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Universal Credit: Free School Meals

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 21 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to reconsider recent changes to access to free school meals following their decision to delay the roll out of Universal Credit.

My Lords, the continuing provision of free school meals to children from out-of-work or low-income families is of the utmost importance to this Government. Due to the generous transitional protection we put in place, no child eligible for and currently receiving free school meals will lose their entitlement as a result of the universal credit rollout. Even more children will benefit by retaining eligibility through the protection.

My Lords, it is estimated that there are 5 million children now living in poverty in the UK, so is it not time for the Government to consider using the pause in the rollout of universal credit to reconsider their mean-spirited free school meals policy? What assessments have they made of the number of families who are in work poverty who do not qualify for free school meals but for whom the cost of school meals causes genuine daily hardship?

My Lords, I dispute the noble Lord’s assertion on the number of children living in poverty. The DWP estimates that 300,000 fewer children are in poverty now than prior to 2010. On eligibility he will know that, through the introduction of infant free school meals, another 1.5 million children are now in receipt of them. I give credit to our coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats—particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Garden—for helping to bring that in. We are in a better place than we have ever been before.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the fact that 300,000 fewer children are in poverty. Can he be truthful with the House and say that that is his assessment in relation to abject, rather than relative, poverty? That makes a huge difference. Talking about only people in destitution, rather than those who are poor, is misleading.

My Lords, the Government should support people in the most vulnerable state. That is why we used the same statistics as the DWP, which produces annual estimates and said that the rate of material deprivation for children has never been lower than the current figure of 11%.

My Lords, will the Government consider rolling out the free school meals programme more widely in the next few months as we go through Brexit? Indications suggest that food prices will rise, rather than go down. There are categories of children whose parents are in dire poverty but they do not receive free school meals. All children of parents living here under immigrant status do not get free school meals either. For families in poverty, they are a true lifeline. Will the Government think about rolling them out, at least for the summer term while some of this settles down?

My Lords, it might be worth pointing out this week’s ONS statistics, which show a rather more positive figure on employment: 32.6 million people in this country are now employed. That is 167,000 more than between July and September 2018, and 440,000 more than a year ago. We take child poverty very seriously. We also encourage schools, through the use of the pupil premium, to encourage additional recruitment to the programme.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the general agreement that a good diet improves performance at school? Taking that on board, would not an Education Minister encourage his colleagues to make sure that more children got free school meals, not fewer?

My Lords, as I said in response to an earlier question, the number of children in receipt of free school meals has increased over the past eight years. I agree with the noble Lord that a nutritious diet is essential for young people; that is why, as he will be aware, we encourage breakfast clubs and introduced the sugar tax, both of which aim to create a healthier nutritional outlook.

My Lords, the two-child limit means that welfare reforms weigh particularly heavily on families with three or more children. What assessment have the Government made of the consequence of changes to free school meals that are set to impact on children with more than one sibling? Does the Minister agree that this policy will effectively harm children from large families through no fault of their own?

My Lords, the Secretary of State for the DWP announced some changes in the past few weeks. We included the two-child limit in those changes but I am happy to write to the right reverend Prelate if he needs more information.

My Lords, will the Minister ensure that these meals include whole milk as opposed to that rubbishy skimmed stuff? If children are fed on whole milk, as 8,000 in Canada were, there is no obesity.

I heartily agree with the noble Lord. It is an extraordinary conundrum that you pay just as much in a supermarket for that thin stuff with the red top as for full-fat milk.

My Lords, the Minister seems to forget that children are the future of this country. He hides behind the statistics. We should give free school meals to many more children than at present and help children to get those meals at a much younger age, perhaps even when they are nursery. If they are not fed properly now, they will not become healthy adults.

My Lords, I can only come back to my earlier answers. Over the past eight years we have dramatically increased the number of children benefiting from free school meals, and are now spending £600 million to ensure that infant free school meals are widely available. That has a take-up of more than 86%.

My Lords, does my noble friend have the faintest idea where the statistic from the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, comes from; that is, that 5 million young people are living in poverty?

Unfortunately I cannot answer that question. I think that the Children’s Society has come up with a number which again was without true validity. I do not think that that helps the debate.

My Lords, the delay in the rollout of UC is surely a recognition by the Government that inter alia they have not offered proper protection to around 1 million children in poverty who would have become eligible for free school meals under the transitional arrangements. They are expected to miss out, at a cost of around £430 per child. As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, teachers know only too well that an undernourished child is in no fit state to be taught effectively. I have to say that the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is showing signs of a caring approach that was singularly lacking in her predecessor. Will the Government now adopt the policy consistently advocated by Labour and support all children living in poverty by completing the rollout while maintaining the existing rules under which all universal credit claimants are eligible for free school meals?

My Lords, we debated this almost exactly a year ago. The key thing which may be being misunderstood is that the provisions we have put in place for children with parents on universal credit are for an expanded cohort of children. More children are now entitled to free school meals than were before universal credit.