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MPs slate Coalition on free school meals

Hull North MP and Labour Shadow Health Minister Diana Johnson today attacked Coalition Government plans to cut a free school meals policy that was pioneered in Hull.

Speaking in a Westminster Hall debate on Free School Meals at the House of Commons today (Wednesday 30 June), Diana Johnson was among the MPs criticised Government plans to reverse the previous Labour Government’s policy of extending universal free school meals.

Under Labour control Hull City Council was the first English local authority to pilot universal free school meals in primary and special schools in 2004 and until the Lib Dem Council scrapped the policy from September 2007.

A report from the University of Hull found that the Hull pilot was a resounding success in improving health and classroom behaviour. This led to the Labour Government announcing national pilots in Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton. These were due to be extended with further pilots in Bradford, Nottingham, Islington, Cumbria and Medway.

In December 2009 Labour had also announced an extension of those eligible for free school meals to 500,000 more children whose parents are on lower incomes. This measure alone would have lifted 50,000 more children out of poverty.

The Coalition Government’s Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove MP recently announced that he was going to deny these 500,000 children from poorer families a free hot lunch at school.

In the Westminster Hall debate, the Hull North MP accused the Coalition Government of being “short-sighted” in its approach on free school meals and noted that this was just one of the attacks on the poorest children that the Government has introduced since May. The Government also cut tax credits, froze child benefit axed free swimming for children and abolished the Child Trust Fund.

Speaking after the debate Diana Johnson MP added: “While I am proud that Hull pioneered the free healthy school meals policy, it is sad that Hull also proved to be a trail-blazer for this Regressive Coalition.

“By cancelling Labour’s extension of free school meals this Coalition has left 50,000 more children in poverty – even though Lib Dems in Opposition had demanded an extension in eligibility for free schools meals to many poorer working families.

“Sadly Coalition ministers do not grasp the link between universal free school meals and achieving vital objectives in areas such as fighting childhood obesity, raising classroom attainment and making work pay for many parents. Evidence so far shows that the universal approach is of greatest assistance in those areas with greatest child poverty, lowest educational standards and the worst ill-health.

“The Government seems intent on taking investment away from a free schools meals policy that helped to raise educational standards in favour of lavishing money on its Swedish Free Schools policy, even though the evidence so far indicates that Free Schools would not have such a positive effect on classroom standards as free healthy school meals.”