Access to healthy and nutritious school meals is essential, given the benefits that such meals provide to people’s learning as well as to their current and future health. The Government places such value on school meals that we introduced universal provision for every child from primaries 1 to 3, which was a plan that the Tories voted against.
When Tory changes to tax credits threatened to strip entitlement from 22,000 children in Scotland, we changed the rules to ensure that they would still be able to get a meal. The fundamental difference between the Scottish Government and the Tory Government is that we always look for ways to lift children out of poverty, while Tory welfare reforms are pushing more and more children into poverty.
People would not believe that there is an election coming up, would they?
Food poverty is a topic that is raised many times in Parliament, with much finger pointing and blame, as we have seen. However, a recent study has shown that many Scottish children—up to 40 per cent in some areas—do not take up their free school meal entitlement. We talk about food poverty, yet so much food is thrown out from our schools and hospitals. In a country where farmers produce some of the highest quality food in the world, is it not about time for the Scottish Government to take a genuine system-wide approach that links food production, nutrition and food waste, and that encourages the uptake of school meals, particularly for those who are eligible for free school meals?
We want to encourage the uptake of free school meals. The latest statistics, which were published in September, show an increase in the number of pupils who are registered for free school meals, and I want that increase to continue.
I say to Brian Whittle that what I have said has nothing to do with there being an election; I am just pointing out some facts. One of the problems is that the Tories in this chamber say things about, and demand things of, this Government, while expecting us to ignore the actions that their colleagues in Westminster are taking. The actions of a Tory Government at Westminster are, right now, pushing more and more children into poverty, including food poverty. Food bank use is growing in this country because of Tory welfare cuts, which is the first reason why it is a bit rich for Brian Whittle to ask me the question that he asked.
The second reason is that we have recognised the importance of free school meals by introducing universal provision for children in primaries 1 to 3. Brian Whittle would have a lot more credibility in asking his question if the Tories had not voted against that policy. How about the Tories thinking about their actions and ensuring that they match their rhetoric in the future?
In Glasgow, 3,500 families are eligible for free school meals, but those families, who are among the poorest, are not claiming, so we have to get to the bottom of why they are not doing so.
The First Minister will be aware that the delivery plan for the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 includes a specific commitment to support local authorities in considering automatic payment of benefits. Ministers have supported that concept in the past, but what progress has the Scottish Government made in supporting local authorities to automate benefits? I realise that that is not easy, but does the First Minister agree that finding a way to automate more benefits such as free school meals would help the poorest children and help to tackle poverty in Glasgow and across Scotland?
I agree with that general point. The more automation there is, the more we can increase uptake and ensure that people get the benefits to which they are entitled. We will continue to work with the Department for Work and Pensions and with local authorities to try to make more progress.
Of course, one of the most important things that we can do, particularly in relation to free school meals, is to make provision universal so that there is no stigma and so that we make it easier for young people to uptake the entitlement.
I said in response to Brian Whittle that the latest statistics show an increase in the number of pupils registered. Pauline McNeill talked specifically about Glasgow, and I point out that that increase is partly due to the introduction of universal eligibility to all primary 4 pupils in Glasgow city as a result of action taken by this Administration.
We will continue to do what we can to lift children out of poverty. Free school meals are part of that, as is the new Scottish child payment, but as long as we have one hand tied behind our back because so many welfare decisions are taken by Westminster Governments we will not be able to make as much progress as we want. That is why the sooner that Labour joins us in arguing for all welfare policy to be devolved to this Parliament the better, and perhaps the more credibility it would have in raising such issues.