Jeremy Corbyn champions universal benefits with free school meals policy

Frances Perraudin , Nadia Khomami and Rowena Mason
Jeremy Corbyn makes fairy cakes with in Leyland, Lancashire. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn has said he is “strongly wedded to the principle of universalism in benefits” as he launched Labour’s policy of providing every primary school child with free school meals.

The party’s plan to impose VAT on private education fees to raise £1bn to pay for the measure was criticised for directing resources to children with wealthy parents who could afford to feed them.

Speaking during a local election campaign visit to a community centre in Leyland in Lancashire on Thursday, the Labour leader said the plan would benefit children’s health while ending a “subsidy for the privileged few”.

Corbyn argued that local authorities that offered free school meals to all primary school pupils, such as the London borough of Islington, had seen improved school performances and educational attainment.

A Labour spokesman said the party had not yet decided whether it would amend the law to allow VAT to be charged for the provision of certain services by charities, or whether it would remove charitable status from private schools altogether. Fee-charging schools can currently claim an 80% cut in their business rates on the basis that they are charities.

Asked if the party would consider scrapping the charitable status given to private schools, Corbyn said: “We haven’t made a decision on that yet. We’re looking at that.”

Accompanying Corbyn on a visit in which he made Easter fairy cakes with local schoolchildren, the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, said private schools were businesses and should be treated as such.

“[Private schools] shouldn’t be subsidised by the state,” she said. “I’m not suggesting that we should abolish all private schools, but I don’t see why the taxpayers and the state should subsidise them.” She said that when it came to abolishing charitable status for private schools, she was not ruling anything out but that no decision had been made.

Corbyn cited research by the National Centre for Social Research and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) to say the free meals policy would improve pupils’ productivity and enable them to advance by around two months on average.

But Lorraine Dearden, a research fellow at the IFS and co-author of the 2012 report, which examined a pilot scheme in Newham and Durham in which free school meals were given to all pupils, said that more work needed to be done to establish any link between free school meals and improved attainment. She added that to suggest the report justified rolling the policy out nationwide would be “overstating it quite a bit”.

Responding to the criticism that the policy would provide free school meals to the children of wealthy parents, wasting precious government resources, Corbyn defended the principle of universal benefits.

“The [merits] of universal benefits, like the state pension, are that we all pay into a system, either with tax or national insurance or with both, and we all get a benefit from that depending on our needs.” He added: “I am strongly wedded to the principle of universalism in benefits.”

Rayner said: “I think it’s really important that people who are working in this country and contributing in this country see some of the benefits for their contribution.

“Their local services have been cut, their libraries have been closed, people feel that they’re paying their taxes and getting nothing.”

Under the coalition government, the provision of free school meals was extended to all state-educated pupils in the first three years of primary school. Older children only qualify for free school meals if their household receives an income-based benefit, such as child tax credit.

Labour estimates that extending the scheme to all primary school pupils would cost between £700m and £900m a year. Research by the Fabian Society in 2010 suggested that introducing VAT on private school fees could raise around £1.5bn annually.

Mike Buchanan, the chief executive of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents private school leaders, claimed the policy would lead to a “net cost to the state” as parents took their children out of private schools.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was based on “dodgy myths and misunderstandings and it will be counterproductive”. He said: “Over a fifth of families with children in independent schools earn less than £50,000 a year. That’s still a lot compared to the median family income in the UK, but it’s not in the uber-wealthy category, and the majority of those parents have both parents earning.”

Kevin Courtney, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) general secretary, welcomed Corbyn’s idea, saying that teachers often saw the impact that hunger had on their pupils. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the school leaders’ union the NAHT, said the benefits of ensuring all children receive a nutritious meal were well documented.

“We also know that not all children eligible for free school meals receive them, so universality could help address this,” he said. “But it does need to be fully funded, thought through and resourced – both in terms of revenue and capital. At times of breaking budgets, we would need to be convinced that this is the right priority.”

Launching the Conservative party’s local election campaign in Newark, the prime minister, Theresa May, was asked whether it was a good idea to put VAT on private school fees to pay for universal free school meals, but dodged the question.

She claimed Labour wanted to “level everything down and say to parents: take it or leave it, it doesn’t matter if the school is good or bad”. She added: “Just look at Jeremy Corbyn’s economic policies. They would bankrupt Britain.

“Schools would find themselves in a parlous condition if Labour were in government because of the way they would be running the economy.”

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