Sharon Hodgson MP

Washington & Gateshead South Constituency

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Westminster Hall debate - Provision of Free School Meals - 7th May, 2024

On Tuesday the 7th of May, Sharon Hodgson spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on ‘Provision of Free School Meals’, which was organised by Sharon Hodgson MP, and School Food APPG member Munira Wilson MP.

> Click on this link here, or on the picture below, to watch Sharon Hodgson's speech in the Westminster Hall debate >


Read Sharon Hodgson MP's contribution to the debate in Hansard here >


Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Labour)

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I want to thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing today’s debate and for her excellent opening speech setting the scene. The topic of school food—and specifically free school meals—has been an incredibly important one for me throughout my parliamentary career. In fact, I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on school food, which I set up in 2010, and I am pleased to say that a number of colleagues here today are also very important members.

As we have heard, in the UK our devolved nations each have their own individual free school meal offers. In Scotland, all primary school children, regardless of family income, are eligible for free school meals and all secondary school students are subject to a means-tested offer. In Wales, all children who attend mainstream primary schools are eligible for a free school meal. In Northern Ireland there is no universal offer; however, the eligibility criteria for the means-tested offer includes families with an annual taxable income of up to £16,190 or net earnings of under £14,000 a year, which is almost twice as high as the same offer in England, and means that around 30% of the entire school population are eligible. The levels of poverty across the north-east, and indeed in other parts of England, are the same as in Northern Ireland, and yet such different levels of means-testing are used. That is just unfair.

In England, all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 currently receive a hot, healthy meal each day. Universal infant free school meals is a policy I am very proud of, having worked with Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent on the school food plan that helped convince them to put universal primary free school meals as one of their recommendations, which, as we heard, the former Deputy Prime Minister then enacted when they were in the coalition Government, which I think we are all very happy still exists to this day—the free school meals, not the coalition Government! However, from year 3 onwards, provision of free school meals is means-tested. Only children in households in England who receive universal credit and earn less than £7,400—excluding benefit payments—are eligible for free school meals. On that note, in today’s short speech I will focus on how we must change the policy in England. For too long, England has been the poor relation. It is just not good enough. We have the least generous offers around school food, and the highest rates of children in poverty who are ineligible for free school meals.

We must also think about the quality of the food that we are providing to our students. The school food standards are a fantastic set of regulations that provide guidance on the nutritional quality and variety of food that children should have access to at school. When they are followed correctly, the school meal offers are some of the best in the world, and I work with parliamentarians around the world, so I speak with some authority on this. However, sadly some schools struggle to do so, and they need support. In England there is no consistent assessment, monitoring or reporting of whether schools are meeting the standards for school food. There is no ring-fencing of funding, either. This means that the quality is very variable, with some children benefiting from nutritious, delicious food while others receive lower-quality meals.

We must discuss the structural issues surrounding provision that make delivering school meals unsustainable. For example, as has been talked about already, the funding per meal for universal infant free school meals is far too low. It is just £2.53 across most of England, despite the average meal cost exceeding this. The funding must be raised to £3 per meal to adequately cover the cost of the ingredients and the labour costs for school food. We all eat in restaurants; we know the prices have gone up. Schools are being asked to do an impossible thing at the moment. The rising cost of these meals and the dwindling funding means that, inevitably, quality is going to slip.

We need to revolutionise eligibility. I truly believe that the best school meal offer is a universal free school meal offer, as we have seen with the triumph of Mayor Sadiq Khan’s universal free school meal offer for primary school children in London. It seems popular as well—I think he won, didn’t he? But I understand that the road to a universal offer is a journey. That is why I am calling on the Government to, without delay, expand eligibility to all children whose parents and carers receive universal credit, so that we can begin to tackle the horrifying reality that, as we have heard, 900,000 children living in poverty are currently ineligible, according to the Child Poverty Action Group.

The next step on this road is to implement automatic enrolment as soon as possible. Local authorities like Sheffield are leading the way on this already, and prove it works. Every eligible child should be eligible from day one. This is not an expensive change. The Government already know exactly who is eligible and who is not, so families should not need to apply. It needs to be automatic from when the child is enrolled in school, or when their circumstances change. That will help schools too because they will get extra pupil premium, and that can then unlock access to resources and support as well as a hot meal for these children.

Free school meals are foundational to a fair and equal school experience. When we provide them, they leave inequality at the school gate and liberate children from the injustice of the haves and the have-nots.



Read the full debate in Hansard here >


Previous content of this page (prior to the debate) below.

Template text for email wording here.

> Download a word document here >, or copy and use the text here below:


Dear [Enter your MP’s name here],

I am writing to request that you contribute to the Westminster Hall Debate on ‘Free School Meals in England’ that will take place between 16:30 – 18:00 on Tuesday the 7th of May.

I am your constituent, and I am also a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for School Food, chaired by Sharon Hodgson MP, so this topic of school food and free school meals is very important to me.

Every MP in England has constituents who receive free school meals and rely on this lifeline public service to ensure that they receive a hot, healthy, nutritious meal at school. That is why it is so important that you attend this debate and speak on behalf of your constituents.

As you know, education is devolved, and England is lagging behind our neighbours in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as we have the most restrictive Free School Meal offer in the UK. The current system for eligibility in England, which requires families to be on Universal Credit and receive less than £7,400 (after tax and not including benefits) means that, according to the Child Poverty Action Group in 2022, over 800,000 children living in poverty do not have access to a free school meal. This is a tragedy and an injustice.

Please take the time to contribute to the debate on Tuesday, to represent the children in your constituency who rely on their free school meals, and to represent all the children without access who desperately need one too.

Yours sincerely,

[enter your name]

[enter your address details]


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