Universal free primary school meals to continue across London for second year

Sadiq Khan finds extra £145m for 2024/25 but no guarantees given beyond that, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Sadiq Khan with staff and pupils at Torridon Primary School in Lewisham (credit Noah Vickers/LDRS)
Sadiq Khan with staff and pupils at Torridon Primary School in Lewisham (credit Noah Vickers/LDRS)

Universal free school meals for primary pupils in London will be extended for a second year – but mayor Sadiq Khan has warned it’s still not a “permanent” commitment.

Khan has repeatedly said it is his “aspiration” for the policy to be kept in place indefinitely, but that he cannot make such a guarantee under City Hall’s current funding arrangements.

In an interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Khan said the policy was not yet a permanent fixture because of a lack of dedicated funding for it each year.

Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall has said she would keep the policy going “until the cost-of-living situation improves”.

Speaking at Torridon Primary School in Lewisham, the Labour mayor said he had been “candid with Londoners about how we’re going to pay for things”.

He said City Hall had been able to find £135million to pay for the policy last year “because of the way we’d been prudent with our budget”. The money for the first year of the scheme came from higher-than-expected business rate receipts.

He added: “We’re setting our budget for this year and it’s the case that [with] a combination of business rates being more buoyant than we expected but also [by using] some reserves, we’ve managed to find £140m […] to pay for these universal free school meals to be extended by another year, up until July 2025.

“But frankly speaking it shouldn’t be us having to pay for universal free school meals, it should be the government.”

Free school meals across England were already being provided by the government for all primary school children up to the end of Year 2. After that point, the government only provides meals to pupils if they live in households on universal credit and earning less than £7,400 a year.

The government has previously defended its record on free school meals, with a spokesperson saying in September that ministers have “extended eligibility several times to more groups of children than any other government over the past half a century”.

Asked whether the policy would continue to have an uncertain future when City Hall sets its budget each year, the mayor said: “One of the problems we have is, there are some sources of income that are recurring and there are some that are one-off. We’ve also got the additional problem of keeping an eye on reserves, for obvious reasons.

“We know from the government they’ll be changing very soon the local government funding formula. We know there’s going to be a review shortly of business rates retention [rules].

“So what I can’t do is commit to things in perpetuity when I’ve not got a recurring source of income, so I’m afraid the bad news is [that] I can’t say to Londoners I’ll be providing universal free school meals in perpetuity.

“What I can do is continue to be candid and straight with Londoners and say I found the money for 2024/25.”

The mayor said City Hall had continued to “listen and engage with schools and boroughs”, and had decided to increase the amount allocated to each individual meal from £2.65 to £3.

Asked whether he will be making any other big announcements ahead of seeking re-election for an historic third term at City Hall on 2nd May, Khan said: “Nice try – wait for the manifesto in relation to what we’re going to be offering in the third term.

“I hope Londoners will know from my track record, when I’ve got the means to do so, I do things like freezing fares, I do things like prioritising universal free school meals.”

He added that he wanted to make London “safer, more prosperous, more affordable and fairer as well”.

The mayor has faced questions this week after he on Sunday unexpectedly found £30million of City Hall funding to boost the annual pay rise for 16,000 tube staff. It led the RMT union to suspend strike action that would have shut the London Underground until Friday.

Khan declined to say where that funding had come from, insisting however that this would become clear when he publishes his draft budget for the coming financial year next week.

“The consequences of a strike are awful for our city,” the mayor said. “According to just the hospitality sector, they would have lost £50million this week. So if we can avoid strike action, we should try and do so.”

Asked whether he was worried that he had encouraged trade unions to take tougher action in future in the expectation of similar amounts of money suddenly being produced, Khan said: “I’m incredibly grateful to our transport workers for the work they did in particular during the pandemic.

“I’m really proud [that] before the pandemic we reduced by more than 73% strikes in London, by talking. I’m a proud trade unionist – it’s really important we recognise the contribution they make. TfL will be speaking to all the trade unions.

“I get on really well with all the trade unions, I get on really well with our transport workers.

“But also I listen to hospitality, I listen to retail, I listen to those who have appointments at hospitals, I listen to those who go to university – and the impact on them of the strikes would have been awful. So let’s hope we can resolve these things amicably.”

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