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School Meals: Hull

Volume 670: debated on Wednesday 22 January 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Marcus Jones.)

It is very nice to see you back in your place, Mr Deputy Speaker. I convey my thanks to Mr Speaker for allowing this debate, and it is very good to see the Minister in her place.

I requested this debate to talk about primary school meals and their cost in Kingston upon Hull. I am sure that the Minister will have been told by her civil servants that Hull has had a reputation over many years of taking forward pioneering policies on school food, thanks to councillors such as Colin Inglis and Mary Glew. For a period, Hull had free school meals in all primary and special schools and, in more recent times, it has had a very well supported, low-cost school meals policy, even though most of our primary schools are academies. However, some of those schools have now increased the price of school meals by 200% in the last year. My debate seeks answers on academy accountability and how councils can influence academies’ decision making under the current legal framework.

It will be useful to give a bit of background. Hull is one of the most deprived cities in the country. Twenty years ago, we needed to up our game in terms of educational achievement. While huge improvements had been made, more needed to be done. In the 2003 local elections, Hull Labour campaigned on the connection between good nutrition and educational achievement and on the fact that in order to learn effectively, children must be well nourished. The vision was summed up in four simple words: “Eat Well Do Well”.

Labour believed passionately that by introducing a free, healthy school meal it could break the vicious cycle of educational underachievement, greater welfare dependency with limited life chances, and the subsequent poor health in later years at a great cost to the NHS, and that that could all be linked back to poor nutrition in childhood. Labour won the election and set about turning its manifesto pledge into reality, showing the power that progressive local government can have to help to change lives. The council was adamant that the cost of providing universal free school meals would not lead to cuts elsewhere. It believed that by not taking decisive action to tackle the city’s inequalities, the council would be failing in its responsibilities.

Research has also shown a clear correlation between a healthy diet and improved school performance, attainment, self-esteem and behaviour, and, in the case of breakfast clubs, better attendance and punctuality. It could therefore be argued that the cost of the scheme was a very good investment for the far-reaching and long-term benefit of the health of future generations in Hull.

An evaluation of the Eat Well Do Well programme by Professor Derek Colquhoun at the University of Hull found headteachers to be delighted with the success of the scheme in creating calmer learning environments in which children had the opportunity to reach their potential. For its three-year duration, the programme was the envy of local authorities across the country. It displayed long-term vision and ambition, using the buying power and economies of scale of the local authority to invest in the future of Hull’s children and families.

In addition to tackling food poverty and childhood obesity, the pioneering initiative aimed also to eradicate the social stigma attached to the current free school meals system and ease the bureaucracy of means-testing. It also promoted good practice for parents in making healthier hot food attractive to children—more attractive than cold packed lunches, which were often of poor nutritional value.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on a very important subject. On the nutritional value of packed lunches, I am sure she is aware that studies have found that only 2% of packed lunches meet the standards required of food provided in schools. In every way, we should want our children to be eating the food in schools, rather than bringing in packed lunches that, with the best will in the world, are unhealthy. Does she agree?

I pay tribute to the amazing work that my hon. Friend has done over the years on school food and free school meals in particular. I absolutely agree with her.

It is worth reflecting that in Hull 23% of primary school children claim free school meals, yet Hull City Council has estimated that as many as 800 pupils entitled to free school meals are not claiming them, and we know that many thousands across the country do not take up their entitlements, largely due to parental fears of social isolation or bullying. In addition, thousands of children classed as living in poverty or just above the poverty line but not entitled to free school meals could access Hull City Council’s Eat Well Do Well scheme.

Sadly, the scheme came to an end in the summer of 2007 after the Liberal Democrats took control of Hull City Council and reintroduced charges of £1 per meal. At a time when budgets were not under pressure, Hull’s Liberal Democrats decided to scrap the progressive measure for what I can only consider ideological reasons.

Following on from the undoubted success of Hull’s Eat Well Do Well scheme, two events followed. First, I remember sitting on the Front Bench 10 years ago as an Education Minister in the last Labour Government, and one of the things I was responsible for was helping to set up the free school meals pilots in Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton to get further evidence of the link between nutrition and educational attainment through free school meals. To this day, Newham still provides free school meals.

As my hon. Friend is saying, there is undeniably a link between educational attainment and free school meals. It is suggested that it can add two months of schooling, which is why Newham Council, in collaboration with its schools, is currently funding again free school meals for children. It is that important. In an area that is arguably the second worst in the country for child poverty, it is an essential. Does she agree that the Government should adopt the same priorities as Newham Council and Newham’s schools?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to her work on social justice and the idea that people ought to have opportunities in their lives and that children should get the support they need in those early years.

A second point came out of the Hull scheme. When the Liberal Democrats got back into power nationally, after a very long time, as part of the coalition Government, they, learning from the experience in Hull—ironically—pushed through free school meals for the earliest years in primary schools, so we now have that from five or seven. When Labour returned to power on the council in 2011, we managed to reduce the price of a school meal to 50p—down from the £1 as set by the Liberal Democrats. That was thanks to an agreement from both the schools and the council.

I see this as a modern-day social contract. The subsidy of 80p per meal was provided by the council: 50p from the public health grant, and 30p from Hull City Council’s general fund resources. The council has been subsidising the school meals of children aged between seven and 11, and I do not think that any other local authority has been doing that very specific job. Again, Councillor Inglis was instrumental in making both the educational and public health cases for reducing the cost of school meals. The cost has remained at 50p, well below the rates of surrounding local authorities, for some years. Although the Eat Well Do Well scheme has ended, Hull has achieved a low-cost school meal and a partnership between our city’s schools and the council for so long, and in the face of national austerity that resulted in massive and unfair cuts in the council’s funding.

I understand that the threshold for free school meals has not risen for 14 years from a family income of about £17,000, so many more working poor families will not be eligible. The scheme that Hull City Council entered into with its academies was of particular benefit to them.

That brings me to why I initiated this debate, and to what has happened over the last 12 months. In January 2019 the price of a school meal in Hull, which had been 50p, doubled to £1 after academy heads decided to reduce their schools’ contributions to the subsidy funding agreement. I understand that that was agreed at a meeting of the Hull Association of Primary Head Teachers. I appreciate that school budgets have been under enormous pressure, and that difficult decisions have to be made. According to a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, schools and colleges in England have suffered the biggest fall in funding since the 1970s, and the funding shortfall for Kingston upon Hull in 2020 is £12.5 million. Nevertheless, Hull City Council, which was also under financial pressure, continued its subsidy at the same rate. But in January 2020—this month—the Hull Association of Primary Head Teachers again reduced the money for school meals, so the price has gone up to £1.50 per meal, and plans are being made for it to increase to the full cost of £2.30 later this year.

What has actually happened, however, is not a uniform increase. There is now a postcode lottery in Hull, and the charge depends on which school a child attends. Oldfield Primary School has stuck to 50p, and it is great that it has managed to do so. The co-operative learning trust, with seven primary schools, has not raised its price from £1, but many other schools now charge £1.50. Councillor Peter Clark, the current holder of the education portfolio, said that he did not support the price increases, but the council has no formal powers to affect the decisions that academies make. However, I think that there is a socialist moral case, and a one nation case, for this policy. The art of politics is at least trying to influence events on behalf of the communities that elect us. It is also unclear what has been agreed about continuing to pay a subsidy to schools that then go on to charge the full cost of a meal, and do not use that subsidy for its intended purpose.

This is extremely disappointing, as Hull’s strong reputation for supporting healthy, low-priced school meals cannot simply be abandoned. For me, politics is about standing up when something is not right, rolling up my sleeves and fighting to challenge it. I strongly believe that the benefits of access to low-cost, nutritious food to children in Hull cannot be overstated. These price hikes will mean that those “just managing” working families will be under even more financial pressure, and children may miss out on good nutritious food that helps them to succeed at school and grow up as healthily as possible.

I know that there are many in Hull City Council, and in the academy trusts, who want to do what is in the best interests of children and families in Hull, but who are constrained from doing so. With the academies, the problem seems to be that, owing to a silo-like structure, they can focus only on short-term targets, with too little reference to the needs of the wider community. As a result, academy schools that were meant to innovate are undoing the gains of past innovation in school food, in which respect Hull has of course been leading the way.

There are a number of issues that I would like to raise with the Minister directly. First, local authorities are under a duty to improve the health of their local population, as set out in the Health and Social Care Act 2012. Despite the huge change in the educational landscape, councils are also required to be champions of educational excellence for all children and young people. But how can these two requirements work when there is no accountability flowing from the academies in Hull to the council and the wider community? Is there a place for a review of this relationship?

Secondly, there appears to be no clear requirement or mechanism for co-operation. From a public health perspective, the council has a clear role in dealing with the consequences of health inequalities and mortality, so what does the Minister have to say about the role of education establishments and institutions in co-operating on these public health requirements? Thirdly, there are no formal provisions for a local authority to challenge public decisions from schools on issues such as school meal prices. Accountability is limited to Ofsted, the regional schools commissioner and the Department for Education, and seems to relate only to poor performance. How does this help when all parties want to work positively together to improve health and educational attainment? Should there be an enhanced scrutiny role for the council, for example? In Hull, I do not think that the scrutiny committee looked at what was happening around the arrangements with school food, because it said that it had no powers to do anything about it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. She has been very generous, although she could go on until 7 o’clock if she wanted to detain the House for that long. She mentioned public health, and that reminded me of the pilots, which she also mentioned, in Newham, Wolverhampton and Durham. The funding for those pilots came from the then Education Secretary and the then Health Secretary, the former Members for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle and for Normanton. They got together and jointly funded the pilots from Education and Health for the very reason that it should not have been only Education that paid for them, because there were going to be huge health benefits as well. My hon. Friend is making a point about local government, but does she agree that this could equally be something for the Department of Health to look at under the public health budget?

Yes, absolutely. What I have been trying to say in my speech is that there is a link between education and public health, and that at the moment it is clear that they are completely separate. I am trying to bring them together to work collaboratively. I am also grateful for being reminded that, because the previous business went down early, we have until 7 o’clock to debate this issue. I notice that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is in his place, and I know that he usually intervenes in Adjournment debates, so I would be happy to give way to him as well.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) on bringing this debate forward. This issue is appropriate to her own area, but it is one that probably applies across all our constituencies. She has referred to subsidy and the provision of school meals. The importance of that for me and my constituency is also very real, because if we did not have that subsidy and help for those families, some of those young children would never have a solid meal in their day. Does she feel, as I do, that when it comes to making provision for those who are at the bottom of the poverty level and who need our help to get at least one square meal a day, the Government need to respond in a very positive way?

I am grateful for that intervention, and I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have a new Government in place, and I think that they want to deal with some of the long-standing issues in this country around the working poor and how those children can be best served in our schools when it comes to access to hot healthy school food. What Hull was trying to do, from a local authority perspective, was to have those progressive policies that have perhaps been lacking at national level for some time. I am not going to detain the House for much longer. I just have a few more questions, unless the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) would like me to give way to him.

Let me return to my questions for the Minister. I want her to be clear about whether it is right that all schools have to take individual decisions on school meal prices, because there was some dispute in Hull about the role of the headteachers association, not being a lawful decision-making body, and each academy school having to go through its governing body to make decisions about school meal prices. I want her to confirm that that is her understanding as well. What do the Minister and the Government think about the postcode lottery that has developed in Hull, with prices in schools varying? How does she feel about one parent taking a child to school and paying 50p a day and another taking their child to a different school down the road and being charged £1.50? Is that what she wants to see happening? Is she aware that there appears to be no restriction on the maximum price that an academy can charge per meal? Does that need to be considered?

The other point is about the efforts made to increase registration of those eligible for free school meals, which obviously is right. We need to ensure that eligible children can access those meals. I am told that the academies are saying that one of the issues in Hull is that the reduced price of school meals acts as a disincentive to getting families signed up for the free school meals that they might well be entitled to. That has an impact on the pupil premium. I am sure that the Minister has looked at that issue already and is concerned about it, so what is her thinking about that? Obviously we want to encourage people to apply for free school meals, but where they are just above the entitlement level—there are a lot of those families in Hull; the working poor—how do we ensure that they can access good, nutritious food at a reasonable cost without causing problems for the school because of the pupil premium policy?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I say gently to the Minister that the criteria might be outdated, given what is happening in our communities, with 75% of families in poverty having somebody in work. We should not be stopping children who are experiencing real deprivation having a decent meal each day. I genuinely think that the criteria are outdated, outmoded and need some attention.

I echo my hon. Friend’s sentiments; that is right. While we need to make sure that money is made available for those children most in need, that particular scheme now needs to be reviewed in the light of what is happening.

The hon. Lady will recall that I was on Hull City Council when the free school meal policy was introduced. There was a huge political fight about it. We all wanted to achieve the same thing, but there were big differences. However, the reason for my intervention is to say from the Government side of the House to my hon. Friend the Minister that I, too, believe it is time that we looked at the criteria, for the very reasons that the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) raised. When I was teaching in Hull, it was not just a case of people who could not afford to send their kids to school with a proper meal; sometimes it was also parents who did not know how to do that. I had kids coming into my classroom who had had chips for breakfast. That is not acceptable. This is not just about the criteria; it is also about how we educate people better to ensure that they are sending kids to school with a proper meal inside them. There is a role for Government here, which is why I would fully support a look at the criteria, but I would also urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do exactly as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) has suggested and do more to address those struggling families—the working poor, as we refer to them, sometimes a bit patronisingly. I hope that my hon. Friend will, under this new Government, look at that as well.

Not for the first time, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute to him for the role that he played on Hull City Council. He was an esteemed member of the Conservative group on the council, although there were only two of them.

This has been a useful debate. Elected local councils are responsible and accountable. Alongside them, unelected academies have power but no responsibility. Academies have a vital role to play in the wider community, but there needs to be some responsibility and accountability locally, as well as through the Department. Can we look at whether rebalancing that relationship is necessary for the good of the coming generations upon which our country’s future depends?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) on securing this important debate. I was pleased to see her receive a damehood in the new year honours list.

The hon. Member has helped to highlight the value of school meals, which play a vital role in ensuring that children are healthy, well nourished and ready to concentrate and learn in the classroom. That is why the Department for Education not only sets school food standards to ensure that meals are healthy but provides free school meals for 1.3 million disadvantaged children, as well as universal infant free school meals for 1.4 million children.

I understand the hon. Member’s concerns about what has happened in Hull, which previously subsidised the cost of meals for children who are not eligible for free school meals. I am aware of the local decision to change those subsidies, but I stress that decisions about school food provision are devolved. This decision has been made by the local authority and local primary headteachers, based on their local knowledge and priorities.

To put it in a national context, most parents are asked to cover the full cost of meals for their child. It is important to note, however, that the recent changes in Hull do not affect those children who are already eligible for free school meals. I reassure the hon. Member that we encourage local authorities and school governing boards to give due consideration when making changes if this nature and to consult parents, which means considering the impact of prices.

I am sure that the local authority and primary headteachers will not have taken this decision lightly, and I note that the change is being made incrementally over two years. I have heard the hon. Member’s concerns, and I sympathise with them, but my Department and I believe it is absolutely right that school leaders have the freedom to run their schools as they know best.

I am grateful for what the Minister is saying. I am interested in this idea that school leaders are acting in their best interests. Of course they are acting in the best interests of their school, but my concern is about the wider public health agenda, which the council has responsibility for, and how best to ensure that schools are fitting into the wider public health benefit that we all want to see.

The hon. Member has highlighted the academies programme’s facilitating this, and the Government and I see it as providing opportunities through the key principles of autonomy, accountability and collaboration. Schools are ultimately responsible for delivering the free school meals policy and the actual meals, but the academies programme gives schools the opportunity to collaborate by coming together in strong trusts.

We encourage all academy trusts to build proactive relationships with parents and local communities to create a shared ownership of their school strategy and vision, which is what I think the hon. Member wants to happen. I stress that it is right that decisions are based on the local priorities of the school that has to administer the policy.

I have some sympathy with the Minister, as I have sat on the Treasury Bench and have had to deliver uncomfortable news to Opposition Members on things they are campaigning for, but will she meet me and my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) to talk about poverty proofing for schools generally and the kind of advice the Government might be able to provide to councils and schools about how that might proceed? We would find it really useful to talk to her about free school meals and other issues for working families who are struggling because they simply do not have the wherewithal to pay for rent and food. We would very much appreciate an opportunity to talk to her outside this Chamber.

I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member, or any other Member, to discuss this subject or any other within my brief, because these are important topics and there is a lot of mileage in what has been brought up today.

I was going to say that it is reasonable that we empower our local academies to make these decisions. It is also absolutely right that we are targeting our support at the families most in need. I have heard the pleas from those opposite and from my own side questioning the current eligibility criteria, to make sure that we are reaching those who are genuinely the most in need. Our Government have committed to review this once the roll-out of universal credit is finished, and I will ensure that I personally examine the eligibility criteria.

On wider funding, the Government have recognised the pressures that schools have faced and we have listened to teachers. That is why we have recently announced the biggest funding boost for schools in a decade, which will give every school the money it needs for its children. This includes levelling up all primary schools to receive a minimum of £4,000 from 2021-22, so the biggest increases are going to the schools that genuinely most need it.

I am chair of the all-party group on school food, as I know the Minister is aware. The thing campaigners raise with me all the time is that £2.30 is the amount given per free school meal by the Government. Not only is there the eligibility issue, but campaigners say that this amount should be more in the region of £2.73, in order to meet the real costs. This is part of the school funding thing, but the funding that schools are given towards that meal needs to be uprated. Will she also look at that?

Yes, indeed. We have committed to increase that amount in line with inflation, but we constantly keep it under review.

I want to take this opportunity to set out the critical role that the Department plays in providing healthy, nutritious food for children, which I know Members are passionate about. This is delivered through a range of programmes, many of which are targeted specifically at the most disadvantaged children. This is part of our strong commitment to promoting social mobility and ensuring equality of opportunity for every child.

That was a programme on TV last week that specifically talked about food for children in schools. It indicated that there was not an all-round policy across the whole of the United Kingdom whereby all the food had to be nutritious, did not lead to obesity and contained the right numbers of carbohydrates and so on. In other words, we are talking about the sort of food that children need to develop their bodies and minds. The programme indicated that children can get those types of foods in certain areas of the mainland UK but not in all schools. I welcome what the Minister has said about what is going to happen, but how can we make sure that all schools provide the same nutritious food, for the development of the child, both in mind and body?

That is extremely important. National food standards are already in place and schools have to adhere to them; they ensure that food is high quality, healthy and nutritious, and that it is lower in fat and salt. I want personally to look at that issue, to ensure that that is happening across the country. We are going further on this, as our forthcoming update on standards has been produced by the Department and Public Health England, to ensure that we are making the meals as nutritious as possible. Alongside that, our healthy school rating system celebrates schools’ efforts to support children in this regard, so we are almost incentivising schools, as well as enforcing this.

We remain committed to ensuring that the most disadvantaged children receive a healthy lunch at school. As I stated, last year about 1.3 million disadvantaged children benefited from this important provision. Included in that number were around 10,000 pupils in the city of Kingston upon Hull. The universal infant free school meals programme, introduced in 2014, has proved successful, and a further 1.4 million infant pupils have received free nutritious meals at lunch time.

We know that free school meal take-up is high, but we want to make sure that as many eligible pupils take up and claim free school meals as possible, so we tried to make it as simple as possible by introducing an eligibility checking system, whereby the local authority and school can easily identify those who are eligible. We have also set up model registration forms to make it as easy as possible for parents, and we have provided more guidance at jobcentres for those who are eligible.

In addition to school meals—it is not just about the lunch time offering; it is also about breakfast, which has been mentioned in this debate—the Government continue to support the expansion of school breakfast clubs, and we are investing up to £35 million to kick-start or improve existing clubs in schools, with a clear aim for them to become fully sustainable over the long term. We recently announced that the programme has been extended for an additional year until March 2021. Breakfast clubs ensure that children start the day with a nutritious breakfast—I am a strong believer that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North will no doubt be aware that there are already a number of successful breakfast clubs in her constituency.

Our work goes beyond the school gates. The Government’s holiday activities and food programme supports disadvantaged children to access healthy food and enriching activities over the school holidays, which is vital. In 2019, we invested £9 million in local holiday activity and food co-ordinators in 11 authorities throughout the UK. They were responsible for funding and overseeing free holiday clubs so that disadvantaged children in those areas could benefit from high-quality provision during the school holidays. Before Christmas, we launched a grant fund for a further £9 million in 2020.

Unfortunately, Hull did not receive any of that funding for the school holidays. I am growing increasingly concerned about the problem of holiday hunger. Although it is great that money went to 11 local authority areas, many more local authority areas in the country need assistance. Can the Minister say anything about the plans for this year and whether additional funding will be made available?

We have already announced the further £9 million. I completely agree with the hon. Member about the importance of tackling this issue. In fact, our manifesto included a £1 billion fund for holiday activities, and we are working on what that will encompass—I believe it will encompass some of these issues.[Official Report, 27 January 2020, Vol. 670, c. 4MC.]

I note the work of the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on the Children’s Future Food inquiry. Although it has not been specifically referred to today, I assure her that the Government will respond to the report in due course. A number of interesting suggestions were made in that review. In the meantime, Ministers have addressed some of the most pressing issues by writing to schools to ensure that they are fully aware of their responsibilities in respect of these matters, including the fact that they should provide access to free fresh drinking water at all times.

I take this opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North again for raising this important issue with me and the House. Our recent funding announcement will be a significant boost to schools, but it is of course right that local authorities and schools have the freedom to decide how they spend their money. I have referred throughout my remarks to how the Government value the continuation of the contribution that school funds make by ensuring that children are healthy and able to concentrate and learn in school. We have an ongoing programme of work that supports our commitments in this policy area, and we are going further by updating the school food standards and expanding our breakfast and holiday club programmes.

I look forward to meeting hon. Members to discuss the details further, but wish to assure them not only that will I respond shortly to the Children’s Future Food inquiry, but that we will continue to work closely with the sector over the coming months.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.