While on a recent visit to a primary school in the constituency, Fabian was alarmed to learn of the implications of the coalition government benefits review for free school meals. These free dinners have been provided over many years to children whose families do not have sufficient income to support the purchase of a lunch.
"It is self evident that a child who is hungry or poorly nourished cannot work well at school. If a child needs food then the efforts of their teachers are likely to be in vain."
Free dinners have often been controversial. Parents have to apply for them as they are means tested which means confidential financial information has to be provided. Some parents have been reluctant to apply thinking that to do so is something to be ashamed of. This is a prevalent view among some sections of society and it can sometimes mean that children who need and deserve the meals do not receive them. Schools have also had to devise ways in which children excused from paying are not stigmatised in the school canteen for example by being put in a different queue. Nevertheless free school meals have been a very important part of our caring welfare state that seeks to give all children the opportunity to do well and succeed when at school.
Now it is proposed that the money used for free school meals is to be aggregated into the future single benefit, the Universal Credit. It will mean that parents will get the money, if they are eligible to receive it, and will then be expected to pay for their children to have their meals at school.
Fabian is very sceptical.
"If we could be sure that 100% of all parents could manage money, recognise priorities and guarantee that their children would be fed properly, then this niaive approach might work. We know that this is not the case. While most parents and carers will try their best for their children, sadly we know that there will be many who cannot be relied upon. These children from dysfunctional homes will suffer. What is a school then to do? They will have to stand by and watch the suffering. I know that there will be teachers distressed and heartbroken to see some of their children neglected and hungry in school and without the authority or money to do anything about the situation."
Free school meals is a compromise solution to a serious problem. It has the merit that the benefit can only be used by the children themselves. In future the real risk will be that some children will not get their meals - even though their parents have been given the money!
"The government must think again on this," says Fabian. "I am going to write to Michael Gove and lobby for a reconsideration. I am sure there are many MPs from all sides of the House who realise that this change means that children will go hungry in our schools once more. We must not go back to the dark ages with children's nutrition"
Letter sent to Leeds schools on the future of the Free School Meals Scheme. Click here.