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Free School Meals (Primary Schools)

Volume 724: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2022

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend eligibility for free school meals to all children in state primary schools; and for connected purposes.

When I secured an opportunity to bring this Bill to Parliament, I put out a call asking parents, teachers and anyone else to get in touch with me to explain the difference that free school meals for all would make. Although I cannot do justice to the strength of feeling conveyed to me in the hundreds of emails, messages and letters I was sent, I want to begin with a snapshot of what I was told.

Peter is a teacher in Leeds who told me about a seven-year-old child at his school who burst into tears in front of him, scared that there was not any food at home. He told me about a year 3 pupil who would steal bagels from the breakfast club and put them in his bag to take home so that he had something to eat later. He told me about children who brought packed lunches into school consisting of nothing but a few biscuits or a couple of slices of bread.

Another teacher told me of young children who would steal food from shops on the way to school. When caught, they would explain that it was the only way they would have food, and they were too scared to ask for help.

My constituent Laura told me how scared she is about when her five-year-old boy gets too old for universal free school meals. She does not know how she will pay for packed lunches.

People who received free school meals as children explained to me that they do not know how they would have managed without them. Others explained the shame they felt or the bullying they endured after being identified as a free school meal kid. My inbox is flooded with heartbreaking accounts like those. Of course, they are just a tiny example of the pain and anguish that children experience when they are denied a decent meal.

Today, about 4 million children are growing up in poverty in Britain, and almost 1 million kids live in poverty but do not have access to free school meals. Those millions of heart-wrenching accounts, just like those I have described, will never get aired or acknowledged. My Bill is a response to that injustice. It is a solution to children crying because they have not had a decent meal all day, and an answer to kids who feel that they have to steal food just to get by. It would extend free school meals to all primary school children, guaranteeing that they get a good, healthy meal each day.

The arguments in the Bill’s favour are overwhelming. The London Borough of Newham, which self-funds the policy, found that it improved concentration, attainment and behaviour. A Government pilot found that free school meals resulted in children being months ahead academically, and that children from the poorest backgrounds benefited most of all. That is no surprise. One teacher told me:

“When the day consists of long hungry hours, where a substantial meal is nowhere in sight, who wouldn’t struggle to learn and concentrate?”

The Bill would not only combat educational inequality but improve children’s health. Just 1.6% of packed lunches are estimated to meet the Government’s school food standards of nutrition, so it is hardly surprising that obesity rates fell when the Government introduced infant free school meals in 2014, as unhealthy packed lunches were replaced with healthy school meals.

The arguments for why free school meals must be for all children are clear. The existing means-tested policy, which requires the family’s income to be below the horrifyingly low figure of just £7,400 and for them to qualify for certain benefits, not only excludes nearly half a million children who are in poverty but entails a complicated application process that creates a barrier for some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities. More fundamentally, means testing separates children, puts labels on them and provokes stigma. Pupils who receive free school meals tell me that they feel embarrassed and ashamed, and that they are mocked and bullied. We might wish that those things did not happen, but they do.

Earlier today, I was on “Good Morning Britain”, and the presenter, Richard Madeley, told me that he remembered the stigma that kids on free school meals faced even in his day. That stigma is an unavoidable part of means testing, but it does not exist with universal provision. Free school meals for all means that all children eat together and learn together, and it avoids the trap of second-rate provision for the poorest. Too often, services just for the poor end up being poor services.

The overwhelmingly clear benefits of free school meals for all are why countries from India to Sweden have adopted the policy; they are why the Scottish Government have implemented the policy and why the Welsh Government are doing likewise. Championed by the London Mayor Sadiq Khan, London boroughs from Islington and Newham to Southwark and Tower Hamlets are self-funding this policy, with the new Labour administration in Westminster shortly joining them. But aside from these small pockets in the capital, while children in Scotland and Wales can look forward to free school meals for all, kids in England are denied them.

I am sure that Conservative Members will want to ask the question I always get asked when I speak to the media about free school meals for all: how will you pay for it? It is always asked as if it is a “gotcha”, as if the aim for every child to have a good meal a day was utopian and an impossible fantasy. It is a strange question to ask, after just being told that the policy is a reality in other parts of the UK and across the world. It is as if children in England were uniquely difficult to feed. It also forgets—as Conservative Members are only too pleased for us to forget—that there is immense wealth in this country. For example, there was enough wealth for the Chancellor to give a tax cut to the bankers worth an estimated £18 billion in the autumn statement, and there was so much wealth that the richest 177 people in the country added an extra £55 billion to their fortunes this year, taking their combined wealth to over £650 billion. Just for clarity, that is 65 and 10 zeros.

If Conservative Members want a more direct way to fund this, however, I have an easy answer for them. Private schools currently receive a tax break worth £1.7 billion a year, which is nearly double the cost of this policy. So the question I put to the House is: do we want to protect tax breaks for elite private schools or do we want to feed hungry kids? This Conservative Government are making a choice. They are choosing to protect tax breaks for the wealthy while denying food to hungry kids.

Free school meals for all was a vital policy before this cost of living crisis, but now it is an even more urgent demand. Families who were forced to choose between heating and eating are now unable to do either. Parents who were just about coping yesterday cannot cope today, and this winter a third of all children are predicted to go hungry. Some 70% of food banks report that they will need either to turn people away or to cut the size of their emergency rations. Soaring food prices and rocketing energy bills have pushed people to the brink. Children are going to bed hungry at home and they are forced to learn on hungry stomachs at school. Let us end this injustice and guarantee that every child gets a good healthy meal each day.

Question put and agreed to.


That Zarah Sultana, Ian Byrne, Kim Johnson, Sir Stephen Timms, Caroline Lucas, Daisy Cooper, Munira Wilson, Apsana Begum, Richard Burgon, Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck, Andy McDonald and Lloyd Russell-Moyle present the Bill.

Zarah Sultana accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January 2023, and to be printed (Bill 214).