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Free School Meals

Volume 807: debated on Tuesday 27 October 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask her Majesty’s Government, following the announcements of the Welsh and Scottish Governments, as well as local councils, whether they will end the free school meals postcode lottery and provide free school meals for eligible children in England during the school holidays until Easter 2021.

My Lords, the Government are determined to ensure that children are supported throughout this pandemic. We recognise that these are unprecedented and difficult times for some families and that is why the Government have significantly strengthened the welfare safety net. We have put in place additional measures worth around £9 billion this financial year. Further to that, we have provided £63 million in welfare assistance funding to local authorities to support families with food and other essentials.

My Lords, as a humble Cross-Bench Peer, I passionately believe that the issue of 4.1 million children living in poverty—the vast majority in working families and the subject of free school meals—should not be embroiled in this presently poisonous political space. While we entrench our political positions and are afraid to say on either side that we might have got this wrong, our kids go hungry, families descend into despair, and, as my good friend Dame Louise Casey has stated, destitution beckons. Does the Minister agree with me that as a matter of urgency in this Covid crisis, we must show leadership and create a unified party group to form a strategy—for today, tomorrow and, indeed, the long term—which includes young, dynamic men such as Marcus Rashford and organisations such as FareShare, the Trussell Trust and others?

My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords, whether politically aligned or not, will agree that we want to help those children who are in need and that working together is the way to find a solution. The suggestions and recommendations put forward by the new child poverty task force convened by Marcus Rashford, whose activities we commend, will be considered as part of the forthcoming spending review.

My Lords, I was in receipt of free meals throughout my entire school career. My mother was a single woman and her only income was the contributions of the national assistance. We lived in one room. I remember very clearly—I can still taste and smell it—the mounting panic ahead of school holidays, because the income we had could not stretch to feeding two boys and a mother in that day. Marcus Rashford and I have this, and probably only this, in common: we remember, not in our heads but in our whole bodies. An old Etonian, of course, cannot be expected to have had the same experience. Some local councils will draw money in the way that the Government are suggesting, from allocations they have received. Other local authorities will not. Some communities will rise to the challenge. Other communities will not. Some children will get through. Most will not. Will the Minister give us some reassurance—not hide behind global figures—and understand that postcode lottery is not a formula that is destined to help the well-being of our children?

Many noble Lords of all parties and none can recall circumstances in which their own needs, whether that be housing or food, were not met through the circumstances of their family. There are indeed—it is not a postcode lottery—1.4 million children in England who are entitled to free school meals, saving their families over £400 a year. Additionally, particularly through the soft drinks levy, the Government have been funding breakfast clubs in nearly 2,500 schools to provide children with healthy food.

My Lords, perhaps I may say gently that I realise that passions on this subject run high, but could Members please keep their supplementaries reasonably short?

My Lords, the Prime Minister said yesterday that no child should go hungry. We have heard from the Minister that the Government have made available £63 million to be given to vulnerable families’ local authorities. What she did not say was that the guidance said that the money should have been spent within 12 weeks. So that money could not be used for free meals, and it was certainly not ring-fenced for providing meals during holidays. I have a straightforward question for the Minister: can the Government promise that every vulnerable child will get a meal during the holidays?

My Lords, on the local authority welfare assistance fund, the noble Lord is correct that the 12-week period ends at the end of October/beginning of November. It does cover the relevant period. Due to the unprecedented circumstances in which schools have closed, we have provided support to pay for free school meals while they were closed. However, as most schools were back—approximately 89% of children were back in school—the traditional method of delivering free school meals before half-term was back in action.

My Lords, given that schools are usually standing empty during the school holidays, in the longer term would it not be more sensible to open them up so that they can serve nutritious meals to the children who really need them and, just as important, provide educational opportunities, many of which have been missed during this pandemic?

My Lords, yes, indeed. Many schools in 17 local authorities are open during the holidays, and the Government have provided £9 million to fund holiday clubs that include food as well. At the moment, however, given how hard all staff in our schools have worked, I do not think that anyone is suggesting that we want the school kitchens open in that traditional manner during the school holidays.

I recognise that the Government have given significant sums to strengthen the welfare of children but would the Minister not agree that the most focused and efficient way of supporting the most vulnerable members of our society—the children—is by paying for school meals during the holidays, as has been recognised by the Scottish and Welsh Governments? That would be the most focused and efficient way of doing it.

My Lords, the method used by the Scottish and Welsh Governments is, in fact, a similar methodology to the local authority welfare assistance fund, as it is through local councils and does not expect schools to deliver it. This is a time, during the pandemic, when all of us—government, communities, faith communities, families and charities—need to come together to support everyone.

My Lords, although I agree with the Government that free school meals are not the long-term solution for holiday hunger, the reality is that it is now half-term and children are going hungry. Does the Minister agree that although the current crisis demands short-term solutions, there is also a much bigger question at stake? Will she tell us what sustained support the Government will be offering to address the concerns up to Easter 2021, and their plans to tackle the underlying and increasing issues of child poverty in the longer term?

My Lords, the main way in which the Government fund, outside free school meals and breakfast clubs, is through the universal credit system. It may seem like a big figure—£9 billion—but that has meant an increase in universal credit or working tax credit of over £1,000, which is significant in addition to the increase in local housing allowance that has been given. When we look globally through the Anglican Communion we see that we are fortunate to live in a country that, while it is not perfect, does provide a welfare safety net for its citizens.

My Lords, in June, the Minister rebuffed my call for an extension of free school meal vouchers to cover the summer holidays, saying:

“There is support out there for those who need provision.”—[Official Report, 10/6/20; col. 1745.]

Days later, the Government U-turned, and the Minister explained that by saying:

“We have listened, we recognise the pressures that families will be under … due to the Covid crisis, and we have responded to that.”—[Official Report, 17/6/20; col. 2180.]

But lessons were not learned and today, despite the funding mentioned earlier by the Minister, children across the country are going hungry. During a pandemic, how can the most vulnerable children in our society not be a priority for support? Will the Minister now urge her Government to show compassion and agree to fund free school meals for all school holidays until spring 2021?

I do apologise if the noble Lord felt rebuffed. But, as he will be aware, in addition to the support that has been given to disadvantaged children, there are now over 500,000 devices. So the needs of disadvantaged children are a priority for the Government, and £350 million of the catch-up fund is directed to disadvantaged children. In addition to that, although again it sounds like a big figure, we will never know how many children have avoided needing free school meals thanks to the £53 billion of taxpayers’ money that has been used to support businesses during this period, which paid for the furlough scheme and other schemes.

My Lords, I too am one of the few Members of the House of Lords who depended on free school meals, and it never made sense to me that you got this sort of support in term time but nothing in the school holidays. Can the Minister tell the House when Ministers will stop saying publicly that they agree with Marcus Rashford while voting down his proposals? Is it not time to do the right thing?

My Lords, the Government have an overall principle that the best way for families is to be in work, but, when they are not in work, the universal credit system provides funding for those families. That has been the traditional means, so we have not expected all schools to be open during the holidays to provide those meals. It is a free school meal, and the vouchers were given because of course schools were closed during term time. Supplementary programmes such as holiday and breakfast clubs have been in addition to that.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on holding to the principle that people should be responsible for looking after their own children. None the less, does she not recognise that in this pandemic we need special measures, that free school meals were a special measure that was proven to work and that we made work when schools were not operating, and that it is really difficult to create new forms of support in the middle of a pandemic? Would it not be most sensible to go back to providing free school meals as the most practical short-term alternative?

My Lords, we are indeed living through a time when special measures have been needed. However, for the reasons I outlined, it would not be right to expect schools at the moment to be open outside term time to provide meals. Although we offered a voucher system, it was important that schools could have their own local voucher system that could be redeemed in local shops. The system we had to stand up in special measures was only for national supermarkets, whereas the costs of local schemes could be reclaimed and local shops could be included.

My Lords, it appears that there is a policy vacuum in England regarding the provision of nutritious food for children. Can the Minister explain whether Her Majesty’s Government accept that there is a clear correlation between children’s cognitive development and proper nutrition, and, if so, how can they stand by and let children in Scotland and Wales receive free food school vouchers equivalent to school meals and deprive our children in England? How does this help level up society in the UK, which was surely a key manifesto commitment? No child, whether in a city, town or rural community, should be hungry during the school holidays.

My Lords, in relation to children in England, I have outlined the local government welfare assistance scheme. When schools came back properly, the box of fruit and vegetables scheme was also back running. The Government have extended free school meals; about 17% of children in England qualify for them. During the pandemic we extended eligibility to the children of parents who had no recourse to public funds, and in 2014 we introduced universal infant free school meals and free school meals for those in FE. The Government have not stood by but have supported, through other taxpayers’ taxes, vulnerable children during the pandemic.

My Lords, while I do not for a minute doubt the Minister’s personal understanding of this difficulty, I think she is wrong to say that it is not a postcode lottery. Today is half-term, and whether children will get a free school meal will depend on where they live. There are only two ways of making sure that that does not happen at Christmas: either to make it a statutory duty, which is the case with free school meals, or to offer ring-fenced funding. Unless the Government do one or the other of those things, this will continue to be a postcode lottery. Can the Minister assure us that the solution that the Government come forward with for the Christmas holidays will adopt one of those two solutions?

My Lords, the noble Baroness, who I thank for her comments, raises a wider issue. When power is devolved, whether to councils, combined authorities or different nations, we have to live with the fact that we will see different responses in different parts of the country. In relation to Scotland, it did not pay for free school meals during the recent October half-term. However, I will take away the noble Baroness’s comments.

My Lords, I am afraid that the time allowed for this Private Notice Question has now elapsed. Before taking the economy update Statement, we will take a couple of minutes so that the Front Benches can change places safely.