Social Justice

Extend free school meals now to cut child poverty, MSPs tell Sturgeon

Scottish Greens' Patrick Harvie told the First Minister she "didn't have to wait" for re-election to take fresh action on child poverty

The First Minister was grilled on the SNP's child poverty plans

The First Minister said her Government was tackling the root causes of child poverty poverty with the new Scottish Child Payment

MSPs challenged Nicola Sturgeon to give free school meals to all pupils immediately, after a shocking picture circulated showing 200 people queuing for food aid in the Glasgow snow.

The image was “an indictment of the failure to tackle hunger and poverty in Scotland,” said Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Scottish Greens.

Speaking at First Minister’s Questions, he added: “This level of desperation is happening in the city that both the First Minister and I represent.”

Harvie took aim at the Government for the funding “postcode lottery” for charities in Glasgow and asked if Sturgeon had plans for a universal solution to the problem.

The First Minister, who was “appalled and disturbed” at the photograph, repeated the Scottish Government’s pledge to make free school meals available for all early years and primary school children.

This would only happen if the SNP is reelected in May’s Holyrood election, however, with free school meals being offered universally from the start of term in August. They are currently given to all primary one, two and three children free of charge.

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The First Minister “doesn’t need to wait until May,” Harvie responded. The Green MSP said it could be built into the budget Scottish Parliament will be voting on later this month.

But campaigners want Sturgeon’s government to focus on doubling the Scottish Child Payment in the new budget.

The benefit, which opened to applications this week and has seen take-up of nearly 80,000 so far, will pay £10 a week to parents and carers who receive other welfare support such as Universal Credit.

However it was set at £10 per week nearly 18 months ago. “Since then, the grip of poverty has only tightened on the lives of families across Scotland,” Poverty Alliance director Peter Kelly said. “We have to see the payment at least doubled to help reach our poverty targets.”

Around a quarter of children in Scotland – 240,000 – live in poverty, according to NHS Health Scotland.

The Scottish Government will also give an extra £100 Covid-19 hardship payment to all young people who would qualify for free school meals regardless of age.

Westminster came under fire when Sandra White, SNP MSP for Glasgow Kelvin, asked if Sturgeon agreed the UK Government should introduce a child poverty benefit similar to the Scottish Child Payment. 

“Yes, I do,” the First Minister said, “but I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence that this UK Government is at all serious about tackling child poverty.

“It’s time it stopped hiding its head in the sand about the damage its policies are causing. A first step – though it would only be a small step – would be to make permanent the £20 increase and extend it to legacy benefits.”

Ministers have just weeks left to change their minds about cutting the £20 weekly Universal Credit increase, which could cut millions of families’ incomes by £1,040 a year.

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