For our kids there should be such a thing as a free lunch

The plan to cut the free school meals of 168,000 children living below the poverty line is callous, even for this Government.

At a time when families are struggling to afford to feed themselves properly, the removal of free school meals from the working poor will come as a cruel blow to many.

Despite increasing reports of growing use of foodbanks and growing numbers of children going to school without food, we’re still not accustomed to the idea that people in Britain will be hungry. The brutal combination of benefit cuts and sanctions, wage freezes and rising food and fuel costs mean that more and more of our neighbours are having to rely on handouts from foodbanks to feed themselves and their children.

The growing problem of hunger hits both those on benefits and those in low-paid work.  The Government plan to remove free school meals from the children of working parents will deepen the poverty trap, making people loose even more of their benefits when they get a job.  For parents trying to do the right thing and find work, the prospect of having to pay out £300 a year for each of their child’s school meals if they get a job may tip the scales towards staying on benefit. Low take-up of free school meals, particularly in more affluent areas, means that not all of those children who are eligible receive free school meals. There is still a stigma attached to receiving free school meals.

The impact of hunger is most keenly felt by children, increasing numbers of whom are going to school hungry, according to a series of studies over the past year, including the Greater London Assembly’s report on Food Poverty.  Hunger erodes young people’s ability to concentrate and learn at school. And because cheap food tends to be more unhealthy, food poverty drives the childhood obesity crisis that threatens to bankrupt our public services in the future.

We believe Labour needs to take a stand against hunger in Britain. In particular Labour nationally needs to follow the lead of local authorities like Islington, Southwark and Newham in London and commit to introduce universal free school meals for all primary school children.

We have clear evidence of the benefits provided by universal free school meals. Labour introduced pilots of universal free school meals in its last few years in power.  When evaluated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) free school meals for all was found to “significantly increased attainment” at school.  In only two years children in the pilot areas made between four and eight weeks extra progress at school than similar children in similar areas.  The improvement was greater for those children who had previously been on free school meals. At the same time children’s diet was found to have improved and healthy eating had been encouraged.

Free School Meals for All will be a great help to families feeling the pinch.  Ed Miliband has said it is a priority to support the ‘squeezed middle’ as wages stagnate but living costs rocket upwards, and removing the cost of the kids school meals would be a big help. At the same time the policy also cuts the so-called poverty trap, the amount the people lose when they go back to work, so never again would the worry about how to feed your own children be a disincentive to getting a job.

We anticipate two main arguments against Free School Meals for all, but neither holds water.

The first will be: isn’t it too expensive?  Free School Meals for All is a powerful statement of Labour’s commitment to building one nation.  There is a cost estimated at around £1 billion for all primary school pupils.  This sum can be found from within current budgets because it’s the same amount that the Public Accounts Committee found that Michael Gove has wasted in pursuing his Converter Academies programme.  Beyond current budgets, new sources of funding can be harnessed for Free School Meals for All. For example, the charity Sustain has proposed a sugary drinks tax that could be hypothecated towards a Children’s Future Health Fund. We believe that long-term the health and educational benefits of Free School Meals for All mean the programme is a good investment in the future.

The second argument is: hasn’t Labour just announced it is moving away from universalism?  Well, not really. Although the party has dropped a commitment to some (but by no means all) universal benefits, we still strongly believe in universal access to services.  Labour still believes in universal free schooling and the cost of free school meals is minute compared to this.  It should be seen as part of the package of the state education offer not an additional benefit. At the moment means-tested free school meals increase the poverty trap, are a disincentive to work and penalise the working poor and families on the breadline.  We believe they are the right priority for the limited money the Tories’ economic failure will leave us with.

The momentum behind Free School Meal for All is growing.  There is strong support in the trade union movement led by GMB, who represent thousands of school dinner staff who know the benefits of feeding children well.  Some Labour Councils have already introduced Free School Meals for All while others are seriously considering introducing the policy.  Labour activists in areas where it has been introduced say they have never experienced a more popular local campaign, with parents queuing up to sign petitions in favour.

To win the next election, Labour needs a clear, popular and eye-catching headline policy that helps all parts of our electoral coalition and really tackles some of the big issues of our age: improving school standards, helping people into jobs and cutting obesity.  Free School Meals for All is that policy.

Mary Turner is pPresident of the GMB, Fiona Twycross is a London Assembly Member and Richard Watts is a Councillor in Islington

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