In her capacity as Chair of the School Food APPG, Sharon secured a debate on the Department for Education's current consultation around future eligibility for free school meals under Universal Credit. In her speech, Sharon raised concerns with the proposed £7,400 threshold and the Government's estimated 50,000 children who will benefit from changes to eligibility and moved on to provide a solution for the Government, and reasons why this solution should be introduced.
You can read the full debate here: Free School Meals Eligibility and Universal Credit Westminster Hall Debate 06.02.18
You can read Sharon's opening speech, pasted below:
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered future eligibility for free school meals and the pupil premium.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. With the support of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George), I called this debate because of our serious concerns about the Department for Education’s consultation, “Eligibility for free school meals and the early years pupil premium under Universal Credit”. Those concerns arose following my oral question on universal credit and free school meals to the new Secretary of State last week, when, unfortunately, he completely missed my point.
The Government are disregarding the concerns of many in this House and outside it that their actions will push more children into poverty. Labour Members know that poverty is not an inevitability, but a symptom of failure to harness political will, think innovatively and take bold steps forward. This whole issue encapsulates that neatly. In my contribution, I will focus on the concerns flagged up by the consultation’s proposals and discuss what should be done to mitigate those concerns and why.
In my letter to the consultation, I said that I am a huge supporter of rolling out hot and healthy universal free school meals for all children—I always have been. That will be no surprise to hon. Members, who know that I have banged on about my support for wider access and the provision of free school meals for more than a decade now, and I will continue to do so until all children receive a hot and healthy meal in the dinner hall.
In the current transition to universal credit, all families claiming the new benefit are entitled to free school meals, which is great, but the Department’s consultation aims to roll forward that reform by rolling back one of its most progressive measures. By removing the universal entitlement to free school meals under universal credit and introducing a £7,400 threshold for eligibility for free school meals, the Government are forcibly creating a cliff edge that will be detrimental to families, especially children. That seems utterly ludicrous
As the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), wrote when the White Paper on universal credit was published in 2010:
“At its heart, Universal Credit is very simple and will ensure that work always pays and is seen to pay. Universal Credit will mean that people will be consistently…better off for each hour they work and every pound they earn.”
The Opposition do not disagree at all with the principles that he set out, but sadly, the reality has failed to live up to the promise made eight years ago. We all know lots of the reasons behind that, which ultimately led to him resigning, but that is a whole other story.
The proposals set out in the consultation are diametrically opposed to that 2010 vision and what it was meant to achieve, especially around making work pay. To give one example of how the proposal will be detrimental: someone with three children in their family who earns just below the £7,400 threshold is set to lose out on £1,200 in free school meals if they work only a few hours more or get a pay rise. The family’s annual wages would have to increase from £7,400 to almost £11,000 to make up for what they lost by rising above the eligibility cliff edge—a problem that would not occur under the working tax credit system because the legacy benefits system provides an offsetting income boost at the point that free school meals are withdrawn. Under universal credit, however, there is no equivalent mitigation.
Another example, provided to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak and me by the fabulous Dr Sam Royston of the Children’s Society, is that a single parent with no housing costs and one child would be £26 better off per week under the old working tax credit system than under universal credit. The Minister may think £26 per week a meagre amount, but for many outside this place it can determine whether or not they can eat or heat their home. The child of the single parent in Dr Royston’s example is not entitled to free school meals either under working tax credits or under the proposed universal credit rules, so it may seem that they will be no worse off, but the only way they can be so entitled is if the transitional plans are made permanent, so that all children in a family that claims universal credit receive free school meals.
Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
My hon. Friend will be aware—as I am, since I represent a rural area—that one of the problems with free school meals is how many parents will not claim them because of stigma. Does she agree that changing to universal credit will only make that worse.
Yes. One of my reasons for supporting universal free school meals is that the stigma would be removed. It was proved in the excellent school food plan commissioned under the former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), that that was one of the benefits of universal free school meals. The poorest kids, who are entitled to them anyway, are the ones who benefit the most.
Laura Smith (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab)
As a teenager, I was entitled to free school meals, but because of the stigma I did not take them. I used to refuse to queue up for my token, so I went without, which resulted in my developing a very controlling relationship with food and a lot of problems at home. I totally support my hon. Friend’s proposal, because free school meals for all children will mean that they all get a healthy meal and the stigma will disappear.
I totally agree. The same system should apply for all children who are entitled to universal credit, although wider access is another debate.
Michelle Donelan (Chippenham) (Con)
I completely agree about the stigma; I raised the same point with the Minister the other day in the Chamber. However, does the hon. Lady agree that there is another way? Instead of enfranchising everybody, we could have an auto-enrolment scheme that was linked to the benefits system, rather than a system of people self-declaring as eligible.
I agree about auto-enrolment: parents should not have to apply. However, the point that I am trying to make is that any family eligible for universal credit should automatically get free school meals through auto-enrolment. If the cliff edge is brought in, it would be detrimental to that vision that we probably all share.
Dr Dan Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con)
I absolutely agree. Administering the cliff edge will mean huge costs. We should learn from the current system for free school meals for infants.
I am aware that many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, so I had better get back to setting out my concerns. What we want to prevent is families avoiding pay rises or working more hours for fear that they will lose out. That is not making work pay, and it is not what the system was intended to do when it was set up. If the Minister and his Department, alongside the Department for Work and Pensions, were truly in favour of making work pay, they would at the very least have made provision to avoid that issue—even keeping the status quo would work. They have known about the problem for seven years; I have banged on about it for years, and so have my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak, since before she was an MP, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and other hon. Members. Sadly, it seems that the Government are keen to power on without even considering the impact of their policies on a child’s life. It would be welcome if the Minister set out how he believes the threshold and its implications are consistent with the Government’s aim to make work pay.
Another concern about the consultation is the figure of 50,000 more children who we keep hearing will benefit from free school meals by 2022. On the surface, it is welcome that the Government have estimated that more children will be receiving free school meals under their plans, but it is deeply concerning that analysis by the Children’s Society has found that more than 1 million children living in poverty would miss out on a free school meal because of the cliff edge. In the consultation document, the Government say that 50,000 children will benefit by the end of the roll-out, when the transitional protections are at their capacity. Herein lies the crux of the problem: the document also states that 10% of children—113,000—will lose out on free school meal entitlement. That is because children will fall off once the transitional protections come to an end, as they move from primary school, where they will have the protection when it comes in, to secondary school, where their entitlement will end.
I would therefore welcome clarity from the Minister about how he will protect children who risk losing their free school meals when they move from one stage of their education to the next. If he cannot give us answers in this debate—that would be a shame, but I am aware that time will be an issue—I would be more than happy to take him up on his offer to meet me if he is still happy to do so. I am very grateful that he made that commitment.
I want to offer the Minister a solution, which I have already touched on. It makes total sense for the current transitional system to be made permanent so that all the children in a family on universal credit receive free school meals. That would not generate any extra bureaucracy, it would be fairer and it would help make work pay. It would be exactly what the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green intended when he envisaged and enacted the policy. It would negate any of the concerns that I have mentioned and that other hon. Members may mention. It would push the cliff edge to a much higher earnings threshold and overcome the fear of deductions from earnings, which turn the Government’s proposals against making work pay. We do not want people to refuse pay rises or extra work for fear that they will lose three lots of free school meals.
That is not the only reason to maintain the status quo. Free school meals also have significant benefits for a child’s life. I will never miss an opportunity to sing the praises of the universal principle of free school meals. As several hon. Members have already mentioned, they reduce stigma. In its response to the consultation, School Food Matters quoted the comments of a headteacher about how universal infant free school meals had reduced stigma:
“Despite being in an affluent London borough, 27% of the children at our school are currently entitled to free school meals but nearer 40% have been entitled to free school meals within the past 6 years.”
That is what matters for the pupil premium. The headteacher went on to say:
“This is a clear indicator that many of the families are only just about managing.”
This shows that if the Minister goes ahead with the current proposals, we could see more and more of the “just about managing”—the JAMs, who the Prime Minister referred to in her first speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street—being left behind. Would that not go against what this Government are all about?
The Minister knows that I have a keen interest in supporting children from low-income families by giving them healthy meals, both in term time and in the holidays. We had the excellent private Member’s Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and I know that the Minister is considering pilots with regard to it, which is very welcome. By implementing my proposal, the Government would ensure that those children have access to a healthy meal that would benefit their education, their health and their wellbeing.
The evidence is out there and I am sure that the Minister has a copy of the school food plan lying around in his office; if he has not, I have a spare one, or I am sure that I get John Vincent or Henry Dimbleby, its writers, to send him one. I advise him strongly to go away and read it, as it is excellent from cover to cover, especially chapter 11, which is about the benefits of free school meals. In said chapter, there are references to the evaluations of the free school meal pilots established by the last Labour Government under Ed Balls, which showed that there was a 23% increase in vegetable consumption, a 16% decline in the consumption of soft drinks—because there were no packed lunches—and an 18% decline in the consumption of crisps. Those pilots also benefited a child’s education, with children in receipt of a free school meal in the pilot areas on average two months ahead of their peers outside the pilot areas and 2% more children reaching their target levels in maths and English at key stage 1, while at key stage 2 the impact was between 3% and 5%. If we want to close the attainment gap, there is nothing better than to start by making sure that the kids are all fed.
The hon. Lady says “there is nothing better”, but potentially there is: breakfast. All the studies show that disadvantaged children perform a lot better once they have had a breakfast, and in fact children in middle-class families and higher-earning families, where the parents are busy and going off to work, often suffer as well, because they are not getting that important breakfast, which is, after all, the most important meal of the day.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Yes—for the last time.
On the benefits of universal free school meals, I will just add that when they were piloted, the most marked academic improvements were among children from less affluent backgrounds. That is a very important point to make.
I think the Minister is a common-sense kind of guy; I have found that in my dealings with him in all-party groups that we have worked in together over the years. So I am sure that, on hearing the figures that I have cited, he will agree that the reason for all of this work is that children are more attentive and ready to learn, because they have a healthy meal in their tummies that is fuelling their learning.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am just about to finish.
The proposals in the consultation would jeopardise all of that, because those children would have to go back to bringing in packed lunches and only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional requirements that our fabulous school food does now. It has been improved beyond recognition.
I will give way to the hon. Lady very quickly.
I know that the hon. Lady is just coming to the end of her remarks, but I just wanted to pick her up on one thing. She is making compelling arguments for the benefits of free school meals and breakfasts. I think that many of us would support her in wanting to make sure that children are well fed at school. However, she has not touched on the costs of doing those things, the trade-offs, and the choices that might have to be made to ensure that a generous supply of free school meals is available.
The hon. Lady might not be aware, because I do not think that she was a Member at the time, but after the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath commissioned the school food plan, he agreed with all 17 of its recommendations. He put money to 16 of them straight away and the 17th one was for universal free school meals; he accepted the arguments for that recommendation and said he would provide money for it when it could be found. Money was found for universal infant free school meals, under the coalition agreement with Nick Clegg, and those meals were introduced.
The point has already been made; it has been proved. The money can be found, because universal free school meals more than pay for themselves, and the benefits that we get from them outweigh the initial costs, including the amount saved on administration because they are universal. There are a whole host of arguments around this issue, but in a sense I am detracting from what this debate is about, so I will conclude.
I hope that the Minister has been listening intently; in fact, I am sure he has, because he has looking at me and I have seen he is. I hope he will do the same with other speakers. The new system was presented as a way to eradicate poverty, but instead the introduction of the measure that we have been discussing could cement poverty in our society, and at worst there could even be a rise in poverty among “working poor” families. If that happens, we would go through all these changes for naught, and children would be just as badly off in the future—maybe even worse off—and that would be at the behest of the Government. I am sure that is not what they want, so I hope that the Minister will look at this issue seriously and perhaps think again, for the sake of the children out there who we are all here to support.
See the debate on Parliament TV - NB - Sharon's debate can be viewed from the 16:56pm mark.