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I represent one of the poorest parts of the country. Newham has the fourth highest level of child poverty in the country: 30,525 under-16s live in families with less than 60% of national median household income before housing costs. Despite that, only 29% of children in Newham are eligible for free school meals under the current system. In Newham, 46.9% of children are
living below the poverty line. We are talking about the working poor-families that go out to work but do not earn enough money to make ends meet. Their children suffer as a result, and it is their future that we are talking about today. They have the same right to fulfil their potential as every child in this country, and the free school meals programme was a tiny way of making that possibility a reality for some.
This is about families struggling to keep their heads above water. We might not understand what £600 or £1,000 a year means to a working family because it is less than some of us would spend on a weekend away. For the families that I represent, however, it can make the difference between surviving and not surviving. That is the likely damage of taking away the universal free school meals programme. Prior to the pilot, more than one in six children living in poverty in my constituency was not entitled to free school meals. I find that shocking, and I hope that the Minister agrees.
To my working families, the universal free school meals programme represented savings of between £690 and £1,000 a year. Families who are not working or who work less than 16 hours a week and have an income of £16,000, however, would be eligible for free school meals. I do not want to take that from them, but the current system offers no incentive to work and presents a barrier to people who have taken the first steps into work.
Research carried out by the London borough of Newham shows that if, prior to the pilot, eligibility had been extended to all who claimed benefit, of any kind, an extra 2,094 households would have been eligible. Each of those households would have saved on average £614 per year-9% of the group's typical weekly pay. As a direct result of the pilot, figures from March show that 75% of pupils in Newham are now taking up free school meals. In 16 schools, the uptake is now more than 80%, and in some it is as high as 90% or more. I hope that we one day reach the 100% level mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). It has to be good news.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said eloquently in her excellent contribution, only 1% of the packed lunches that children take to school-not only in Newham, but throughout the country-meet the nutritional standards set for school meals. As a result, those children who are not eligible or who do not claim free school meals, and whose parents are unable to afford nutritionally balanced packed lunches, are eating less nutritionally valuable food than their peers. That has an impact on their health and ability to concentrate.
The impact of a healthy meal on behaviour and concentration, and therefore on academic performance, has been discussed this morning. There is a high level of consensus about the fact that to thrive at school, children need to be well nourished throughout the school day-through breakfast clubs, which were mentioned earlier, as well as free school meals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston stated, the recent study by the School Food Trust found that eating healthy school lunches in modern dining rooms can improve pupils' concentration by almost 20%. That has to be good news for the children and their educational achievement. However, in so many ways it is also good news for us all-in productivity at work, in the sort of
work that people can get as a result of their education and, as was alluded to earlier, in many other social aspects of life. The impact is on not just the few, but the whole of society.
On take-up, in Newham it was obvious that a key factor in children deciding to take up the offer of free school meals was whether their best mates did so. I know that things have moved on and are a lot better than when I was at school, but it can be extraordinarily humiliating for a child to have to claim free school meals. It is stigmatising for families to have to go through that sort of inspection. I remember a woman at my surgery being in floods of tears because she had recently become ineligible for free school meals; she had ratcheted up a bill that was far beyond her reach to be paid as a lump sum. She was being humiliated almost daily, being harassed by members of staff attempting to get her to pay for school meals that had not been taken. Obviously, with the change in eligibility rules, such a situation will no longer arise. However, she told me that she could no longer afford to work, because she could not take the hit on free school meals as well as having to pay all the other costs associated with going to work.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I have been listening intently to my hon. Friend's extremely good speech. Does she agree, however, that sometimes school staff, lunchtime supervisors and canteen staff risk their own careers by regularly giving food to children who they know are not getting meals? In other words, we also see a positive side from staff.
Lyn Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The story that I related stuck in my head because it was so different from the other stories that I normally receive from parents. Bills such as the one I mentioned are often torn up and put in a waste basket and do not become an issue. Even the small amounts of money charged by breakfast clubs across the country are often not taken from families who are known to be struggling.
Stigma, combined with the complexity of administering a free school meal system to the poorest members of our society, is discouraging take-up, which explains why there was only a 50% take-up from those who were eligible in Newham before the pilot. Let me pay tribute to Sir Robin Wales, the leader of Newham council, who, despite the threats of massive budget cuts by this Government, recognises the importance of free school meals to the children of Newham and will use his ever decreasing budget to extend the pilot. I pay tribute to him because he truly understands the impact of free school meals on the children that he and I represent. He and his council will do all that they can to ensure that the widest section of our children will be eligible for free school meals, because the impact on opportunities at school and on a healthier life in the future is so significant.
Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Weir. I welcome the Minister to his new role. He was an assiduous shadow spokesman for children, and I wish him well in the months and years ahead.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate and on her excellent contribution. She set out very well the reasons why there is such support for free school meals and for the pilots to be extended. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) on her campaign work. They have both campaigned year in, year out for the pilots to be set up and ensured that there was the evidence base to persuade the Government that they needed to make the universal free school meal offer to children in this country. They should be congratulated on their persistence.
I should like to pay tribute to the other speakers in the debate. With her background in the Child Poverty Action Group, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) gave us a very informed contribution and a straightforward approach to the matter. Free school meals deal not only with educational attainment but with the issues around reducing child poverty.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) set out very clearly the practical effect of the pilot on her constituents. She correctly paid tribute to Sir Robin Wales, the mayor of Newham, who has a personal commitment to ensuring that the pilot, which has been running in the constituency since last September, continues at the end of the two-year period if at all possible. The contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) and for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) also showed a commitment to the children in their constituencies and to getting free school meals.
Let me start by saying why I feel so passionately about the subject. As the MP for Kingston upon Hull North, I saw the effects of the "Eat Well Do Well" scheme that was in place for three years. It gave all primary and special school pupils the right to free healthy school meals. We are talking about not just lunches, but a healthy breakfast club, fruit at break time and healthy snacks for children doing sport after school. Over the three years that we were lucky enough to have such a scheme, we saw the effects on both the learning and the long-term health of those children who, unfortunately, do not always achieve as much as they should at school. In the long term, the health inequalities in my city need to be addressed by early intervention schemes such as free healthy school meals. As other hon. Members have pointed out, that scheme was abandoned by an incoming Liberal Democrat council. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said, it did not even wait for the results of an evaluation before it made its informed decision. It just decided to scrap the scheme. The pilots that the last Government set up are a useful tool for incoming Ministers to assess what has happened and to make some informed decisions about the future direction of free healthy school meals.
The last Labour Government understood that good nutrition and a healthy diet were very important to young children. If we get such things right early on, we will reap the benefits by having people who will not get sick at a young age, who cannot work, who are on benefit and who do not achieve as much as they should educationally. There are all sorts of health and educational benefits to be gained if we invest early on. As the hon.
Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said, 1.5 million children in the United Kingdom are overweight or obese at the moment. If we do not grapple with that issue, we will see an explosion in medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. We all have a vested interest in doing what we can as early as possible to ensure that children have the best possible start.
We have talked generally about free school meals. My hon. Friends have addressed the stigma, the fact that children who are entitled to free school meals do not always take them up and the cost, especially for families on low incomes. The school census in 2009 showed that of the 16% of nursery and primary school pupils who were eligible for free school meals, only 13.6% took them up. In secondary school, 13.4% of pupils were eligible for free school meals, but only 10.3% took them up, so that is a real issue that needs to be addressed.
The previous Labour Government recognised the need to improve nutrition in schools for all pupils. For the years 2005 to 2011, they invested £650 million to help support the cost of healthy school lunches, to build or refurbish kitchens in schools and to improve dining facilities. Where pupils eat their lunch is an issue. They are put off school meals if the environment is not very nice. Moreover, investing in catering staff and lunchtime supervisors is important. I was very fortunate to attend a meeting of lunchtime supervisors that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South organised in his constituency. As he said, those supervisors play a valuable role in looking after pupils, who, through no fault of their own, cannot have school lunches-either because of cost or because their parents have not bothered to apply for the free school meals. Those supervisors have such an important role to play, and I am very proud that we wanted to work with those catering staff, to ensure that their role was recognised and that they received all the training that they required.
Robert Flello: It was indeed a pleasure to have my hon. Friend come in her ministerial capacity to Gladstone primary school in my constituency to meet lunchtime supervisors and staff from across my constituency. Does she recall some of the comments made by those staff about situations in which children were passing out in the playground because they had not eaten, in some cases for a couple of days? Situations such as that are horrific. We are in the 21st century, not in Victorian times, yet we sometimes have to wonder what time we are in. Does she recall those conversations with staff?
Diana R. Johnson: Absolutely. Those conversations made me even more committed to the idea of looking at the evidence about free school meals, ensuring that we have a proper evaluation of the pilots that are running in the city of Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton and making a strong case for free school meals, so that those situations do not recur. That leads me very nicely on to the free school meal pilots, which we have heard quite a lot about in this debate, especially from my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham.
I was very fortunate, as the Minister responsible for those pilots, to visit all three of the pilot areas and to speak to the children, teachers, parents and the governors of the schools involved, to see what the effect of those pilots was within the school environment. The effect
was very positive, and I very much look forward to seeing the evaluation of those pilots, which will be carried out by the National Centre for Social Research. The Minister is a very fair and open-minded gentleman. I know that he will look at that evaluation, and I very much hope that he will see the benefits to children in those pilot areas and that he will want to increase the availability of free school meals to children around the country.
I want to consider the Wolverhampton pilot in particular today. As other Members have said, that pilot was set up to look at the eligibility criteria and to extend them, so that parents who were receiving working tax credit and who had an annual income of up to £16,190 would become eligible for their children to have free school meals.
I also want to pick up on comments made by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), who was a shadow Secretary of State for the Lib Dems when we had the Department of Children, Schools and Families. He said at that time that 500,000 children living in poverty are not entitled to free school meals. He also said:
"It is outrageous that half of our poorest children are missing out on free school meals. For the most disadvantaged children, a school dinner can be the only hot meal they get... The Tories caused this problem in the 1980s when they changed the rules to deny free school meals to half a million children living in families who were working but on low incomes. The Government must now look at restoring the entitlement to free school meals to this group-including to families on working tax credits."
I looked through the coalition agreement to see what the coalition is saying about school food and school meals. I was very disappointed that, in section 26 of the coalition agreement, there was no mention at all of school food and school meals, despite the right hon. Member for Yeovil making it very clear what he wanted to happen. I also looked under the public health section of the coalition agreement-section 25-where it sets out that
"The Government believes that we need action to promote public health, and encourage behaviour change to help people live healthier lives."
George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): Will the hon. Lady confirm that, in fact, the Government are not proposing to scrap the pilot, nor indeed-contrary to some impressions given in some places-to scrap free meals? The pilot will continue, but we are not extending it. It turns out that the promise to extend the pilot was an unfunded promise by the former Government. Having inherited bankrupt public finances, it would be irresponsible to continue to do something for which there is no money.
Diana R. Johnson:
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman, because I think that the promise to extend the pilot was a funded promise. At the end of last year, the pre-Budget report set out very clearly that, because of the success of the pilots in Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton, it was absolutely right and proper to extend the pilots, so
that there would be one in every region of the country. We would therefore have gained further evidence on which to make a very informed decision at the end of the two-year pilot about whether free school meals really work for our children and help to achieve the last Government's goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020.
It is very unfortunate that the new coalition Government have said that they are committed to the goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020, yet a number of policy announcements that they have made in the past few weeks seem to fly in the face of that commitment. For instance, tax credits have been cut, child benefit frozen, free swimming for children and the child trust fund abandoned, and the extension of the free school meals pilots is now being abandoned. [Interruption.] I must finish.
On increasing the eligibility for working families tax credit, which was a very sensible approach that would fit in very well with the coalition Government's attempt to get people into work, it was very short-sighted indeed to abandon that policy, as many hon. Members have said today. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who was a Minister in the previous Government, made it very clear not only that that policy would get 50,000 children out of poverty at a stroke, but that it was the most cost-effective way of doing so. The Department for Work and Pensions had worked through various models and that approach was seen to be the best.
I am very much looking forward to what the Minister has to say about why the coalition Government have taken the step of abandoning that policy so early on and why they have not allowed the extension to the pilots that was announced in the pre-Budget report in December 2009 to go ahead, so that we could build up the evidence base. I have heard lots from coalition Ministers about how they want to make decisions based on evidence, so it is very unfortunate that the opportunity to acquire that evidence has just been recklessly abandoned.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this important debate. She is a passionate advocate for children and young people. She served on the Children, Schools and Families Committee for more than two years, and I know that she shares the ambitions of everyone in the coalition, and indeed of everyone across the House, to obtain a better future for all children in this country. She and I have sparred in Westminster Hall on a number of subjects, ranging from the repatriation of the Lindisfarne Gospels, which I think we discussed some time ago, to many issues affecting children. I also thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana R. Johnson), the former Minister, for her kind words. I think that this is the first time that we have experienced this juxtaposition in a debate since the election.
We have had a good-quality debate today, with very powerful and well-informed contributions from the hon. Members for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for West
Ham (Lyn Brown). We have also heard some interesting references to Sweden. Everybody who travels east to Scandinavia seems to come back with different interpretations of what is good there and what could be transferred to this country. Of course, there has also been mention of turkey twizzlers on more than one occasion; such a reference is inevitable when one talks about food and young people.
I agree that free school meals have an important role to play in addressing poverty and inequality, and I do not think that anyone is disputing the importance of their role. Like the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, who opened the debate, the coalition Government are committed to closing the attainment gaps that exist in our society, not least in education, which is so important to ensuring that every child gets the best start to their life.
However, before we discuss in detail why free school meals and healthy eating in schools are so important, I just want to address head-on a particular issue that has been raised about free school meals. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West referred to a "leaked memo"-there seem to be lots of leaked memos at the moment. It has been suggested that the budget for free school meals will be diverted to the new free schools that we are looking to introduce. At this stage, it might be helpful to remind hon. Members of the very strong and positive commitment that was made in the House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education in direct response to that point. He said:
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