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Free School Meals Bill seeks to feed hungry children

18 December 2015


A HOT dinner could be secured for 160,000 more children if the Government adopted a Bill compelling local authorities to register all children eligible for free school meals, the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hunger, Frank Field, said this week.

His Free School Meals (Automatic Registration of Children) Bill secured cross-party backing from 125 MPs before it was heard in the House of Commons on Tuesday. It requires the Education Secretary to place a duty on each local authority automatically to identify and then register all eligible children for free school meals.

The Department for Education estimates that about 160,000 poor children in England are entitled but not registered to receive free school meals. The APPG notes in its latest report, published last week (News, 11 December), evidence that, in some parts of the country, up to 38 per cent of poor children are not receiving free school meals, despite entitlement. Mr Field’s Bill aims to spread nationwide the practice of authorities such as Liverpool, Dur­ham, and Sunderland, which auto­matically register all eligible families without an application form. An “eligibility checking system” already exists, introduced by the Depart­ment for Education. 

Mr Field said on Tuesday that automatic registration had delivered a “win-win situation” in those areas of the country that had already intro­duced it. It ensured that “sub­stantial numbers of children need no longer struggle to concen­trate on an empty stomach,” while bringing schools additional money through the pupil-premium scheme, which links funding to deprivation. 

Other recommendations in the APPG report include extending free school meals into school holidays. The Group was told during a press conference last week that some children return to school after the holidays visibly thinner. 

“Inevitably political”. Despite the Bishops’ pleas for non-partisan debate at the launch of the APPG’s report on foodbanks last week, it was not long before fingers were directed firmly at the Government.

“Working together is a much more positive response than point­ing at people and blaming them,” the Archbishop of Canterbury sug­gested. After singling out the “major scandal” of food waste, he spoke of benefit delays and sanc­tions causing an “unnecessary prob­lem”. While this was neither “delib­erate”, nor the outworking of “malice”, it was undeniable: “This is not anecdote: it is evidence.”

The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, said: “Politics can descend to a binary level, when you and I know that life is not like that.”But members of the APPG and audience members who represented foodbanks declined to divorce the issue from party politics.

“Of course it is political, because it is politically driven policies that are driving people to foodbanks,” said Emma Lewell-Buck, the Labour MP for South Shields. “I admire those church leaders that have spoken out and got involved in the politics of this.”

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