National School Breakfast Programme - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:14 am on 5th September 2019.

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Photo of Lord Curry of Kirkharle Lord Curry of Kirkharle Crossbench 11:14 am, 5th September 2019

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to continue their funding of the National School Breakfast Programme.

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, the department is investing up to £26 million in a breakfast club programme, using funds from the soft drinks industry levy. This money will kick-start or improve breakfast clubs in over 1,700 schools. The focus of these clubs has been to target the most disadvantaged areas of the country, including the Department for Education’s opportunity areas. Decisions about funding beyond March 2020 will be taken as part of the spending review.

Photo of Lord Curry of Kirkharle Lord Curry of Kirkharle Crossbench

I thank the Minister for his response and for the current commitment to the school breakfast programme. However, contracts are due to end, complex supply chains are in existence and, as yet, decisions have not been taken as to whether or not this programme will be funded. If the Government do not commit to the continued funding of this programme, there is a risk that more than 280,000 children will arrive at school one morning and find that there is no breakfast. Will the Minister please reassure the House that the Government will commit to the continued funding of this programme?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, as I said, any decision to renew the contract for this national school breakfast programme will be part of this year’s spending round, of which headline details were announced yesterday by the Chancellor. My officials are working closely with the contractor on ensuring that breakfast clubs are sustainable. We will announce plans in relation to this shortly. However, I want to ensure that we do not entrench existing suppliers. We must remain alert to other ideas and other methods of delivery.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that where breakfast clubs operate it ensures that children’s attendance and punctuality improve, healthy food is eaten, attainment achievement is often improved and socialisation takes place. He will also be aware that 62% of teachers say that increasing numbers of children are coming to school undernourished and wanting food. When this decision on spending takes place, will he put those important issues into consideration so that this programme can not only continue but be extended?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I completely agree with the noble Lord on the importance of a healthy breakfast for children—there is masses of evidence to support the benefits. It improves concentration and provides nutrition, which does not always happen at home. I agree with that. We are reviewing the future of the programme. We had our spending settlement letter and announcement from the Chancellor only yesterday. We want to ensure that we can extend this programme in an effective way. We have targeted it initially in the opportunity areas, which, as noble Lords will know, are some of the areas of greatest deprivation. We want to create a system that is sustainable into the long term.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

No one has any doubt about the importance of breakfast and yet, at the moment, apart from the scheme mentioned by my noble friend Lord Curry, almost all these breakfasts are being provided by charities such as Magic Breakfast. However, even Magic Breakfast reckons that 1.8 million children go to school hungry every morning. Surely this matter should not be haphazardly funded by the sugar tax or by desperate mothers and charities such as Magic Breakfast. Does the Minister agree that this should be a responsibility of the Department for Education and of all of us because we know how fundamentally important it is?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The noble Baroness makes important points. There is both a macro and a micro issue here. For example, today I looked at the LIFFE futures price for wheat: it is £130 a tonne. When I last worked on my father’s farm in 1978 it was about £100 a tonne. Food has never been cheaper. We have had a revolution in the provision of food in this country and, indeed, in the western world. We need to understand why these families are struggling to produce meals at home. A great deal of that centres around education. I appeared before a Select Committee yesterday on holiday hunger and we need to learn a lot more about this. We have introduced the infant free school meals in the past couple of years. That programme is feeding 1.5 million children and has an 85% take-up.

Photo of Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate Conservative

Does my noble friend agree that much of the funding for these schemes comes from the soft drinks industry? Can he confirm that it is difficult to avoid a conflict of interest when those that might be providing sustenance which is not always as healthy as it should be are involved in schemes such as these?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The noble Lord is quite right. I should perhaps declare my own interest as someone who grows 3,500 tonnes of sugar beet every year. Of course, a lot of that sugar does not go to the right places. The levy is designed as a pump-primer for the system. We want to see this money encouraging schools to start breakfast clubs that are sustainable in the long term. Noble Lords will be aware that we have just announced a tremendous funding settlement for schools over the next three years. I am confident that there are now resources coming into schools that will enable them to sustain them.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, it should be a source of shame to the Government that after nine years in power some children in England turn up at school in the morning too hungry to learn. I was astonished to hear the Minister say that he cannot understand why that is the situation. There is a simple one-word answer to that: austerity. That is said to be over now, but it has a long way to run in its effects. The National School Breakfast Programme is a necessity but, as other noble Lords have said, its funding needs to be not just continued but increased—a point made by the CEO of the charity that delivers the programme in his recent report. The problem is that the sugar tax funds it. The Prime Minister has said that he wants to reduce the sugar tax, so where does that leave the National School Breakfast Programme? Labour will enter the general election with a commitment to provide universal free school meals to all primary schoolchildren. What will the Tory party’s response to that be?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, first, we very much look forward to the general election and at the moment it is the Labour Opposition who are blocking it. Let us deal with the core issues. We know without dispute that children growing up in a home where adults are working are around five times less likely to be in poverty than a child in a household where nobody works. Since 2010, 3.7 million more people are in work. There are 1 million fewer workless households. Children are benefiting from this, and I am very proud of our track record.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Chair, Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee

My Lords, according to the Food Foundation, there are 3.7 million children in this country living in households where a healthy diet is unaffordable. Does the Minister agree that that is a disgraceful situation for one of the wealthiest countries in the world? Can he tell us what the Government are doing to address this problem?

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I come back to my answer to an earlier question. As I said, there is the top line and the micro line. Why are these families struggling? I disagree with the noble Lord opposite that it is down to austerity. I think it is down to learning more about parenting. At a meeting of a committee looking at holiday hunger, one mother said that her children go to the fridge and help themselves to food whenever they want it, whereas at school there are regular, fixed mealtimes. It is simple things such as this. We want to help parents to understand that they need to produce structure and to know how to cook healthy and affordable meals.