New Clause 1

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 26th March 2009.

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Free school meals

‘(1) A local education authority may provide registered students at—

(a) a sixth form college, or

(b) a further education college,

who are over compulsory school age, but under 19, with lunches.

(2) Where provision is made under subsection (1) it shall be made in a case within paragraph (a) or (b) of that subsection, either on the college premises or at any other place where education is being provided.

(3) A local education authority shall exercise its power under subsection (1) to provide college lunches for any person if—

(a) any prescribed requirements are met,

(b) a request for the provision of college lunches has been made by or on behalf of that person to the authority, and

(c) either—

(i) that person is eligible for free lunches (as defined by section 512ZB (4) of the Education Act 1996, or

(ii) in the case of a person within subsection (1) (a), it would not be unreasonable for the authority to provide the lunches.

(4) Where the local education authority provides lunch in accordance with subsection (3) to a person who is eligible for free lunches, the authority shall provide the meal free of charge.’.—(Mr. Laws.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We are now on the new clauses and we are definitely seeing light at the end of the tunnel. New clause 1 raises two important issues that should be of interest and concern to this Government, for two reasons. First, we are increasingly seeing a large number of young people transferring, or potentially transferring, to a college setting from a school setting. We may anticipate that that will increase as the new diplomas are introduced, with the vocation elements, and as the 14-19 curriculum is developed. I think that we will see more movement of youngsters around the school and college sectors, in order to engage with that wider curriculum. Also, it is clearly the plan of the Government that more young people should stay on, or even be made to stay on, in education and training beyond the age of 16.

Therefore, as well as having those pressures on the college sector in terms of student numbers in the 14-19 age group, particularly the 16-19 age group, we will see a commitment by this Government to try to improve the uptake of school food and, presumably, food for all children. Since the Jamie Oliver campaign a few years ago, we have seen a lot of effort to try to improve the uptake in schools of school meals, both those that are free and those that are not free. Of course, so far that has met with, at best, very mixed success. The numbers in the secondary sector have plummeted and they have fallen in the primary sector. They only remained stable in the primary sector last year and they are probably continuing to fall in the secondary sector this year. It must be a concern of the Government that their strategy on free school meals means that half the children in poverty in the United Kingdom are, unbelievably, not entitled to free school meals. My new clause may help to address that part of the problem.

New clause 1 would give a responsibility to education authorities, where requested by students at sixth-form or further education college who are in the relevant age group and who would, in a school setting, have access to school food, to ensure that meals could be accessed on the same basis as in schools. We also want those young people to be able to get access to free school meals on the same basis as happens in the school sector.

I was very surprised when I checked the figures a few months ago and discovered that a student in a college setting who would in a school be entitled to free school meals is not entitled to them at present, and is therefore  very unfairly treated. If the Government are concerned about the fact that half of young people in poverty are not entitled to free school meals, this is one way in which they could fulfil the pledge they have made, just as they could also consider changing the rules that were amended in the 1980s to stop the entitlement to free school meals of people who were in work, but on low incomes and on family credit.

The new clause deals with a particular injustice, which is the unequal treatment of young people who have in all respects the same characteristics as those entitled to school meals, but who are in the college rather than school sector.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West 11:45 am, 26th March 2009

I will not make a long intervention but, as hon. Members are probably aware, the subject of free school meals is one of my passions. I have been pushing for several years for them to be made universal. Is the hon. Gentleman also referring to the threshold by which free school meals can be claimed? Does he feel that it should be raised? I want to prise out of him his view about universal free school meals. Does he think that they would be a good idea?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The hon. Lady has raised two important points that could be directly relevant to the amendment, because if the terms under which free school meals were made available were to change for students in the school sector, logically, under my new clause, they would need to change for the colleges sector. My view is that it is unlikely that in the near future a Government of any complexion will pay the £2 billion that would make all school meals free, but I agree that we could reverse the change made by the Tory Government in the 1980s when they took away the entitlement that 500,000 children then had to free school meals on the basis of family credit. That would be a welcome change and, alongside the proposals to give justice to students in college, it could make a real different to the number of young people in poverty who get free school meals.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

The hon. Gentleman’s new clause would create a scheme similar to free school meals entitlement, as he said, but it would not take account of the different post-16 learning routes now on offer to young people. Not all young people get access to further education in a college setting. A number of young people are in unpaid as well as paid work-based learning and would be excluded from the scheme that the hon. Gentleman proposes.

However, we have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s intention. We announced in the “New Opportunities” White Paper that we published earlier in the year a review of financial support for 16 to 18-year-olds to ensure that the system supports the new duty to remain in education or training until the age of 18. The review will look at learner support and benefits and we will further consider the support packages available in the light of that review. Obviously I will ensure that the interesting comments of both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West will feed into that. I hope that, with that reassurance, the hon. Member for Yeovil will feel able to withdraw his fine new clause, knowing that his point has been made and well heard.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am grateful to the Minister and partly encouraged, because if I heard him correctly, he said that the new clause was a good thing and that the problem was that it did not go far enough. That is not often said of Liberal Democrat amendments, although we have obviously become much more prudent as the Government’s fiscal irresponsibility has become increasingly apparent. The more serious point is that that is a live issue, because the Government are considering the terms on which school meals, and meals for people under the age of 19 in educational settings, should be available.

The hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West will be aware, because the announcement was made by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families at last year’s Labour party conference, that the Government are piloting various ways of extending free meals for young people. Some of those pilots are a bit of a tease, because I am not sure that the Secretary of State has the slightest intention of paying the £2 billion cost for deliver those undertakings.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

The hon. Gentleman has twice mentioned the figure of £2 billion. I asked the Library to investigate that, and it came back to me with a figure of between £0.9 billion and £1.1 billion as the cost, so that should put the record straight.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that, but I think that she is quoting the figure for making meals free in primary schools, which I think the Government are looking at. When I tabled a question to the Department, I was told that the figure was £2 billion—£1 billion each for the primary and secondary sectors. That is understandable, but in a sense slightly odd, because there is currently more of a challenge in the secondary sector, where young people are voting with their feet and not taking school meals.

My point is that the Minister’s suggestions are welcome, because if the Secretary of State is not going to deliver free school meals in either the primary or secondary sectors, the Government might be looking for some other sensible things to do to ensure that they deliver the objective, which I and, I am sure, many Labour Members share, of ensuring that the 26 to 28 per cent. of youngsters in this country who, sadly, still live in relative poverty are entitled to free meals at lunchtime in an educational setting when under the age of 19. It is a scandal that half the young people living in relative poverty do not get that entitlement, and I am sure that the Minister is serious about those undertakings.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Labour, Islington South and Finsbury

Given what the hon. Gentleman has said, does he welcome Islington council’s recent decision to give free school meals to all primary school children in the borough?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The hon. Lady asks me to comment on the decisions of an individual council, but she knows that I, as a Liberal Democrat, cannot do that, because we do not believe in dictating to local authorities. I seek to influence national policy, which is our responsibility here—I do not want her to tempt me into the shark-infested waters of Islington politics.

I ask the Minister to look first at the young people who ought to be entitled to free meals in the college sector, and secondly at whether young people whose parents receive working tax credits—the equivalent of  the family credit, which used to be a passport for entitlement in the 1980s—could become entitled. That would be far more affordable than making all meals in educational settings free, so I hope that the Government will think about that in their review. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.