Take-up is a key measure of success for universal infant free school meals, and it has been strong since the introduction of the policy. According to the latest figures, 1.5 million infant pupils—excluding those eligible for benefit-based free school meals—took a lunch on census day. That represents a take-up rate of 86.2%.
Some 15 years ago, Hull led the way by pioneering the policy of free healthy school meals to fight poverty and childhood obesity and to improve attainment in the classroom. When the Liberal Democrats came to power in Hull, they scrapped that scheme in 2007, but this was followed by the Labour Government’s pilots and the announcement from the coalition on free school meals for the earliest years. However, given the continuing link between poor nutrition and childhood obesity, is it not disappointing that just-managing families in Hull are seeing a doubling of prices for school meals, all because the austerity funding squeeze on school budgets and councils has not ended in deprived areas?
I am grateful for that question. Giving free school meals to infants encourages children to start on the right path to nutritious meals. Those who are eligible will go on to claim free school meals, and it is worth noting that the new eligibility criteria and the protections introduced last April mean that we expect more pupils to be entitled to free school meals by 2022, by contrast to the scaremongering that took place in this place and outside when the policy was introduced.
Does the Minister now accept that it was a mistake for his party’s last election manifesto to propose abolishing free school meals? Will he promise that there will be no such proposal ahead of the snap election that looks like it is about to happen and to which his Back Benchers are looking forward so much? Indeed, will he commit to matching Labour’s manifesto commitment to extend universal free school meals to all primary school pupils?
I am grateful for that question. It is good to see the shadow Front-Bench team intact after the weekend speculation that they were about to split with the leadership. It is worth reminding the House that we have extended eligibility for free school meals three times while in government, and we continue to be committed to that policy.