Sadiq Khan 'wants to keep free school meals for all London primary pupils when emergency scheme ends'

Food smiles: Sadiq Khan helps serve school lunches (Getty Images)
Food smiles: Sadiq Khan helps serve school lunches (Getty Images)

Sadiq Khan would like to keep providing free school meals for all London primary school children in the long-term, a top aide has revealed, as City Hall said it had already funded more than 10m lunches.

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

But it has proved “phenomenally positive” with parents, a London Assembly inquiry was told on Thursday – making it politically difficult for Mr Khan, who received means-tested free school meals as a child, to axe if he is re-elected next May.

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

Richard Watts, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, said it would not be known whether free school meals could be provided for more than a year until City Hall received details of its annual Government funding, due just before Christmas.

He said City Hall hoped to be able to be able to continue to use income from business rates to fund the scheme. “It’s fair to day the mayor would like to carry this on,” Mr Watts said.

Mr Khan said in September that he wanted the scheme to become permanent but stopped short of making a formal commitment.

All 1,900 state primary schools in the capital are taking part in the scheme, benefiting up to 287,000 children a day – saving parents about £440 per child across the school year.

Mr Khan said: “I know from personal experience what a lifeline these meals can be and how important it is that we are able to fund around 1.4m meals every week to help families as they cope with the cost-of-living crisis.

“I will continue to urge Ministers to step forward with the necessary funding to ensure that all primary school children receive these vital meals on a longer-term basis.”

A group of young advisers to the mayor are due to deliver a letter to Downing Street on Friday asking Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to provide free school meals for all primary school children in England.

It came as a YouGov survey commissioned by City Hall found that 42 per cent of parents with children under 18 think they will struggle to afford their regular household shop over the next six months.

Prior to the mayor’s initiative, pupils in school years three to six had only received free school meals if they lived in households on universal credit earning less than £7,400 a year.

However five boroughs including Tower Hamlets and Islington already provided free school meals to all primary pupils. Tower Hamlets extended this in September to secondary school pupils up to 16.

City Hall provides borough councils with £2.65 per meal. It assumes there will be a 90 per cent take-up rate among pupils.

Lib-Dem assembly member Hina Bokhari said it was “cruel” for the mayor to pursue a policy that may only last a year.

She said: “It’s like an Oliver Twist situation: ‘Please sir, can I have some more?’ No you can’t. Because it was only for a year. That is not fair.”

But Mr Watts said: “We are not in a position to know whether the GLA has the money to carry on this policy until we receive the local government finance settlement, which is commonly around the 18 or 19 of December.”

Asked why the mayor had chosen to give free school meals to all primary school pupils rather than using means-testing to enable it to be expanded to secondary school pupils from poorer families, Mr Watts told the assembly’s economy committee: “There is an overwhelmingly strong evidence base for universal primary free school meals.

“The benefits from a universal approach outweighed the approaches of extending eligibility but not making it universal.

“Given the time period we had to roll this out, there is also a very strong administrative argument for universality.

“To have to do a separate Londonwide means test… would be extremely administratively burdensome for schools. The joy of universality is that... everyone gets it and it is easy.

“From our point of view, it was better to spend money on food provision than producing yet another means-testing programme.”

The assembly was read a letter that one parent had sent to the mayor. She wrote: “Dear Mayor Khan, I couldn’t believe when the school let me know that the meals are for free.

“I am a recent single mother of two. I live with my elderly mother but I’m also a paediatric nurse and I’m trying to improve my life by doing study. It has been a huge struggle.

“You cannot believe how my life has improved since I do not have to prepare the meals for the children. Not only does it save me time but it saves me money. Thank you for your kindness.”