North East MPs have reacted after a report called for ‘universal free school meals’ for families across the UK.

A report carried out by the Centre for Young Lives thinktank, in partnership with the Child of the North, has made recommendations to tackle child poverty affecting millions of children.

The report has called for the free meals scheme to be initially targeted at schools in boroughs and wards with the most disadvantaged populations.

It has also called for free school meals to be expanded to children in all families receiving Universal Credit and for automatic registration of eligible families for FSM to be “implemented immediately”.

Stockton North MP Alex Cunningham said: “With child poverty in the North East at around 40 per cent, it is critical that the government looks at every possible lever in order to help give our children the best possible start in life and I welcome this latest report. 

“Hungry children won’t learn as well as they should but the lack of food can have all manner of other consequences including poor health – and as one of the richest nation the world we should be ashamed of that.

“Our schools have done tremendous work over the years ensuring thousands of children get a proper breakfast to set them up for the day and it is clear many young people would really benefit from a meal at lunchtime too.”

The report comes after free school meals were extended to every pupil in state primary schools in London this academic year to help struggling families.

Anne Longfield, former Children’s Commissioner, has called for greater investment to tackle the issue of child poverty and said universal free school meals for the worst affected areas needs to be a priority.

The report, published by Ms Longfield’s thinktank, said this action needs to be a “long-term” ambition for all schools.

The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has also announced the policy to tackle food poverty will run for a second school year.

Simon Clarke, Conservative MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, said he supports the free school meals for disadvantaged families, but criticised how the London Mayor implemented the strategy.

He said: “I support free school meals being targeted at those families who need them.

“What I do not support is what the Labour Mayor of London has done, which is to use public money to subsidise free lunches for middle class families.  

"There is no way that poorer families and pensioners should be paying their taxes to subsidise parents who can afford to pay for their children’s meals.” 

Darlington MP Peter Gibson also took umbrage with Mr Khan’s decision, and defended Government’s approach to child poverty.

He said: “This Government has reduced child poverty and tackled poverty by raising wages, cutting taxes, growing the economy and increasing employment and provided unprecedented support across the country.

“We’ve introduced the Household Support Fund, extended school meals and indeed introduced the amazing Holiday Activities Fund programme which will see almost half a million pounds spent In Darlington this year.

“The Mayor of London should concentrate on tackling his appalling record on crime instead of using hard earned taxpayers money on those who can comfortably afford to pay for their own children’s food.”

All children at state schools in England are entitled to free school lunches in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 - other pupils are not entitled to these meals unless their family receives benefits.

Currently, families who claim Universal Credit (UC) are only eligible for free school meals if their household’s post-tax earnings come in at less than £7,400 a year.

Nearly one in four (23.8 per cent) pupils at state schools in England were eligible for the scheme – the equivalent of two million children – in January 2023.

Ms Longfield, executive chair of the Centre for Young Lives, said child poverty has become the “elephant in the room in Westminster”.

She said: “Schools are on the frontline of the battle against child poverty but are overwhelmed by what is being asked of them.

“We need to give our schools and school leaders the tools – and, crucially, the funding – they need to poverty-proof their schools.”

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“Free School Meals should be a long-term ambition for all schools, but we should start by targeting individual schools in local areas with the most disadvantaged children and young people.

“The evidence is clear that investment in the UK’s education system is being squandered because the effects of poverty are not being addressed as an integral part of educational provision.

“Schools should no longer have to use sticking plaster solutions to tackle poverty.”