Last week, Newham Council formally reaffirmed its commitment to its £6 million universal free school meals (UFSM) scheme, Eat for Free, after an outcry against proposals for reducing its cost by asking parents to make a contribution.
Local MPs, food poverty campaigners and petition signatories had already expressed relief following Newham Mayor Rokshana Fiaz announcing that plans to reduce the financial burden on the council by an estimated £1.9 million would not go ahead.
“We have listened to local families and know how important Eat for Free is,” Fiaz said. “I am delighted to confirm [it] will remain and Newham Council will continue to put people at the heart of everything we do”. Thirty Labour councillors had rebelled against the potential change to the policy, underlining the strength of opposition.
Newham is one of just four London councils to offer provision of this kind. The others are Southwark, Islington and Tower Hamlets. With local government under extreme financial pressure from the knock-on effects of the pandemic, what might their future be?
The UFSM schemes guarantee – when schools are open – a free lunch to all primary school pupils, regardless of their parents’ income, immigration status and any state benefits they receive. This is distinct from the national free school meals (FSM) programme, currently confined to households with post-tax incomes of less than £7,400, excluding benefits – and national government’s provision since 2014 of free meals for all children in Reception class and Years 1 and 2 across England.
The four London UFSM schemes were introduced about a decade ago. Newham’s grew out of a 2009-11 national pilot that was also conducted in Durham and Wolverhampton. Southwark’s was a cornerstone of the then opposition Labour group’s successful 2010 local election platform, and Islington’s was piloted in 2009 after opposition councillors came together under the then Liberal Democrat administration to endorse it. The Tower Hamlets’ scheme began with the youngest two primary years in 2013 and was extended to all primary pupils 12 months later.
Advocates of UFSM say they have numerous nutritional and, by extension, educational advantages. In particular, they reduce the stigma felt by FSM-eligible youngsters, and drive up the proportion of pupils from all backgrounds eating school lunches. There’s also a potential boon for the local community through economies of scale and contract stipulations. For example, catering for 75% of Newham primary schools is supplied by a local Living Wage company that employs over 700 people in the borough.
Most of the London UFSM schemes cost in the region of £2-3 million – Newham, with the capital’s highest number of children living in poverty, is the exception. This is financially a drop in the ocean relative to boroughs’ £1.02-£1.27 billion gross annual expenditure. On the other hand, the proposed scale-back in Newham was one of the more substantial items in the borough’s bid to make £12 million in savings overall.
Borough leaders staunchly support their UFSM provision as the “right thing to do” – some told On London they would back such a scheme if they were at the helm in a local authority with a different demographic mix – and confirm there are no plans to cut them in this year’s budgets.
Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs declared on 11 January that his council had protected free school meals funding for the coming financial year. Describing his borough’s programme as “an evidence-based and a popular policy,” Islington leader Richard Watts says this assessment is informed by a “very strong impression from heads” that they are a good thing, including for improving children’s concentration in the afternoon.
Southwark deputy leader and cabinet member Jasmine Ali says her borough’s scheme offers a vital backstop: “Otherwise, you have families waiting to receive Universal Credit and for Free School Meals, and it undermines the whole thing”. She sees the programme as part of a wider mission to raise educational aspiration and achievement. Former Southwark leader Peter John, who introduced UFSM, describes meeting a mother who told him the money she used to spend on school meals now goes on dance classes for her children instead.
A wider roll-out of UFSM has backers in high places. In their 2013 School Food Plan for the Department for Education, Leon co-founders Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent called for free school meals for all primary pupils, beginning with the most deprived areas. The London Assembly wants Sadiq Khan to make the case for extending UFSM.
Surprisingly, though, it seems there haven’t been any academic studies of the four London local authorities’ UFSM schemes and the value for money they represent since the 2009-11 Newham pilot. (Although supporters are keen to point to the University of Essex report on the England-wide programme for pupils aged 4-7, which shows improved educational performance and reduced absence rates and obesity). When Labour included a policy of free school meals for all primary school children in its 2017 manifesto, Jeremy Corbyn was taken to task for claiming it was backed up by research from councils that already provided the service.
Not everyone in Labour circles believes in universalism. John McTernan, a former Southwark Labour councillor who later advised Tony Blair, says, “I’ve never seen the case for a middle-class welfare state. I’ve always been in favour of targeting at those who need it most”. However, he adds: “I sympathise with councils who have decided to go in a direction I don’t support. I don’t envy people facing these hard leadership choices”.
Education columnist and technology innovator Laura McInerney, a resident of and former teacher in Newham says, “It’s understandable to want to keep going on the basis that it’s something that’s hard to take away, and also because Newham has historically had a highly transitory and diverse population. So it’s often harder to get families to sign up for systems which unlock free meals for them”. But, given pressure on councils to make savings and Covid-related expenses, she adds: “Looking again at whether UFSM is the best value service seems a sensible move. If they don’t cut back here, it will be services for another user group: children with a disability, elderly home care, and so on.”
Among arguments for a defence of the existing UFSM approach is that with rapidly increasing numbers of Universal Credit claimants , universal provision is a quicker and more efficient way of covering all those potentially in need. Newham councillor Quintin Peppiatt, who oversaw the introduction of the UFSM trial, says his borough’s demography means the costs of administering a targeted local scheme are outweighed by the benefits of helping those who aren’t quite poor enough to qualify for the national one.
Research for the GLA last year found there are some 107,000 undocumented migrant children in London who are ordinarily ineligible for government FSM (the rules have been relaxed during the pandemic). Back in 2005, a University of Dundee study using British Household Panel Survey data found free school meals were the least efficiently targeted of all welfare spending, and argued that either alternative approaches or a universal system would be better at reaching all children needing support.
Questions over the future of UFSM schemes come as councils have had to pivot during the pandemic, with fewer children to feed in-school but pressing new duties to support wider food distribution efforts. Islington was one of the councils to launch its own voucher scheme for FSM-eligible pupils after the government said it would not extend provision over October half-term. In December, Southwark announced it was giving food banks nearly £200,000, while in the same month Tower Hamlets said it had invested £950,000 through its resident support scheme since the start of the pandemic. In Newham, Anju Ahluwalia of charity Food4All praises Mayor Fiaz for an “amazing job” engaging with and promoting mutual aid groups.
How precarious a situation are London councils in? Before the start of the pandemic, many were already facing huge pressures in the wake of a decade of austerity. The government has not fully compensating them for lost Council Tax and Business Rate and other income. In these uncertain circumstances, council finance officers “will default to carefulness” says the LSE’s Professor Tony Travers.
Newham’s original money-saving plans anticipated the impact of Covid costing £75 million. One concern is that maintaining Eat for Free will displace cuts on to social care. Councillors won’t see the detail of the borough’s 2021/22 budget until it is presented to the Labour Group next week.
Bharat Mehta, shortly to retire after 23 years as chief executive of anti-poverty foundation Trust for London, argued in his Foreword to a 2015 report that much more needed to be done around tackling food poverty in London. He called on boroughs to “combine resources, knowledge, and power to develop a more co-ordinated approach”.
Six years on, the prospects for such collaboration look remote. A pilot of universal free lunch provision in Hammersmith & Fulham secondaries notwithstanding, UFSM schemes haven’t expanded beyond the four boroughs, where they may owe their existence, suggests John McTernan, to a political “balancing offer” to Labour supporters unhappy with ambitious reform programmes in controversial areas such as estate regeneration.
UFSM schemes have firm supporters, but the issue of what services councils can maintain and where to make savings is not going away.
Photograph from Newham Council website.
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