Gove backs call for universal credit free school meals extension

Former education secretary says extension to all benefit-claiming households would be 'more than worthwhile'

Former education secretary says extension to all benefit-claiming households would be 'more than worthwhile'

The former education secretary Michael Gove has backed calls to extend free school meals to all children from families on universal credit, saying such an intervention would be “more than worthwhile”.

Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference, the MP who as environment secretary also commissioned the national food strategy, said in an “ideal world”, free meals would be extended to all primary pupils.

But he warned “times are tight”, and described universal primary meals as “unrealistic”.

The cost of living crisis has led to growing calls for an extension of free school meals eligibility.

The Child Poverty Action Group has warned that 800,000 children who are living in poverty across England as a whole don’t get free school meals because of the strict criteria currently in place.

Currently any family which has earnings from work of more than £7,400 a year is ineligible, and not all recipients of universal credit can get free meals.

Estimates for the cost of the extension of free school meals to all benefits-claiming families vary.

During today’s fringe event, Gove said doing so would cost around £500 million.

But the national food strategy concluded it would cost closer to £790 million, and put forward an alternative proposal to raise the earnings threshold to £20,000, at a cost of £544 million.

Meals for all primary pupils ‘unrealistic’

“Times are tight. In an ideal world, I think that we should have universal free school meals for all children in primary school,” Gove said today. “That would be my ideal. We’ve already extended it to infants. We should extend it further in an ideal world.

“But…resources are tight. I don’t want to be unrealistic, I don’t think any of us do. But what we can do is we can extend free school meals to every child in a family in receipt of universal credit for £500 million.”

He said that figure was “big potatoes, no pun intended”.

But he added that “given the scale of the challenges we face and the benefits that it brings, it seems to me that in the wider debate we’re having about where extra pounds secure value, it seems to me that this is a more than worthwhile intervention, considering some of the other policy choices in front of us”.

A government spokesperson said it had “expanded access to free school meals more than any other government in recent decades, which currently reach 1.9 million children”.

“We are also investing up to £24m in our national school breakfast programme, which provides free breakfasts to children in schools in disadvantaged areas.”

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