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Schools: Free Lunches and Milk

Volume 790: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they intend to undertake a full impact assessment of the Free School Lunches and Milk, and School and Early Years Finance (Amendments Relating to Universal Credit) (England) Regulations 2018; and what further action they intend to take regarding those Regulations.

My Lords, the Government listened carefully to the views that arose in the debate last week. I can confirm that our changes will help those on the lowest incomes. The Government have published an equalities impact statement, which was updated following our public consultation. We are committed to ensuring that at least 50,000 more children will benefit from free school meals by 2022, compared to the previous system, and that no child will lose out during the transition to universal credit. We have also reviewed the threshold following the rollout of universal credit to ensure that those who need support are benefiting.

My Lords, last week your Lordships’ House voted in favour of a regret Motion in the name of my noble friend Lord Bassam, calling for a delay in the implementation of regulations which, by the Government’s own admission, will result in more than 100,000 children receiving free school meals under the existing benefits system losing that right under universal credit. In passing, I should say that the vote was carried by 52% to 48%—a margin that may be familiar and one that the Government have consistently told us is decisive and must be respected. But the Government showed your Lordships’ House no respect, because, as the Minister said, guidance was issued two days later.

Ministers have been unable to explain why there has been no full impact assessment on such a controversial issue, not just the equalities impact assessment that the Minister mentioned. It is surely inconceivable that the Department for Education would not have undertaken an internal impact assessment on such a controversial issue. Will the Minister confirm to noble Lords that the outcome of that assessment was so damaging to the Government’s plans that it was suppressed, and will they now either publish it or undertake a proper, public, full impact assessment?

My Lords, I want to reassure the noble Lord that we take very seriously the concerns raised about this important policy issue. As I mentioned, we published an updated equalities impact statement on 7 February. The majority of respondents agreed that there would be no adverse impact on the protected characteristics. The reason, really, is because we are improving the system, basing eligibility on income rather than the number of hours worked. All the existing recipients of free school meals whose parents move to universal credit will be protected for the full rollout period.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that there is no cap on those people receiving a heating allowance. As the Government are in a listening mode, does he not think that we should ensure that every child who is officially defined as being in poverty should receive a free meal?

My Lords, the free school meal mechanism was designed for those in the most serious stages of poverty, and with the transition to universal credit we have been very careful to ensure that the number of children who benefit from free school meals is retained. We have made an absolute commitment that during the transition period, any child eligible for free school meals will retain his or her entitlement, and that will continue if they are in the school system beyond the rollout period.

My Lords, last week the Minister told the House that only some £450 million of the total £3 billion cost of extending free school meals to all on universal credit would go on the meals themselves—a tiny fraction. Most of the cash will go on the pupil premium, which is linked to free school meal eligibility. Given that an income threshold would undermine the cardinal universal credit principle of making work pay and leave some children hungry, would it not make sense to go ahead with the threshold for the premium but provide free school meals for all children on universal credit, who are by definition in some need? Why do they have to be linked?

My Lords, if we did not have a cap on the eligibility for free school meals but relied purely on universal credit, over half of children would end up being eligible. We have a number of recipients on universal credit earning in excess of £40,000 a year.

I believe that the pupil premium has been a tremendous success. We have closed the attainment gap by 10% since it was introduced in 2011, and invested more than £11 billion in schools to encourage them to recruit pupils from the poorest backgrounds.

What does my noble friend make of the claim that has been bandied about that 1 million children may be deprived of free school meals as a result of these reforms?

My Lords, that was a very theoretical figure. It simply presumed that there would be no cap on the numbers of recipients if the universal credit system carried on without any cap. It was misleading, and it has concerned a lot of parents out there, because it has set hares running that are simply not relevant. We have been meticulous in trying to ensure that recipients of free school meals today will continue to receive them. Indeed, we have made that commitment not just for the current phase of their education but up to 2022, or thereafter if they are still in the school system.

My Lords, does the Government’s policy not mean that although present claimants are protected, future generations will not be and children will go hungry?

My Lords, we must look at our Government’s broader track record since 2010. As I said when summing up the debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, last week, we have intervened in a number of areas for the most disadvantaged children in our society: 15 hours for disadvantaged two year-olds, 30 hours for working parents, early years pupil premium, disability access fund, tax-free childcare and shared parental leave. None of those are designed other than to help the most disadvantaged members of our society. I urge noble Lords to look at universal credit and free school meals in the context of all that we have done over the past eight years.

My Lords, if that is the case, why did a recent report point out that 1 million more children would be in poverty by 2020? How does the Minister justify the policy and answer that question?

I am not familiar with those figures. However, we have done more than previous Governments to ensure that families are taken out of poverty—and we know that the route out of poverty is through work. The items on the list I gave a moment ago are all aimed to help parents become working parents and not to be exposed to poverty.