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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 30 June 2010

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

Free School Meals

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Brooks Newmark.)

9.30 am

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this debate on free school meals because it allows me to highlight a shameful decision by the coalition Government. Despite the current financial situation facing our country, an extremely strong case can be made for the provision of universal free school meals. The fact that the Government are choosing to limit and cut that provision instead of widening it seems to be a step in the wrong direction, not just because of the provision's health and educational benefits to pupils, but because of its the financial benefits for the least well-off in society.

My involvement and that of my hon. Friends in the Chamber started in 2006, not long after I was elected to the House. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and I, with around a dozen other hon. Members, went on a fact-finding visit to Sweden, primarily to find out more about the Swedish health and education systems, and particularly free schools. While in Sweden, my attention was captured not by free schools, but the country's school meals policy. Free school meals have been available there to all children for several years. The take-up is approximately 85%, and we were amazed to see children not only tucking into a healthy, nutritious meal, but serving themselves from a buffet and working together to help to clear away plates and wipe the tables. Those children were seven.

Pupils and teachers eat together as a class on a rota system so that there are no huge crowds at lunch time, which is an important part of the day for continued learning and socialising, not only with one other, but with the teacher. The system provides an opportunity for teachers to have time to themselves-they spend 40 minutes in the staff room when the children go out to play-and the children do not load up on sugary snacks and then sit down to afternoon study while metaphorically swinging from the lampshades. It was interesting that although my hon. Friend and I returned from Sweden excited and convinced of the benefits of universal free school meals, the new Secretary of State for Education returned from his visit to Sweden considerably more excited about free schools.

Since 2005, there has been a sea change in our attitude to the healthiness of school meals, thanks partly to the high-profile campaign by Jamie Oliver. The changes since then have been crucial. The food provided to children who choose school meals is, more often than not, fresh, nutritious and locally sourced. That is a far cry from the profit-driven mentality that previously dominated school meal provision and led to children eating such monstrosities as turkey twizzlers. That was
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only the first part of the necessary change, and when we had made school food healthy, it was our duty to ensure that as many children as possible ate it.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that eligibility is a key issue? Newham is fourth highest on deprivation indices for child poverty. Around 46.9% of our children live below the poverty line, but only 29% are entitled to free school meals.

Mrs Hodgson: Exactly. I shall come to that, and it is why I call for universal free school meals.

Last week, an Ofsted report found that although the quality of school meals had increased, the take-up of free school meals by those entitled to them remained low because of stigma, complexity and some families' constant movement in and out of entitlement. I received free school meals from the day I started school until the day I left, so I can speak about the stigma from personal experience. Even today, a significant stigma is attached to receiving free school meals, and expanding access to all is the fairest way of eradicating that stigma.

One in five children who are eligible for free school meals do not receive them. In addition, a swathe of forgotten children is not entitled to them, although they definitely live in poverty. A healthy packed lunch might be too expensive for their parent or parents, who might be in a low paid, full-time job and rushing about doing their best to look after their children. Universal free school meals are undoubtedly the best way to address all those problems, but they would do more than that; they would ensure that all children had a healthy meal during the school day. Some parents may be able to shop at Waitrose or Marks and Spencer, but it does not follow that their child's lunch box is healthy. A ready meal from Marks and Spencer may cost more than a ready meal from Asda or Tesco, but it is still a ready meal, and we should not assume that all children go home to healthy food just because they have an upmarket postcode.

That is why my colleagues and I have campaigned so strongly on the matter for the past four years. We have lobbied incessantly. We lobbied the Child Poverty Action Group to take up the cause, and I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) in the Chamber today and look forward to hearing her valuable contribution to the debate. Believe it or not, the issue was not always popular. There were objections even in my own party to rolling out free school meals regardless of household income. However, it remains the fairest way to ensure that all children below the poverty line, however that is measured, receive a healthy meal during the school day.

I chased Cabinet Ministers through the voting Lobby to try to convince them of our crusade to such an extent that they pre-empted me before I had even said a word by telling me that the matter was still being considered, and eventually to tell me that it was with my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), who was writing our manifesto. I need not say what happened next, as I am sure that hon. Members can imagine, but I became his shadow and was always ready to extol the virtues of universal free school meals.

The first big success for our campaign came at the Labour party conference in 2008 when my right hon. Friends the Members for Normanton, Pontefract and
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Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) announced the introduction of three pilots for free school meals, all to be local authority match funded. Two pilots were for universal free school meals; Durham and Newham bid for them and were lucky enough to secure them. My hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham and for West Ham (Lyn Brown) played a great part in that. The further pilot involved raising the threshold to the agreed poverty line to ensure that more children in poverty qualified for free school meals, and that went to Wolverhampton.

Those pilots have been under way for nearly a year. They have been hugely successful, especially those involving universal free school meals in Newham and Durham, where take-up is 75% and more than 80% respectively. The majority of primary school pupils in those boroughs therefore receive a hot, healthy, nutritious meal instead of the sugary, additive-laced snacks that some children are given in their packed lunches.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Has not the research also shown that extending entitlement universally leads to not only increases across the board-that is obvious-but increases among those who would have been entitled anyway, as demonstrated in the 2006 Hull experiment?

Mrs Hodgson: My hon. Friend is right, and I will come on to the Hull experiment.

The quality of packed lunches is usually dependent on cost, but do not take my word for that, Mr Weir. Research by Professor Derek Colquhoun of the university of Hull showed that it is not always possible for families to access, let alone afford, fresh food for their children. The alternative of paying for school meals may cost almost £20 a week for a family with two children-money which those still living below the poverty line do not have.

I look forward to hearing more about the success of the Durham and Newham pilots from my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham and for West Ham. Unfortunately, due to the recession, universal free school meals did not make it into our manifesto, but our party gave a commitment in the 2009 pre-Budget report to extend the universal free school meals pilots to at least one in every region and permanently to raise the access threshold everywhere else to £16,190 to enable a further 500,000 children to have a free, hot and healthy lunch every day. That approach would also lift a further 50,000 children out of poverty, which was welcome news as far as my colleagues and I were concerned. Such a measure would also be an important first step on the way to universal entitlement, and I welcome it as still affordable, even during a recession.

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is even more important to extend that entitlement during the recession? In my constituency, the average income is £16,000 a year, which means that the average family is living in poverty. However, if someone works and earns £16,000 a year, their children are not entitled to free school meals. It is harder for those families to go back to work because they lose the
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entitlement, which for many is equivalent to about £600 a year. If the coalition Government want to get more people back to work-although the forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility showed that their Budget will put 100,000 more people on the dole-one important measure would be to extend the entitlement to free school meals so that parents who go back to work can claim it for their children.

Mrs Hodgson: My hon. Friend raises an issue that I was coming to-I fear that she makes the point better than I would have done. A lot of hon. Members in the coalition Government are not getting that point, but hopefully the contributions that my hon. Friends and I make today will put paid to that.

Confusingly, although the new Government committed themselves to meeting the child poverty targets set by the previous Government, the Secretary of State for Education announced on 9 June that the coalition Government would not be going ahead with the additional pilot schemes, or the extension of schemes to include more low-income families. That is devastating news for the families concerned. The extension would have eased the transition into work for many parents-my hon. Friend has just spoken about that-and supported the Government's wider drive to improve educational and health outcomes among the least well-off in our society. It seems that the Education Secretary wants to follow in the footsteps of a former Conservative Education Secretary, who became well known-indeed infamous-overnight with the tag of "milk snatcher". Today's Education Secretary shall for ever more be known as the "meal snatcher".

Entitlement to free school meals usually ends when a family moves off benefits and into low-paid employment. That gives rise to an extra cost of around £300 a child per year, just when families are trying to make themselves better off through work. Furthermore, 60% of children in poverty have at least one parent in work, so the majority of children who live in poverty today do not benefit from free school meals. That is a shocking statistic, but it is true.

The decision announced by the Government is spectacularly short-sighted and I urge the Minister to reconsider it as a matter of urgency, particularly considering that the coalition's stated aim is to decrease the number of people on benefits and increase the number of people in work. That is a laudable goal, but it will never be reached with such poorly thought out policy decisions.

A measure that would have raised 50,000 children above the poverty line has been scrapped, thereby exposing the Government's claims to promote fairness as nothing but empty rhetoric. How can increasing the number of children living in poverty in 2010 help the Government to meet their 2020 target for eradicating child poverty, especially after a Budget that, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows, disproportionately affects the very poorest? I was even more disturbed to see a leaked memo suggesting that money that would have been directed to the poorest families for free school meals is now being redirected to help the middle classes to parachute their children out of mainstream schools and into free schools. That is a particularly galling example of money being directed away from the disadvantaged towards the comfortably off and away from a scheme that would have lifted children out of poverty to one that will do nothing of
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the sort but will pander to middle-class parents who still bemoan the loss of grammar schools in leafy London boroughs.

Following this debate, and with the successful campaign that is being led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), the Government will choose to reinstate the changes to free school meal provision that were announced by the previous Labour Administration. That would be welcome news, but I would like the Government to go even further and seriously consider the case for universal free school meals. It is all too easy to dismiss the argument by saying, "We haven't got the money to do it". Tough spending decisions should be a matter of prioritising, not slashing budgets for ideological reasons.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and her cogent argument for universal free school meals. Does she agree that an additional spin-off effect would be that if each child was able to access a free, nutritious and healthy meal, it would help in the battle against childhood obesity? Tackling that was a target of the previous Government, and hopefully it is shared by the present Government.

Mrs Hodgson: That well-made point is another that I was about to come to. I am sure that hon. Members from all parties agree that the education and health of our children is of utmost importance. That more than justifies the admittedly considerable spending commitment that such a policy would entail. It is estimated that obesity costs the NHS £3.5 billion a year and the figure is set to rise, so this is a cost worth paying to save money in the long run.

Even at a time when the deficit needs to be cut, we cannot forget the social implications of the decisions that are made by the Government-by a coalition Government no less. They are a broad church that goes from left-leaning Liberal Democrats to right-leaning Thatcherite Conservatives through all colours in between. One would think that a coalition with the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable) at its heart would produce fiscally sound social policies and that the last thing that it would do would be to increase child poverty. Alas, I fear not. One only has to look north towards Hull to see that the Liberal Democrats have form on such matters.

In 2004, the Labour council in Hull introduced universal free school meals. It had to get a dispensation from the then Labour Government to do so as that took place prior to the passage the Education and Inspections Act 2006 which, by changing "shall" to "may" in a line of legislation, made it possible for universal free school meals to be introduced by any local authority anywhere in England.

That first pilot scheme was a huge success. Those successes were chronicled by a number of academic papers, the most notable of which is the work I mentioned earlier by Professor Derek Colquhoun from the university of Hull. If I started to go into detail about how positive that evaluation was, there would be no time for anyone else to speak in the debate. I will therefore not do so, but I strongly suggest to the Minister that he look it up-it is a very good read.

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What happened next? Sadly for the children of Hull, Labour lost control of the council after three short years to the Liberal Democrats, who promptly and savagely, and without remorse, scrapped the free school meals initiative. Once again, there was a charge for access to the lovely hot and healthy school meals to which the city's children had become accustomed. That was greeted with outrage from local parents, who had not realised that that was what the Liberal Democrats would do. Does not this all sound strangely familiar? Lo and behold, here we are again. What happens as soon as they are in government? The Liberal Democrats, aided and abetted by their Tory masters, are at it again. Time and again, they are literally taking food out of the mouths of society's poorest children.

Kate Green: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs Hodgson: I am just about to finish.

I notice that no Liberal Democrat Member is present in the Chamber to try to defend their part in this atrocity. I hope that the Liberal Democrats are proud of themselves and of the fact that such policies are what they seem to have come into politics for-they do it time and time again. I hope that their ministerial salaries and cars are worth it and that all the hard-working people up and down the country who voted Liberal Democrat are happy with the decisions that their elected representatives are taking on their behalf. In future, the mantra will not be, "Vote Lib Dem, get Tory"; it will be, "Vote Lib Dem, increase child poverty". I look forward to hearing the Minister's explanations.

9.49 am

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this very important debate. I, too, shall start with our visit to Sweden, because that was a turning point in our realisation that universal free school meals could be delivered and that a society would consider that the norm for how children are treated at school. My hon. Friend is right that we came back very excited about the possibility of mounting a campaign. It is pleasing to see in the debate today that the organisations and agencies that are firmly focused on alleviating child poverty, such as Barnardo's, the Child Poverty Action Group and Save the Children, have thrown their weight behind the campaign to secure universal free school meals and to protect what we have achieved so far. It is worth reiterating the substantial progress made in the last Parliament.

We had three pilots, two focusing on universal free school meals for primary school children in Durham and in Newham, including the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). Significantly, we had the promise of a further roll-out to cover at least one local authority in each region, and we had free school meal entitlement elsewhere being extended to primary school children of working parents in receipt of working tax credit with a household income below £16,190. That was to roll out throughout 2010 and 2011.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, the extension of free school meals would have lifted 50,000 children out of poverty, but critically it would have increased incentives to work.
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Without the extension, families moving off benefits into work would be hit by costs of about £210 per year per primary school-age child, so the new Government's decision sits very uneasily with their policies, about which they tell us frequently, to move people off benefits into work. Barnardo's and the other agencies make that point strongly. The Government need to consider how to make work pay and ensure that it does, but they also need to go further by examining how we reduce education and health inequalities. Almost all health professionals have criticised the Government's decision on free school meals, saying that it is an enormous setback to the reduction of education and health inequalities.

My hon. Friend and I may have been spearheading the campaign in the past three or four years, but I must pay tribute to Save the Children, because it first made the argument for free school meals in 1933. It is dreadful that almost a century later, we have not achieved that goal. Save the Children points to the fact that the UN convention on the rights of the child, which every country in the world has now signed, states that Governments are under a duty to

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