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Free School Meal Vouchers Scheme

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on children in poverty of not providing the free school meal vouchers scheme during the summer holidays.

My Lords, the Government remain committed to ensuring that the most disadvantaged children continue to be supported while schools remain closed. The free school meal vouchers system has seen more than £139 million-worth of voucher codes redeemed into supermarket vouchers by families and schools as of Monday. This provision is ordinarily about providing healthy meals for children in school. As such, as schools close for the summer holidays, this scheme will come to an end.

My Lords, exceptional times require exceptional measures. Food insecurity among children has doubled under lockdown, yet DWP has provided no extra money for children. For all their inadequacies, free school meal vouchers have been a lifeline for low-income parents struggling to feed hungry children. The holiday activities fund mentioned yesterday by the Secretary of State will reach only a tiny fraction of them. In view of the Children’s Commissioner’s criticism that the decision lacks compassion and is “exceptionally short-sighted”, can the Minister explain why if Wales can provide this most basic support for children in poverty during the school holidays and more generously England cannot?

My Lords, the provision through the free school meal vouchers system is at a higher rate than what is normally provided to schools to provide free school meals, due to the recognition that families do not have the economies of scale of schools. On additional support to families, the noble Baroness will probably be aware that during this period there has also been an uplift to universal credit and to working tax credits, such that there is an advantage of just over £1,000 a year, which affects 4 million households. This is considerable support to families who, as we recognise, are struggling to feed their children.

My Lords, we know that poverty leads to food insecurity for children. Last week the Trussell Trust reported an 89% increase in the need for emergency food parcels in April. Who will make up for this loss of vouchers for free school meals? The UK has signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Do the Government now recognise their responsibility to the welfare of children, especially vulnerable ones?

My Lords, the Government clearly recognise our responsibility to vulnerable children and have enabled them to attend school during this outbreak. The vouchers system we outlined is in addition to the funding going to schools to provide free school meals on the premises. In addition, there has been £16 million through DCMS and Defra for food support through charities such as FareShare and WRAP. There has been considerable support to enable food provision for those in need.

To meet the cost of the Government’s Eatwell Guide to a healthy diet, the poorest decile of UK households would need to spend 74% of their after-housing disposable income on food. How will the Government ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable children have access to a healthy diet?

My Lords, funding of £9 million has been announced for the provision of holiday activity clubs, which include food, during the school holidays. We are currently in discussions with contractors regarding the continuation of Family Action and Magic Breakfast provision during the summer holidays.

The Minister has outlined the extra money put into family budgets, and there are still people in poverty. Is not part of the problem a need for proper budgetary advice and help for families to manage better? In other words, it is a case not just of money but of the way in which it is spent and giving families assistance with their budgeting. Could we not look at an educational part of this programme?

My Lords, budgeting is indeed a skill needed by many households, particularly those on limited income. Before the Covid crisis hit, there was an almost 16% increase in the Budget to the Money and Pensions Service, which gives essential advice and support, particularly to those dealing with debt.

My Lords, 15.4% of children were eligible for free school meals in 2019, with 42% in pupil referral units and 37% in special schools. Many of these children’s health and well-being would at least in part be protected if their entitlement to the equivalent of free school meals were to continue through the summer holidays to the autumn term. A high proportion of recipients are from BME backgrounds and many are child carers. Does the Minister consider it appropriate to go back to Her Majesty’s Government and re-emphasise noble Lords’ support for the continuing provision of the equivalent of £15 per child per week to promote a level of equality of access to food for children in the poorest households this summer?

My Lords, I always take back representations made by noble Lords and will take that one back. As I have outlined, there has been an increase in support through the universal credit system and working tax credits. For those who are furloughed, the national living wage is more than £3,000 higher than in 2016, which affects the wages of those put on that scheme. We are concerned to ensure that households are able to make provision at the moment.

My Lords, the Children’s Society has highlighted how the cost of living has increased for families due to the pandemic, as more children are at home while parents’ earnings have often decreased, leaving many families struggling with the cost of food and other essentials. Demand for food banks has risen substantially, yet the Government think this is the time for yet more pressure for the millions of families across the country suffering financial hardship because of Covid-19 by withdrawing the free school meal vouchers scheme over the summer. With MPs from across the parties joining the call for the scheme to be extended to cover the summer holidays, this must surely be the Government’s next U-turn. If not, how does the Minister suggest parents should feed their children without the vouchers scheme during these immensely difficult times?

My Lords, as I have outlined, the vouchers scheme was in addition to the funding given to schools to provide free school meals on the premises. It has always been the position that free school meals provision was when schools were open, and it is not expected that schools will be open throughout the summer holiday. There has been a £6.5 billion injection into the DWP budget and more than 1 million food parcels have been distributed through Defra and other government departments. There is support out there for those who need provision.

My Lords, should not the Government negotiate a deal for some form of reimbursement to themselves from the large supermarkets involved in this scheme, many of which are making good profits from the crisis? This could perhaps enable the scheme to be extended. In any event, the poorest children should be our priority.

My Lords, I will take back to my colleagues in BEIS the novel and motivational idea that the noble Lord outlines. As we have seen, those in the supermarkets have been essential workers during this time of crisis. As I have outlined, we are in discussion with Magic Breakfast and Family Action about breakfast club provision during the summer holidays.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of ukactive. Far fewer children than expected have been accessing school and school meals during the pandemic. This has left them in a perilous position. They now face up to 23 weeks without engaging in structured and enriching activities outside their home. Will Her Majesty’s Government confirm that they will explore all options for keeping some schools’ facilities open safely across the summer holidays, providing activity and food, to support the most vulnerable children?

My Lords, the latest statistics show that around 15% of vulnerable children are in school. The noble Baroness is correct that we are concerned about the sedentary nature of many children at the moment. On the phased reopening of schools, there has been specific guidance to encourage the use of outdoor space, and even team sports, where the appropriate hygiene measures are carried out among the different groups of children involved. DCMS now also has guidance on the phased reintroduction of outdoor activity and recreation.

My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Empey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, that we were not able to get in their questions. I thank all noble Lords; that concludes the hybrid proceedings on Oral Questions.

Sitting suspended.