Sharon speaking in a Westminster Hall debate she managed to secure on Free School Meals, following reports that the planned roll-out of eligibility to all children in poverty was to be scrapped by the Coalition government.
I am pleased to have been able to secure this debate on Free School Meals today, to highlight what I believe to be an absolutely shameful decision taken by the new coalition Government.
I really believe that despite the current financial situation our country is facing there is still an extremely strong case to be made for the provision of universal free school meals, and the fact that the current Government is choosing to limit and cut the provision of free school meals rather than widen it seems to be completely the wrong direction to go in, not just because of the health and educational benefits to pupils, but also because of the financial benefits for the least well off in society.
My involvement with this issue started in 2006, not long after I was elected to this house. Myself and my honourable friend the member for the City of Durham went on a fact finding visit along with about a dozen other Honourable members to Sweden, primarily to find out more about the Swedish health and education systems and in particular the Free Schools, which Lord Adonis had visited while formulating our Academies policy.
But whilst in Sweden it wasn’t Free Schools that captured my attention but rather their school meals policy. In Sweden free school meals have been available to all children free of charge for quite a number of years now. Take-up there is approximately 85%, and we were amazed to see children not only tucking in to a healthy, nutritious meal but also to see them serving themselves from a buffet style server and working together to help clear away the plates and wipe down the tables. These were 7 year old children! Also pupils and teachers eat together as a class, on a rota system so there are no huge crowds and lunchtime is an important part of the day, for continued learning and socialising not only with each other but with the teacher. It’s not just an opportunity for teachers to have time to themselves (although they did for a good 40 minutes when the children went out to play) or for the kids to load up on sugary snacks before trying to sit down to an afternoon’s study whilst metaphorically swinging from the ceiling!
I have to say, it is interesting to note that whereas myself and my honourable friend for Durham came back from Sweden excited and convinced about the benefits of universal free school meals, the current Secretary of State for Education came back from his visits to Sweden considerably more excited about free schools!
Of course, since 2005 there has been a sea change in our attitude towards the health content of school meals, thanks in part to the high profile campaign by Jamie Oliver. The changes which have been made since then have been crucially important – the food provided to children who choose a school meal is now more often than not fresh, nutritious and locally sourced, a far-cry from the profit-driven mentality which dominated school meal provision beforehand and led to our children eating such monstrosities as Turkey twizzlers!
However, I believe this was only the first part of the change that was needed, and that once we had made school food healthy it was our duty to ensure as many children as possible ate it.
A report by Ofsted published last week, found that although the quality of school meals has increased, take-up of free school meals by those entitled to them remains low because of stigma, complexity and constant movements in and out of entitlement by some families.
As someone who was on free school meals from the day I started school until the day I finished, I can speak from personal experience of the stigma. Even today there is still a significant stigma attached to receiving free school meals, and expanding access to all is the fairest way to eradicate that. One in five children who are eligible for free school meals do not currently receive them. And in addition to this, there is a swathe of forgotten children who are not entitled to free school meals, but who are probably still living in poverty for whom a healthy packed lunch is just too expensive and perhaps too time-consuming for their parent or parents who may be in a low-paid full time job rushing about doing his or her best to work and look after their children.
Universal free school meals are without a doubt the only way to address all these problems.
Actually it does more than that, Universal Free School Meals ensures that all children get a healthy meal during the school day, as just because some parents may be able to shop at Waitrose or Marks and Spencer it doesn’t always follow that their child’s lunchbox is healthy!
A ready meal from M + S may cost more than a ready meal from Asda or Tesco’s – but its still just a ready meal and we shouldn’t assume that all children go home to healthy food just because they have an upmarket postcode!
All this is why I and my colleagues have campaigned so strongly on this for the last 4 years.
We lobbied incessantly on this issue – Indeed having lobbied the Child Poverty Action Group to take up this cause, I am delighted to see the honourable member for Stretford and Urmston here today.
Believe it or not, it was not a popular policy at first. Even within my own party there were objections to rolling out provision of free school meals to all, regardless of household income. However, it is and remains the fairest way to ensure that all children below the poverty line - however you measure it - get a healthy meal during the school day.
I can remember literally chasing cabinet minsters, on more than one occasion, through the voting lobbies whilst trying to convince them of our crusade, to such an extent that I can remember them pre-empting me before I even said a word to tell me it was still being looked at, and eventually to tell me it was with Ed Milliband who was writing our manifesto!
Well I don’t need to tell you what happened next, I’m sure you can imagine, but I became Ed’s shadow and was always ready to extol the virtues of Universal Free School meals at every opportunity.
The first big success for our campaign came at Labour Party Conference in 2008 when my Rt Hon Friends the members for Hull West and Hessle and Normanton announced the introduction of three pilots for Free School meals all to be local authority match funded: two for Universal Free School Meals - which Durham and Newham were lucky enough to bid for and secure, and a further pilot to raise the threshold to the agreed poverty line to ensure more children qualified for FSM which went to Wolverhampton.
These pilots have been underway for coming up to a year now and have been hugely successful, especially the UFSM pilots in Newham and Durham - where take-up is 75%, and over 80% respectively. That means the majority of primary school pupils in those boroughs getting a hot, healthy, nutritious meal as opposed to the sugary and additive-laced snacks some are given in their packed lunches, usually for reasons of cost – don’t just take my word for it - this is proven by research into children’s packed lunches undertaken by professor Derek Colquhoun of Hull University. It is not always possible for families to access, let alone afford, fresh food for their children. And the alternative; paying for school meals, can come to nearly £20 a week for a family with two school aged 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 pilot in particular from my Hon Friend the Member for Durham during her contribution to this debate.
Unfortunately due to the recession Universal free school meals didn’t make it into our manifesto, but what did was our Party’s commitment to retain the 2009 Pre Budget Report announcement to extend the UFSM pilots to at least one in every region and to permanently raise the access threshold everywhere else to £16,190 to ensure a further 500,000 children were able to have a free, hot, and healthy lunch every day. This would also lift a further 50,000 children out of poverty which was very welcome news as far as I and my colleagues were concerned!
I and many others thought this was also an important first step on the way to universal entitlement and welcomed it as still affordable even during a recession.
Confusingly, for a new Government which has committed itself to meeting the child poverty targets of the previous one, it was announced by the Education Secretary on 9th June that the new Coalition Government would not be going ahead with the additional pilots, or the extension to take in more low-income families. This is devastating news for the families concerned. The extension would have eased transitions into work for many parents, and would have supported the Government’s wider drive to improve educational and health outcomes amongst the least well off in our society.
Free school meal entitlement usually ends when a family moves off benefits and into low paid employment, an extra cost of around £300 per 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, and therefore most children in poverty do not actually benefit from free school meals. A shocking statistic but true! This decision is therefore a spectacularly short-sighted one, and I would urge the minister to reconsider as a matter of urgency, particularly considering the stated aim of the Coalition to decrease the number of people on benefits and to increase the number of people in work – of course a laudable goal, but one which they will never reach with policy decisions as poorly thought out as this!
A measure which would have brought 50,000 children above the poverty line has been scrapped, exposing the Government’s claims that it will promote fairness as nothing but empty rhetoric. How can increasing the number of children living in poverty in 2010 help the Government meet its 2020 target on eradicating child poverty, especially when we have just had a budget which the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed disproportionately affected the very poorest?
I was even more disturbed to see a leaked memo which suggested that the money which would have been directed to the poorest families for free school meals is now being redirected to the middle classes to help parachute their children outside of mainstream schools and into Free Schools. This is a particularly galling example of money being directed from the disadvantaged to the comfortably off; from a scheme which would have lifted children out of poverty to one which will do nothing of the sort, except pander to middle class parents who still bemoan the loss of grammar schools in leafy London boroughs.
Of course I hope that after today’s debate the Government may choose to reinstate the changes to free school meal provision which were announced by the previous administration and this would indeed be very welcome news. But I would like to see them 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’. The tough decisions which have to be made on spending should be a matter of prioritising, not just slashing budgets for ideological reasons. I am sure that members on all sides can agree that the education and health of our children is of utmost importance, and I think that more than justifies the admittedly considerable spending commitment which this would policy entail. And seeing as obesity is currently estimated to be costing the NHS £3.5bn a year, with that figure only set to rise, this is a cost worth paying to potentially 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 which are made by a Government.
By a Coalition Government no less.
A broad church of left leaning Liberal Democrats through all colours in between, to right leaning Thatcherite Conservatives.
You would think such a Coalition with Vince Cable at its heart would produce fiscally sound social policies and that the last thing such a coalition would do is to increase child poverty?
But alas I fear not! One only has to look northwards towards Hull to see that the Lib Dems actually have form in such matters!
In 2004 the Labour Council in Hull introduced universal free school meals – they had to even get a dispensation from the then Labour Government to be able to do so - as it was prior to the 2006 Education and Inspections Bill which by simply 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.
Now this first ever pilot was a huge success and there are numerous academic papers chronicling its successes the most notable of which is the one I mentioned earlier by Prof Derek Colquhoun and if I was to even start to go into detail about how positive this evaluation is there would definitely be no time for anyone else to speak in this debate – but I would strongly suggest the Minister looks it up - it’s a very good read!
Well what happened next I hear you ask? Well, sadly for the children of Hull, Labour loses control of the council after 3 short years to the Lib Dems, who promptly and savagely without remorse scrap the Free School Meals initiative and start to once again charge for access to the lovely hot and healthy school meals the City’s children had become accustomed to! This was greeted by outrage by local parents who hadn’t actually realised this is what the Lib Dems would do!
This all sounds strangely familiar doesn’t it?
Because lo and behold here we are again! What happened as soon as they’re in Government? The Lib Dems aided and abetted, this time by their Conservative masters, are at it again!
They are literally time and again taking the food out of the mouths of society’s poorest children!
I hope they are proud of themselves and the fact that this is what they actually seem to have come into politics for as they do it time and time again!
I hope their ministerial salaries and cars are worth it and that all those hard working people up and down the country who voted Lib Dem are happy with the decisions their elected representatives are taking on their behalf.
In future the mantra won’t just be vote Lib Dem get Tory - it will be vote Lib Dem increase child poverty!
I look forward to the Minister's explanations.