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"Under no circumstances will I take for the free schools programme money intended to extend free school meals to poor children. That money will go towards raising attainment among the poorest children."-[Official Report, 21 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 27.]
Lyn Brown: I would like some clarification of what that actually means. The Secretary of State says that he will not take money from free school meals to put into free schools because he wants to put it into raising attainment for poorer children. Does that mean that the free school meals budget is under threat because it will be used to pay for a different scheme, idea or notion?
Tim Loughton: No, and I will come to that. It means exactly what the Secretary of State said. Money for free schools will not come from any of the budgets around free school meals. The money that will now not be used for the extension of free school meals, which was never budgeted for, will be used for other methods of improving educational attainment within our schools and closing the gap which, as the hon. Lady agrees, is essential.
We need more clarity. The previous Labour Government said that the extension of the free school meals pilots next year would cost £85 million and the new Government say that it will cost £125 million. The gap is only £40 million. If the £85 million is there, what will it be spent on? I think that that is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) was making. Will that money be used for something
else? Will it be used to pay down the deficit? For what, precisely, will the money earmarked for the scheme-money that the Minister has said is available-be used?
Over three years, the extension of the scheme would have cost £295 million, for which the previous Government did not budget. That is a simple fact. It was immoral of the previous Government to lead people to believe that they could extend the free school meal programme without making any provision for funding it. Furthermore, in this debate, hon. Members have not just been talking about extending the free school meal entitlement; they have been talking as though the last Government wanted a universal free school meal entitlement. That was never a manifesto commitment. If hon. Members are now talking about a universal free school meal programme, where will that money come from? Which programmes would they cut? They cannot have it both ways.
To return to the points that many hon. Members want addressed, I will clarify exactly what the Secretary of State for Education said. He has reallocated £50 million in direct funding from the harnessing technology grant to create a standards and diversity fund, thus reinventing a fund set up by the previous Government in 2006, but stopped in 2009, that was intended to create diversity of provision in the school system. The fund will now provide capital funding for free schools until 31 March 2011. Funding for free schools beyond that will be a top priority for the Department in the forthcoming spending review. I would like to make it clear that the new free schools will be funded on a basis comparable with other state-funded schools and that, as is the case now, money will follow the pupil within the funding system.
To return to the issue of free school meals, we are of course extremely disappointed that we cannot proceed with the previous Government's proposal to extend the free school meals pilots. It would be good for more children to have access to free school meals. I agree with hon. Members that there is no doubt that free school meals help families and children in need across the country. However, the previous Government underfunded the programme to the tune of £295 million over the next three years, and we are not prepared to cut front-line budgets to support an as yet unproved scheme. We have therefore taken the difficult decision, from this September, not to extend free school meals to maintained nursery and key stage 1 pupils from working families on low incomes. We have also decided not to provide funding from central Government for the further five local pilots mentioned.
Let me be clear: we are absolutely not taking free school meals away from anyone who is eligible. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West said that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would become known as the meal snatcher. No child currently eligible for free school meals will lose that entitlement. Nothing is being taken away. However, the extension that the Labour Government promised but failed to fund will now no longer take place.
Kate Green: Does not the Minister accept that that in itself is a significant blow to many low-income families who expected that, from this September, their stretched family budgets would have been helped by the extension of the pilots, which will now not take place? Does he not regret that?
Tim Loughton: That was a false expectation given by the previous Government. The biggest disappointment is that those people have been misled about something that was never funded. We are not taking free school meals away from anyone who is eligible, nor are we changing the rules for determining eligibility. All those who currently qualify for free school meals will continue to receive them.
We have taken what we believe to be the most important decision: schools should use their budgets this year to focus on our priority of improving attainment, which is key to improving the life changes of all children. Not extending free school meals or continuing with additional pilots will free up £160 million this year-if the hon. Lady who asked the question will put down her BlackBerry and listen to my answer-and we can use that money more effectively and directly to improve attainment in our schools.
Although we will not be extending free school meals, we are still interested to know whether there is a case for expanding the scheme. That is why we are committed to continuing the ongoing pilots in Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton that started in September 2009. I have been to Newham, and I will certainly repeat hon. Members' praise of its mayor, Sir Robin Wales, not only for what he has done with free school meals but for the free musical instrument programme, which is particularly interesting and something that we want to consider further. The pilots will be carefully evaluated so that we can learn the lessons from them in order better to assess the case for increasing eligibility in the future.
Although we cannot extend eligibility, we would like to see a rise in take-up. At present, many eligible pupils-we estimate nearly 600,000 children, or a quarter of those entitled-do not take up their free school meals. That situation must change. Is it an issue of stigmatisation, as hon. Members have suggested? I am interested in the imaginative use of technology. For example, at Roseberry college, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for City of Durham, a new cashless payment system removes any potential stigma and has increased the take-up by eligible pupils from less than half to more than 90%. That interesting example could be replicated throughout the country. I hope that all would agree that our schools should do everything they can to ensure that eligible pupils take up their entitlement.
Good free school meals are important not just to tackling poverty, but to ensuring the health of our children. They often represent the only nutritious meal in some children's day. That is why it is vital that schools continue to serve healthy food and ensure that their pupils eat well, which extends beyond the quality of the meals. Ofsted findings and surveys by the School Food Trust, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, show that it is not nutritional changes that put children off school lunch, but poor dining facilities and organisation. If there is nowhere to sit, if the queues are long, if the dining rooms are unattractive or if there is not enough time, children will not eat properly.
School meals also have an important social element. The lunch hour should be a proper part of the day-we view that as a priority. It should include time to eat a good meal, to exercise and to socialise. We know that children do not perform as well in the afternoon without a good break, and we agree that school meals can have
social benefits. I am pleased to report that some progress is being made. An Ofsted report last week found that good progress has generally been made towards meeting the standards for school food. That is good news, especially for children benefiting from free school meals.
Despite being unable to extend free school meals, we as a Government are absolutely committed to fighting poverty and raising the life chances of the most vulnerable in our society. Section 14 of the coalition document, which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North did not mention, confirms the Government's commitment to ending child poverty by 2020. Although the previous Government can be commended for the introduction of the Child Poverty Act 2010, which both coalition parties supported, we are disappointed by the latest figures showing that 2.8 million children in this country were still in poverty in 2008-09. The previous Government spent a substantial sum on tax and benefits in an attempt to raise people above the 60% poverty threshold, yet the evidence shows that that simply did not work. We believe that the best way to tackle child poverty is to address the root causes: entrenched worklessness, economic dependency, family breakdown, educational failure, addiction and debt.
Those are only some of the drivers of poverty. Our approach must be able to tackle each of them. We will do so by taking a multi-faceted approach that recognises the different factors that trap people in poverty. Only by doing so can we effectively and sustainably improve outcomes for children. That was why the Prime Minister announced an independent review of poverty in the UK, led by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), whom his hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned in not particularly glowing terms. The review will consider what the Government can do to improve the lives of the least advantaged people in our society. We will be working closely with other Departments to ensure that we tackle the issue head-on. At the heart of the programme is a commitment to spending more on the education of the poorest.
That is why we are introducing the pupil premium. It was one of the first things promised by this Government and it will tackle head-on the problems of the most disadvantaged pupils by helping them get the education they desperately need. The pupil premium is supported by the Conservatives and was championed loudest by the Liberal Democrats. By giving resources to school leaders and teachers-the people who matter most in extending opportunity-we can ensure that our most disadvantaged pupils have better life chances than ever before.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I want to focus attention on something that I believe represent one of the greatest errors of the previous Government: the special treatment that has been given to abstentionist Members of Parliament that enables them to claim Westminster allowances and the Short money that is supposed to be used for the purposes of parliamentary activities.
There is only one elected party in the House that refuses to take its seats, so that policy is not driven by a need to address a general problem. The problem is one single party seeking and getting preferential treatment. There is now a special status of MP, and the principle that the same is expected of and awarded to all Members of the House equally has been abandoned. A number of us have been absolutely consistent on the issue. We opposed the original decision to grant these allowances; we supported the attempts by the then Conservative Opposition to overturn them; and we believe that now is an opportune moment-in a new Parliament, with new politics and with the public concern that rightly exists about the wastefulness of public expenditure, value for money and so on-to turn our attention once again to the issue, particularly given the promises made by senior members of the Conservative party in the run-up to the election.
The issue arose in 1997 and in 2001, with the respective Speakers of the House at those times ruling that Sinn Fein should not be granted allowances. On 14 May 1997, the then Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, said:
"those who choose not to take their seats should not have access to the many benefits and facilities that are now available in the House without also taking up their responsibilities as Members."-[Official Report, 14 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 35.]
Sinn Fein challenged that ruling in the courts. Indeed, it took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, no less, and was unsuccessful both in the domestic courts and in Europe, which demonstrated that the decision was perfectly just and correct. Given the courts' dismissal of the various legal challenges, it is spurious to defend the present situation by saying that it recognises of the rights of a section of the electorate.
In 2001, the then Labour Government presented a motion to reverse the decision of the Speaker, although that motion did not apply to Short money. It is now worth reminding those who sit on the Government Benches what they said while they were in opposition. I exclude from that the Liberal Democrats, including the Deputy Leader of the House, who will respond to the debate, because I understand that they abstained or did not take a particular position one way or another throughout the discussion of the issue.
I hope that Conservative Members who are now in government will clearly spell out the opposition to the position that was evinced during the Conservatives' days in opposition. One Conservative spokesman-Quentin Davies, the then shadow Secretary of State-denounced the proposal when it was first introduced, saying that it involved
"more unreciprocated concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA"
"treating the rules of the House of Commons as the currency for such concessions."
"There is in fact no comparison at all between the position in Stormont and that in the House, because Sinn Fein-IRA have agreed to take their seats in the Assembly at Stormont and in the Executive there".-[Official Report, 18 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 160-162.]
"The issue before us is not about the Northern Ireland peace process or about the resumption of the Assembly; it is about the role of Members of parliament, what it means to sit in the House and the nature of the job of being an elected representative of this place. It is primarily on that basis that we oppose the action that the Government are seeking to take and will be voting against the motions."-[Official Report, 8 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 912.]
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Is not the patent absurdity of this that all of us, as Members of the House, receive expenditure for staying in London when we attend Parliament, yet there are MPs who do not attend Parliament but still obtain the expenses and the allowances?
Mr Dodds: My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the coverage of the expenses scandal, it was revealed that Sinn Fein Members were claiming nearly £500,000 in accommodation costs for being in London primarily on parliamentary duties although they do not even attend the House. I can describe the situation no more eloquently then the current Secretary of State who, in light of that particular point, said in the Daily Mail on 8 April 2009:
"It is completely unacceptable for Sinn Fein representatives, who won't even sit in Parliament, to claim hundreds of thousands at the taxpayers' expense."
Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): We have just faced an emergency Budget in which there were no concessions for pensioners, disabled people or families living in poverty. Why should this Government allow a situation in which continual concessions are made to a party that does not come to this House?
Mr Dodds: My hon. Friend makes a very good point on behalf of the many thousands of people in Northern Ireland-and indeed right across the United Kingdom-who find it incomprehensible that public money should be spent in this way. That view is shared by the Secretary of State, who said on 8 April 2009 in The Guardian:
"it is inconceivable that incoming Conservative MPs would vote to continue paying millions of pounds of public money to elected members who do not take their seats."
We look forward to the Secretary of State, other members of the Government and Government Back Benchers fulfilling their clear, unambiguous promise and commitment to ensuring that millions of pounds of public money are not wasted, as at present, through a two-tier system for Members of Parliament.
I simply offer to Conservative Members the arguments set out in their own words and, as I said earlier, I gently remind the Liberal Democrats them that they chose not to take any position on the issue and granted their Members a free vote. I have no doubt that if the matter were put to the House, there would be a clear majority in favour of removing these allowances, which should never have been granted in the first place.
An argument that has been advanced-it was cited at the time-is that the granting of allowances and so on is a step towards normalisation and that that is necessary to encourage Sinn Fein towards full democratisation and participation in the political process. Indeed, it was felt by some that such a policy would encourage Sinn Fein Members to come to Parliament-effectively killing abstentionism with kindness. That could be one interpretation of the Prime Minister's recent comments in the House, which I will come on to in a moment.
The granting of allowances to Sinn Fein in 2001 has demonstrated the poverty of that particular argument, however. Following the decision, John Reid, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, predicted that Sinn Fein would end its policy of abstention. The Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, has made it absolutely clear that
"There will never, ever be Sinn Fein MPs sitting in the British Houses of Parliament."
Martin McGuinness has added for good measure that even if the Commons Oath were removed, Sinn Fein Members would still refuse to take their seats. Let no one in this House be under any illusion that bending over backwards, granting allowances, changing and bending the rules, creating a two-tier system of Members of Parliament and interfering with the Oath of Allegiance that Members take will have the slightest impact on Sinn Fein Members taking their seats here in the House of Commons.
Beyond the past debates on the decision, there is also a wider issue of confidence in politics, which I have raised on a number of occasions in this Parliament. That issue was examined by the Kelly review, but the subsequent report made it clear that the decision lay in the political arena by stating:
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