Sharon Hodgson

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Debate on free college meals 13.06.12

Sharon was responding to a debate called by David Blunkett MP on the provision of free meals in colleges and FE institutions.


Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) on securing this important debate and on his excellent speech. Indeed, we have heard a number of excellent contributions this morning, which I sincerely hope will have persuaded the Minister of the merits of ending this anomaly.

I am aware that this issue has been around for some time now. An amendment to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill in the previous Parliament, which was moved in the other place by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Sharp of Guildford, would have done what my right hon. Friend is calling for today. In the end, though, the noble Baroness was convinced to withdraw her amendment by my noble friend Lord Young of Norwood Green, who informed her that the issue was under review. That was back in November 2009, and the review was ongoing when the election was called. I assume that that work was superseded by the new Government’s plans, which culminated in scrapping not only EMA, but the planned roll-out of free school meals to all children living below the poverty line.

The Association of Colleges has recently launched its “No Free Lunch?” campaign, and it has been backed by the National Union of Students. The Association of School and College Leaders feels the same way, and Unison has been campaigning on this matter for some time now. The Children’s Society has also given its backing to the campaign and has tied it in with its “Fair and Square” campaign, which calls on the Government to ensure that all children in poverty, including those in poor working families, can get a free school meal from when they start school until they leave further education. That is something that we would be much closer to now had the Government not scrapped the planned extension of free school meals to households below the poverty line, which was due to begin in September 2010.

It is clear that the Minister’s colleagues on the Education Committee share the belief that this issue needs to be addressed. In their report, “Participation by 16-19 year olds in education and training”, they criticised the Government for their cuts to EMA and said:

“There is no logic in making free school meals available to 16-18 year olds in schools but not in colleges, and, while we recognise that the financial implications would make an early change of policy difficult, we recommend that parity of eligibility should be the medium to long-term aim.”

The Government have acknowledged that, but have not committed to doing anything about it, or even said that they would find it desirable to do so. Perhaps that could all change this morning when the Minister gets to his feet. I think that all Members present hope that he has some good news for us.

As we have heard, it is not as if the young people in colleges who were receiving free school meals in year 11 are automatically entitled to any money from the new bursary fund; the guidance for further education providers posted on the Department’s website last week makes that perfectly clear. The only groups that will be automatically entitled to financial assistance, which at £1,200 a year is only fractionally more than they would have got from EMA, are young people in care, care leavers, or those on income support and disabled young people getting employment and support allowance and disability living allowance. Young people who were previously receiving free school meals will be left to go cap in hand to their colleges for whatever is left from their bursary allocation.

Ian Swales: The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. Does she also agree that a postcode lottery is in operation? Some colleges in rural areas or in very large areas will have high travel costs, compared with inner city colleges, where travel costs are lower. Therefore, the amount of money that colleges have available for free meals will be variable, depending on the nature of their area.

Mrs Hodgson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Some colleges have to raise funds to help support some of the poorest children, who need money for travel and, if there is anything left, for food.

The Minister may remember that we faced each other in a similar debate in 2010—we do not often do that, so I remember it well. It was on EMA and was called by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), in partnership with my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), whom we welcomed to the shadow education team a couple of weeks ago. In that debate, I spoke about the testimony of a number of young people who had attended a seminar that we had held in Parliament about how much EMA meant to them. Many said that the allowance barely covered their travel and lunch as it was.

A young man called Luke talked about students whom he knew who could not eat before or at college because their money did not go far enough. That is actually a point that is developed by a young carer quoted in a Barnado’s briefing for this morning’s debate. The young girl is studying four A-levels and dreams of becoming a barrister. She says:

“At college when I don’t eat I get really bored, I can’t focus and I feel faint or really tired.”

As participation rates increase, many more pupils will be in that position. Given what we know about the impact of hunger and poor diets on educational attainment, we can understand what will happen to their studies.

The Government need to do a lot more than just think about this matter. They need to go into colleges and find out for themselves just how many students are going hungry or having to eat cheap rubbish that is not good for them, and then think more about the merits of the argument that is being made today and that has been made by campaigners for the past few years.

If the end of EMA did not add impetus to this debate, the impending rise in the participation age surely does. Labour passed the Education and Skills Act 2008, which increased the minimum age at which young people in England can leave education—from next year, it will be at the end of the academic year in which they turn 17, and it will be up to their 18th birthday from 2015—and that is something that the current Government are committed to driving through.

As a result of those changes, young people will have to stay on full time from 2015 unless they are working for more than 20 hours a week or are on an apprenticeship, but those who choose to do so in a college will be at a distinct disadvantage. As we have heard from a number of hon. Members this morning, the vast majority of students who received free school meals in last year’s year 11 are now studying in non-school settings. According to the Association of Colleges, there are 103,000 such students in colleges, compared with 33,000 in sixth forms. The gulf will only grow wider, particularly given that young people who are eligible for free school meals are more likely to pursue courses in college rather than in sixth forms.

In their response to the Education Committees recommendations, which I cited earlier, the Government stated that they would review this anomaly, in conjunction with 16-to-19 financial support, as the rise in the participation age gets closer. Given that we are about 16 months away from the 2013 academic year and that the Department seems to operate in a chaotic manner under this Government, it is time that they got a move on.

There are issues with some 16-to-19 providers not having the kitchen capacity to prepare meals, which is an argument that the Secretary of State has used for not expanding eligibility. As the Minister will know from a press release that he put out while he was in opposition to try and rubbish the idea of improving nutritional standards in schools, which we were trying to do at the time, some school sites do not have the facilities to prepare meals. In those instances, they get meals brought in from other local schools, or they simply serve cold food. Having no kitchen is not an insurmountable challenge for schools in providing free meals, so I do not see why it would be for colleges. Indeed, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges told the Education Committee that all the members whom he had spoken to about this potential barrier had said

“if that provision was made they would make it available”.

In conclusion, the campaigners for free meal eligibility to be extended to children in non-school FE settings have been making a strong and logical case for a number of years now, but that case has become even stronger since the Government scrapped EMA. There is, of course, a cost associated with doing so. As we have heard, it is just under £40 million a year, according to the Association of Colleges. That is certainly a significant amount, but when we compare it to the amount that the Government cut from financial support for 16 to19-year-olds when they scrapped EMA, it is just 10%. The Government should look at the merits of investing money in free meals, rather than in other areas of expenditure.

I therefore hope that the Minister will now give an assurance to my right hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough and for Birkenhead (Mr Field), as well as to others who have spoken this morning, that he will take on board their arguments and put this anomaly to bed, or explain why he thinks that it is fair that large numbers of young people between the ages of 16 and 18 will be at a significant disadvantage to their peers and possibly going hungry by the end of this Parliament.

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