As the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food, Sharon spoke in a debate on the Government's proposals to introduce a £7,400 net income threshold for families on Universal Credit and eligibility for free school meals. In her speech, Sharon raised concerns that the threshold would see over 1 million children in poverty miss out on a free school meal.
You can read the full debate here: Universal Credit and Free School Meals
You can read Sharon's full speech below:
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab):
These regulations will affect millions of families up and down the country, so it is only right that we are able to discuss them today. The Government consulted from November to January on introducing an earnings threshold that would restrict free school meals to families with net earnings under £7,400 per annum. The consultation received 8,981 responses. However, the Government excluded 8,421 of those responses from their analysis, meaning that fewer than 4% of respondents agreed with the Government. Surely that goes against every rule of public consultations. Talk about statistics being used against vulnerable people!
In 2010, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions promised in the White Paper on universal credit that it would
“ensure that work always pays and is seen to pay. Universal Credit will mean that people will be consistently and transparently better off for each hour they work and every pound they earn.”
Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab):
I am glad that my hon. Friend has picked out that point. She will have heard the Secretary of State saying that jobcentres would advise people not to take extra work or to get a pay rise because they would end up worse off. Is that not absolutely contrary to the whole principle of universal credit that she has just read out?
Yes, absolutely. We know that the Government are today reneging on the former Secretary of State’s commitment.
Free school meals are worth far more to a family than £400 a year per child. That might not seem to be a lot to some hon. Members, but to those families it is an absolute lifeline. By introducing a £7,400 threshold for eligibility, the Government are forcibly creating a cliff edge that will be detrimental to families, especially children. To give just one example, someone with three children in their family who earns just below the £7,400 threshold is set to lose out on £1,200-worth of free school meals if they work only a few extra hours or get a pay rise. The Opposition’s proposal would simply remove the huge cliff edge and the work disincentive for families who most need support. It would take away the barrier to working extra hours or seeking promotion. Our proposals would therefore make work pay. The Government’s proposal is in fact the new 16 hours, which they said was a disincentive.
Mike Hill (Harlepool) (Lab):
Is my hon. Friend aware that in Hartlepool, where universal credit is not being rolled out—it is already in—more than 1,000 children are being denied free school meals on the basis of the new proposal?
Yes. We can all cite the numbers from our constituencies. Even Conservative Members need to think about what they are doing to some of the poorest children in their constituencies. In the example I just quoted, the family’s annual wages would need to increase from £7,400 to almost £11,000 to make up for what they would lose by rising above the eligibility cliff edge. That problem did not occur under the old tax credit system, because that provided an offsetting income boost at the point at which free school meals were withdrawn. However, there is no equivalent mitigation under universal credit.
The Children’s Society has been much maligned today and has been cited as giving duff statistics—Conservative Members should be ashamed of themselves. It estimates that the cliff edge will mean that a million children in poverty will miss out on free school meals once universal credit is fully rolled out. They will miss out on something that is crucial for their physical and mental development.
The Government have said that 50,000 more children will benefit by the end of the roll-out in 2022, when the transitional protections are at capacity, but I and many others struggle to understand how that can be the case. Parliamentary questions tabled by my hon. Friends and others have gone unanswered, and the Government cannot just pluck figures out of the air, as they claim so many others have done. At least we can back up our claims with evidence from the Children’s Society, Gingerbread, the Child Poverty Action Group and Citizens Advice, all of which agree that this statutory instrument would take free school meals away from a million future children—[Interruption.] It would. If the SI does not come into force, a million more children will receive free school meals—[Interruption.] Conservative Members can shake their heads all they like.
During my recent Westminster Hall debate, I offered Ministers a solution that would mean that all children in universal credit households would continue to receive free school meals. As somebody asked earlier, I can say that it would cost half a billion pounds—not a huge cost to feed over a million of the poorest children. My proposal would see around 1.1 million more children in years 3 and above from low-income families receiving free school meals compared with under this change.
Heidi Allen (South Cambridgeshire) (Con):
If we were to maintain free school meals for absolutely everybody on universal credit, does the hon. Lady think it would be right to prioritise those coming from the legacy tax credit system, who could be earning up to £50,000 a year, instead of opening up eligibility and getting free school meals to more children in poverty?
I am running out of time, so— [Interruption.] Perhaps Conservative Members would let me finish before they use up all my time. I was going to say that while I cannot go into the full details, because of the time, I understand from the Children’s Society that that is a small number of people—up to 40,000—and that those people are often in large families with severely disabled children. The large amount of money is down to how much they receive for those children. It is disingenuous to use that as an example and to make out that all those families are receiving £50,000.
The Minister claimed yesterday that my proposal would result in around half of all pupils becoming eligible, increasing the figure to 3.3 severely million children. Even the much-cited Channel 4 FactCheck article states that our proposal would extend to 1.1 million children, making the total 1.8 million children. When we talk about facts, Conservative Members need to get their facts right. Where do the extra 1.5 million children come from?
Read Sharon's latest Sunderland Echo column below or find the published column on the Sunderland Echo website.
Food is an undeniable and essential part of our lives. It helps fuel our minds and bodies, whilst also giving us the vital nutrients to stay healthy, especially for children. This is something I have championed for a long time now.
This first started with my push for universal free school meals in 2008, after a fact-finding mission to Sweden where I saw exactly what could be possible here in the UK, and drove me to lobby the Labour Government of the day to introduce universal free school meals pilots in Durham and Newham.
The evaluation of these pilots clearly showed the impact universal free school meals had on addressing educational and health inequalities, along with social and behavioural problems.
Sadly, these were scrapped by the incoming coalition Government in 2011.
Soon after they commissioned a report into school food, by two entrepreneurs, John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby.
During their investigation, I worked closely with them to see recommendations for better food in our schools, including one for universal free school meals – which they included with the proviso, ‘when funding could be found’.
This was seen sooner than expected in 2014 with the introduction of Universal Infant Free School Meals, when all infant children received a hot and healthy school meal in England, and the evidence on the ground is showing the benefits this policy can have to a child’s education.
Yet, there is a growing problem when it comes to the school holidays when children have little, if sometime any, access to healthy food and we see all the good work done during term time reversed.
Many will argue that what happens when the school gates shut is none of our business, but when families are relying heavily upon food banks in the holidays and teachers reporting children returning from the holidays malnourished, then it is damning that we aren’t doing anything to support these families.
That is why I, as Chair of the School Food APPG, set up the Holiday Hunger Task Group, which since its creation in 2013 has gone from strength to strength, including publishing voluntary guidance to organisations providing holiday activities and also a report which highlighted best practice across the country.
However, there is a lot more still to be done.
Ahead of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy later this year and the Summit4Nutrition at the Rio Olympics this summer, which aims to address hunger domestically and internationally, I will be lobbying the Government to do more, and not waste this opportunity to realise an ambition I hold dearly: that no child goes hungry during the school holidays.
Sharon Hodgson speaking in the Backbench Business Debate on the Government's upcoming Childhood Obesity Strategy - 21st January 2016
Image copyright Parliamentary Recording Unit 2016
As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food, Sharon spoke about the need for school food to be seen as an integral part of the Government's upcoming Childhood Obesity Strategy by looking at the evidence already out there of the benefits of a healthy school meal, especially one that is free, along with addressing child holiday hunger - which has become a growing problem in the UK in recent years.
Read Sharon's speech in Hansard here: Sharon Hodgson Childhood Obesity Strategy Debate 2016
Text pasted below:
I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on proposing and securing this important debate, and she will be pleased to hear that I agreed with almost everything she said. Many here in the Chamber will be aware of my strongly held passion to provide all children with a hot and healthy school meal, especially one that is free. The debate around the Government’s impending childhood obesity strategy, both here in Parliament and in the outside world, has focused on the reformulation of foods that are high in sugar and salt and the introduction of a sugar tax. Although I support those measures, I want quickly to discuss how school food can play a significant role in addressing the obesity crisis facing our children today.
I want to say at the outset—I am sure people are thinking this, if not here then definitely on social media—that I am rather overweight myself and that some may say I should practise what I preach. I do try. But that is why I am so passionate about this agenda: I know how much harder this becomes as you get older. I was allowed to adopt bad habits that are hard to break, and that shows why we need to educate the next generation to do much better.
School food has played a role in public policy for more than 100 years. It was first discussed in this place in 1906 when Fred Jowett, former Member of Parliament for Bradford West, used his maiden speech in the Chamber to launch his campaign to introduce free school meals when compulsory education was being rolled out. That led to the passing of the Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906, which was originally Jowett’s private Member’s Bill.
Jowett’s campaign was driven by his experience as a member of the Bradford school board, where he witnessed the malnourishment of children who then fell behind their more affluent peers. Here we are, more than 100 years later, and those arguments are still being made today.
I was just thinking the same as my hon. Friend about how far we have come in some respects but not in others. She will be aware of the private Member’s Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). Does she support it?
Yes, that private Member’s Bill is an excellent initiative, and should be adopted by the Government and local authorities. It is very simple to share the data that we already have on families who are entitled to benefits, to ensure that the entitlement of their children to the pupil premium is not lost when universal free school meals are rolled out. That is a very important point.
Although we do not always think about obesity in this way, it is a form of malnourishment. What we are seeing today is very similar to what we saw more than 100 years ago, with children lacking the right nutrients to see them living a healthy childhood and growing into healthy adults. That is especially concerning given that today more than one third of children are leaving school overweight or obese.
The school setting is one of the most important interventions in a child’s life; it is where we nurture and educate future generations. Why should we not feed these children so that they are fuelled to receive the best education and life chances possible? That notion was strongly supported by the previous Labour Government, who introduced a raft of measures that addressed the food eaten by children in our schools. They included nutrition-based school food standards that provide children with the proper nutrition to learn, fully-costed plans to extend our universal free school meal pilots, and the introduction of healthy, practical cooking on the national curriculum.
Although much, or all, of those measures were scrapped when the coalition Government were formed in 2010, it was very welcome when, in 2013, the school food plan was published, calling for the reinstatement of lots of those measures as well as new and improved measures in our schools to address the health of our children. Those included introducing food-based standards for all schools, training head teachers in the benefits of food and nutrition, improving Ofsted inspections on school food, and the roll-out of universal free school meals for primary school children, when funding was found.
As we know, that funding was found, thanks to David Laws and the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg). Fortunately, universal infant free school meals were secured by the Chancellor in the comprehensive spending review. All those measures came out of concerns for the health of our children and the growing obesity crisis, especially given that 57% of children were not eating school lunches. Some were opting to take in packed lunches, only 1% of which met the nutritional standards of a hot lunch, while others were opting to go off site to eat junk food at local takeaways.
As research has found, health problems associated with being overweight or obese cost the NHS more than £5 billion a year, and, with obesity rates continuing to rise for 11 to 15-year-olds, especially in deprived areas, it is now clearer than ever that we need seriously to address childhood obesity.
Giving children a healthy and balanced diet during the school day can only be a positive intervention in helping to address obesity. I cannot stress how strongly I believe that one of the most important interventions to help address health issues in childhood is universal free school meals.
The hon. Lady mentioned that children are consuming junk food from outlets near schools. Does she believe that councils should have powers, as part of planning guidance, to take action on junk food outlets being so close to schools?
Yes, I do. I really welcome that intervention, because it not only makes the point, but stresses it very strongly. Some councils are very good and introduce byelaws to ensure that burger vans cannot pull up outside a school, and that, if there is already a number of takeaway shops nearby, no more can open. Matters such as that need to be addressed by councils.
The pilots introduced by the previous Labour Government in Durham and Newham to look into the benefits of universal free school meals found many benefits to a child’s health, and research continues now that we have universal infant school meals. The pilots in Durham and Newham found a 23% uptake in vegetable consumption at lunchtime and a steep decline in the typical unhealthy packed lunch foods. For example, there was a 16% decline in soft drinks and an 18% decline in crisps. Those are all-important figures that the Government should remember, and both the Department of Health and Department for Education should look further into how best they can use the vehicle of universal free school meals to help improve children’s health.
Although universal free school meals are protected in the Government’s comprehensive spending review—this followed a concerted campaign by school food campaigners, myself and others in the House—there is another area that the Government must consider when looking to improve the health of our children: holiday hunger. Children are in school for just 190 days of the year, and the rest—a total of 170 days—is totally down to their parents. Some may say that that is how it should be and that when we lock the school gates for the holidays it is none of our business what children eat, whether they eat or what they get up to. None the less, with the growing use of food banks in school holidays and the reports that children return from the longer school holidays noticeably thinner and unhealthier, the issue is one that we can no longer ignore.
If there is a push for better food provision in our schools, then we need to be doing much more during the holidays so as not to undo the hard work that goes into improving the life chances of children during term time. That is why the school food all-party group, which I chair, has established a holiday hunger task group, which last year launched its “Filling the Holiday Gap” guidelines to provide organisations and local authorities wishing to provide food during holidays with the resources to offer healthy and nutritious food. Late last year, it published its update report, which called for action to be taken by the Government.
When the Government’s childhood obesity strategy is published, I hope that there will be significant mention of the benefits that school food, especially universal free school meals, can have on a child’s health, and of how it can be used to address the growing childhood obesity crisis. There is evidence out there to support using universal free school meal provision to its fullest, instead of squandering its potential, to improve the health of our children.
This is a moment when the Government can really make a difference to children’s lives and I hope that all options and avenues will be pursued so that children are given the healthy food that they need to fuel their education and to make them as healthy a version of themselves as possible so that they grow into fit and healthy adults.
Sharon Hodgson MP has written to the Chancellor George Osborne following a number of constituents' concerns over rumoured cuts to universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) in the Autumn Spending Review.
Sharon Hodgson MP (right) pictured here with fellow APPG School Food member and Vice-Chair Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, and Carrieanne Bishop, former Chair of LACA (left), supporting National School Meals Week "the great free school lunch - eating better together campaign" in Parliament in 2013. Image copyright NSMW/LACA 2013.