Tuesday 7th May 2024

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
14:49
Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of free school meals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Betts.

A child pretending to eat out of an empty lunchbox because they do not qualify for free school meals and do not want their friends to know that there is no food at home; a child coming into school having not eaten anything since lunch the day before, so hungry that they are eating rubbers at school; and a child hiding in the playground because they do not think they can get a meal—all stories from schools in England today. This has to stop.

I want every child at school to be happy, healthy and ready to learn, and I doubt that anybody here would disagree on that point. That is why it was the Liberal Democrats in government who introduced free school meals for every infant schoolchild—something of which I am incredibly proud. Since the passage of the Children and Families Act 2014, it has been required by law that free lunches are provided to all pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2. That universal offering for all infants has paid real dividends. A free school meal can be life changing; its benefits are enormous.

Extending free school meals offers a triple whammy of benefits. Free school meals save parents time and money, as parents save an average of £10 a week on food and 50 minutes a week preparing it. They improve educational outcomes; when free school meals for children aged five to seven were piloted in east London and Durham, pupils made around two months more progress in their SATs results compared with those in the rest of the country. They help children to eat more healthily: packed lunches are much more likely than school meals to provide more calories from fat, sodium and sugar. When free infant school meals were rolled out, two in five headteachers told the Education Policy Institute that healthy eating across the school had improved. Free school meals are incredible, and we should give one to every child living in poverty, whether in primary or secondary school, because hunger and poverty do not stop at the age of 11.

Not only does a free school meal make sense for the reasons I have already outlined; it also makes financial sense. An analysis by PwC found that every £1 spent on free school meals for the poorest children generates £1.38 in core benefits, including a boost to the lifetime earnings of those children by almost £3 billion. Free school meals are a simple, unintrusive way of ensuring that all children from low-income families have at least one well-balanced, healthy, nutritious meal a day. The Government know this, having already extended free school meals to children without recourse to public funds during the pandemic, before making that extension permanent. Even the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), told a Conservative party conference fringe event that he supported extending free school meals to all children in poverty. Doing nothing is economically, morally and politically unsustainable.

There has been some progress. My party and I welcomed the extension of free school meals to every primary school child in London by the Mayor of London in 2023. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that a proper analysis of that scheme and its outcomes will be critical, and I look forward to seeing the Education Endowment Foundation’s report in due course. I hope that that work will inform both this Government’s and any future Government’s policymaking on free school meals.

The Mayor’s commitment to free school meals is admirable, but it would be remiss of me not to point out that earlier in this Parliament the Labour party chose not to support extending free school meals to all children in poverty. When the Liberal Democrats tabled an amendment to the Schools Bill in the other place to that effect, Labour peers sadly chose to abstain. Although there was much in the Bill I disliked, I was disappointed that we were not able to press the same amendment to a vote in the Commons. I hope and expect that many hon. Members here would have felt able to support it had we secured that opportunity.

Regarding the Conservative record, I am sure that many hon. Members will recall that Marcus Rashford had to drag this Government kicking and screaming to provide free school meals in the school holidays during covid. They may also recall some of the comments that were expressed from the Government Benches in debates at the time, such as:

“Where is the slick PR campaign encouraging absent parents to take some responsibility for their children? I do not believe in nationalising children. Instead, we need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility”—[Official Report, 21 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 1155.]

or,

“‘it’s a parent’s job to feed their children’”. —[Official Report, 21 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 1160.]

Frankly, that is an insult to every parent who cannot afford to feed their child. Of course, we all agree that it is a parent’s job to feed their children; that is exactly what almost every parent is desperately trying to do.

Indeed, I met a mother at one of my constituency surgeries who had fled an abusive partner. She was skipping her mental health medication because she needed to use the money that she would have spent on prescriptions to ensure that her daughter could eat lunch at college. That is a mother taking her responsibility to feed her child seriously, and she is paying the price with her health and wellbeing. I am afraid that the Conservative Government are forcing parents to make impossible choices such as that. It is a scandal that a free school meal may be the only hot meal that a child eats in a day in this country. In a country such as England, families are struggling with this basic human need, and it is appalling. The Government should hang their head in shame.

Children are going hungry. In January 2024, the Food Foundation’s latest tracking found that 20% of households with children reported experiencing food insecurity. Given those statistics, it is not surprising that the use of food banks has skyrocketed. Three per cent of all individuals in the UK used a food bank in the financial year ending 2022, and there are over 2,500 food banks operating in the UK.

Giving children in poverty a free school meal gives them the energy to learn in the afternoon and it saves parents money. When children go hungry, they make less progress, and have poorer behaviour and worse health outcomes. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, more than 4 million children in the UK are living in poverty. That means that in an average classroom of 30, nine children will be living in poverty. It also calculates that 900,000 children—a third of school-age children living in poverty in England—miss out on free school meals. The £7,400 earnings threshold has not increased since it was introduced in 2018, but if it had risen in line with inflation it should be around £9,300.

Parents are trapped in poverty by a system that punishes them for working more hours. When universal credit was introduced in 2010, the Government promised that people would be better off for each hour they worked and for every pound they earned, but under the Conservatives that is no longer true. If someone is earning just under the £7,400 limit, taking on extra hours or getting a pay rise could make them worse off, as their children would lose free school meals, and if someone is earning just over the limit, they could be better off taking a pay cut. Surely that is nonsense.

Not only must we feed more children in poverty who are currently not eligible for free school meals; we must also make changes to ensure that every single child who is entitled to a free school meal takes one up. In 2013, the Department for Education estimated that around 14% of pupils entitled to free school meals were not claiming them. The DFE does not routinely collect information on the number of pupils who are entitled to free school meals but do not make a claim. It is therefore largely unknown how many children are not currently receiving the benefit, but it is estimated that around one in 10 pupils eligible for free school meals in England are not registered, so are missing out. The kicker is that as well as these children missing out on their meal, schools are unable to claim the pupil premium and other important disadvantage funding that goes with it. I commend the work of the FixOurFood programme, led by the University of York together with the Food Foundation, which has set out to test and evaluate the Sheffield model of opt-out automatic enrolment with at least 20 local authorities. Auto-enrolment is an important step on which I would welcome movement from the Government.

Free school meals cannot and should not be produced from cheap, substandard ingredients. We have all seen pictures of frankly disgusting-looking school meals in some of our national papers. Although Jamie Oliver has pushed the Government to improve the nutritional quality of our school meals, there is still more work to be done, but I am afraid that the root of these problems is money. I appreciate that there are some hon. Members in this place who think it is possible to provide a meal for an entire family for just 30p a day, but those of us living in the real world are aware that food inflation has been particularly pernicious. We all know that funding for free school meals has not kept up with inflation. The national funding formula value for free school meals in the 2023-24 financial year is £480 per pupil—up just £10 from the previous year—yet food prices have risen by 15%.

Funding increases for universal infant free school meals would have been laughable had the matter not been so serious. The increases have been pitiful. In 2020, the funding rate for universal infant free school meals was increased by just 7p per pupil, and that increase was only the second since the policy was first introduced in 2014. The first increase was just 4p; overall, that is an increase of just 11p in universal infant free school meals since 2014. The economy has taken a hammering and inflation has been sky high, but infant free school meals have got just 11p—not even enough for a lettuce. The resulting shortfalls and cuts to other parts of the school budget mean that children are losing out, or higher prices are being paid by parents of junior pupils who pay for their meals.

Finally, I pay tribute to the successful campaign led by my constituent Natalie Hay on changing free school meal guidance for disabled children, who have been let down. They have often been excluded from free school meal provision because they cannot physically attend school. They may be waiting for a placement at a specialist school or may not be able to eat the school meal provided due to dietary requirements or sensory processing difficulties. Instead of getting a supermarket voucher so that an alternative meal can be provided, these children are often forgotten. Thanks to Natalie’s tenacity in fighting the system, with the support of the charity Contact and CrowdJustice, the legal guidance in this area has gone from just three pages to 19, including food vouchers as an acceptable adjustment. I hope that other families will not face the same prejudice and discrimination that Natalie and her son did.

In conclusion, the Government’s adviser on the national food strategy, Henry Dimbleby, said:

“Hungry children cannot learn and cannot thrive. It is unconscionable in 2022 that this situation has not yet been addressed.”

We are now in 2024 and nothing has changed. Teachers are increasingly having to act as a fourth emergency service, consuming so much time, energy and resources dealing with these issues beyond the school gates, including hunger. Extending free school meals is one way that we can restore the support network around our young people by ensuring that they have at least one hot, cooked meal a day, giving them the energy to learn in the afternoon. No child should go hungry at school. The Liberal Democrats would extend free school meals, beginning with every child in poverty, to save parents money, encourage healthy eating and give children the energy to learn. It is a no-brainer.

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Clive Betts (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As quite a lot of Members wish to speak, the Front Benchers have kindly agreed to keep their contributions to eight minutes, which means that I can allow six minutes to Back-Bench Members. That is advisory, but please do not go over; if Members go over that limit, I will start to intervene to keep us to it.

16:43
Beth Winter Portrait Beth Winter (Cynon Valley) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Betts, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate.

I believe that access to sufficient, nutritious food is a basic right. It is essential to the development and growth of our children—our future generations—and the provision of free school meals is fundamentally important to that. Guaranteeing children at least one hot, healthy meal a day is a vital way of enabling young people to develop, and there is strong evidence that it improves their health and wellbeing, their academic performance and our economic prosperity as a country. The Government like to say that they have increased free school meal provision, but the low household income threshold of £7,400 means that close to 1 million children living in poverty in England are not eligible for the Government’s free school meals scheme. Furthermore, as the National Education Union highlights, the divisions inherent in a means-tested system mean that stigma remains a barrier to accessing free school meals, even for parents who are aware of their children’s entitlement. It has been estimated that as many as 215,000 eligible children missed out in 2020. As well as being in the interests of children and their families, expanding free school meal provision makes sense economically. Research conducted by PwC has found that expanding free school meal eligibility in line with universal credit has economic benefits.

I am proud to say that in Wales we are leading the way in many regards—alongside the other devolved nations, I hasten to add. I have been fortunate to be involved in a grassroots campaign that has led to free school meals being provided in all primary schools in Wales. That is part of the co-operation agreement between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru. As of last month, all primary school children in Wales, including in my constituency of Cynon Valley, are receiving free school meals.

It is time for England to catch up. I commend the campaign work that the Food Foundation has done through its Nourishing the Nation campaign. I also commend the NEU’s Free School Meals for All campaign. I thank them for their briefings ahead of the debate today. England can start to catch up with Wales by ensuring that at least the 900,000 children living in poverty who do not have access to free school meals can have that.

We can do a lot more, including in Wales, and I want to mention the excellent work that the Bevan Foundation has recently been doing on provision for those currently subject to no recourse to public funds. Eligibility assessments for children rely on receipt of benefits that parents subject to no recourse conditions cannot access, so Welsh Government guidance encourages local authorities to exercise their discretion where children are affected by no recourse. However, many children from low-income households are not entitled to free school meals, so the Bevan Foundation recommends that the Welsh Government introduce automatic eligibility for free school meals for those children, and England should be doing that as well.

To go further, I passionately believe that free school meals should be an entitlement for all children and young people. I started by saying that access to sufficient nutritious food is a basic right, so ensuring that every woman, man and child has a right to nutritious food should be enshrined in law.

I want to finish by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and thanking him for the sterling work that he is doing. My colleague and friend is working tirelessly in demanding that the right to food be enshrined in law, and I am pleased that I am able to support that. We can afford it. We are the fifth—the fifth—richest nation in the world and we could introduce a wealth tax and end tax evasion and avoidance by the rich.

There is another way, and we have to start getting our priorities right as a country. I am determined to continue to work in collaboration with colleagues in this House but also, crucially, with grassroots organisations and individuals to end the scourge of child poverty.

16:48
Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I, too, am very pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this very welcome debate.

In 2022-23, 30% of children were in poverty after housing costs. That is 4.3 million children, the highest number since 1998-99, reversing all the progress that had been made in the years following that time. The Government’s family resources survey found that one 10th of all households and 15% of households with children were food insecure; that is the Government’s own data. The Food Foundation has been mentioned by both previous speakers. Using a different methodology, taken from the USA’s food security survey model, it found that 17% of all households and 23.4% of households with children were either moderately or severely food insecure in June 2023. Those figures make it absolutely clear that child poverty in the UK is much too high. We are limiting our future potential by keeping it at this high level. The most immediate benefit of free school meals is tackling the scourge of child poverty.

As we have heard, according to the Child Poverty Action Group, a third of school-age children in poverty are missing out on free school meals at the moment. Free school meals are provided to children with parents in receipt of a number of benefits, most importantly universal credit, but only if their household income is less than £7,400 a year. That threshold has not been uprated in six years. I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on that, because it ought to be uprated annually, along with other benefits. The Government estimate that, once other social security income is considered, the threshold equates to a total household income for those families of around £18,000 to £24,000, but that is below what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that a single person needs for a minimum acceptable living standard, let alone a couple with children.

We have heard about the cost-benefit analysis produced by PwC on extending free school meals to all those who claim universal credit. The analysis took account of research from Sweden to the Department for Education, and from the Association for Young People’s Health to Ofsted, showing that free school meals reduce obesity and absenteeism, improve academic attainment and raise lifetime earnings. Those are all advantages that we need to capture.

The hon. Member for Twickenham referred to the 2009 pilot in the London Borough of Newham. I am pleased to be one of the Members of Parliament who represent that borough, and I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) in her place today. The assessment of the pilot showed that it led to improvements in classroom behaviour, concentration and attainment. Parents also reported that their children were more willing to eat healthily at home. I am pleased to say that Newham has continued to provide free school meals to all primary school pupils ever since, defying waves of Government austerity in the last 15 years. I want to pay tribute to the impressive commitment of my colleagues on Newham Council to maintaining that very important provision. I also pay tribute to Juniper, the council-owned company that provides the meals and is very well-known to my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who works with it each year at a free school meals event.

Last year the Mayor of London provided funding to help all London boroughs follow suit, and I very much applaud that decision. It is a very popular policy and no doubt one of the reasons for his welcome re-election last week. Now that he has been re-elected, provision across London is thankfully secure for the next four years. Richard Parker and Kim McGuinness, the new Mayors in the West Midlands and the North East, have committed to moving in that direction too.

Free school meals help alleviate poverty and improve children’s health and educational attainment. Let us use this lever much more widely to tackle the scourge of child poverty.

16:53
Lyn Brown Portrait Ms Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for the work they do in this area.

Newham has been a pioneer in universal free school meals for over a decade now, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) has described. As has been mentioned, 900,000 children in England live in poverty but are not eligible for free school meals. Many of those children may well live in Newham, but thankfully at primary schools in our area they receive that important hot and healthy meal, even though the Government’s criteria seems to suggest that they do not deserve it. I continue to believe that our local universal free school meal offer is so important for child welfare because so many families in our communities are enduring hardship, thanks to incomes that simply do not pay the bills and a massive shortage of decent affordable homes.

We have the second highest child poverty rate in the country and the highest homelessness rate. More than 8,500 children in Newham are growing up in temporary accommodation, which is often damp, cold and mouldy—awful conditions. Last week, we learned that across the country that statistic has risen by 15%. Our families, whether they are technically in poverty or not, and whether they can pay their rent or are struggling to do so, have been massively impacted by the cost of living crisis over the past years. That has increased child hunger and stress caused by financial worries to simply appalling levels. The rise in child hardship and child homelessness makes that one free school meal a day all the more essential—sometimes it is that child’s only meal.

Teachers I speak to locally tell me ever-worse stories of how children are coming in hungry day after day and the strategies the children use to hide it. A hot decent lunch is a lifeline that helps children concentrate. It makes school the haven it should be, away from the stress and worry that often awaits them at home. But rising homelessness costs to the council create risk for Newham’s new universal free school meal programme. Without support, it could become less and less affordable, even as the need for it grows higher and higher. That is because just a fraction of free school meals in Newham are paid for by this Government, who have done so much to increase need by driving down council funding, eroding our stock of social homes and cutting family incomes from social security.

Our Newham programme has always been paid for by local people through our council budget and, in recent years, by our Mayor of London. Thankfully, that should continue following Sadiq Khan’s victory at the weekend, which ended the financial threat posed by the Conservative candidate. For Newham, widening national eligibility for free school meals would have a double impact on child poverty: it would free up resources to meet the wider needs, including those that have been caused by homelessness. The council and now the Mayor of London would save £6 million a year, which could be reinvested in other services if the free school meals programme was fully funded by the Government.

Healthy free school meals impact on many aspects of our children’s lives and on their opportunities. A University of Essex study, which included Newham, found that families receiving free school meals were saving £37 a month per child and that childhood obesity was reduced by 9.3% for children of reception age. That is obviously important for protecting children’s lifelong health and for reducing costs to the NHS for decades to come, particularly in Newham where almost 30% of year 6 children are affected by obesity.

Even small expansions in eligibility for free school meals are estimated to have economic, social and health benefits. A £1 investment has been found to recoup £1.38 in returns from higher educational achievement, savings to school budgets and reduced NHS costs from obesity. Ultimately, this is a debate about whether we have a Government that are willing to take a long-term view and make an investment in our children that would more than pay for itself in the coming years. Surely that is the kind of investment we need to build a fairer, healthier and more prosperous future for Newham and all our communities.

16:59
Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am delighted to participate in the debate as a former recipient of free school meals. I know how important they are to support learning and attainment for children. I am extremely proud that in Scotland we have the most generous free school meal provision anywhere in the UK by some significant distance, with universal provision for all pupils in primary 1 to 5 and eligible pupils who are older. Last year, free school meal provision helped feed 231,967 children. With 29% of children in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran living in poverty, free school meals could not matter more.

Despite our progress, however, we in Scotland are not content. We are going to expand free school meals to all primary children, and that is actively in the works. The Scottish Government is working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to prepare primary schools and their infrastructure for a full, universal roll-out of free school meals for all primary children, which should be completed in 2026. That is supported by £43 million in capital from the Scottish Government in 2024-25 and an additional £6 million in resource spending, with local authorities benefiting from £21.7 million allocated to support eligible children during the school holidays. This support saves families £400 per year and far outstrips the free school meal offers in any other part of the UK. That matters, because hungry children do not learn. Ensuring that children receive a nutritious free school meal is therefore a fundamental part of supporting attainment. How could it not be?

By contrast, the incoming Labour Government have ruled out universal free school meals despite previous commitments to that, just as so many of Labour’s commitments have been dropped the more certain it becomes of forming the next Government. You would not know this from the comments made today, but in a matter of months we can be pretty sure that there will be a Labour Government with a significant majority, and we know, because we have been told, that there will be no movement on free school meals.

The arguments that Labour Members have made today to the Minister would be better directed to their own leadership, which refuses to deliver on free school meals. Indeed, that reminds me of the debate we had after the UK Government’s Budget, when Labour MP after Labour MP condemned the Budget and then refused to vote against it. I think that may be what some people call gaslighting.

We cannot leave the matter there because, in a somewhat grotesque development, we have the incoming Labour Government committing to leaving bankers’ bonuses uncapped. That appears to be sacrosanct. So, we appear to be balancing children’s hunger against rich bankers’ bonuses, and that, for the new Labour Government, which we can be pretty sure will be arriving, seems to be the way things are going to be. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Meanwhile in Scotland, we have a Scottish child payment of £26.70 per week per child for the poorest children. The cumulative impact of that, alongside other policies such as free school meals, seems to have reduced child poverty by 10% from what it would otherwise be. In other words, 10% of those children have not fallen into relative poverty as a direct result of those policies. Indeed, the Child Poverty Action Group referred to the Scottish child payment as “a game changer” when it comes to tackling child poverty.

One of the basic tasks of the state is to ensure that every child has access to opportunity, regardless of their family circumstances. Tackling child poverty and child hunger is a fundamental of that. We know that Labour speak with forked tongue on this issue, and frequently so in Scotland. The reality is that when it comes to supporting redistributive policies designed to create a fairer, more equal Scotland, the Labour party in Scotland continues to ape and mimic the lines from Labour in Westminster and fulfil its role as a branch office.

Austerity hits children hardest. People do not like to talk about this, but we suffered austerity under the previous Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and that has only been continued under the Tory Government. We know that it will be embraced yet again by the incoming UK Labour Government. There is no respite from austerity when Westminster is a parcel that is passed between two parties devoid of any so-called vision beyond austerity.

Scotland’s children are faring better because the SNP Scottish Government choose to use their power to support them, and to govern is to choose. Sadly, neither of the Westminster parties today will choose universal free school meals for children. I am proud that in Scotland we are making a different choice for children in Scotland. I fear for the children in England.

17:05
Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I want to thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing today’s debate and for her excellent opening speech setting the scene. The topic of school food—and specifically free school meals—has been an incredibly important one for me throughout my parliamentary career. In fact, I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on school food, which I set up in 2010, and I am pleased to say that a number of colleagues here today are also very important members.

As we have heard, in the UK our devolved nations each have their own individual free school meal offers. In Scotland, all primary school children, regardless of family income, are eligible for free school meals and all secondary school students are subject to a means-tested offer. In Wales, all children who attend mainstream primary schools are eligible for a free school meal. In Northern Ireland there is no universal offer; however, the eligibility criteria for the means-tested offer includes families with an annual taxable income of up to £16,190 or net earnings of under £14,000 a year, which is almost twice as high as the same offer in England, and means that around 30% of the entire school population are eligible. The levels of poverty across the north-east, and indeed in other parts of England, are the same as in Northern Ireland, and yet such different levels of means-testing are used. That is just unfair.

In England, all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 currently receive a hot, healthy meal each day. Universal infant free school meals is a policy I am very proud of, having worked with Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent on the school food plan that helped convince them to put universal primary free school meals as one of their recommendations, which, as we heard, the former Deputy Prime Minister then enacted when they were in the coalition Government, which I think we are all very happy still exists to this day—the free school meals, not the coalition Government! However, from year 3 onwards, provision of free school meals is means-tested. Only children in households in England who receive universal credit and earn less than £7,400—excluding benefit payments—are eligible for free school meals. On that note, in today’s short speech I will focus on how we must change the policy in England. For too long, England has been the poor relation. It is just not good enough. We have the least generous offers around school food, and the highest rates of children in poverty who are ineligible for free school meals.

We must also think about the quality of the food that we are providing to our students. The school food standards are a fantastic set of regulations that provide guidance on the nutritional quality and variety of food that children should have access to at school. When they are followed correctly, the school meal offers are some of the best in the world, and I work with parliamentarians around the world, so I speak with some authority on this. However, sadly some schools struggle to do so, and they need support. In England there is no consistent assessment, monitoring or reporting of whether schools are meeting the standards for school food. There is no ring-fencing of funding, either. This means that the quality is very variable, with some children benefiting from nutritious, delicious food while others receive lower-quality meals.

We must discuss the structural issues surrounding provision that make delivering school meals unsustainable. For example, as has been talked about already, the funding per meal for universal infant free school meals is far too low. It is just £2.53 across most of England, despite the average meal cost exceeding this. The funding must be raised to £3 per meal to adequately cover the cost of the ingredients and the labour costs for school food. We all eat in restaurants; we know the prices have gone up. Schools are being asked to do an impossible thing at the moment. The rising cost of these meals and the dwindling funding means that, inevitably, quality is going to slip.

We need to revolutionise eligibility. I truly believe that the best school meal offer is a universal free school meal offer, as we have seen with the triumph of Mayor Sadiq Khan’s universal free school meal offer for primary school children in London. It seems popular as well—I think he won, didn’t he? But I understand that the road to a universal offer is a journey. That is why I am calling on the Government to, without delay, expand eligibility to all children whose parents and carers receive universal credit, so that we can begin to tackle the horrifying reality that, as we have heard, 900,000 children living in poverty are currently ineligible, according to the Child Poverty Action Group.

The next step on this road is to implement automatic enrolment as soon as possible. Local authorities like Sheffield are leading the way on this already, and prove it works. Every eligible child should be eligible from day one. This is not an expensive change. The Government already know exactly who is eligible and who is not, so families should not need to apply. It needs to be automatic from when the child is enrolled in school, or when their circumstances change. That will help schools too because they will get extra pupil premium, and that can then unlock access to resources and support as well as a hot meal for these children.

Free school meals are foundational to a fair and equal school experience. When we provide them, they leave inequality at the school gate and liberate children from the injustice of the haves and the have-nots.

17:11
Ian Byrne Portrait Ian Byrne (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Betts. Thank you to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this important debate. I echo her praise for the fantastic campaign victory of Natalie Hay and Contact, for disabled children, their parents and guardians.

I start by sharing the words of the children of Monksdown Primary School in West Derby, who wrote to the Prime Minister last year to ask him to offer free school meals for all pupils. One pupil wrote:

I am writing to you because I believe all children deserve free school meals. The inflation over the past few months means some people have been starving at school because of the cost of living…so some parents have not had enough to get school meals.”

Another pupil wrote:

“Parents might not have the money to pay for food for you. If your brain is hungry, you will feel unhappy and tired.”

Another pupil wrote:

“We don’t have a choice to go to school because it’s the law but we have to pay for lunch.”

Adam Gidwitz once wrote:

“There is a wisdom in children, a kind of knowing, a kind of believing, that we, as adults, do not have.”

It has been almost a year since the children wrote to the Prime Minister, who unfortunately does not have that wisdom. Imagine the difference that would have made for families with their children’s education, health and happiness if he had listened to the children at our primary and introduced free school meals like they asked.

Last year, over 4 million children experienced food insecurity, not having access to nutritious and balanced meals or having to skip meals. That includes many thousands in my constituency, where the relative child poverty rate is significantly higher than national averages and where, as a city, one in three people are in food poverty. This is devastating for children and families in West Derby and Liverpool, including the many who are hungry and do not fall beneath the Government’s restrictively-low household income threshold of £7,400 to be eligible for free school meals. They are among the 900,000 children nationally who are below the poverty line yet still do not qualify.

It is imperative that the Government and politicians understand that children are going to school hungry as a result of the political choices made in this place. The evidence is clear. We do need universal provision: a nutritious free school breakfast and lunch provided to all primary and secondary school children as a necessity, as an investment in the future of our children, who are the future of our country. That is what it is—an investment. It should not be seen as a cost.

The right political choices cannot wait a moment longer. Universal free school meals would improve attainment and reduce pressure on teachers, parents and the NHS, and evidence has shown they could help drive local economies. Findings from the Government’s own pilot noted improved academic attainment, with children making between four and eight weeks’ more progress in maths and English. The statistics are astounding. Crucially, universal provision removes all stigma from school food and ensures that all children, regardless of their economic circumstances, have an equal opportunity to thrive and be healthy. Surely that is what we all want in this place.

The Government’s own former adviser, Henry Dimbleby, wrote:

“When children sit down to eat with friends and teachers in a civilised environment, it cements relationships, helps them to develop social skills and reinforces positive behaviour throughout the day.”

Backing that up, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs heard powerful evidence, including from the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, about the benefits, and that such investment would more than pay for itself in the long run. This has been touched on, but it is important to reinforce that it would pay for itself.

PwC’s cost-benefit analysis of universal free school meals showed the undeniable societal and economic benefits. It calculated that if this Government or future Governments made the investment, the “core benefits” over 20 years of providing universal free school meals would be worth £41.3 billion, compared with a total cost of £24.1 billion. It is an absolute no-brainer, regardless of where anyone sits ideologically.

We need political leadership to guarantee and realise all our children’s right to healthy food. Well done to Sadiq Khan for showing us an example of that leadership in London—it is interesting what popularity it produced. We all knew that—we have been saying it for a long time—and it is great to see the new Mayors who have been elected taking it up. If we accept the universal and compulsory requirement that all children up to the age of 16 must be in school, why do we break the principle of universal care, nurturing and protection in relation to meals during the school day? We would think it absurd for children not to be provided with adequate shelter, heating, drinking water or sanitary provision while in school, so why do we take a different approach to the equally essential element of food?

I pay tribute to all the parents, educators and pupils in West Derby—and MPs—who have been fighting this good fight for a long time. Those good friends, and campaigners and trade unions right across the country, have been campaigning tirelessly for the expansion of free school meals, which is a fundamental part of our Right to Food campaign. Political choices define our time in this place, and I implore the Minister to listen and to make the right political choice by investing in universal free school meals for every child in this country.

17:16
Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.

We have heard how 900,000 children from low-income families are not in receipt of free school meals and about the adequacy of what many children are receiving, not least if they take a packed lunch—they are not being nutritiously fed throughout the day. In fact, only 1% of packed lunches reach nutritional standards. In York, that is very much the case. We have about 4,000 children who are entitled to be in receipt of free school meals, but only about 3,000—about 75%—actually receiving them, because we do not have auto-enrolment. I urge the Government to join up the data so that we see eligibility following through to receipt of free school meals. It can be done, it must be done, and it will ensure that those families are well served.

I want to talk in particular about York Hungry Minds. York has the lowest-funded upper-tier local authority in the country, yet, as a Right to Food city, it prioritised feeding hungry children when Labour came to power in the council last May. City of York Council put the first £100,000 into Two Ridings Community Foundation as a vehicle for sourcing and independently funding the programme. It then called for city partners, including in industry and business, as well as individuals from the community, to boost that fund.

The pilot that York is engaged in is based in two schools: Westfield, where there are already far better healthy lunch choices for the children at key stage 2; and Burton Green, which is investing in breakfast for children. The results are already incredible. Starting in January this year, the research piece by the University of York will follow the pilot through to the end of the year. Researchers are already seeing an improvement in attendance—an issue that the Government are wrestling with at the moment—and far better engagement in learning. These are the early seeds of what it means to have a full stomach and to be able to work in such an environment.

I really do congratulate those involved in the project, but we need to ensure that the funding continues and is available for roll-out across our city. That is certainly the ambition of the Labour council, but we need the support of Government. I am delighted that Labour is so committed to ensuring that children start the day with a full stomach. We know the difference that will make for them.

This is not just about what happens for a child in school; it is about resetting the life course inequality that we see across our society. We want to address that by ensuring that children are well fed. That inequality results in differentiations in exam results, in where children move on to, and ultimately in the career choices that they can make and in their incomes. If we are to break intergenerational inequality, that small measure of having high-value, highly nutritious meals at the start of the day—and, I trust, rolling into the middle of the day too—is so important. That can be the game changer that families need.

However, we need to evaluate as we go, and that is why I congratulate the University of York on its investment in not only the project that I described but in looking at child hunger. It is evaluating the difference that the project will make to the lives of those children by looking at how much healthy food is going to them as a result of the menu choices; by looking at the amount of food waste, which is another important factor; and by looking at any changes in readiness to learn, in absence due to ill health or in school attendance. Looking at the data, which I trust the Minister will do, will strengthen the opportunity to roll out these programmes.

It is also important that the programme looks at the stigma around the provision of free school meals. We must remember that no child wants to be differentiated because of the income level or socioeconomic disadvantage their family experiences.

Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Hodgson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

One of the reasons that John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby, who authored the school food plan, said that they included recommendation 17 on universal free primary school meals is that, when they looked at the evidence, the children who improved the most when all the boats rose were those who were already entitled to free school meals. The only thing that had been removed was the stigma. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is very important?

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend knows so much about this subject and could not make a more powerful point. We need all young people who have hungry stomachs to be able to engage, and taking away the stigma not only gives those children confidence but ensures that the issue of hunger is addressed.

I would like to quickly reinforce some of the points that colleagues have made. It is important that we make sure that thresholds rise and are appropriate, and it is important that people can enrol in the holiday activities fund if their eligibility changes over the holiday period, rather than having to wait until the beginning of the new year. It is possible to do that, and I trust that the Minister will.

17:23
Ian Lavery Portrait Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for bringing this important debate to the House.

I want to declare an interest from the very beginning: I was on free school meals for quite some time as a young lad. With my four brothers, that was five of us all on free school meals for quite some time. We had a very difficult experience. As most speakers have mentioned, there is a stigma attached to free school meals, and we suffered that stigma. However, we lived in a very socially deprived area where the vast majority of people were on free school meals.

It was a terrible situation, but it is not until we grow older and get wiser that we begin to understand what actually happened when we were in that sort of position. We did not argue about what was relative poverty, what was abject poverty and what was absolute poverty. We knew we were hungry, but we did not argue about how hungry we were, and we did not quote politicians and say, “Well, it’s not as bad as it was last year under this Government. It’s not as bad as what it could be, and it’s not absolute poverty.” We were hungry.

If parents who are working have to use a food bank to put food on the table, what does that say for a nation like the UK? The top 1% of people in this country own as much as the bottom 50%. That is the problem: where the wealth of this nation is. Food poverty, child poverty, pensioner poverty—whatever we want to call these issues— are political choices. There is no doubt about that—they are political choices. If we want to feed the kids, we can feed the kids. If it means something else has got to stop, let it stop, and let us feed the kids.

I went to a school in my constituency a while ago—I have mentioned it before. The headteacher was slightly late. He came in and said, “I’m sorry, Mr Lavery. I’ve just had to send a little boy home. I’ve had to exclude him.” This was a child at a first school. I said, “Oh, what’s the problem?” He said, “Well, he went missing. He said, ‘I’m away to the toilet’—he put his hand up, went to the toilet—and didn’t come back.” So they went looking for this little lad. They found him in the cloakroom. He had been in people’s satchels. He had a sandwich in his hand that he had stolen from somebody’s bag. This was a four-year-old kid, who was that hungry he had to steal sandwiches from somebody else. This is 2024, in one of the richest countries in the world—one of the richest countries on this planet—and we have situations like that occurring in schools not just in my constituency but up and down the country.

We have choices to make. Do we want to feed the kids? Are we going to keep debating across this Chamber how many people are in this type of poverty or that type of poverty, and what improvements have been made? If one kid in this country has not got the opportunity for a hot, nutritious meal every day, there is something sadly wrong with this country. It is a simple as that.

We can say what we want, but everyone in here, every MP in this House of Commons and every Member of the Lords—we can all afford as much food as we can eat. That does not mean that we should ignore what is happening out there. Universal free school meals would be very important to kids and very important to the nation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) said, it is an investment in the nation rather than anything else.

I conclude simply by saying that if we, every Member of the House of Commons, cannot agree on that, then you know what? We should bolt the doors of this place, give out 650 redundancy notices and bulldoze this building into the Thames.

17:29
Zarah Sultana Portrait Zarah Sultana (Coventry South) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and always an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this very important debate.

After 14 years of Conservative Government, a record number of children in Coventry South and across the country are growing up in poverty, arriving at school hungry in the morning and going to bed hungry at night. In the west midlands, 11 children in every class of 30 are living in poverty. Due to the strict eligibility criteria for free school meals, by which families have to earn less than £7,400 a year to qualify, across the country nearly 1 million children in poverty are missing out.

We have all heard horror stories like the one we just heard—pupils turning up to school with just mouldy bread or a packet of crisps for lunch, or sometimes with nothing at all; kids bursting into tears because they are worried that there is no food at home, or stealing bagels from breakfast club or from their friends’ satchels just to get by. That is why, along with trade unions and other anti-poverty groups, I have long campaigned for universal free school meals for primary school children, so that every child in primary school throughout the country is given a warm, healthy lunch each day, and no-one is left learning on an empty stomach.

The benefits of this policy are clear. Research shows that free school meals boost children’s concentration, behaviour and attainment. They also have health benefits, improving nutrition and reducing obesity. It is also a great help to families, saving parents’ time and relieving financial pressure. As has been highlighted in this debate, it is important that free school meals are universal, giving all children the opportunity to eat, learn and grow together. Means-tested policies create stigma and they allow children to slip through the net. Too often, means-tested services are lower quality services, and services for the poor do indeed become poor services.

We see consensus growing on this issue, which is very welcome. In Wales and Scotland, all primary school children are set to receive a free, warm, healthy lunch each day. It is about time England did the same.

In last week’s elections, mayoral candidates up and down the country campaigned and were elected on a platform of supporting free school meals for all primary school kids. In London, Sadiq Khan has already made this a reality and now pledges to make it permanent with funding from his mayoral budget. Mayors including Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, newly elected Richard Parker in the West Midlands and Kim McGuinness in the North East are calling on the Government to give them the funding they need to deliver it too. They know that this policy makes common sense and they know it is popular too, with 75% of parents supporting universal free school meals for primary school kids. That is why they have won their elections. Is it not time that this Government took a leaf out of the book of Khan, Burnham, Parker and McGuinness, and instead of ignoring children in poverty and resorting to desperate attacks on minorities to distract from their own failings, they start to deliver the popular, unifying, anti-poverty policies our communities need, starting off with universal free school meals for primary school children?

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Betts
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank all colleagues for being so co-operative in terms of the time. I will call the Front Benchers now, starting with the Scottish National party spokesperson.

17:32
Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Mr Betts. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham on bringing this debate forward. I think everybody here understands the importance of children being well fed in order to learn well. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), I was a teacher for over 20 years. We understood the difference it made to have children in front of us who actually had food in their stomachs.

Child Poverty Action Group figures show that child poverty is at a record high in the UK, with 30% of all children living in poverty. Significantly, 69% of these children are from working families. The issue around universal credit and eligibility has been brought up by a number of Members, notably the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) and the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). Families on universal credit are eligible only if their after-tax income is less than £7,400 a year. I wonder if any of us could get by on such a small amount. The problem with a borderline like that is that those who are just on the wrong side of it tend to be impacted the most harshly. The harsh means-testing in England, which the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) referred to, means that many children are struggling to learn and to get by, even though their parents are in work.

The problem of stigma was brought up by the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter). Stigma is always associated with means-testing for free school meals. In Scotland, it was important to us to have a universal policy for all children in primary school. At the moment it has been rolled out from P1 to P5, but as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran pointed out, it will be rolled out further over the next two years.

Scotland has the most generous free school meals offer of any UK nation. It saves parents and families around £400 per child per year, but it is not just about the money. It is about the value and importance that we place on children. In Scotland, children are seen as an asset, not an inconvenience. That starts from the very moment that parents are expecting a child. They get a baby box with books and various lovely things to give them a great start. Then we have the Scottish child payment of £26.70 for every eligible child in Scotland, which has been described by the Trussell Trust as game-changing and has seen food bank use reduced dramatically. That is how we make a difference to child poverty.

Of course, those policies can go only a small way towards tackling the cost of living crisis, but they are part of the big picture. I was moved by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) talking about his personal experience. He also talked about political choices, and this is indeed about political choices. I found myself nodding along and agreeing with Labour colleagues, but they need to take that to their leadership, because the party cannot have the policy in its manifesto in 2019 and then drop it for the next election. If the Labour party is in government after the election, I hope that Labour colleagues keep up the pressure on their own leadership.

The benefits of free school meals were highlighted when we heard about increased attainment, increased pupil scores and increased cognitive ability. Free school meals also increase school attendance, because it encourages parents to get their children to school if they know that they will get a meal. The hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) and for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) talked about the benefits of that. I was pleased to read that free school meals also reduce obesity. We know that childhood obesity carries health problems on into adulthood, which has economic problems for us down the road, so it is worthwhile investing at this point.

Some 80% of the public support free school meals for children in households receiving universal credit. At its annual conference this month, The National Association of Head Teachers called for children to get free school meals automatically if their families are eligible for universal credit. James Bowen, the assistant general secretary, said:

“I think it’s an absolute no brainer.”

I agree.

17:38
Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate on an issue that affects so many of the poorest and most vulnerable children in our country.

We have heard powerful speeches from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), and my hon. Friends the Members for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), for West Ham (Ms Brown), for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), and for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana). They all touched on the impact of the cost of living crisis on families in their areas, the shocking levels of child poverty, which is a scourge on our society, and the rampant inequality in our communities, which is holding our country back.

The cost of living crisis is making more and more families worry about how to make ends meet. Energy bills, rent, and the cost of clothes and basic essentials are leaving far too many children going hungry. School leaders, teachers and support staff are increasingly bringing food and supplies into schools and even washing uniforms to ensure that children have what they need and are ready to learn. In 2024 it is a national scandal.

Currently around 2 million pupils are known to be eligible for free school meals. The eligibility rate has increased sharply in the last few years—an indication not of the Government’s generosity but of appalling economic failure—and now represents around a quarter of children attending state schools. There are significant regional variations: in my local authority of Newcastle, 39.6% of children are eligible; in Wokingham, fewer than one in 10 are. Labour in government will focus on lifting those children and their families out of poverty, making sure that families have the dignity and peace of mind to be able to provide for their families.

An important first step towards that will be Labour’s plan to fund free breakfast clubs in every primary school, paid for by clamping down on tax avoidance and closing the tax loopholes in the Tories’ non-dom plan. It will give all primary school children not only a healthy start to the morning, but additional time in school to play, socialise and be ready for the school day, because it really is as much about the club as it is about the breakfast. Crucially, it will also help parents to save money on childcare. It will put money back in parents’ pockets directly and give parents greater flexibility at work so they can earn more for their families.

With clear evidence that our breakfast clubs would also improve children’s attendance and attainment, they will be central to our determined drive to narrow the attainment gap as well as tackle child poverty. We are prioritising breakfast clubs and have a plan to fund them at a cost of £365 million a year, which includes Barnett funding to the devolved Administrations.

In a report last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies argued that making free school meals universal for all primary school pupils would cost £1 billion a year; offering them to all children from reception through to year 11 would cost £2.5 billion a year. In the current economic environment, we must focus on more targeted measures.

The Conservative Government have done precious little for children from the poorest families. The failure to develop a good childcare and early years support system means that children eligible for free school meals are already five months behind their peers by the time they start school. Once in school, the attainment gap between children on free schools meals and their peers is the widest it has been for a decade. That is why Labour has committed to ensuring that inclusivity is a new focus for Ofsted, ensuring that inspections look at how schools support the attainment and inclusion of pupils eligible for free school meals, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, to ensure that they do what they can to break down the barriers to opportunity.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the hon. Lady agree with me that one aspect of inclusivity is universalism when it comes to free school meals? She is quite rightly talking up the benefits of breakfast clubs and the importance of children starting the day not feeling hungry, but does she share my view that feeling hungry after lunchtime, if they have not had a lunch, is also a problem, and some children will miss out unless free school meals are universal?

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes. I have focused on the role that Ofsted should have in ensuring inclusivity for children who are eligible for free school meals, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, but the focus of Labour’s policies is to put money back into parents’ and families’ pockets, so that we can break down the barriers to opportunity that far too many people in this country face.

I also want to comment on the quality and, in some cases, quantity of school food, as I know that concern is also expressed up and down the country. The Government produce guidance on school food that looks at issues such as foods high in fat, sugar and salt, healthy drinks and starchy foods. However, there are still concerns around schools and the quality of school food, and there is an evident need to ensure that all schools and food suppliers are ensuring that the highest standards of school food are in place. Especially considering our breakfast clubs policy, Labour would look at the guidance for school food again to ensure that they truly deliver the healthy start to the school day that we know children need.

I thank every Member who has contributed to today’s debate and assure them that the next Labour Government will be committed to reducing child poverty, which is a blight on our society that must be urgently addressed.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Breakfast clubs are a lovely idea, but does the hon. Lady recognise that, as a number of colleagues have said, many children live in temporary accommodation, have an extremely long journey to school and often miss breakfast, and will therefore lose out altogether? She talked about targeted intervention, so why would her colleagues in the other place not support the Liberal Democrat amendment to make sure that every child on universal credit got access to a free school meal, or, at the very least, Henry Dimbleby’s recommendation of raising the threshold to £20,000?

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The breakfast club offer, which we have fully costed and will deliver, is a first step on the road to making sure that we put money back into people’s pockets, break down the barriers to opportunity and deliver a cross-Government strategy to tackle child poverty. Free breakfast clubs are the first step on that road.

However, we also want to see the costs of uniforms come down for all families. We want to give children the best start in life to set them up for life and set them up to learn. As the hon. Member for Twickenham pointed out herself, after 14 years of Conservative Government we have a situation where an average of nine children in a classroom of 30 are growing up in poverty. That is why we will introduce a cross-Government taskforce aimed at breaking down the barriers to opportunity for every child in every community. We will focus the limited resources we are set to inherit where we believe they can impact the most.

Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Hodgson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will be very brief; I think my hon. Friend is just coming to her big wind-up moment. I know she is in an invidious position—an impossible position. I am sure that, like the rest of us, she would like to stand here and announce universal free school meals, and obviously she cannot, because that is not in her gift today.

One thing that I notice has not been raised at all today—I know she will be concerned about it and could take this back to the Front Bench when they are developing policy—is the issue of dinner money debt. She talked about putting money back into parents’ pockets, and there are so many families who struggle with dinner money debt. Universal free school meals would obviously solve that. When the policy is being developed and talked about, I hope she will feed that in.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is such a passionate campaigner for children in her area, and indeed the country. I did not want to let this moment pass without her getting the chance to add in that final additional measure that she would like to see.

I am conscious that the Government need to respond to this debate, so I do not want to take up any more time. I want to finish by emphasising that child poverty in this country is pernicious, but does not demand a simple fix. It needs hard work, focus and prioritisation across Government Departments. It needs a targeted approach to tackle the root causes of poverty and break down the barriers that are holding far too many people back. The next Labour Government will take on that mission, and like previous Labour Governments, we are determined to deliver on it.

17:49
Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Betts. I join colleagues in congratulating the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing this important debate. I thank everybody who has taken part alongside her: the hon. Members for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), for West Ham (Ms Brown), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), and for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms). I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), who spoke for the SNP, and the spokesperson for the official Opposition, whose speech contained a short section on free school meals. This is an important subject on which we have heard striking and compelling speeches from Members, and the debate has been important and useful.

The Government are determined to ensure that every child, regardless of their background, has the best start in life, and nutrition and school meals are important in that. Not only do they support the development of healthy eating habits that can pave the way to lifelong wellbeing, but they help pupils to concentrate, to learn and to get the most from their education in the immediate term. For those reasons, the Department for Education spends more than £1.5 billion annually on policies to deliver free and nutritious food to children and young people; that is on food provision alone. On top of that, we allocate money to schools to support the education and opportunity of disadvantaged children that is driven by their free-school-meal status, such as through the pupil premium and the deprivation factor in the national funding formula.

I am proud that this Government have extended eligibility for free school meals more than any other. We spend over £1 billion per annum delivering free lunches to the greatest ever proportion of school children: over a third. That is in contrast to the one in six who were receiving a free school meal in 2010. This change is despite unemployment being down by a million, more than 600,000 fewer children being in workless households since 2010 and the proportion of people in low hourly pay having halved since 2015.

Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Hodgson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I just want to point out that that is, of course, because of the introduction of universal infant free school meals, which, it has to be said, was a coalition Government policy; the Conservatives cannot really take full credit for that because I doubt it would have happened without the coalition Government.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

When the hon. Member for Twickenham was on her feet, she claimed that the 2014 Act was entirely due to the Liberal Democrats. Of course, it was not; it was a coalition Government at the time. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West is partly right. There have been multiple extensions to free school meal eligibility, including the provision of free school meals to disadvantaged children in further education colleges. The big factor has been the extension of protections under universal credit, which of course has happened since the coalition Government.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I want to give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks with great authority on these matters. I am worried about the time; if he is quick, I will be quick in response.

Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Has the Minister thought about the prospect of uprating that £7,400-a-year income threshold for eligibility for free school meals?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The right hon. Gentleman has been in these positions himself, so he knows that, of course, we keep that under review. However, I gently point out that it has been under the current system that this much greater proportion of children and young people are eligible for free school meals than was the case when other Governments, including one of whom he was a very distinguished member, were in office.

Overall, more than 2 million pupils are eligible for benefits-related free school meals. In addition, as we have just been discussing, 1.3 million infants in reception, year 1 and year 2 get a free meal under the universal infant free school meals policy, which was introduced in 2014. Further to that, more than 90,000 disadvantaged students in further education receive a free meal at lunchtime. Together, this helps to improve the education of children and young people; it boosts their health and saves their parents considerable sums of money.

We have also introduced extensive protections, which have been in effect since 2018. They ensure that, while universal credit is being fully rolled out, any child eligible for free school meals will retain their entitlement and keep getting free meals until the end of the phase—in other words, until the end of primary or secondary—even if their family’s income rises above the income threshold such that this would otherwise have stopped.

We all know the saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and the evidence does back that up. It shows that children who do not have breakfast are more likely to have issues with behaviour, wellbeing and learning. That is why we continue to support the provision of breakfast, by investing up to £40 million in the national school breakfast programme. The funding supports up to 2,700 schools in disadvantaged areas, and means that thousands of children from low-income families are offered a free, nutritious breakfast, to better support their attainment, wellbeing and readiness to learn. I say gently to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North that we think it is important to target that breakfast investment where it is most needed, which does not mean only in primary schools.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am going to ask the hon. Lady to forgive me, because we have less than five minutes to go, and I must reach the conclusion.

Further to that, we recognise that nutrition does not cease to be an issue outside of term time, and that holiday periods can be particularly difficult for disadvantaged and low-income families. That is one reason why we continue to support the delivery of enriching activities and provision of nutritious food through the holiday activities and food programme. It has been backed by more than £200 million in funding, and now sees all 153 local authorities in England taking part.

The success of the programme is plain to see. Since 2022, it has provided 11.3 million HAF—holiday activities and food—days to children and young people in this country. Across 2023, more than 5 million HAF days were provided during Easter, summer and winter delivery. Based on reporting from local authorities, over winter 2023 more than 290,000 children attended the programme, of whom more than 263,000 were funded directly by the HAF programme and more than 229,000 received benefits-related free school meals. In response to the hon. Member for York Central, there is a degree of flexibility for individual school provision for eligibility for that facility.

The HAF programme brings me to this point, which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North made in a different way. Of course, we have to see everything in the round—the full support given to families. In that context, the wider package of support, particularly for the cost of living difficulties the country has been through, is very relevant. That has been worth more than £100 billion over 2022-23 to 2024-25. It remains the case that pursuing policies that facilitate work and create jobs is the single most important poverty-tackling policy that a Government can have.

Colleagues, including the hon. Members for Twickenham and for Washington and Sunderland West, brought up the important question of auto-enrolment. We do want to make it as simple as possible for schools and local authorities to determine eligibility and for families to apply. That is why we have the eligibility checking service. I am also aware of some of the innovative things local authorities are doing to look at auto-enrolment. We think there is merit in those projects, which we will look at closely. We know that historically it has not been straightforward to achieve auto-enrolment, but it is definitely something we want to study further and learn from.

I am running short of time, but the hon. Member for Twickenham asked about disability. We debated that subject in this Chamber a few weeks ago, with some of the colleagues here today, and that included reference to children receiving EOTAS: education otherwise than at school. I am pleased to reiterate that we have done what we committed to do: update guidance in that area, particularly regarding children with disabilities, to make clear the duty to make reasonable adjustments under relevant legislation.

I hope I have conveyed the extent of free-meal support currently in place under this Government, and how vital a role it plays, ensuring that the most disadvantaged children receive the nutrition they need to thrive. I again thank the hon. Member for Twickenham for bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall today and all colleagues for taking part.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the provision of free school meals.