Universal free school meals scheme needs government cash to continue, warns mayor

Sadiq Khan refuses to commit to “emergency” scheme beyond end of current school year despite Conservative mayoral rival pledging to fund it if she wins, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Sadiq Khan on a visit to Mandeville Primary School in Hackney this week (credit Noah Vickers/LDRS)
Sadiq Khan on a visit to Mandeville Primary School in Hackney this week (credit Noah Vickers/LDRS)

Sadiq Khan has cast doubt over the future of his free school meals programme – suggesting it may not continue into the next academic year without government support.

The mayor revealed that 17 million lunches have been provided since the policy launched in September, with City Hall staff calling the response from parents “phenomenally positive”.

But he insisted the policy – rolled out at every primary school in the capital – was still only a one-year “emergency” scheme, and that those who want it to continue should lobby the government for a universal free school meals programme across the country.

His Tory opponent Susan Hall accused him of using the lunches as “bargaining chips in his desperate political games”, as she reaffirmed her commitment to keep Khan’s policy going “until the cost of living situation improves”.

The mayor’s deputy chief of staff has said that City Hall is unable to confirm whether it can keep the policy going until it receives details of the local government finance settlement later this month.

A government spokesperson said ministers have already doubled the number of children receiving free school meals and are providing financial support to those struggling with the cost of living.

Khan last week received a cross-party letter from the London Assembly’s budget and performance committee, which urged him to announce as soon as possible whether he will be extending his free school meal policy into the 2024/25 academic year. The committee said an earlier decision would help councils with their planning.

Asked whether he would announce before Christmas whether the scheme will be extended, Khan said: “If they [assembly members] can persuade the government to do so, then yeah.

“What I’d suggest the cross-party assembly do is lobby the government, because we in London have shown how, for one year, because of the cost of living crisis, [we] can fund it.

“We’ve had an Autumn Statement, and those cross-party assembly members didn’t lobby the government then. I’d encourage them to lobby the government before the Spring Budget.

“If the chancellor in the Spring Budget announces funding, then I’d hope that schools across the country will benefit from universal free school meals.”

Pressed on whether he will be announcing an extension to the programme before or after Christmas, the mayor said: “No, I was quite clear, this is one year [of] funding because of the cost-of-living crisis. It’s emergency funding.

“What I’d encourage those Conservatives on the assembly to do – who are friends with the likes of Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak – is lobby them.”

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Asked if he was suggesting he would not extend the scheme in the absence of such funding, the mayor repeated: “I’m suggesting it’s a one-year, emergency funding.”

Khan’s deputy chief of staff, Richard Watts, told the London Assembly in November that officials were waiting to receive the local government finance settlement, which he said was commonly announced on 18th or 19th December.

He said City Hall will then be “in a position to know whether [it] has the money to carry on this policy”. He added that it would be unlawful for City Hall “to make financial commitments beyond its ability to meet those means”.

But Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall said the mayor should commit to extending the policy now, arguing that his annual budget is large enough to do so.

“This is a new low for Sadiq Khan, who’s threatening to snatch away school meals from Londoners’ kids unless he gets even more cash from the government,” she said.

“Our kids’ lunches should not be used as bargaining chips in his desperate political games. Sadiq has a £21billion budget; he is in no position to be trying to shake down ministers for more cash.

“I’m committed to extending free school meals next year until the cost of living situation improves. He needs to get off his soap box and commit to the same.”

A government spokesperson said in response to Khan’s comments: “We understand the pressures many households are under, which is why we have extended eligibility for free school meals several times since 2010 to more groups of children than any other government over the past half a century, doubling the number of children receiving free school meals.

“We’re also providing record financial support worth an average £3,300 per household. We have raised benefits in line with inflation, increased the National Living Wage and are providing help for households with food, energy and other essential costs.”

The mayor’s remarks came as he visited Mandeville Primary School in Hackney on Tuesday (12th). City Hall has so far paid for 1.4 million meals each week across London, equating to 17 million meals across the term.

Khan said this was “a bit ahead of where we thought we were going to be” at this stage, but was still below the 90% uptake that City Hall had allowed for when budgeting the programme.

Asked whether he expected to spend more than the £135m allocated to the policy as a whole, the mayor said: “It doesn’t look like it so far, but let’s wait and see.

“It’s only the first term, so we’ll get new figures for term two and term three. So far, we don’t think we’ll need to, but if we do, we’ll look into that.”

In answer to the concerns some councils have raised about the costs of upgrading kitchens or hiring more staff to deliver the policy, Khan said: “We’re here in December for a scheme which started in September, and so far it’s working pretty well. If in term two, issues are raised, we can address those.”

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