Lord Bassam: School meals should be provided to all children
Increasing numbers of hungry children are going without a daily nutritious hot meal, says Lord Bassam.
Tomorrow I intend putting the issues of free school meals back on the agenda with an oral question in the Lords. Last year the minister responsible was made to feel distinctly uncomfortable when we debated and passed a motion regretting the cuts to this important benefit.
The whole issue of free school meals for families on universal credit is riddled with complexity. Back when we had a functioning welfare state access to free school meals was far simpler, all that was required was a passporting benefit. That’s how my mother qualified when I was at school in the 60’s and early 70’s and I had free school meals.
When UC was first introduced in 2013, the children in any family receiving UC were entitled to benefit. The rationale was that this first group were mainly unemployed and historically only children in families where no-one worked were eligible for free school meals. Then as more families moved onto UC, the rules were amended to reduce eligibility. From April 2018 only children in households with a net earned income under £7,400 were eligible. Helpfully an exemption was created for children already receiving a free school meal, this remains until they finish their current phase of schooling primary or secondary
The other area of complexity relates to the UC roll-out. Under pressure from CPAG and others, the ‘managed migration’ process of moving people onto UC from other benefits was slowed down, to be replaced with a pilot scheme affecting a much smaller number of people. The ‘natural migration’ process of those coming onto UC as a result of changes in circumstances continues, alongside new claims. That means around 1.5 million new people, a number that will double in 2020 to around 3 million. Unfortunately the way changes to the managed migration process were reported left the impression that the roll-out had been delayed. This is not the case.
The key issue currently in relation to free school meals is that the proportion of pupils eligible for and claiming free school meals continues to fall. No doubt the Treasury will be rubbing their hands at this prospect while our poorest families have increasing numbers of hungry children going without a daily nutritious hot meal.
In January 2018, for all schools, 13.6% of pupils were eligible and claimed free school meals. This is the lowest proportion since 2001, when the DFE began collecting data. This really is anomalous when child poverty is rising, why should eligibility for free school meals be falling? It is probably explained by the growing trend of in-work poverty – more children are not eligible simply because their parents are in work and earning just over the eligibility threshold, although they remain in poverty. Let us not forget that the Government believe that being in work is the best route out of poverty, while that should be true just saying it doesn’t make it the case.
So the question that the Government needs to answer is what assessment have they made of the number of families who are in a position of in-work poverty who do not qualify for free school meals but for whom the cost of school meals causes hardship?
I am one of those who believe that school meals should be provided to all children in the way that they are for infants, as just part of everyday school life. Similar in fact to the way that food is provided for people in hospitals. This would prevent any child going hungry during the school day or experiencing stigma as a result of the way in which some free school meals are administered. Many schools now have a growing problem of ‘dinner money debt’.
The Labour Party policy support the approach of ending means testing for primary school dinners but secondary school age children are equally disadvantaged. The inadequacy of the free school meal allowance for adolescents in schools with canteen-style service is a big question and one for the future.
Lord Bassam is a Labour and Co-operative member of the House of Lords.