MPs call on Jeremy Hunt to extend free school meals to all primary pupils ahead of budget | UK | News



In Scotland, the Government has committed to providing free school meals for all primary school kids (Image: Getty)

The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, has been urged to use his Spring Budget to extend free school meals for all primary school pupils.  

In Scotland, the Government has committed to providing free school meals for all primary school children, while in Wales the rollout of universal primary free school meals began in September 2022.

But in England, only in London do all primary pupils get access to free hot meals, a scheme now in its second year after it was extended by London Mayor Sadiq Khan in January.

Graham Whitham, chief executive at Greater Manchester Poverty Action, said: “Families across the country are being hit hard by soaring living costs, and at a time when every penny counts, we’ve got to get past this awful situation where you have to meet a very low-income threshold for your child(ren) to be eligible for free school meals.

“The threshold is set incredibly low and hasn’t been uprated since 2018, so it’s frozen in time, and more and more struggling families are finding their income isn’t quite low enough to be below that threshold – and therefore, aren’t eligible for free school meals.”

Households in England receiving Universal Credit and earning below £7,400 a year before benefits and after-tax qualify for free school meals. In Northern Ireland, the family earnings threshold is £14,000 after tax and before benefits.

According to official government figures, 23.8 percent of pupils were eligible for free school meals in 2023 – a figure that is up from 22.5 percent in 2022, but campaigners say this is nowhere near enough.

Independent North of Tyne Mayor, Jamie Driscoll, said: “Child poverty not only damages individuals and families, but it also leaves deep scarring on our society and economy.

“In the sixth richest country in the world, no child, or parent should be going without food.

“We need the Government to step up and support our work by extending free school meals to all primary school children.

“I also urge the Tories and Labour to scrap the cruel two-child benefit cap, which traps over 45,000 kids in poverty in the North East alone.”

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt delivers the Autumn Statement in London

MPs and campaigners have called on Jeremy Hunt to extend free school meals to all in England (Image: Getty)

It comes as shocking figures, from charity The Food Foundation, revealed that in January 2024, 15 percent of UK households were living in food insecurity. This is equivalent to approximately eight million adults and three million children.

One in five (20 percent) households with children reported that children directly were experiencing food insecurity, and that rises to 35 per cent for single adult households.

Even for those in some kind of employment, 15 per cent were food insecure, showing that being in work doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have enough money to afford food.

Last year, Mr Khan announced plans to offer all London primary school children free meals for one year, to tackle what he said was a failure by ministers to step up support during the cost-of-living crisis.

He said he knew “from personal experience that free school meals are a lifeline”, as his parents relied on them to give his family “a little extra breathing room financially”, and free meals could be “game-changing” for others struggling to make ends meet.

Back in January, Mr Khan allocated another £130million to the project, which will rise to £140million for the next. He said he was “thrilled to extend this lifeline for another year”.

Mr Khan, said: “I’m pleased to see the Daily Express uniting with partners to call on the Government to provide free school meals for all primary school children across the UK.

“I know from personal experience what a difference these meals can make. That’s why delivering them to all state primary schoolchildren in London this year and next is one of my proudest moments in my work to build a fairer London for all.

“The Government’s failure to deliver free school meals for all is leaving parents struggling to feed their children as they try to cope with the ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

“Pupils, parents, and schools all benefit when every child is offered a nutritious meal, with 78 percent of London parents saying their family budgets have eased thanks to free school meals for all. I urge the Chancellor to step forward and provide this funding.”


In England, only children in London get free school meals, thanks to London Mayor Sadiq Khan (Image: Getty)

Critics argue that this all comes at a cost. Extending free school meals to all primary state school pupils in England would cost an additional £1billion in the longer term, according to the IFS. That is enough to give every teacher in the UK a £2,000 pay rise. 

But research shows that expanding free school meals could actually generate billions for the economy across health, education and social sectors. 

Analysis from PwC, commissioned by the Impact for Urban Health, found that for every £1 invested in providing meals to all children in households on universal credit, £1.38 would be returned over the next 20 years through “core benefits” across social, health and educational areas.

England International footballer Marcus Rashford has been working to secure free school meals for all school children since the Covid-19 pandemic. 

His own family relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals and at times, food banks so the issue is one close to his heart.

He explained previously: “The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked.”

In the last few years, Mr Rashford has helped raise enough money to enable charity FareShare to distribute the equivalent of over 21 million meals for children and families who might not otherwise eat, raised awareness of child hunger in the UK and launched and spearheaded the Child Food Poverty Taskforce.

MP Caroline Lucas said: “Millions of families can no longer afford a warm home, a warm meal or even, in some cases, any meal at all. 

“As children go hungry and parents struggle to cope with this spiralling cost-of-living crisis, the Government must no longer drag its feet: we need free school meals rolled out across the country as a matter of urgency.”

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Mr Whitham added: “We continue to back calls to introduce free school meals for all primary school children.

“Universal free school meals would make a huge difference to low-income families, giving parents peace of mind and really positively impacting their children’s ability to concentrate and do well at school.”

Stephen Timms, MP for East Ham, said: “The borough, Newham, which I represent in Parliament pioneered universal free school meals in primary schools over ten years ago.

“The Mayor of London recently extended the policy across London. Free primary school meals have been hugely popular, and make a very big difference for hard-pressed, hard-working families.

“The evidence is increasingly clear that the policy also helps children do better at school, and has a long-term positive impact on their health.”

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesman said: “We want to give every child the best start in life and we understand the pressures many households are under, which is why we have doubled the number of children receiving free school meals since 2010 from one-sixth to one third.

“We are supporting the most vulnerable with record cost-of-living support worth around £3,700 per household and have halved inflation to help everyone’s money go further, while our Household Support Fund is also helping people with the cost of essentials.”

Donna mother-of-threeStruggling mum Donna earns just over the threshold to qualify for free school meals for her boys [The Food Foundation]

Working mother-of-three Donna earns over the threshold to qualify for free school meals for her boys, but still finds herself struggling to afford to put a meal on the table every night.

Often, the 38-year-old ends up feeding her three sons before herself.  

For all three of her boys to have a hot dinner at school at lunchtime sets her back £150 a month, which is a big hit to her monthly budget.

Speaking to the Express, Donna, from County Durham, said: “Everything has gone up in recent months and it’s had a massive effect on us. 

“My gas and electric bills are huge each month and there’s no help out there for single mums. 

“I work really hard, I have a mortgage and still, most days all I have to eat is beans on toast because it’s all I can afford, after feeding my kids.” 

Donna said she has benefited from two cost-of-living bonuses recently but said that these didn’t “touch the sides”.

She added: “I have to go food shopping later in the evening now, so I don’t miss the clearance items that are going out of date. 

“We have always bought the basic range and when it comes to treats for the boys, they often have to go without. I feel bad saying no and I do try my best for them but it’s so hard.”

She works 25 hours a week and receives around £800 a month from Universal Credit to top her up but every month she is counting down the days until payday. 

On more than one occasion, she has been forced to dip into her boys’ savings when things got particularly tight. 

The introduction of free school meals for all primary school children across the country would be “game-changing” for Donna. 

She added: “My life would change dramatically if free school meals were introduced for all primary school children across the country, like they’ve done in London.  

“It baffles me why London has access to this but not us elsewhere in the country. We promote ourselves are being one nation that sticks together but it doesn’t feel like that up here in the Northeast. 

“There also needs to be more help for single mums out there. I’ve got a good job, I work really hard and I don’t understand why I have to live like this. 

“I don’t have anyone to share the pressure of the rises with. I do think sometimes, ‘What have I done to deserve this life.’”

Niamh Sweeney, Deputy General Secretary, National Education Union

Every day, teachers are seeing the effects of the cost-of-living crisis. We know from our recent poll that more than half of parents in England are cutting back on the food shop. One in three told us they have less food and less healthy food for their child’s lunchbox. We know, too, that time as well as money are an obstacle for busy parents trying to make ends meet. 

In addition, child poverty has grown astronomically. We now have 4.2 million children – that’s nine in a class of 30 – living in poverty. Half a million more are living in deep poverty than in 2010. And of course, thanks to the work of Marcus Rashford we all saw during Covid how vital school lunches are to those families.

In London, the Mayor has introduced a new scheme providing Free School Meals for all primary-age children. The positive effects are plain to see. It means that children can eat together and learn together. Parents are benefitting, too. They tell us they have been able to focus more on their work. They can also get more quality time with their family, helping with homework or simply playing with their children.

The recent NEU/ Survation survey showed 88 per cent of parents outside London support Free School Meals for all primary school children across England. The governments in Wales and Scotland are already on board. It’s been shown to work, and we along with health experts think it’s part and parcel of a good education. 

So, the only person holding the UK back is Rishi Sunak. We have the Spring Budget coming on 6 March, when he and Jeremy Hunt, his Chancellor, can make a difference by backing and funding Free School Meals for all primary school children.  

It doesn’t just make educational sense. It makes economic sense too. The respected accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers concluded that for every £1 invested in universal free school meals, the economy would make back £1.71. The Government point to the need for a strong economy, but we won’t see a strong economy until we start to invest in our children. 

No Child Left Behind, founded by the National Education Union, is campaigning for an end to child poverty. We also want to ensure every child in Britain has the basics to learn and thrive. Free School Meals for all primary school children is one important step towards achieving this.


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