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School Meals: Funding

Volume 826: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government which government departments share responsibility for (1) the funding of, and (2) and decisions about, school meals in (a) term times, and (b) vacations.

My Lords, free school meals are intended to support children in term time while they are being educated in school. They are funded by the Department for Education. The department also provides the holiday activities and food programme during the longer school holidays. The policy regarding eligibility for free school meals is also set by the Department for Education. School food standards are set in secondary legislation and are the responsibility of schools to implement.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. Given the depth and spread of need in a whole generation of our children, does the Minister agree that a senior Minister—preferably at Cabinet level—should be appointed to oversee, co-ordinate, prioritise and extend free school meals for children immediately, thereby also providing a powerful voice for children at the heart of government?

The noble Baroness will be aware that this Government have extended the reach of free school meals in many important ways, including the provision of universal infant free school meals and further education free school meals. In relation to a Cabinet-level position, the House will be aware that in his independent review of children’s social care, Josh MacAlister recommended a Cabinet-level post of Minister for Children and his recommendations are currently under consideration.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that during a cost of living crisis, free school meals are essential during term time. However, at short notice during the cold weather there can be the closure of schools or a failure in the building. So can my noble friend confirm that there is resilience within the system to stand up vouchers very quickly for those children? The lack of a meal for one, two or three days can be essential.

I commend my noble friend for the work she did during the pandemic when she was standing up very flexible responses. We continue to work very closely with schools to ensure that children get the support they need.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware from reports from various charities that there are children going to school who have not had a proper breakfast. She will be aware that children do not always get proper meals. This is not acceptable. She will recall that the coalition Government brought in free meals for all children in key stage 1. When asked about this, she always says that the benefit system is the way we provide support. If that money is not going directly to provide these meals, what is the Minister’s answer?

The Minister’s answer is the same as when the noble Lord, understandably, challenged the Government on this quite recently. There are essentially two choices one can make. One is to give multiple smaller, specific handouts for particular issues. The other is to give funding to parents and allow the parents to choose how they wish to spend it. The Government believe in the latter.

My Lords, building on the question the noble Lord has just asked, research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that out of 3.9 million children living in relative poverty in the UK, only 2.3 million receive free school meals. Can the Minister say whether the Government intend to extend free school meals to all children from families receiving universal credit?

As I said in answer to an earlier question, the percentage of children receiving free school meals is at an all-time high. If one takes benefit-related free school meals and universal infant free school meals, over one-third of all pupils in this country—37.5% of pupils in state-funded schools—receive free school meals. The Government keep this policy under review at all times, but there are no current plans to extend free school meals to all those receiving universal credit.

My Lords, to pursue the point on the advantages to children’s education of being well fed, this has been known for many years. Does that not lead inexorably to the conclusion that all children require a decent education, so we need to ensure that all children are well fed? It is not just about poverty relief; it is not just about nutritional standards; it is about ensuring that all children get a decent education.

This Government are absolutely committed to all children getting a decent education—but, as I said in response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Storey, we believe that parents also understand that very well.

Can I ask the noble Baroness whether there has been any examination by the Government of the approach taken to free school meals, and particularly schemes tackling holiday hunger, of the devolved regions, particularly in Northern Ireland by the Department of Education, which have proved successful in being able to provide a much more coherent approach to being able to assist children.

The Government obviously look at what happens in relation to these issues across all the devolved Administrations. We have a very targeted approach to supporting children during the holidays which addresses the longer school holidays when the pressure on families is greatest.

Given that we now have the world-leading position of having the earliest onset of type 2 diabetes among our children, leading all countries in the world, whether you are having a free meal or not, what is the Government going to do about the quality of the meals being served, which are abysmal?

I would be interested if the noble Lord has specific examples of where he thinks schools are serving abysmal meals. I would be delighted if he shared that with the department, because the regulations are very clear and specific on quality. There is an element of flexibility for schools as to how they implement that, but the responsibility is clear, and my understanding is that it is being upheld.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be a good idea to concentrate on the content of these meals? In particular, could she use her influence to ensure that the meals contain the right kind of fat? When fat goes into the duodenum, it releases hormones that delay the emptying of the stomach and make one feel full earlier on, hence reducing the tendency to obesity—which is rather important in view of the fact that half the children in this country are obese.

My influence may not extend to duodenal fat levels, but I will do my best to support my noble friend. I would like to ask the House to share my impression of what is going on in many of our schools. I visited a primary school on Friday where they are bringing the kitchen into the classroom and are preparing healthy meals with children, building their awareness of both the content and cost of their meals; that is something that is very important for their futures.

My Lords, of course that is very important, but is the Minister not ashamed that more families than ever cannot afford to feed their children properly—that family incomes, even where parents are working, are no longer enough to pay the bills? The Minister referred earlier to the holiday activities and food scheme. Last summer, 27 local authorities had only between 6% and 15% of their free school meal children going to one of these programmes. So what more is she going to do to make sure that the schemes that are up and running are taken up and reaching the people who need them?

Well, it is up to parents whether they want to send their children to free activities in the holidays—so, if they are not taking them up, that perhaps begs a slightly different question. Secondly—if the noble Baroness would bear with me—local authorities have the flexibility to offer the provision to up to 15% of children whom they know to be in need but may not be eligible for free school meals. But I remind the House that the Government have directed an overall package of £37 billion of support, of which £12 billion has been direct support in 2023-24 for the most vulnerable households in the UK.