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30 Jun 2010 : Column 229WH—continued

That convention applies to this Government as well to those elsewhere. Save the Children also points out that 60% of children living in poverty have at least one parent in work, so most of them do not benefit from a free school meals entitlement that is linked to out-of-work benefits. Therefore, we need an answer from the Government about why they have taken this decision when they are trying to move people off benefits.

Lyn Brown: Before coming to this place, I did quite a lot of work involving focus groups with women about going into work, being out of work and so on. One of the shocking things that I found was that women had accessed the labour market because they had been told that they would be able to afford to do that and find money on top to enable them to make a better life for their families, but in reality they were in much more debt than they had ever been in before in their lives, because the hidden costs, such as the loss of free school meals, were not taken into account when their benefits were calculated and the figures done. Does my hon. Friend agree that the £690 to £1,000 that a family can save through free school meals can be pivotal to whether a low-income family are able to stay in the labour market?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and shows how critical it is to have policies such as free school meals in place when trying to move people off benefits and into work.

The coalition promised to prioritise fairness when implementing cuts and to meet the 2020 target of eradicating child poverty, but deeds speak louder than words and it is appalling that one of the first acts of the coalition Government has been to attack the poorest in our society by cancelling the extension of the free schools meals programme. Furthermore, that will not help to close the attainment gap in schools. The previous Government went some way towards improving standards in school across the board and improving attainment
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levels, but sadly an attainment gap still exists. The position is that 26.6% of the poorest children passed five good GCSEs compared with 54.2% of better-off children in 2008-09, and that is pretty much the case across the board.

If we want to reduce the attainment gap, we must ensure that all children at school are given an equal chance, and results from the pilots in Durham show that free school meals are contributing enormously to reducing attainment gaps. That is because they help children from low-income backgrounds, who may not have good nutrition, to concentrate more in the classroom. In my constituency, every school has free school meals, and I have visited many of those schools in the past few months. There is not one head teacher or one teacher who is not tremendously supportive of the programme. They say that, even at this early stage, it is making a real difference to concentration levels and children's ability to perform successfully.

The real argument for universality is how it applies across the board. No stigma is attached to free school meals in that case, and many of my local schools have 100% take-up, but the greatest advocates for the programme are the children themselves. When my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson) visited Durham with me to look at the programme, we talked to many of the children, and we found that it was the children in the school who were the advocates and ambassadors for the programme. Of course they had the odd grumble, but generally speaking, at the age of seven, eight and nine, they recognised the value of the programme. They talked about how it was encouraging them to eat healthily and to develop social skills. They liked being able to sit down with their friends and teachers and have their lunch. They said that they were pleased because they no longer had to bring packed lunches, and there was no longer segregation in the school between those having school meals and those having packed lunches.

Rachel Reeves: My hon. Friend talks eloquently about the difference that free school meals have made in her constituency. Does she agree that as well as free school meals, which are important, breakfast clubs in schools are making a huge difference? However, certainly in my constituency, schools rely on support from the local education authority and the Department for Education to be able to continue those breakfast clubs. Does she share my fear that we are starting to descend a slippery slope and that the support for breakfast clubs, which also help children's concentration and break down some of the barriers that she talked about, is likely to be at risk in future?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point; indeed, we were discussing it on the Floor of the House yesterday, when it was noted that the cuts being made to area-based local authority grants are already affecting the extended schools budget, which many local authorities use to support breakfast and after-school clubs.

I honestly wish that the Secretary of State for Education or one of his Ministers had come to my constituency before announcing their policy, because it is impossible to witness the free school meals system in practice, to see how successful it is and then to cut it.

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The GMB produced a helpful progress report on free school meals in February, which demonstrated that the free school meals service in Durham was employing 140 additional staff and that food was being sourced locally. Furthermore, it was much more cost-effective to deliver free school meals as a universal, rather than means-tested, service. The system ticked all the boxes because it also helped to educate children and their parents about how to eat properly.

In this time of scarce financial resources, the Government should surely be looking at policies that tick a whole range of boxes and which are cost-effective. Powerful arguments can be made that free school meals are a good investment for the future and that they help to reduce long-term health and education inequalities.

Lyn Brown: In Newham, our children were starting to eat different foods from those that they had eaten previously. Mothers were telling me that their children no longer demanded the chicken nuggets that we heard about earlier, but wanted to eat healthier foods that were cooked from scratch with mum and dad in the kitchen at the weekend. Families' purchasing power was changing because they were eating more cheaply, and the nutritional value of the food that they were eating was changing, too. Regardless of whether we want them to, children dictate what a family eats.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I hope the Minister will consider.

I want to finish by asking the Minister a number of questions. How will the Government help parents into work without considering the need for free school meals and other such programmes? What will they do to improve health inequalities among children if they do not use free school meals to alter the behaviour of children and families? Why on earth have a Government who said that they were committed to fairness and alleviating child poverty started by attacking families on low incomes? Importantly, how do the Government propose to close the attainment gap and reduce inequality without considering nutrition in schools?

10.3 am

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): It is an absolute pleasure to speak in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing it. She and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) have been long-standing collaborators of mine on this subject. I was very pleased to work with them on it when I was the chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, and I am delighted that we will continue to work together on it in the House. I guess that I should declare that I remain a member of the CPAG, and I am a strong supporter of its work and what it stands for. I am pleased that, following my departure, the CPAG remains as committed as ever to the cause of free school meals, as part of its wider "2 skint 4 school" campaign.

I very much welcomed the announcements that the previous Labour Government made over a number of years to improve the quality of, and eligibility for, free school meals. One of the most important years in the development of policy was 2005, with the establishment
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of the School Food Trust, which heightened awareness of the importance of this issue on a number of policy fronts. We should pay tribute to the trust for also playing an important role in driving up nutritional standards, which is something that every Member will want to applaud.

Of course, the Labour Government's policies were important in other ways. Investment in our school infrastructure enabled a number of schools significantly to improve catering facilities, which could increasingly be brought back in-house. I was recently delighted to have the opportunity to visit the wonderful new kitchen at Acre Hall primary school in my constituency. To my great delight, Theresa, the school cook, has offered me the chance to join her and cook lunch for the children. I am very much looking forward to doing that in the next few weeks, when I expect that I will learn a great deal about how to peel carrots in bulk.

Perhaps the Labour Government's most important initiative was the extension of eligibility for free school meals. With my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West, I strongly welcomed the direction of policy travel that that represented. I am deeply concerned that the announcement that the Secretary of State for Education made the other day represents a reversal of that direction of policy travel, which is something that we must all be very anxious about.

I was particularly interested when the Secretary of State explained that the pilots would not be further extended because the evidence of a link between the provision of free school meals and educational attainment remained unproven. It is certainly important that educational attainment is one of the gains of extending the right to free school meals, and the evidence does in fact suggest that there are improvements in cognitive ability, concentration and learning behaviour. Early on in the Hull experiment-researchers confirmed this later-teachers reported a calmer learning environment, with children more engaged, including in the often difficult classroom period in the early afternoon. It is therefore wrong to suggest that the educational gains are unproven. Moreover, it is wrong to judge the provision of universal free school meals on educational attainment grounds alone, important though those of course are.

We must also be aware of the health gains, because standards of nutrition in school meals have risen significantly since 2005. Hon. Members should contrast that with the packed lunches that many low-income parents are still forced to provide to their children, only 1% of which meet the standard of today's school meals.

We have also heard about the importance of the socialising and behavioural gains that we see in our schools when more children eat lunch together. Children learn to converse and to look out for one another, and they learn good courtesy and table manners. Importantly, children who are having lunch in school are not hanging around the chip shop at the end of the road-something that is particularly significant in secondary schools.

It is also important to consider school lunch in the context of the broader curriculum, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham said. There is the opportunity to link lunch to education about diet, nutrition and cooking. Many schools have used the extension of school meal programmes to bring more parents into schools, so that they and their children learn to enjoy cooking healthy meals together.

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There are important sustainability gains in extending the reach of free school meals and in the opportunity that that creates for cooking locally, on-site, with less transport of ingredients. It also offers schools the opportunity to source from local producers, which boosts the local economy. The extension of free school meals is an important job-creation opportunity. Working in school kitchens is a particularly desirable form of employment for many parents, especially mothers. The flexibility of the work-the fact that it takes place in term time and obviously coincides with the times when the children are in school-makes it a good source of additional local jobs.

It is highly regrettable that those additional gains were not mentioned by the Secretary of State when he said that the gains on educational attainment grounds were unproven. Even if that had been true-in my view the evidence shows that it is not-it is highly regrettable that the much broader social and environmental gains were not considered, too. Most importantly, I guess, for many of the families whom I have talked to, are the economic and financial consequences for family budgets of extending eligibility for free school meals.

School meals represent good value, and many hon. Members present in the Chamber will believe that a hot lunch at £1.90 or £2 a head is good value; and that is right. Still, however, for many low-income working parents, who may perhaps be raising two or three children, that £1.90, £2 or £2.20 added up over the week can be unaffordable. Larger families are a group already at higher risk of child poverty. Undoubtedly, for some of those families, the cost of providing lunch for their children is a component of that greater risk. It is a matter of regret that we are not taking the opportunity to deal with that.

As my hon. Friends have said, one of the most significant concerns for us is the position of low-income working families. I very much regret the decision not to roll out the provision of free school meals to more children in such families. Even the pilots under the previous Government were, I confess, limited and did not go far enough in my view in relation to provision for secondary school kids. Almost no secondary school child in this country in a low-income working family has been able to get a free school meal. The recent announcement by the Secretary of State means that we have lost substantial potential gains to do with creating work incentives and ending child poverty: as has been mentioned, the measures would have lifted a further 50,000 children out of poverty; there would have been wider social and economic gains, too.

The opportunities and options for extension are quite numerous. Many MPs have long argued that, as a first step, free school meals should be extended to all families on working tax credit. That would make a significant difference. We could also consider families in receipt of housing benefit and council tax benefit. As the Minister knows, those are in-work benefits, too. We have significant reasons for supporting the Government's own back-to-work and work incentivisation agenda, with extending the entitlement to free school meals.

I alluded to take-up in an intervention earlier. The wider the eligibility, the greater the take-up across the board, including among those children who would be
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entitled to free school meals even on the most limited eligibility criteria used some years ago. I think that I am right in saying that the rate nearly doubled in Hull among such children-those who would have been entitled anyway. That significant increase in take-up shows the absolute power of universal provision; some of us find that we are making that argument repeatedly in different contexts. We can understand why take-up increases when eligibility is widened; my hon. Friends have alluded to the reasons. There is less stigma: if their friends are having lunches, children will go along, too, and have lunch with their mates. Administrative simplicity is another factor. It is as true in this context as in any other that means-testing brings complexity and shuts out people who should be entitled. Of course, schools-hard-pressed to meet budgets-will be very pleased about anything that reduces administrative costs.

I want to explore the extension of free school meals into the wider educational environment, which is another thing mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham when she talked about extended schools. Many schools have in recent years extended their support to families by providing longer hours, with out-of-school breakfast clubs and after-school events. It is of great concern to me that pressures on funding resulting from the Budget and other cuts being announced will put those extended school activities at considerable risk.

The Minister has long been a strong proponent of the benefits of out-of-school and extended school activities. I remember hearing him say early on that schools in his constituency would want to take advantage of such moves and would be unwise not to. We will not necessarily lose extended school activities completely, but I am concerned that the poorest children may not be able to afford to participate: the children who could benefit most from those activities will be exactly those who will be shut out. We need some guarantees about funding for extended and out-of-school provision, and that must include providing for the children taking part to eat together-healthy snacks, breakfast or supper-where that is part of the plan.

Breakfast clubs have a particular significance in that context. They play an important role for many low-income families, and hon. Members should welcome several aspects of those clubs. They have attracted considerable support in many areas-in the private sector as well as the voluntary sector. In my constituency, a major employer is Kellogg's, which has put millions of pounds of support into helping school breakfast clubs. It is incredibly committed to their future and extremely anxious about what the Government intend for them. It has highlighted to me its concerns about some of the language used by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), who suggested that breakfast clubs might not be desirable for a number of kids. I am sure that it would be good for children to have healthy breakfasts at home, wherever possible, but for all sorts of reasons at all sorts of times that is not possible for every parent. We must be able to build on provision that has proved a considerable success in many schools and that has given some of our most deprived kids a strong start to the school day. I hope that we shall receive assurances from Ministers in the next few weeks about extended school activities-funding for them and enabling the poorest children to participate in them more broadly-and about the role that free school meals will play in offering that.

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I think that everyone understands the financial pressures and the fact that we can expect public spending cuts. However, the pain of those cuts, as my hon. Friends have repeatedly told the Government, must not be borne by the poorest; but I very much fear that that will be the exact consequence of not extending the provision.

I am concerned, too, that we are seeing a massive policy step backwards; although the direction of travel in recent years has been at times hesitant or a little stop-go, it has none the less been broadly progressive and positive. Having seen such progress, it is a matter of huge regret to find things suddenly being put in reverse.

My concluding plea is for Ministers to consider again their plans for the provision of free school meals, and to do so with fully open minds. I want their minds to be open in the context of child poverty; I want their minds to be open in the context of improving working centres; and I want their minds to be open in the context of children's health-and, of course, their learning and educational attainment. Unfortunately, the Conservative-Lib Dem Government has a bit of a track record in not having an open mind.

Several hon. Members have spoken of the fate of the programme in Hull. One of the most shameful aspects of the Lib Dem attempt to stop that programme early was that they did not wait for a proper evaluation to be made; only after the campaigning efforts of parents and others were they forced to finish the programme, so that a proper research basis could be established for the success that it had enjoyed. The governing parties have form for not evaluating programmes properly, and I know that the Minister will not want to be associated with that.

I hope that the Minister will offer some reassurance-for a start, to the many working families who are anxious about the many financial pressures that they already face. In that context, extending free school meals to more of those low-income working families would be a step towards the long-term provision of universal free school meals. That would be widely welcomed, and I hope that the Government will consider doing so.

10.22 am

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I thank you, Mr Weir, for giving me the opportunity to speak for the first time under your chairmanship.

I shall speak only for a short time, as I am most interested to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson) has to say, as the free school meals pilot in the area that she represents was stopped by the Liberal Democrat-controlled council. I also want to hear what the Minister has to say. It is only a failure of the imagination that stops the Government understanding the importance of free school meals, both for their nutritional and social value to the children and for their economic value to hard-pressed working families that struggle from day to day to make ends meet.

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