Clarity needed over free school meals

Sadiq Khan is under pressure to reveal whether he plans to extend his free school meal programme into the next academic year.

By Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Sadiq Khan helping serve school dinners in a primary school.
Sadiq Khan pictured on a visit to a London Primary School. Photo: Noah Vickers

Sadiq Khan is under pressure to reveal whether he plans to extend his free school meal programme into the next academic year.

A cross-party letter to the London mayor urges him to make clear whether the programme will continue into the 2024-25 school year, saying that it would “help the boroughs with their planning”.

The Labour mayor’s £135m policy was launched at the start of the current school term as an “emergency” one-year initiative, designed to ease the cost of living crisis.

His Tory rival Susan Hall has vowed to continue the scheme “until the cost of living situation improves” if she becomes mayor in May 2024.

Now, a letter has been sent to Mr Khan by the London Assembly’s budget and performance committee, authored by its Conservative chair Neil Garratt.

Referring back to a recent committee meeting, the letter tells the mayor: “Your deputy chief of staff, Richard Watts, confirmed that a decision had not been made on the future of the programme, explaining ‘the mayor thinks this is a success, he would like to do it, but we have no idea yet whether we have the money to do so.’

“It was acknowledged at the meeting that implementing the programme required significant work from boroughs. We also discussed how any decision to extend the programme for a second year would have to be made before an evaluation is conducted on the first year’s operation.

“We accept this timing is challenging for decision making, however, the committee believes that an earlier announcement will help the boroughs with their planning.”

The mayor said in September that it is his “aspiration” to keep the policy going beyond next year, but that he would not make promises to Londoners he could not definitely keep.

“I’d rather under-promise and over-deliver, than the other way round,” he said.

Approached for comment in response to the committee’s letter, a spokeswoman for Mr Khan said: “The mayor is hugely proud that up to 287,000 children across London are now benefiting from free school meals due to his unprecedented £135m free school meals programme.

“1.4m meals are being funded each week, with over 10m meals funded since September. This was in response to the cost of living crisis that continues to affect families in London. A decision on future funding will be made in due course.”

The London Assembly is due to consider the mayor’s draft budget for the coming financial year in early 2024.

Mr Khan’s free school meal programme is only in primary schools, and has been paid for using higher-than-expected collections of business rates and council tax.

The Government already provides free school meals on a universal basis for children up to and including Year 2.

After that point, the Government only provides lunches to children from households receiving certain benefits. For households on universal credit, they must earn less than £7,400 a year – after tax and not including benefits, and regardless of the number of children in the family – in order for their children to be eligible for the meals.

The lunches administered through the mayor’s scheme therefore provide for children in Year

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