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Free School Meals: Eligibility

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 12 July 2022

In a moment, I will call Emma Lewell-Buck to move the motion and later I will call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the mover of the motion to wind up, as this is only a 30-minute debate.

If anyone wishes to remove their jackets, they should please feel free to do so.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered eligibility criteria for free school meals.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. There is nothing more grotesque than a Government who not only preside over thousands of children going hungry but who actively pursue policies that plunge them into hunger and poverty. As we debate the issue, nearly 4 million children in Britain are living in poverty, more than 800,000 are missing out on free school meals and hundreds of thousands are missing out on school breakfasts.

In my part of the world—the north-east—such figures are not decreasing but rising rapidly. Just this morning, the North East Child Poverty Commission revealed that our region now has the highest rate of child poverty in the UK, with 38% of our children now living in poverty. In South Shields, that rises to over 42%. It is clear that levelling up, just like the northern powerhouse before it, is a vacuous, empty phrase that was never intended to, and never will, do anything to improve the life chances of children in my area.

Hungry children, no matter how talented they are or how dedicated their teachers are, simply do not learn. When children spend their day worrying about where their next meal will come from, or about when their mams, dads and siblings will be able to eat again, their learning will inevitably be hindered.

The impacts of child hunger are well documented. Numerous studies have shown the links between nutrition and cognitive development. Hungry children suffer developmental impairment, language delays and delayed motor skills, not to mention the psychological and emotional impacts that can range from withdrawn and depressive behaviours to irritable and aggressive ones.

Pre-pandemic, we even saw rising numbers of hospital admissions for children through malnutrition and a resurgence of Victorian diseases such as scurvy and rickets. If it was not for the nearly 2,000 food banks in the UK—those are the ones we know of—as well as kind neighbours, faith groups and charities, many more children would simply have gone without.

When I was a child protection social worker, it was the children suffering from severe neglect who would be going without on such a scale, but now we have a generation of children for whom hunger and grinding poverty have become the norm. Back in 2019, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights visited the UK and found that the driving force of that Government was not an economic goal but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering and sending messages about lifestyles. His well-evidenced and thorough assessment was rejected outright and his recommendations were ignored.

When it comes to free school meals, what support the Government have put in place has been hard-fought for by charities, faith groups, Opposition MPs and celebrities.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for the excellent remarks that she is making. Over 40,000 children in the city of Manchester are now eligible for free school meals. As the summer holidays loom, thousands of families in my constituency face the prospect of choosing between eating and paying rocketing utility and fuel bills. Does she agree that it is high time that the Government ensured that councils have the funding they need to support children and families during the school holidays?

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I agree with my hon. Friend completely; indeed, I will echo some of his comments later in my speech.

Let us just consider the Government’s abysmal record throughout covid. First, we had the ridiculously chaotic voucher scheme being contracted out to a private company; then the Government tried to withdraw support in the half-term and Easter holidays; and then when it came to the summer holidays, Tory MPs voted to withdraw support for free school meals, only to have their votes overturned when footballer Marcus Rashford shamed the Prime Minster into a U-turn. That was followed by meagre food parcels containing—for 10 days—a loaf of bread, half a cucumber, one pepper, a few potatoes, a block of cheese, four pieces of fruit and some salty snacks.

The holiday activities and food programme was again hard fought for from 2017 onwards, but it was not until 2021 that the Government decided to roll the programme out. Even now, the overriding focus of the programme is on activities, with a vast amount of money being spent on admin, bureaucracy and communications. If it had not been for the crowdfunding of my big-hearted constituents in South Shields, alongside Feeding Britain, KEY2Life, NECA and Hospitality & Hope coming together over those summers, children in South Shields would have gone without.

My fully costed school breakfast Bill would have seen nearly 2 million children start the day with full stomachs. Instead, the Government introduced a scheme that provides support to only 2,500 out of the 8,700 schools they have identified as eligible. Hungry children never have been and never will be a priority for the Government. If the political will was there, they would listen to the myriad voices from charities, organisations, faith groups, Opposition MPs, a few Members on their own side and Henry Dimbleby, who they appointed to lead the national food strategy. They are all pleading with the Government to at least expand free school meal eligibility to all families receiving universal credit or equivalent benefits. That would mean that a further 1.3 million children living in poverty would at least get a free school meal, and would also be eligible for the holiday food programmes.

According to the Child Poverty Action Group, that expansion would cost the Government an additional £550 million a year. The Minister knows as well as I do that that is small in terms of Government spending. Just look at the billions wasted on faulty personal protective equipment and gifted to Tory friends and donors for inadequate contracts throughout the pandemic, as well as the billions written off in covid fraud.

Furthermore, alongside that reform, the Government could introduce an automatic registration scheme for free school meals. At present, more than 200,000 children miss out because of the overly bureaucratic nature of the registration process. Those measures should then be followed by a move to universal free school meals for all children, as in Labour-led Wales, because no child should ever feel stigmatised or singled out.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate, and for the incredible work she has done campaigning on this issue for many years. Does she agree that the bureaucracy and means testing for free school meals only increases stigma and also means that many children fall through the cracks and go hungry? Does she agree that the Government should look at providing universal free school breakfasts and lunches for all children in schools as a matter of urgency? The difference that investment would make to the education and lives of children in Liverpool, West Derby and beyond cannot be stressed enough. I have made that point to the Minister.

I thank my hon. Friend for the work he is doing on his Right to Food campaign, and all the work he does in his patch raising money for local food banks. He is right that there is another factor: means testing costs more. Universality is cheaper, and that is where the Government should be heading.

The hungry children are the children of key workers. Those key workers are working for their poverty. They are the key workers who kept us going and cared for our loved ones throughout the pandemic—they risked their lives for us. What chance do those children have when the newly appointed Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith), along with his colleagues, voted during the pandemic to deny children free school meals in the holidays, and has said he believes that free school meals amount to “nationalising children”? He also went on to add that it was simply not true that people cannot afford to buy food on a regular basis, saying

“If you keep saying to people that you’re going to give stuff away, then you’re going to have an increase I’m afraid”.

I have a feeling that in his response the Minister will regale us with details of the cost of living support packages that the Government have put in place through previous support grants. The reality is that they are all one-offs; they are piecemeal, they are sticking plasters and they do little to address the root causes of child poverty. It should be to the utter shame of every MP in this Government that in a country as rich as ours, children are going to bed hungry and waking up hungry. I look forward to the Minister letting us know in his response what he intends to do to remedy that, because our children need and deserve better.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing a debate on this important subject. I echo the comments of other colleagues about her tireless work to raise awareness of the challenges that our most disadvantaged children face. Indeed, she raised this issue as recently with me as last Monday at Education questions, although it feels almost a lifetime ago.

Let me also put on record how pleased I am to be back at the Department for Education, after a 24-hour interlude. The hon. Lady knows how passionate I am about this work and how delighted I am to be able to continue it. She also knows of my long-standing interest in this issue, both in the past 10 months as Minister at the Department for Education and over the previous two and a half years as a Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions.

This Government are committed to supporting those on low incomes and continue to do so through many measures, such as spending over £108 billion a year on working-age benefit support and by recently taking wide-ranging action, to which the hon. Lady rightly pointed, to directly address cost of living pressures. She specifically referenced free school meals, and I will focus my comments on that area.

The Government and I are committed to providing free school meals to children from households who are out of work or on low incomes. This is of the utmost importance, both to me personally and the Government. Under the current criteria, there are around 1.9 million pupils who are eligible for and claiming a free school meal at lunchtime, which saves families hundreds of pounds per year per child. This number equates to approximately 22.5% of all pupils and is up from around 15% of pupils in 2015. The increases are due in part to the protections during the roll-out of universal credit. In making sure that these children receive a healthy, nutritious meal, we are helping to ensure they are well nourished, develop healthy eating habits, and can concentrate and learn—points that the hon. Lady rightly raised.

The Minister will be aware that lots of school food providers have said that, because of the cost of living crisis, nutritional standards are going to go down and they will have to substitute food for something else. What will he do about that?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. I have heard the call from the sector. We have increased funding for the universal infant free school meals rate to reflect this. Also, the core schools budget is increasing. I am acutely aware of the global inflation pressures. Schools are not immune to that. I will continue to work with the sector and with schools to ensure that schools are able to provide healthy, balanced and nutritious meals.

I mentioned the 1.9 million eligible pupils. A further 1.25 million infants are supported through the universal infant free school meal policy, as I just referenced. Already the greatest proportion ever of school children—around 37.5%—are provided with a free school meal at lunchtime, at a cost of over £1 billion a year. However, we do not stop there. Last year, more than 600,000 children were provided with healthy food and enriching activities through the holiday activities and food programme, which is provided in all the major holidays, including over the summer. We have committed to spending an extra £200,000 per year throughout the spending review period, and I am pleased to say that all 152 local authorities across England are delivering this programme.

We then have our £24 million national schools breakfast programme, which means thousands of pupils are benefitting from a healthy, nutritious breakfast. There are also 2.2 million key stage 1 pupils provided with a free portion of fruit or vegetables every day. For the youngest in our society, we have the healthy start voucher scheme, which provides a vital safety net for hundreds of thousands of lower-income pregnant women and families with children under the age of four.

I understand that the hon. Lady wants us to go further and extend free school meal eligibility. I will come to some of the points she raised in a moment, but I will start by setting out what we have already done in this area. Under this Government, eligibility for free school meals has been extended several times and to more groups of children than under any other Government over the past half a century. That includes the introduction of universal infant free school meals and the further education entitlement.

I will give way in a moment. I want to mention a piece of work in which I have been specifically involved, both in my previous role at the Department for Work and Pensions and in my current role: permanently extending eligibility to children from families with no recourse to public funds, which is hugely important but subject to income thresholds. That came into effect at Easter.

The Minister is being generous in giving way. Does he not accept that eligibility has had to be extended repeatedly because there are more and more children in poverty? When are this Government going to get to grips with the root causes of the endemic poverty that children in this country are suffering from?

I hear what the hon. Lady says. I have always said to her that I continue to keep eligibility under review for the reasons she has mentioned. We could have a separate debate on the root causes of poverty, and I could talk about the work undertaken in my previous role by the Department for Work and Pensions over the past two and a half years to support people and empower them into work, but that is a debate for another day.

I shall focus on free school meals in particular, although I will touch on universal credit because the protections in place as we roll it out are important. All children eligible for a free school meal at the point at which the threshold was introduced and all those who become eligible as universal credit is rolled out will continue to receive free school meals, even if their household circumstances change dramatically. For example, if those circumstances improve and move them above the earnings threshold, they will not lose that eligibility, which they otherwise would. Even after protections end, if they are still in school, those children will continue to be protected until the end of their phase of education, whether primary or secondary.

Let me turn specifically to the points that the hon. Member for South Shields made about the universal credit threshold. Free school meal eligibility has long been governed by an earnings threshold. That was the same under the legacy benefits system under the previous Government. In April 2018, we updated our eligibility criteria to include the earnings threshold of £7,400 for families on universal credit. That was forecast at the time to increase the number of eligible pupils when compared with the legacy benefits system. That was a direct comparison, and it was designed to increase the number.

It is absolutely right that our provision is aimed at supporting the most disadvantaged—those out of work or on the lowest incomes. The current household earnings threshold is a bit misleading: we put it at £7,400, but that does not include benefit receipt, which means that total household income could be considerably higher than that while someone is receiving a free meal.

Where are we now in society? Come September or October, we will see further rises in the cost of heating a home. We have seen exponential price rises, as prices have moved massively and become totally unaffordable. Is it not time for the Minister to acknowledge that so many people who are above the threshold for universal credit are struggling, and to look to other nations in Europe that have implemented universal free school meals for data on the advancement of and the benefits to those societies, both economic and educational? I name Norway and Portugal.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will continue to look at European and other comparators, and at eligibility.

In relation to what the hon. Gentleman—and, indeed, the hon. Member for South Shields—proposes as an in-work and out-of-work benefit, it is important to reference the fact of those on universal credit having that £7,400 earnings threshold. There will be people whose income exceeds £40,000 a year. I know there are people struggling across the country, even on what many would consider a reasonable income, because there is an inflationary shock for many people, and they have outgoings that reflect their earnings.

I will come to that, but while it is right that those families continue to receive a small amount of universal credit, which tapers as their earnings increase, not least to encourage and incentivise work, we have to recognise more broadly—notwithstanding the current inflationary pressures and cost of living pressures—that these are not the most disadvantaged households, which we want to target, or arguably should target, with support in this specific way.

That does not mean we should not be helping those people with specific, targeted support in other ways, which I will come to, but extending free school meal eligibility to all families on universal credit would, without question, carry a significant financial cost—one that I think would be much higher than that which the hon. Member for South Shields has referenced, although we can discuss that another day. It would quickly run into billions of pounds over a spending review and result in around half of all pupils becoming eligible for a free meal, which would have substantial knock-on effects for the affordability of linked provision—for example, the pupil premium, which is linked to eligibility for free school meals.

Having said all that, I understand and appreciate—I have a constituency myself and I speak with people every weekend—that many families are finding it tough, given the global inflationary pressures that affect the cost of living. The question is whether a permanent change to the eligibility criteria for free school meals is the right thing to do now—whether it is affordable and sufficiently targeted, and whether it could be delivered quickly enough if we wanted to operationalise it. My answer to all those points at the moment is no. As I say, the Government understand the pressures people face with the cost of living. These are global challenges, and that is why the Government are providing over £15 billion of further support, targeted particularly at those with the greatest need. We should not forget that this package is in addition to the over £22 billion that was announced previously, with Government support for the cost of living over the course of this year totalling over £37 billion.

The Minister says his answer is no. In Manchester, Gorton, a survey has shown that 80% of families are cutting back on food. Does he not agree that every young child deserves a good start in life and that food is one of the basics?

Of course, I agree. I do not want to see any child in this country going hungry or a single family in poverty. The hon. Gentleman raised support for councils in his intervention on the hon. Member for South Shields, and that is important. I referenced the £37 billion. I am biased because I originally set up the covid winter grant scheme, which has turned into the household support fund, and I am proud of the support it has provided to councils. That £37 billion includes an additional £500 million to help households with food and essential items. That is on top of what we have already provided since October 2021, and brings total funding for the household support fund to £1.5 billion. We did so because I genuinely believe that local authorities know their communities and those who are in need best and how to target them. There is another £421 million of additional support, which will run until March next year, with the devolved Administrations receiving an extra £79 million.

Let me turn to funding, which the hon. Lady also raised. In order to deliver the free school meal provision, we have increased the core funding for schools with the FSM factor—that is a bit of a mouthful—in the national funding formula. It has increased to £470 per eligible pupil this year to recognise rising inflation and the associated cost pressures, and from speaking with the sector and knowing the challenge that schools face. That was after the NFF rates were set, and we provided core funding through a schools supplementary grant. As a result, core mainstream schools funding will increase by £2.5 billion in 2022-23 compared with last year.

As I say, we already spend around £600 million on universal infant free school meals each year. The per meal rate, which I referenced earlier, was increased to £2.41, because I recognised that that needed to be done, and importantly I backdated that to 1 April this year, which represents an extra £18 million, in recognition of recent cost pressures.

The Minister is doing as I expected and listing some of the things the Government have done, but what about the 800,000 children who are missing out? There will be more of them as the year continues. What support is there for them? Clearly, the support at the moment is not enough because they are still going to foodbanks, so what will he do for those children?

Of course, I work with colleagues and counterparts across Government to ensure that we are supporting people as much as we possibly can, and it is vital that that support is targeted. I referenced the £37 billion. Much of that is yet to come, such as the grants specifically for families and support via the household support fund. One thing I would say, having worked with the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he was Education Secretary, as well as with the previous Chancellor, is that they take an evidence-based approach, and if there is need out there, the Government will step up. I found that to be the case at the Department for Work and Pensions throughout the course of the pandemic. The Chancellor consistently stepped up to support the poorest and the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our country, and I have no doubt that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister will continue to do so.

As I said, this is a hugely important issue, and I know how it affects some of the most disadvantaged children across our country. I thank the hon. Lady for raising it. It is important that the Government continue to be push to see how much further and faster we can go on these issues. Of course, as I said, I will keep all free school meal eligibility under review to ensure that these meals support those who need them most. As I have said, extending eligibility would be extremely costly, especially if the link between free school meals and other funding is included, such as the pupil premium. A threshold has to be set somewhere, and the current funding is targeted at those who need it most.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.