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Universal Infant Free School Meals

Volume 731: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered universal infant free school meals.

It is good to see you in the headteacher’s chair, Mr Gray. In my time in the House, I have seen many innovative ways of speaking in a debate, but the mover of one debate speaking on the following one, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has just done, is a new one, even on me.

There are lots of debates around on universal infant free school meals, and lots of things that could be meant by that phrase. A number of the briefings I have been sent ahead of today’s debate back up that view. There is the campaign being pushed by Jamie Oliver and others on extending the free school meal entitlement to all children. There is the ongoing debate on school holiday food for those eligible for free school meals during term time. On that issue, I want to recognise how responsive and welcome Ministers have been, getting help to my constituents where it is most needed. I place on the record my thanks to them for that.

Today’s debate, however, is not about either of those areas, important though they are. I want to focus on the pressure being felt by headteachers across my constituency, and, I am sure, elsewhere, when it comes to meeting the cost of what is supposed to be a universal entitlement to free school meals for infant-aged children. Put simply, there is a gap between the funding received and the cost of putting good-quality food on the school table. There is an inevitable impact on school budgets, which make up the shortfall. Heads began to raise that issue with me late last year. We will come on to some figures for Winchester in a moment.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue this forward. He is absolutely right. There is pressure on headmasters. There is pressure coming from parents, who are having difficulty providing meals for their children at school, and school uniforms. On support for parents, including through the universal provision of school meals, does he agree that the least we could do for all those working parents who are struggling to make ends meet is to help them, and help headmasters as well?

Yes, headmasters and headmistresses are in a very difficult position; I will quote some of them shortly.

Representatives of UK wholesalers have contacted me to express concern about the fact that because of food inflation, rising energy bills and increased labour costs, they are fulfilling their public sector food contracts, but at a loss. I think there was broad welcome for the Government’s recent decision to increase the funding for universal infant free school meals by 7p per pupil, but that rise remains well behind the rise in food inflation, which is running at 20% for wholesalers, according to the Federation of Wholesale Distributors.

I thank my hon. Friend for supporting my recent campaign to increase funding for school breakfast clubs for infants. Will he continue to support that campaign? Does he agree that school breakfast clubs effectively complement the provision of school lunches, which he so confidently and eloquently campaigns for?

Yes. School food is important. My good friend, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), chair of the all-party parliamentary group on school food, is here. When I was the public health Minister, I worked with Kellogg’s on school breakfast clubs and the breakfast club awards that it runs so successfully in our country. I am sorry that the campaign of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Alan Mak) did not bear fruit in this Budget, but I know he will not give up, and I shall work alongside him. As Chair of the Select Committee on Health and Social Care and a constituency MP, I am interested in this issue, as well as in wider prevention work. Healthy, well-fed children learn well.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I chair the APPG on school food. He makes the point that the money given for infant free school meals has not kept pace with inflation. Public sector caterers are really struggling to continue to provide the high-quality meals that we all want provided. If funding had risen with inflation since 2014, the amount per meal would stand at £2.97; it is currently only £2.41, as the hon. Gentleman knows. By my maths, that is a 19% shortfall—£150 per year, per child. The Government are yet again asking schools to do more with less. Does he agree that school meal funding needs to be made fit for the future?

That is the point of today’s debate. I will supplement the figures that the hon. Lady gave in one moment. We have slightly digressed, and now we are back on subject. I am told that the impact of food inflation has already resulted in some pupils being forced to accept smaller lunches with potentially lower nutritional value, and in some cases schools have opted to offer only packed lunches because of the cost of the energy needed to produce lunches. Some wholesalers have reported that they are reducing portion sizes; thinner sliced ham in baguettes and reduced meat content in sausages are two examples. That should worry all of us.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for making such significant points on this issue. As somebody who used to receive free school meals, and coming from a constituency where a high number of children receive free school meals, I really understand the importance of a good-quality meal. Does he agree that the Government must really look at all avenues to try to avert this serious shortfall in covering the price of school meals?

Yes, and I will come on to my asks. One that I was not going to cover, but will, is the discrepancy between the amount we pay for the universal infant entitlement and the amount we pay for those who are entitled to free school meals through circumstances. There is a curious difference. Why does the one meal rate one amount, and the other a different amount? I know that the chair of the APPG, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, certainly recognises that.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently published its report on the costings of free school meals. I am not sure if the Minister saw its work, but it found that if the price per meal had risen with inflation since 2014, it would be £2.87 today. That is a few pence lower than the figure mentioned by the chair of the APPG, but it is clearly still a big jump from the current £2.41.

The Local Authority Caterers Association has in its membership over 300 local authorities, as well as contract caterers, catering managers, and kitchen and school staff, which means that some 80% of school food is provided by its members. It told me that without change, the future of the sector is, in its word, “bleak”. In March, it published its “If not now, when?” mission, which calls on the Government to reform school meal funding, address inflationary pressures, and commit to ongoing reviews that make adjustment for inflation. I echo that as my first ask this morning, and this is why: one school in my constituency—I will not name any of them, to respect their wishes—receives £2.41 per child, yet as of October last year, it pays £2.80 per child, per school meal, to the main provider in Hampshire. It told me that it had to subsidise meals with around £4,700 from the school budget between November 2022 and the end of the financial year, which has just passed.

Another small rural school in my constituency reported a total shortfall this financial year of £3,150. These do not sound like big figures, but the metric goes up: the bigger the school, the bigger the numbers. When there are very tight budgets—which, of course, they have—they can be tipped into a deficit situation.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this really important debate. Many of the points he makes are exactly the points that primary schools in my constituency of Twickenham raise with me regularly. Although we and they welcome the Mayor of London’s announcement that he will roll out free school meals to all primary children next year for a year only, there are grave concerns that that will not be funded properly. Some primary schools told me that they could find themselves £30,000 to £40,000 out of pocket if the meals are not funded properly, and the capital cost of expanding kitchens and dining areas is not met. Does he agree that although the policy change is welcome, it needs to be funded properly?

I do, and if I were a London MP, I would be very concerned about that. I can understand that the policy is electorally attractive on a leaflet, but unless it is funded, we could end up with the situation that I am describing, times some. As I said, the debate is not about widening entitlement to free school meals to all primary children, but the hon. Lady sets out a great danger.

On a point of clarification, I, too was worried about the funding and had read the same information as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), so I asked to meet the Mayor of London’s team, who will be taking the programme forward. They assured me that although a sum of money has been assigned—a proposed £2.65 a meal—the funding will be found and will be sustainable. They are aware of the concerns, but—

We can go down this rabbit hole. The funding can be found up front, as it was for the free bus pass entitlement, but it can then tail away. It is a matter of whether it is sustained, as the hon. Member mentioned; that is the key point.

I have two other examples. A Winchester city centre school contacted me predicting a shortfall of about £4,000 in the financial year that we have just entered. A larger infant school told me of an £11,000 deficit on school meals last year. The head told me:

“This is having a significant impact on an already very pressured budget; we have an in-year deficit of around £25,000 this year and nearly half of that is caused by the infant school meals offer.”

That is not easy listening, but these are real figures from real schools and real headteachers in my patch.

To conclude the examples, one headteacher put it to me:

“My point is that Universal Free School Meals are not free. Parents believe they are. Therefore, quite rightly they opt for their children to have school meals. I know of schools who are now writing to their parents explaining the situation and asking them for a donation to cover the cost of their child’s meal. Personally, I do not want to be forced down this route. If the meals are advertised as free, then they should be free (there’s a clue in the name!).”

She concludes:

“When this Government policy came in, it was not meant to have a financial impact on schools and, indeed, it means that schools like ours will be forced to set a deficit budget and hence make staffing cuts.”

There is perhaps hope in the story. It is only right to report that, during my research for the debate, I heard from one school in my area—I do not doubt that there could be others—that is taking matters into its own hands and moving away from Hampshire County Council Catering Services, or H3CS, which is the main provider of food to Hampshire’s schools.

One school told me that it had made the switch to another provider where meals are

“better quality, with wider choice, and at a reasonable price for families.”

It tells me that the food is seasonal and locally and sustainably sourced, with zero single-use plastic. As MPs, we all know that when we go into our schools, the No. 1 issue that children want to talk to us about is plastics, the environment and sustainability, so it ticks lots of boxes. Yet 82% of Hampshire’s schools—mostly primary schools—use H3CS, despite support being available to move providers if that is what they want.

For some schoolchildren, the school meal will be their only hot meal that day. It might be their only meal that day. We know that the provision of good-quality food is key to pupils’ wellbeing and ensuring that they can fully engage in teaching and learning. We also know that school budgets are under pressure, but I hope that the Minister recognises from the examples I have given that there is an issue.

We must ensure that the provision of a good-quality meal does not need to be subsidised by funds intended to support core education. It is therefore essential that the rate is adjusted to reflect rising costs. Will the Minister update the House on that? Will he also update me on any moves afoot to reform school meal funding and simplify the equitable flow of money from Government to school kitchen? Lastly, what can the Government do to promote a more diverse, competitive marketplace in school food? What support does the Department provide to local authorities, and therefore headteachers, to make it easy for schools to switch when they deem a change is to the advantage of their setting?

I am grateful to those who contacted me ahead of the debate, especially the headteachers in Winchester and Chandler’s Ford. This aspect of school food is not much discussed in the House—I have not taken part in a debate on the issue, and I have been here for almost 13 years—so I am pleased to raise some of the issues brought to me through my constituency casework. I thank colleagues for their interventions and look forward to hearing from my good friend the excellent Schools Minister.

It is a pleasure to serve under your beady eye, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on securing this important but short debate on school food. We can all agree on the importance of ensuring that children in school are given the best opportunities to succeed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Alan Mak), in an intervention, raised the issue of school breakfasts. The Government are committed to continuing to support school breakfasts. In November last year we extended the national school breakfast programme for an additional year. Overall, we are investing up to £30 million in that programme, which will support up to 2,500 schools in disadvantaged areas, meaning that thousands of children from low-income families will be offered free, nutritious breakfasts to better support their attainment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester also raised the issue of the holiday activities and food programme. This year, the Government are again investing over £200 million in that programme, with all 152 local authorities in England delivering it. Last summer, the programme reached over 685,000 children and young people in England.

The Government support the provision of food in schools so that pupils are well nourished, develop healthy eating habits and can concentrate and learn. The universal infant free school meal policy, introduced by a Conservative- led Government in 2014, is a vital component of that provision.

I hope the Minister will recognise that that was a Liberal Democrat policy? It was a flagship policy introduced by the coalition, and we were very proud of it. However, since 2014, as we have heard, the funding for that policy has only risen by 11p, which is why we have the yawning gap that Members have pointed out today. Will the Minister put on record that schools should not be forced to choose between cutting and scrimping on teaching budgets—and other budgets that benefit children—and eroding food standards?

Of course, I acknowledge the Liberal Democrats—that is why I said Conservative-led Government. It was a policy of both parties; we believed in it very strongly and we made sacrifices elsewhere in budgets in order to fund it. I acknowledge that it was a coalition Government—a coalition policy—that led to the introduction of universal infant free school meals, which we have maintained ever since.

We recognise the cost pressures that schools and suppliers are facing. Officials are holding regular meetings with other Government Departments and representatives of the food industry to discuss a variety of issues, including public sector food supply. I take this opportunity to thank the companies and organisations that my officials have spoken to for the constructive steps they have taken to deliver services to our schools.

Schools manage their own contracts using Government funding to procure services from private sector caterers or local authorities. Particular pressures have arisen as a result of food price inflation, which has risen higher and faster than the headline consumer prices index rate.

I think everybody in the debate understands the importance of children being well fed in order to learn well, but seven out of 10 families on universal credit are still not receiving free school meals. Given the very strong public support—over 80% of the public support free school meals for children in households receiving universal credit—is it not time to look at that specific group? As the Minister said, food inflation is so high that family budgets have been stretched very thin.

One reason why the number of children eligible for benefits-related free school meals has risen from 1.7 million to 1.9 million is the protections we put in place as families move on to universal credit.

I know that, along with transport costs, increased staff costs have also affected the industry, primarily linked to rises in the national minimum wage. We continue to review funding in order to ensure that schools can provide healthy and nutritious meals.

This is a very serious point that affects children across our constituencies. The Minister says that the Government are reviewing it, but how long it will take for them to do so and when we will get some of the decisions we seek?

Of course, we keep all the issues under review and continually look at school funding. We look at the composition of the national funding formula in great detail every year; we are doing so now for the following year.

The funding for the free school meal factor in the national funding formula is increasing by 2.4% for 2023-24 in line with the latest available GDP deflator forecast when the 2023-24 national funding formula was published in July of last year. As a result of the significant extra school funding awarded by the Chancellor in the autumn statement, schools will receive an additional £2 billion in each of the ’23-24 and ’24-25 academic years.

The core schools budget, which covers schools’ day-to-day running costs, including their energy bills and the costs of providing income-related free school meals, rose from £49.8 billion in ’21-22 to £53.8 billion the year after, and will continue to rise to £57.3 billion in ’23-24 and £58.8 billion in ’24-25. By ’24-25, funding per pupil will have risen to its highest ever level in real terms. Those increases provide support to schools to deal with the impact of inflation on their budgets.

We spend about £600 million a year ensuring that an additional 1.25 million infants enjoy a free, healthy and nutritious meal at lunchtime. Combined with around 1.9 million pupils who are eligible for and claim a meal through benefits-related free school meals, this accounts for more than one third of all pupils in school, compared with 2010, when one sixth of pupils were eligible for free school meals. The Government also support a further 90,000 disadvantaged further education students with a free meal at lunchtime.

All children in reception, year 1 and year 2 in England’s state-funded schools receive a free meal, and have done since the introduction of the policy in 2014. Schools up and down the country offer free meals to their infant pupils, helping to improve children’s education, boost their health and save parents around £400 a year. Universal infant free school meals are funded through a direct grant to schools. To recognise the pressures facing schools, last June we announced an £18 million increase to the per-pupil funding rate for universal infant free school meals to support costs of food, transport and staff wages. That increased rate was backdated to April in recognition of those costs.

We understand the issues that are being raised and acknowledge that factors such as transport costs and the cost of living wage affecting catering workers are having an impact on the amount that can be spent on infant meals in schools. The Government take on board the comments regarding a discrepancy between the funding rate attributed to universal infant free school meals when compared to the rate provided for those pupils in receipt of benefits-related free school meals. The rate of funding for UIFSM is regularly reviewed, and I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and all other hon. Members taking part in this debate that I am actively looking at this area. All school meals provided under universal infant free school meals are required to adhere to the school food standards, which require school caterers to serve healthy and nutritious food and drinks to ensure that children get the energy and nutrition that they need across the school day.

In recognition of cost pressures on core schools funding, including benefits-related free schools meals, we have already distributed additional funding through a schools supplementary grant. As a result, core schools funding for mainstream schools increased by £2.5 billion in the 2022-23 financial year, compared with the previous year.

It is right that individual schools determine their own budgets for meal provision by taking into account funding received centrally alongside funding for meals paid for by parents. We expect schools to enter into supply contracts accordingly. While the Government set the legal requirements for food provision and standards, we do not set the contract price, which is subject to agreement between schools and the suppliers.

The Minister mentioned the importance of those meals being healthy, and that is a key factor in UIFSM. It is not just about alleviating food poverty, but about removing the stigma. On the health point, the four London boroughs that have extended school meals to all primary children have found that obesity rates have fallen by 9.3% in reception children, and 5.6% in year 6 children. Pockets of bad practice on school food are few and far between, and we normally hear about good practice. The Minister will agree that school food is by far the healthiest option. Only 1% of packed lunches have been found to meet the school food standards.

I do not disagree with the hon. Member. Food standards and the regulations are very stringent, and we keep those regulations under review because I want to look at other issues within them. School food can also be used as a way of teaching children to adopt a healthy diet. The hon. Member made her point well.

I talked about schools being responsible for their contracts. Although we are clear that individual schools are responsible for their own budgets, we provide a free advice and guidance service for state schools, aiming to help them save money on existing contracts. The “get help buying for schools” service is made up of various resources to help schools buy goods and services efficiently and in compliance with all the regulations.

In conclusion, the provision of meals to infant pupils in school, and the wellbeing and nutrition of eligible pupils, are at the top of the Government’s priorities. We are monitoring the costs of schools and suppliers, and we have increased funds both directly through the amounts allocated for free school meals and via the universal infant free school meals grant, and indirectly by increasing core schools budgets. I understand and acknowledge the pressures that the industry is facing, and we will continue to take that into account when determining spending priorities.

I am confident that the offer we have in place through universal infant free school meals ensures that those children receive the best start to their time in school. It ensures that they can develop healthy eating habits at an early age, and that they can concentrate and learn. The offer also ensures that the Government continue to provide targeted support to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who are most in need.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.