Nadhim Zahawi responds to free school meals debate

6th February 2018

Nadhim Zahawi responds on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate on future eligibility for free school meals and the pupil premium.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing this important debate. I thank all colleagues who have spoken today, including the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and the hon. Members for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin).

I worked closely with the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West on the all-party parliamentary group on water safety and drowning prevention. I hope we can continue to work closely today. May I also say how moved I was by her heartfelt speech in the debate on the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill last week? It really moved the whole House, and people beyond.

Today’s debate is timely, as we have considered the responses to our public consultation on changing the entitlement criteria for free school meals and the early years pupil premium. I will be publishing the Government response shortly. It is all part of the drive to ensure every child has the opportunity to make the most of their life, no matter where they live or their background.

Let me start by restating the importance this Government attached to providing hot, nutritious free school meals to the most disadvantaged children. We are committed to continuing to provide those meals to families in need. Last year, about 1.1 million disadvantaged children in our communities were eligible for and were claiming a free meal, which saves families around £400 per year, as we have already heard today.

Under the existing benefits-based criteria, children whose parents or guardians receive one or more of the qualifying benefits, such as income support, jobseeker’s allowance and child tax credits, can make a claim to a school and are entitled to receive a hot meal. However, the simplification of the welfare system through the introduction of universal credit means that a number of the benefits that currently entitle families to free school meals will cease to exist.

To ensure that any families moving on to universal credit in the early stages of roll-out in the pilot areas, which we have heard much about today, did not lose out on their entitlement, in 2013 universal credit was added temporarily to the list of qualifying benefits for free school meals pending the introduction of the eligibility criteria. The same temporary measure was introduced for the early years pupil premium when that additional funding for disadvantaged three and four-year-olds was first introduced in 2015, and for the free early years entitlement for two-year-olds, which my Department has consulted on separately. As planned, we now need to replace the temporary measure with clear eligibility criteria under universal credit as its national roll-out accelerates.

In setting the new criteria we have followed five clear principles. First, our approach must protect children from a sudden loss of a hot meal as a result of the changes. Secondly, our approach must be fair in how it treats children and families, and target our support most effectively to those on very low incomes. Thirdly, it must enable more children to benefit from these entitlements. Fourthly, it should be as straightforward as possible, both for parents to understand and for schools to deliver. Last, but by no means least, it must be consistent with the approach the Government have taken to determining eligibility for other passported benefits as universal credit is rolled out.

Will the Minister give way?

Will the Minister give way?

I have a lot to say. Forgive me—I will try to address some of the issues that hon. Members have brought up in the debate. I will make some headway and see where we are on time.

Based on those principles, the proposal we have consulted on is to introduce an earnings threshold for free school meals and the early years pupil premium of £7,400. That is equivalent, depending on a family’s exact circumstances, to an income of £18,000-£24,000, once benefits are taken into account. We will publish our response to the consultation shortly. I will briefly set out our thinking on the proposals in more detail.

Will the Minister give way?

Let me just set out the thinking, and then I will address some of the issues that colleagues raised.

First, to ensure our proposals do not result in any child losing out on a hot meal from one day to the next as a result of these changes, we propose to offer generous protections. We propose to protect the status of every child currently eligible for free school meals at the point at which the threshold is introduced, and every child who gains eligibility under the new arrangements during the roll-out of universal credit until the end of the roll-out. Following that period, we will protect all pupils who were protected and are still of school age until the end of their phase of education—for example, primary or secondary school.

Those protections will apply to those on universal credit and the legacy benefits that qualify a family for free school meals. We are not proposing to make any changes for those eligible for free school meals because they are in receipt of asylum support or pensions credits. Those households will therefore remain entitled to free school meals for a long as they retain those benefits.

Will the Minister give way?

Let me make some progress. I want to share a lot of information with colleagues.

The proposals will not affect the criteria for universal infant free school meals, which will continue to be available to all pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2, regardless of income. I am sure the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West supports and agrees with that proposal.

Once roll-out of universal credit is complete, we will move to an earnings-based system, similar to the one introduced in Scotland. Any household earning below that earnings threshold and claiming universal credit will be entitled to claim free school meals for their children. We estimate that, as a result of the threshold, by 2022 about 50,000 more—not fewer—children will benefit from a free school meal, compared with the previous benefits system. That means we will be targeting our support more effectively towards low-income families and the most disadvantaged children.

It is only right that we set a threshold and do not allow every family on universal credit to be eligible. Let me explain why. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) said, some families can earn more than £40,000 a year and still receive a small amount of universal credit. I think that is a good thing, because it ensures that they are incentivised to continue to work. Although it is right that those families receive some universal credit, free school meals should continue, in my and many people’s opinion, to be targeted at the most disadvantaged families and those on much lower incomes.

Will the Minister give way?

Let me share this with hon. Members. If we do not set new criteria, the effect would be that about half of all school-age children would be eligible for free school meals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, the additional cost would be £600 million for free school meals, or £6.2 billion if we include the pupil premium, which follows that. In contrast, about 14% of children are eligible for free school meals today. That would not be a good deal for the taxpayer, in my opinion, and nor would it be targeting public funding at those in the most need. We have to remember that we want to target money at the frontline of teaching in our schools.

Will the Minister give way?

I am just going to address some of the issues colleagues talked about.

Order. The Minister might want to do that, but he has got about a minute left, because Sharon Hodgson has to sum up at the end of the debate.

Fair enough. I will write to colleagues about the issues I do not address.

The one issue I want to address, because it was picked up by many colleagues, is the cliff edge. First, universal credit removes the major cliff edges in the legacy system, such as 16 hours, so we are moving to a system that is better overall in that respect.

Secondly, the protections we outlined during the roll-out period will ensure that no child loses out on eligibility until after the end of universal credit roll-out. If their parents move over the income threshold, they will continue to be eligible. In the longer term, however, we need to set a threshold to ensure our support is targeted at those who need it most.

Let me pick up the point about the Labour manifesto, which the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) mentioned. The Labour manifesto contained a commitment to free school meals for primary school pupils and said that it will be paid for by a VAT rise on private schools. That is illegal until we leave the European Union. Universal free school meals, which the hon. Gentleman is suggesting now, requires a much bigger number—up to £6.2 billion—so I would like to hear from Labour where that massive increase will come from. It must come from massive tax rises. I think I shall end there, Mr Hollobone.

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