agree that free school meals are a vital tool in combating child hunger, and will he promise to protect universal infant free school meals in the spending review, so that infant children from low-income working families do not go hungry?

I am glad that the hon. Lady has brought up a policy that we in this Government introduced, and I am proud of the take-up and quality of school meals for all children. In our manifesto we committed to continuing with that—we are going through the spending review, but our manifesto commitments remain.

Assuming that a similar percentage of children across the rest of the UK will lose their entitlement to free school meals as the percentage estimated for Scotland, how much does the Minister estimate that changes to tax credits will save his Department on free school meals, and how will Scotland see its budget cut as a result?

It is worth making it absolutely clear that whatever the position of tax credits for the United Kingdom, eligibility for free school meals in Scotland is a matter for the Scottish Government. I would rather that SNP Members did not try to scaremonger about what will happen in the rest of the United Kingdom, and instead made clear what they will do as a result of these changes.

Straightaway we can see from the Minister’s answer that there will be budgetary impacts on Scotland from decisions on which Scottish MPs will no longer be able to vote. Can he assure us that when there will be funding implications, Scottish MPs will not be barred from voting?

I am not sure that the hon. Lady listened to my answer, but she makes the point about tax credits in general. Tax credits are a matter for the United Kingdom. This House has voted on tax credits three times and each time the motion has been passed. As for the implications for free school meals, as I said, that is a matter for the Scottish Government.