All families receiving universal credit should get free school meals, peers say

Baroness Lister of Burtersett said hunger affects the ability of children to learn.

Labour and Liberal Democrat peers have called for free school meals to be extended to all families receiving universal credit.

Their comments came as the House of Lords discussed new research by the charity Chefs In Schools, which found 83% of surveyed teachers said children were going to school hungry.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett, a professor of social policy at Loughborough University, urged the Government to take action on child hunger by extending free school meals provision.

She said: “Hunger adversely affects children’s ability to learn, their health and wellbeing.

“Given all the evidence, why do the Government reject the growing calls for free school meals to the 800,000 children in families on universal credit who do not qualify – or, at the very least, inflation-proof the net earnings eligibility limit to £7,400 set in 2018.”

Schools minister Baroness Barran responded: “Of course the Government accepts that, if children are hungry, it makes it harder for them to learn.

“But I would point out the survey did look at a relatively small group of teachers, so it was 520-something; we have a quarter of a million teachers in our schools.

“The number of children receiving free school meals is at the highest that it’s ever been and the Government’s strategy has been to support the disadvantaged in our cost-of-living crisis.”

She said the Government is providing support to families in a variety of ways, including “the energy support package and other measures that we have taken so that no child should have to go hungry”.

Lord Newby, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, added his endorsement to extending free school meals to all families on universal credit.

He said: “The minister said ‘no child should have to go hungry’.

“I’m sure the whole House agrees with that. But the truth is every day tens of thousands of children do go hungry because they come from poor houses but they’re not eligible for free school meals.

“Unless the eligibility were extended to children from families in receipt of universal credit, there is no way that children are going to go to school in many cases without being hungry.”

Baroness Barran said the policy will be kept “under review” but funding for free school meals cannot be considered in isolation from other support for vulnerable families, which she called “targeted and extensive”.

The peers’ calls to extend free school meals comes after teaching unions, as well as the ex-children’s tsar Anne Longfield, called for the same thing earlier this year.

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