Munira Wilson – 2022 Speech on the National Food Strategy and Food Security

The speech made by Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham, in the House of Commons on 27 October 2022.

Given all the chat about chickpeas, I feel compelled to join in and recommend my mother’s chickpea curry or my very own Moroccan-spiced lamb shank with chickpeas. Hon. Members who want the recipes may get in touch later.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) and the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this important debate. The motion before the House notes the impact of the cost of living crisis and calls for the urgent publication of the national food strategy White Paper. I presume the White Paper will build on the Government’s food strategy, which was published back in June but was, as the hon. Member for Bristol East noted, fairly disappointing and vague in its commitments, rather than a detailed response to the Dimbleby review, which spanned two volumes and more than 400 pages.

The most glaring omission from the Government’s food strategy is how they plan to feed hungry children. That is even more glaring given that the very first recommendation in part 1 of the Dimbleby national food strategy was to extend free school meals to all households on universal credit. As that report states:

“A hot, freshly-cooked school lunch is, for some children, the only proper meal in the day, providing a nutritional safety net for those at greatest risk of hunger or poor diet.”

In the majority of schools, however, only children from very low-income households—meaning an annual income of £7,400 before benefits—are eligible for free school meals after the age of seven. That threshold is much too low—I completely agree with Henry Dimbleby. That recommendation was so central to his thinking that when it became clear that the Government were not willing to make that financial commitment, he offered them the less generous alternative—in part 2 of the report—of increasing the household income threshold to £20,000, but the Government still have not moved. All we got in the Government food strategy was a vague commitment to

“continue to keep free school meal eligibility under review”.—[Official Report, 8 September 2022; Vol. 719, c. 486.]

The Government’s position cannot hold much longer, because they know it is economically, morally and politically unsustainable amid this cost of living crisis. We know from the DWP’s own data, published in part 2 of the Dimbleby report, that nearly half the families living in food insecurity—those who are skipping meals or not eating when they are hungry because they cannot afford it—do not qualify for free school meals because the earnings threshold is too low.

A few weeks ago, at one of my constituency surgeries, I met a mother who had fled an abusive partner and was skipping her mental health medication because she was trying to save the money she would have spent on her prescription to enable her daughter to have lunch at college. That is the reality of this policy.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)

Like the hon. Lady, I hope free school meals are realised across the rest of the United Kingdom. Will she congratulate the Scottish Government on introducing free school meals for all primary school pupils between primary 1 and 5, with a view to expanding it to primary 6 and 7? Every child in Scotland living in a household in receipt of universal credit gets a free school meal. Does she acknowledge that it can be done if there is the political will?

Munira Wilson

I am happy to congratulate the Scottish Government, as it has long been Liberal Democrat policy to extend free school meals to all primary-age children. I am happy to welcome that development in Scotland.

The new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—or the old one, because they keep changing—the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), told a Conservative party conference fringe event that he is in favour of expanding free school meals to all children on universal credit. The case for expanding free school meals is compelling because it is not just a welfare intervention but a health and education intervention.

The Dimbleby review reminds us:

“Children who are hungry at school struggle to concentrate, perform poorly, and have worse attendance records. More generally, children who experience food insecurity suffer worse physical and mental health outcomes.”

I appreciate that I am making the case for greater public spending when the Government are desperately searching for efficiency savings, otherwise known as cuts, to pay for their botched Budget but, as with much of education and children’s policy and spending, I ask Ministers to view this as an investment in our children’s future and our country’s future. A PwC analysis found that, over 20 years, every £1 spent on free school meals for all children on universal credit would generate £1.38 in return, including £2.9 billion in increased lifetime earnings.

The Government are keen to move people off social security and into work, yet their current policy creates a huge poverty trap that actively deters families with children from increasing their hours. A single mum with three children would have to earn £3,100 a year more after tax to make up for the shortfall of crossing the eligibility threshold for free school meals. That is nonsense.

I am proud that Liberal Democrat Ministers fought tooth and nail with Conservative Ministers in the coalition Government to introduce free school meals for every infant pupil. I am proud that Liberal Democrat Richmond Council has, this half-term, prioritised free school meal vouchers, even though the Department for Education does not fund free school meals during half-term. I am proud that it was a former Liberal Democrat Education Minister in Wales who, during the pandemic, led the way in ensuring that children got free school meals in every school holiday when the Westminster Government had to be shamed by Marcus Rashford into doing the same for English children.

Liberal Democrat Members will continue to campaign for every child living in a household receiving universal credit to get a free healthy school meal. During the cost of living crisis, we think there is a strong case for extending free school meals to all primary schoolchildren. If that is too much for the Minister to stomach, I beg him, as an absolute bare minimum, to agree to speak to his colleagues in the Department for Education about increasing the £7,400 threshold. The threshold has not increased since it was introduced in 2018, yet prices have risen by almost 16%.

The Government’s food strategy reminds us that school food is an invaluable lifeline for many children and families, especially those on low incomes, but with 800,000 children living in poverty not eligible for free school meals and with one in four households with children now living in food insecurity, too few children who need a free lunch are getting one.

One school leader in the north of England told me last week that, for the first time ever, parents were coming into some of his schools asking for a loaf of bread or a pint of milk. He is now contemplating the introduction of a free evening meal for many children in his academy trust. He is not sure how he will pay for it, because we know that nine in 10 schools will be in deficit by next September.

I read this morning that our new Prime Minister thinks education is a silver bullet, and I agree. It is the reason why I am in politics. I believe education can open doors and opportunities for every child, no matter what their background, but a hungry child cannot learn. The moral and economic case for taking action on this issue is clear. Ministers must urgently intervene so that no child goes hungry at school.