[Philip Davies in the Chair] — Free School Meals (Colleges)
Nicholas Dakin (Scunthorpe, Labour)
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Blunkett on securing this timely and needed debate. It is a pleasure to follow Caroline Dinenage, who put her finger on it when she said that this is a raw deal. She then spelt out clearly and succinctly why that is the case and why it is not acceptable. It is a long-standing injustice and an issue that I have raised continually since I first came to the House two years ago.
From my 30 years’ experience of working with post-16-year-old students and four years as principal of John Leggott college in Scunthorpe, I know the direct impact that not having access to a college meal in the daytime has on concentration, attendance, retention, achievement and, inevitably, that young person’s progression to other things.
My hon. Friend Angela Smith described the case of John, who said that because he did not have access to a free meal—he met the criteria, but he chose to go to a college rather than a school—he skipped lunch from time to time. That will impact directly on his achievement. John is being disadvantaged by the system and that should not be the case.
If the eligibility of students who meet the criteria for free school meals depends on the type of institution that they attend, that is not only morally wrong but potentially piles disadvantage on top of disadvantage. To be fair, however, I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State for Education realise that the policy is indefensible because of their answers to questions in the House.
“I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I share his view. We have committed to maintaining spending on free school meals this year. Further announcements will be made after the spending review.”—[Hansard, 11 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 14.]
There was clearly a little bit of hope that the anomaly was to be addressed.
The spending review came and went, and I raised the issue again. This time the Secretary of State answered my question:
“That is a fair point—”
I think he was busking at that point—
“As the hon. Gentleman will know, many FE colleges simply do not have the facilities to be able to provide free school meals; they do not have the cafeterias or kitchens in place.”—[Hansard, 28 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 59.]
The Secretary of State was not having one of his better days, because a parliamentary question to the Minister revealed that fewer schools than colleges have catering facilities, yet they continue to serve free school meals and get round that problem. In my consultation with the Association of Colleges, it demonstrated through a survey of its members that that problem of facilities could be easily overcome.