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Free School Meals: Food Parcels

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 14 January 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to monitor the quality of food parcels currently being supplied to families in lieu of free school meals.

My Lords, the images circulating of poor-quality food parcels are unacceptable. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education has met leading suppliers to insist on urgent action to ensure that parcels meet standards expected. We have guidance in place allowing schools to decide the best approach for supporting free school meal pupils; this can be through lunch parcels, locally arranged vouchers or the national voucher scheme, which will be up and running next week.

My Lords, it is a case of another week, another U-turn, this time resulting from the scandal of companies that supply free school meals parcels being exposed as profiteering. Perhaps the Minister will explain why the jointly prepared DfE guidance for the contents of food parcels, which is strikingly similar to the meagre items in parcels described as “disgraceful” by the Prime Minister, is still online. National food vouchers are to be reintroduced next week, two weeks after schools moved to remote learning. It seems that the Government’s own lockdown took them by surprise. It will be at least a week from today before parents can actually use the vouchers, so why will the Government not put their trust in families and give them the money for free school meals? Children are going hungry now, and any decent Government would know that they cannot wait.

My Lords, the voucher scheme that the noble Lord outlines is one option that has been given to schools so that they can meet the needs of pupils who require food. It has been quite clear—my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Minister for Children and Families met the particular supplier and made it clear that those standards were not acceptable. We have given these options to schools so they can best meet the needs of their pupils, as they know them best. In fact, schools can re-register this week for the national voucher scheme, and vouchers will be redeemable as of Monday. We have left it to schools to choose the best means to deliver free school meals to their pupils.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the company providing these meals will not get compensated for the cancellation of the contract, thereby getting money for nothing on top of money for little food? Furthermore, does she agree with Marcus Rashford that now is the time for a full review of the free school meals system?

My Lords, as I have outlined, views were made clear about the quality of the food parcels. I make it clear that the department does not enter into contracts with any of these suppliers—it is done at local level. The standards that food needs to meet are outlined in statute, and the guidance is under that, so it is quite clear what should be provided. I must pay tribute to school staff and catering staff who are delivering meals to those free school meals pupils who are in school. Often the option of delivering food parcels to the door is the best way to meet the needs of a vulnerable child, particularly because it keeps the school in contact with them directly.

My Lords, government figures show that more than 4 million children in the UK live in poverty, and many of them will be living with food insecurity. However, there are no official figures. Therefore, could the Minister tell us when the Government will publish their assessment of how many children in the UK are living without enough healthy food, and could she tell us what policies they will implement to tackle the problem in both the short and the long term?

My Lords, the Government are awaiting the second part of the national food strategy, and we have said that we will respond with a White Paper within six weeks of that strategy being published. We have expanded the entitlement to free school meals; at the moment, 1.4 million children receive free school meals. We have given the undertaking that any family that moves from legacy benefits on to universal credit will have an entitlement to free school meals. So we are meeting the needs of children. In addition to that, there are the holiday activity clubs that we have expanded, as of the Easter holidays of this year. So we are looking to meet the needs of those in our society who need food.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm how this affects food waste? Am I right in understanding that much of this food, which of course is designed for lunches only, had been ordered or bought well in advance?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. One key reason why the Government gave schools the choice was that they were aware of the operation of their own school catering staff—but also, certain suppliers had already purchased food and they had already paid for it so, obviously, moving to a voucher system immediately could have resulted in food waste. Giving the flexibility to schools in terms of local vouchers enables them to use local suppliers and to support their local economy.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has said that Marcus Rashford is doing a better job at holding the Government to account than the Official Opposition. Does that mean that the Prime Minister is now prepared to accept Mr Rashford’s advice that a major review of free school meals and, indeed, child poverty, might be undertaken by them as a result of mistakes recently made? While on my feet, I point out that the Government add insult to injury by handing out these disgraceful bags, which would have been an insult to those receiving them. Whenever policies are directed towards those trapped in poverty, they should never forget the dignity of those receiving them and to treat them with respect.

My Lords, I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the work of Marcus Rashford, which was recognised in the latest honours that he was given. In relation to the flexibility that we have given to schools here, it is important to remember that schools know their children best; they know whether food parcels are best. Obviously, receipt of a food parcel can be vital if the parent at home at the moment is extremely clinically vulnerable, so a voucher perhaps would not be best. Schools generally do not want to deal in cash. Yet we have also seen the use of food parcels that are not necessarily synonymous with a lack of dignity in terms of the clinically vulnerable people in the first stage of the pandemic—and also businesses have sprung up during the pandemic using food that was potentially to supply restaurants and delivering it door to door. So although there needs to be sensitivity in each situation, it is not synonymous with a lack of dignity to offer actual food to people.

Well, I unmuted myself, as agreed, and somebody muted me again, so I have unmuted again. It needs sorting out.

My Lords, there does not appear to be a major problem in Lancashire, because Lancashire County Council—and I congratulate it on this—set up a county-wide voucher scheme for schools when the schools closed again, after the first day. If Lancashire could do this on a county-wide basis, why could the Government not do it straightaway nationally?

My Lords, I applaud the example that the noble Lord has given, and I have outlined why it is important that these three options are open to schools. As I have said, schools can re-register this week for the national voucher system and reactivate their accounts, and vouchers will be redeemable and available from Monday. Also, of course, where there is a free school meal entitlement for those who also qualify for the breakfast club, that food should also be provided. This has been stood up as soon as we can. In the last phase of the pandemic we distributed more than £380 million through a national voucher scheme. Noble Lords made it clear that there were downsides to that, because it meant that the business was given only to supermarkets. So it is important that we use the food and do food parcels, local vouchers and national vouchers.

My Lords, I commend the Government’s decision to provide lunches to school- children. However, sadly, due to the carelessness of caterers, there has been a great deal of variation in the contents of the food parcels. What steps are the Government taking to tighten this up and be more specific, to stop this happening again? Alternatively, would they consider a voucher scheme again? That would go some way to alleviating this problem, as some schools still prefer to use their own caterers, which also helps save jobs.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for outlining the role that school caterers have at the moment. Some of them obviously want to be involved in the delivery of free school meals to qualifying children who are at home. It is clear that the standard of food that should be provided is based on a statutory requirement. The association of school food and caterers was part of putting that together. The provision of food should obviously be sensitive to dietary requirements and allergies, and to religious and cultural sensitivities, so that the food provided, whether in school or by way of delivery, is appropriate for the children.

My Lords, this recent episode has, once again, highlighted the importance of an effective free school meals programme. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm whether the Government are considering the recommendation, outlined in the National Food Strategy: Part One, to expand eligibility for the free school meals scheme to include every child from a household where the parent or guardian is in receipt of universal credit?

My Lords, we are indeed considering the first part of the national food strategy. We expect part two to be with us, potentially, later this month and the Government have made a commitment to respond to it. We will be carefully considering that suggestion, but it must be borne in mind that there is a long taper for benefits with the universal credit system, rather than a cliff edge. There is data available that suggests that half the school population would then be eligible for free school meals, including some from households in receipt of income in excess of £40,000 a year. We need to consider carefully whether those suggestions are the best use of public funds.

My Lords, returning to my noble friend’s Question, one parent described their treatment as “humiliating”. They asked: “Why should you decide for us? Why not give us the money?” That, in the words of an academic expert, is the best way of ensuring that families are supported with dignity, respect and freedom of choice. Why not give parents the money? Do the Government not trust them?

My Lords, of course the Government trust parents. That is why we have given schools these options of how to deliver this. If there is any complaint about their treatment, parents should raise that with the school. There are also further avenues for them to make representations. However, as I have outlined, schools do not want to deal with distributing cash to parents, particularly during the pandemic. That is why a local or national voucher system is by far the best option for monetary support, rather than cash.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the national voucher scheme will be operating through the same private company as last time? Can she also reassure me that its computer system will be adequate, and that school staff or parents will not find themselves having to log on at 3 am or 4 am as the only time it is possible to get into the system? Given that it is a for-profit company, what does the Minister consider a reasonable profit for it to be making on the scheme: 5%, 10% or more?

My Lords, I can assure noble Lords that, as I have outlined, from Monday e-codes will be issued that can be redeemed against supermarket vouchers. The department is closely monitoring the logistics of the scheme being set up. We anticipate thousands of schools wanting to access that portal as soon as they can, but we are monitoring this properly. In the emergency of the pandemic, we stood up a system that delivered vouchers worth £380 million last time.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s decision to issue families with food vouchers, allowing them to choose the food to feed their children with a daily main meal. The quantity of food eaten by a six year-old girl is not the same as that eaten by a 14 year-old boy. Can the Minister reassure the House that the value of the vouchers will take account of the age of the child and the quantity of the food they require?

My Lords, the value of the voucher has actually been raised from the normal £11.50—a free school meal—to £15, recognising that schools and catering suppliers have economies of scale that a family would not have. I asked about this just this morning and, in terms of food supplied through a food parcel, we would expect schools to deliver appropriate food. A primary school food parcel would look very different from a secondary school one.