Rhondda Cynon Taf lobbies for free school meals across Wales

Council has asked the Welsh Government to pay for lunch for all school-aged children

RHONDDA Cynon Taf County Borough Council has called on the Senedd to provide free school meals for all Welsh children.

“We have disgustingly high levels of child poverty in Wales, it is a national disgrace,” said Plaid Cymru councillor Pauline Jarman.

The Senedd building
“The Senedd” by Wojtek Gurak is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

The motion, approved at a council meeting on January 20, asked the Welsh Government to cost, budget and provide universal free school meals for all children living in Wales.

However, a similar vote was rejected in The Senedd on February 9. It requested that unallocated funds from the draft budget for the upcoming fiscal year be used to expand the eligibility for free school meals.

The Senedd amendment asked that all families receiving Universal Credit or an equivalent benefit and any family with no recourse to public funds be eligible to claim free school meals.

Opinions have been divided among councils.

Conservative councillor Joel James of Rhondda Cynon Taf asked whether or not it was necessary to give food to those children whose families could well afford it.

Many RCT councillors remain hopeful that the Welsh Government could re-think its decision before agreeing on the final budget which is due to be published on March 2.

“I hope when the Finance Minister comes back with a new budget she will have some consideration of the debate last week and find funding even at this late stage,” said Coun Jarman.

Following the Senedd vote, Plaid Cymru conceded that providing free school meals for all may not be achievable for this year’s budget and a more realistic goal may be to provide free meals to all families receiving Universal Credit.

“Giving to children on Universal Credit is the first consideration, but an important step towards acknowledging that free school meal entitlement to all children has to be the main objective,” added Coun Jarman.

School children eating lunch
“Healthier School Meals: Kid Approved” by Bread for the World is licensed with CC BY-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

All pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2 in England and Scotland are eligible for free school meals but this is not the case in Wales.

According to the RCT motion, put forward by the Plaid Cymru party, 30% of children in Wales are living in poverty but only 13% are entitled to free school meals based on the current eligibility criteria.

The means tested system has come under scrutiny over the years for being inefficient, unfair and for not targeting the right people.

The annualised net earned income threshold for Universal Credit claimants to receive free school meals is £7,400, meaning that the remaining 17% of low-income families would not be entitled to free school meals.

“I don’t sleep easily in my bed knowing there are children in Rhondda Cynon Taf who are going hungry,” said Coun Jarman.

The number of Universal Credit claimants in RCT has increased massively since the outbreak of Covid-19 and parents are under pressure to keep their children warm, educated and fed throughout the lockdown.

The hope was that free school meals would help families most affected by the pandemic.

Coun Jarman said: “For the want of a bit more investment, it won’t break the bank, but it’ll certainly heal the divide.”

School meal being served to a pupil
“School Meals 080” by Cheshire East Council is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

The key consideration for debate during the council meeting was the cost of implementing such measures.

“It’s all well and good to pass these notices and motions but somehow, it’s got to be paid, there’s no such thing as free, it’s a cost somewhere,” said Coun James.

The Conservative councillors stated that they were not against the idea of giving free school meals to those who need it but had concerns with the “universality” of the motion.

The notice would allow any family to claim free school meals regardless of their financial situation and would come at a substantial cost to The Welsh Government.

However, Coun Jarman believes that funding can easily be sourced if the Government is more mindful in its spending.

She lists the acquiring and disposing of Welsh land and property and pulling back from failed initiatives as possible areas where money could be saved.

“It isn’t that The Welsh Government couldn’t lay their hands on the funding for free school meals, it’s because they don’t want to,” she added.

Similar actions have been taken by Carmarthenshire Council which passed a motion supporting the campaigns of the Child Poverty Action Group and the People’s Assembly which is lobbying for the expansion of eligibility for free school meals.

  • Child Poverty action group has called for all families who receive universal credit or working tax credit to be eligible for free school meals. You can access their website here.
  • People’s Assembly launched a petition in December demanding nutritious, free school meals for every pupil attending a state school in Wales. Further information can be found on their website here.