Skip to main content

Free School Meals

Volume 726: debated on Monday 16 January 2023

14. What assessment she has made of the potential merits of extending the eligibility criteria for free school meals. (903062)

The Government support the provision of nutritious food in schools, which ensures that children are well-nourished, develop healthy eating habits and can concentrate and learn. Some 1.9 million pupils are eligible for free school meals. That is an increase from 2021, when 1.7 million pupils were eligible. In large part, the increase is due to protections put in place to support families as they move to universal credit. In addition, 1.25 million pupils are eligible under the universal infant free school meal programme.

Each month, 4 million children experience food insecurity, go to bed hungry and set off to school on an empty stomach. To tackle this injustice, my free school meals for all Bill would guarantee that every child in England had a hot, healthy meal each day, just as they do in Scotland and Wales. It could be paid for twice over by removing the private schools’ £1.7 billion tax break, a move that the Conservative party on the Government Benches blocked last week. My Bill is due to get its Second Reading on Friday. Will the Minister back my Bill, or does he believe that protecting tax breaks for elite private schools is more important than feeding hungry children?

The Government have extended free school meals to more groups of children than any Government over the past century, including Labour Governments, increasing numbers from 1.7 million to 1.9 million children. This Government introduced an extension to 85,000 students in further education colleges, new eligibility for some children of families with no recourse to public funds, and a scheme for 1.25 million children in infant schools.

The Levelling Up Secretary said in October that extending free school meal provision would be the most timely, effective and targeted of all public health interventions that this Government could make. The Scottish Government have already committed to universal free school meals for primary children. Does the Minister agree with his colleague? If not, what targeted interventions would he make to tackle child hunger?

We are spending £1.6 billion a year on free school meals for children. We want to make sure that that funding is targeted at the most needy. That is precisely what is happening. We accept the point, and I agree with the hon. Lady that it is important that free school meals are provided to children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who cannot afford meals at lunchtime—and we are doing that. As I said, we have increased the number of children eligible for benefit-related free school meals from 1.7 million to 1.9 million pupils.