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Free School Meals and Child Poverty

Volume 719: debated on Thursday 8 September 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Morris.)

On behalf of the constituents of Liverpool, Riverside, I extend my heartfelt wishes to the Queen and the royal family and wish her a speedy recovery.

I am grateful to have secured this Adjournment debate on free school meals and tackling child poverty. This is a very urgent and timely call to action for the new Prime Minister, calling for the roll-out of universal free school meals. I believe no issue is more important than making sure that no child goes hungry.

I congratulate the Minister on her new position and the new Education Secretary—the fifth we have had this year. I hope the Minister is serious about tackling the very real poverty crisis that has exploded over the past 12 years of Tory rule. We know it is likely to get worse over the coming months, which will be the hardest winter for thousands of children growing up in poverty.

When I applied for this debate before the summer recess, I had intended to focus on how the benefits of investing in universal free school meals would help to reverse the long-standing and ever-deepening inequalities in health and educational attainment between poorer pupils and their more affluent peers. But the economic landscape has worsened significantly. Everything is going up except incomes for the worst-off. The cost of living crisis is set to plunge two thirds of the country into fuel poverty and three quarters of a million children into poverty. The call for universal free school meals has now become much more urgent.

If the new Prime Minister is to prevent children from freezing and starving this winter, rolling out universal free school meals must be a key cornerstone of any emergency support plan. Instead of a real living wage and a welfare system that supports people out of poverty, we have a crisis of insecure work and poverty pay, and a welfare system that drives people into destitution. Make no bones about it, we are facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Inflation and interest rates are going up, while the pound is plunging and a record rise in food prices is pushing millions more into food insecurity.

As pupils head back to school this week, nearly a quarter will be eligible for free school meals. That number has risen by nearly 50% since 2019 and is rising every single day. It is a clear indication of the explosion in child poverty that this Government have contributed to during the last 12 years of austerity. We have seen attacks on the welfare system and under-resourcing of the public sector. School pupils have already suffered setbacks during the pandemic, with inequalities in educational attainment widening, particularly between the north and the south. In my constituency of Liverpool, Riverside, 11 children in every class of 30 were already living in poverty before the current cost of living crisis.

Classroom hunger drives the education attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers, leaving poorer children over 18 months behind their better-off peers by the time they leave secondary school. A-level and GCSE results this year showed regional and national disparities. The attainment gap between the richest and the poorest pupils is more pronounced than ever. Even before the current cost of living crisis, Government policies failed to level up and instead fuelled spiralling inequalities.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate on such an important matter. As a former primary school teacher for many years, I know what she is saying: a child cannot learn if they are hungry in school. Does she agree that the announcement in today’s energy statement does nothing to assure schools that are having to cut back their free school meal service to young people that those young people will not be going hungry in the weeks and months to come?

I do agree; children cannot learn on empty bellies. It is scandalous that, even at this young age, the futures of the most of them have already been decided. Their life expectancy, job opportunities, salary, housing and so much more have already been predetermined by their background—by situations that are outside their control.

The National Education Union’s campaign, “No Child Left Behind”, clearly identified child poverty as the biggest scandal of our time, with 4 million already living in poverty and a further three quarters of a million projected to be plunged into poverty in the coming months. In a recent NEU survey, over eight in 10 teachers said that their students demonstrate fatigue and an inability to concentrate as a result of poverty. Nearly three quarters said that their students were unable to complete homework and more than half said that their students had experienced hunger or ill health. Millions of children are going hungry every single day. The current restrictive eligibility, complicated registration procedures and the stigma built into a system that separates rich and poor mean that children are already missing out on existing support.

I thank my good friend for giving way and congratulate her on securing this important debate. I also paid tribute to her for organising an event with the National Education Union earlier this week in Westminster Hall to highlight the issues in our schools. The former Prime Minister preached to us about the benefits of levelling up, but one easy way to level up the north and the south, and also address the educational attainment gap and the lack of productivity, would be for the Government to make a universal free school meal offer to everyone so that our children are not segregated between rich and poor at our institutions.

I thank my hon. Friend for the intervention and I definitely agree that universality is the way forward for free school meals.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. In York in 2021, 25.3% of children were in poverty, and that number will have gone up substantially in the last 12 months. One thing that really struck me about the event that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) is talking about was the stigma that children experienced because they were different from other children. For that reason alone, surely we should have a universal offer of free school meals for children, so that they have the same stature as their peers and are not marked out as a child needing free school meals.

I thank my hon. Friend for the intervention and will come on to the point about stigma later.

More than 200,000 children are eligible for free school meals but are currently missing out. At my free school meals event with the National Education Union on Tuesday in Parliament, which received cross-party support, we heard some heartbreaking testimonies from youth ambassadors for the End Child Poverty coalition.

Liv, Emilia and Naomi, who have lived experiences of food poverty, spoke passionately about their personal experiences of being singled out in front of their friends and watching their parents skip meals to ensure that they were fed. They spoke about the long-term impact on their mental health, on their relationship with food, and on their responses to the current pressures of the cost of living crisis, and about the trauma response that growing up with such pressures has instilled in them. One said that having free school meals was like having a badge pinned to their blazer that read “Poor.” That stigma often worsens in secondary school and can be incredibly alienating for children struggling to fit in and thrive.

Data from the Child Poverty Action Group has shown that 800,000 children currently living in poverty are not eligible for free school meals, and miss out on holiday support and other benefits. That number is increasing every day, with many families falling into debt with school lunches. Crucially, children are denied a meal if they are more than two weeks in arrears.

On the steps of Downing Street on Tuesday, the new Prime Minister said that

“we have what it takes to tackle those challenges”

and that we can “ride out the storm”, but the energy price guarantee announced this afternoon will not support families already in crisis. They will be paying far more, not less.

A recent report from the Food Foundation revealed that about 2.6 million children live in households that missed meals or struggled to access healthy food. Levels of insecurity in households with children have risen by more than 40% since the start of this year alone. We are one of the richest countries in the world, yet so many low-paid workers, including public sector workers, rely on food banks. Nearly 70% of food bank providers say, however, that they may need to turn people away or shrink the size of emergency rations due to a completely unsustainable surge in demand that will prevent them from feeding the hungriest families this winter.

The Government-commissioned national food strategy, authored by Henry Dimbleby, calls for the extension of free school meals for all under-16-year-olds in households earning under £20,000, to help to tackle the nutritional gap between rich and poor in this country. Children in the most disadvantaged areas are now being diagnosed with Victorian diseases such as rickets, scurvy and scarlet fever—and that was even before the cost of living crisis.

Four councils have rolled out universal free school meals for all primary school children. Southwark pioneered that flagship initiative a decade ago in response to the so-called once-in-a-lifetime economic crisis. The results speak for themselves. Pupils made four to eight weeks’ more progress than expected. The schools have seen a massive improvement in attainment over the last 10 years and have gone from being fourth bottom to more than 90% being rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. Nearly a quarter more children were eating vegetables at lunch time, and there was an 18% reduction in children consuming crisps and soft drinks. Hammersmith and Fulham has seen a 60% increase in secondary school children on free school meals since 2018, and it is now piloting universal free school meals for secondary pupils.

Universal provision contributes to family food security. It improves pupils’ concentration and behaviour. It improves attendance, which is also a key aim of this Government’s Schools Bill. It increases the amount of fruit and vegetables and reduces the amount of sugar and salt consumed by pupils at lunch time. Crucially, it also reduces the stigma that many children who receive free school meals feel when they are singled out from their peers.

Often, stigma and mental health are overlooked in Government policy discussions—poorer children are expected to put up and shut up, and be grateful for their handouts—but the reality is incredibly damaging. It can cause long-term trauma and problems, and makes the means-tested policy far less effective. Yes, universal free school meals will cost. Yes, they should be understood as an investment in our future. However, these are children, and everything we do should allow them to flourish and thrive. Their bright futures should be our priority. We cannot lose sight of the human impact of not feeding our children, or of choosing an arbitrary threshold to decide who deserves to go hungry and who deserves to be fed.

Universality provides far greater opportunities to improve educational attainment across the board and to reverse the ever-growing inequalities. Investing in our children now will be better for everyone in the long term. Prevention is better than cure. Doing nothing now will reduce the productivity of the future workforce. It will put greater pressures on the NHS. It risks a generation suffering from poor mental health and poor physical health, and being trapped in a never-ending cycle of poverty.

My hon. Friend is being generous with her time. I very much want York to adopt free school meals for all primary school children, and then to look at rolling that out to secondary school children. However, I also want to ensure that children in my constituency have access to a hot nutritious meal in their stomachs every day through the school holidays. I take it that my hon. Friend will also be campaigning against the school holiday hunger that we still see in our constituencies.

I thank my good friend for her contribution, and I definitely will be promoting food security during holiday periods. It is not just about children having a hot nutritious meal; in reality, it means so much more. It sets the foundations for improved behaviour and improved attainment. It means better health, better jobs, higher salaries and higher life expectancy—in short, the chance to break the vicious cycle of poverty.

UK food prices have hit the highest levels since 2008. Children are going hungry right now. They simply cannot afford to wait for this Government while they are dragging their feet. The last time the Tories tried to resist helping hungry children, there was public outrage—

Yes, rightly so, and the campaign fronted by Marcus Rashford forced a U-turn within a matter of weeks. I hope the Minister can confirm that her Government will learn from past mistakes and act immediately to prevent unnecessary and unimaginable suffering for millions of children and their families. We will not allow this Government to continue to bury their head in the sand. On the steps of Downing Street this week, the outgoing Prime Minister claimed that the Tory party is a compassionate party. If that is truly the case, the new Prime Minister and the Education Secretary should take urgent steps to roll out universal free school meals as a priority.

It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon, but I too would like to express my best wishes to Her Majesty the Queen and her family at this difficult time.

First, I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) for securing this important debate at a crucial time, and I ask for her understanding as I was appointed merely a few hours ago. However, I will start by saying that I came into this role with great excitement, because I too care about my constituents and the young people in my constituency, and I absolutely agree that young children should go into school without experiencing hunger to be able to learn. I can assure the hon. Lady, immediately, that I look forward to working with her and others across the House as we move forward.

All Members have constituents who are struggling right now with the rising cost of living. It does not matter which side of the political spectrum we are on, we all know people who are currently finding it difficult. Like many hon. Members, one reason I came into politics was to change things for the better and help people, particularly in our constituencies. There can be no more deserving cause than making sure that a child has enough to eat. In this day and age, no one should accept the prospect of a child turning up, and trying their best to learn at school but being distracted by hunger. Children cannot learn properly if they are hungry, which is why plenty of safety mechanisms are in place to make sure that does not happen. I assure the House that the Government are totally committed to helping and supporting people who need support. That is part of our greater levelling-up ambitions.

Let me spell out in more detail what we are doing to support our most disadvantaged children and families. Free school meals are a vital means of ensuring that children get a decent meal if they come from families with parents who are out of work or on low incomes. Just under 2 million schoolchildren receive a free meal at lunchtime, under the benefit-related free school meal policy. That will relieve pressure on their families, and ensure that children get at least one healthy and nutritious meal a day. A further 1.25 million infants are also getting a meal through the universal infant free school meal policy. That brings the total proportion of schoolchildren getting a free meal at lunchtime to around 38%.

I said earlier that we all care about ensuring that children are well nourished, and thanks to cross-Government work we have permanently extended free school meals to children from all families with no recourse to public funds who meet certain income thresholds. That came into effect after Easter this year. The Department’s priority is to provide targeted support to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who are most in need. Extending free school meals to all pupils would carry a significant financial cost. We are confident that the current provision enables children to benefit, and is still affordable and deliverable for schools. That is currently the right approach in England, targeting those who need it most. As I said, we spend around £600 million per year ensuring that around 1.25 million infants enjoy a free, healthy, and nutritious meal at lunchtime, following the introduction of the universal infant free school meal policy in 2014. All Members here will have heard arguments from some quarters that we should roll out free school meals for all, but it is right that provision is aimed at supporting the most disadvantaged.

I congratulate the Minister on her appointment. Will she comment on the point about stigma when it comes to means-tested free school meals? We do not have a means-tested system for schools in this country, but the Government test the means of the parents for free school meals. There is stigma that comes with poorer children being offered the free school meal option when others are not, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) spoke about the nutritional gap between children from wealthier families and those from poorer families. Will the Minister comment on that stigma, and on that productivity and nutritional gap?

I absolutely get the point about stigma, and I know that schools work incredibly hard to overcome it. Free school meal eligibility will be under review, and in this post I look forward to getting into the detail and speaking to stakeholders, schools, parents and children, as I do already in my constituency. I look forward to widening the scope of that.

I, too welcome the Minister to her new position. Richard Titmuss famously said that services to the poor are poor services. As we look at that divide, we know that many parents do not claim free school meals because of stigma, so children go hungry and without. Of course, parents often make sacrifices, too. Will she look at the equation again and at how we can bring greater equality into the lives of our young people?

I thank the hon. Lady for that point. As I said, I, like all Members of Parliament, absolutely care about our young people in school and want them to thrive, have great lives and enjoy their school years, and we must ensure that stigma does not exist for them. In my role, I will look at many things, and I am more than happy to look at that further. We do not have plans to extend the universal provision in England, but, as I said, we will continue to keep free school meal eligibility under review to ensure that those meals are supporting those who need it most.

Let us look at some of the detail. We currently have an earnings threshold of £7,400 for families on universal credit, but that does not include income from benefits—those payments are not included—so household incomes can be considerably higher than that threshold without children being excluded from a free school meal. Extending free school meals to all families on universal credit, for example, would carry a significant financial cost, quickly running into billions of pounds, and yet some of those households have incomes exceeding £40,000 a year. Those are clearly not among the most disadvantaged, and other households would have a greater need of our support.

As every family knows, it costs more to put a healthy meal on the table than it did even just a year ago, and it is no different for free school meal provision. We have therefore increased core funding for schools. This year, the free school meals factor in the national funding formula has increased to £470 per pupil to take into account inflation and other cost pressures that schools face. We are also providing extra core funding through the schools supplementary grant, which represents a significant increase of £2.5 billion for the 2022-23 compared with last year. We are also spending £600 million on universal infant free school meals each year as well as about £40 million on delivering free meals to around 90,000 disadvantaged students in further education. In addition to that, we will provide more than £200 million a year for the next three years to deliver healthy food during holiday periods through our holiday activities and food programme. We are also funding breakfast clubs in more than 2,000 schools, and the school fruit and vegetable scheme and Healthy Start vouchers add further support.

The Government are committed to a sustainable, long-term approach to tackling poverty—especially child poverty—and supporting people on lower incomes. There are currently about 1.27 million job vacancies across the UK, and we believe that the best and most sustainable way of tackling child poverty is to ensure that parents get the right sort of help and support to move into work. We know that employment—I am talking primarily about a full-time job—offers the best chance of reducing the risks of poverty. Our multimillion-pound plan for jobs has protected, supported and created jobs, and will continue to help people across the UK to find work and develop skills to progress their careers and increase their earnings.

I thank the Minister for giving way. She makes the point about work being the route out of poverty, but as I pointed out in my speech there are vast numbers of parents who are working and are ineligible to apply for free school meals. Work is not the route out of poverty, and some work needs to be done on that.

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. In my new role, I have already committed to keeping eligibility under review.

Today, the Government set out decisive action to support people and businesses with their energy bills, tackling the root causes of the issues in the UK energy market through increased supply and ensuring the country is not left in the same position again. Under plans for the new energy price guarantee, a typical UK household will pay no more than £2,500 a year on its energy bills for the next two years from 1 October, saving the average household £1,000 a year from October, based on current energy prices. That support is in addition to the £400 energy bill discount for all households. Together, they will bring costs close to where the energy price cap stands today. The new guarantee will apply to households in Great Britain, with the same level of support made available to households in Northern Ireland. The action will deliver substantial benefits to the economy, boosting growth and curbing inflation by between four to five points, reducing the cost of servicing national debt. This historic intervention comes after a failure to invest in home-grown energy and to drive reform in the energy market.

Again, the money being made available will not target the most vulnerable, because we know there are thousands still in crisis who are likely to pay an extra £500 on top of what they were already going to pay. We know that the most disadvantaged who have payment meters often have to pay more than those who have direct debits. How will the Government address those major, urgent issues for the vulnerable at this time?

Ahead of today, we had already announced a significant package of support for those most in need—I outlined the extra £400. Local authorities also have the household support grant scheme, which is accessible by people who are in need and is an opportunity for those who have fallen through certain gaps to access funding they may require.

We need to invest in home-grown energy and drive reform in the energy market to secure the UK’s supply. Putin’s weaponisation of the energy supply has exposed the UK’s vulnerabilities to the volatility of global markets, coupled with a regulatory framework no longer fit for purpose which is driving up bills and holding back economic growth. A new six-month scheme for businesses and other non-domestic energy users, including public sector organisations like schools, will offer equivalent support to that being provided for consumers. That will protect them from soaring energy costs and provide them with the certainty they need to plan their business. After the initial six-month period, the Government will provide ongoing, focused support for vulnerable industries. There will be a review in three months’ time to consider where that should be targeted to make sure that the most in need get support.

Let me bring the Minister back to the debate about free school meals, because that is really important and I want to make sure that we make the most of this time and opportunity. One of the issues that I raised was holiday hunger and the fact that many children go without food during the school holidays, and that still continues. What steps will she take to ensure that all children who experience food poverty get access to a hot meal every day?

It was important to mention the announcement today about help with energy costs, because those costs are playing a large role in the pressures that all households face, and that absolutely feeds into this debate.

The hon. Lady raises an important question about free school meals over the summer period. For families who have been eligible for that support, the Government are investing more than £600 million in our holiday activities and food programme over the next three years. That funding is being distributed through 152 local authorities. This summer, our holiday activities fund again provided healthy meals, enriched activities and free childcare places to children from low-income families. That benefited their health, wellbeing and learning and contributed to the recovery from covid-19.

Over the summer of 2021, we reached more than 600,000 children and young people in England through the holiday activities fund, including more than 495,000 children who were eligible for free school meals. That meant that hundreds of thousands of children from low-income families benefited from healthy food and increased activities.

The Minister is being very generous with her time. The figure of £600 million will effectively be significantly lower now, with inflation and the cost of living crisis. Will she address the need going forward, rather than sharing the Government’s numbers from last year, because £600 million will be a lot less—given that the rate of inflation is over 10% now—than it was last year?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. However, one of the benefits of the holiday activities fund is that the decision making is given to local authorities, so that they can design systems that meet the need in their areas and make sure that they design tailored programmes and deliver services to meet the individual needs of the people they serve. He should understand that the amount is £600 million over three years, so there is £200 million a year.

In my constituency in other roles that I held, I spent a lot of time working with families and young children before I became a Member of Parliament. I am very passionate about this role and am looking forward to working with Members across the House. I do not have children but I have nieces. However, someone does not have to be a parent to find the idea of a hungry child plain wrong, as I think we all agree across the House. We can do—and are doing—something about it and I promise hon. Members that child wellbeing and nutrition is right at the top of my priorities.

I welcome the Minister to her position. Having worked with her on the transport brief at the start of the pandemic, I know that she will be diligent in the role.

Even though my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) is a Liverpool fan, she mentioned Marcus Rashford—one of the most famous child hunger campaigners in the country, and a famous son of Wythenshawe in my constituency. He grew up just down the road; one of us is a great footballer, one of us is a great politician, and I am neither. If it were offered, would the Minister be prepared to meet him in her new role?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I very rarely refuse a request for a meeting. I am hoping to have many months to meet stakeholders, interested parties and people who feel as passionate as I do about these areas.

I am confident that the safeguards we have in place mean that once a child is through the school gates in the morning, the one thing that they should never have to worry about is where their next meal is coming from. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside for her patience with my being new to the post, and I look forward to working with her.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.