Agenda item

To consider any statements that may be made by the Leader of the Council, Portfolio Holders or Chairmen of Committees.


At the request of Councillors Alisa Igoe and Simon Jeal, the Portfolio Holder for Children, Education and Families, Councillor Kate Lymer, made a statement on the announcement by the Mayor of London that he would fund free school meals for all primary school children in 2023/24.


The Portfolio Holder stated –


“In the request for a statement, Councillors opposite state that the Mayor is funding free meals. The Mayor, in fact, is not funding them – hard working Londoners and businesses are. The answer, for Labour politicians, is always to keep giving away free stuff, which is not, in fact, free. The answer should be to not take as much money from people in the first place. Sadiq Khan will be raising his precept by 9.74% this coming year. That is an extra £58m he will be taking from all Londoners. When Boris was Mayor, he did not raise his precept once in eight years. In real terms, Boris gave Londoners a tax cut. Sadiq Khan’s precept will have risen by an eye-watering 57% since he was elected. If he wants to help people with the cost of living he should stop taxing them to the hilt. He says he wants to encourage people onto public transport. Strange, then, that he thinks the way to do that is by raising fares by 6% this next year in order to compensate for his own financial mis-management of TfL and despite the Government bailing him out to the tune of over £6bn. If he wants to help people with the cost of living he could stop putting up transport costs, especially as in his last manifesto he said he would freeze them. If he wants to help people with the cost of living he would not be ignoring consultations and pushing on with a pointless ULEZ scheme which punishes the poorest people in and around London for having the audacity to own a car in a semi-rural area, damaging and bankrupting businesses along the way. So, although this money will come from unexpected business rate income this money is still part of the Mayor of London’s gigantic tax collection pot. If he dd not want to pass it on to Londoners as a reduction of his precept this money could have been spent on other things which are actually part of his remit such as tackling serious youth violence, or, if not, at the very least he could have had a more targeted approach to who receives a free school meal. We now find ourselves in a situation where the least well-off Londoners are not just paying for the lunches of the children of the middle classes but also the least well-off are now paying for the lunches of children of millionaires. The Councillors opposite in the request for a statement describe the announcement as excellent. I personally do not see how that can be described as an excellent outcome in any way whatsoever. This has the potential to result in anyone, whether they are a lower income household with no children, those saving up before they can afford to start a family or get on the housing ladder, those with pre-school children, those with secondary school children, those with university children, single person households and pensioners struggling to make ends meet all paying for the lunches for all primary school pupils and for families much wealthier than themselves. That is excellent is it? That is progressive?


Councillor Igoe and Councillor Jeal, who asked for the statement, appear to think it is right that the residents of their wards, such as those living in the Downham Estate in Plaistow, or, for example, the Royston Estate in Penge, pay for the lunches of the children in the Bickley Park Estate in my ward. We, on this side of the chamber, do not think that is right and we are flabbergasted that you appear to be celebrating it.


Another important issue that is a result of this important announcement is that this policy is a total nightmare for schools to administer and finance. Many schools will not have the kitchen and dining facilities that can cope with loads more extra pupils taking more meals at the same time. The Mayor was asked last week at the London Assembly if he would be providing funding for the schools that needed added infrastructure and equipment. The Mayor evaded the question, so we take that as a no, he is not. This means that schools on already tight budgets will have to fork out themselves or juggle around their timetable to do multiple dining sessions, which will disrupt the school day.


Next, let us take a look at the timing of both his announcement and the scheme’s implementation. Firstly, he is starting the scheme in September, for one year only. He has been very clear on this point, that it is for one year only. Well, if he is so worried about children in primary school why did he not start it now? Or, at least, after the upcoming Easter holidays. They need the meals right now, don’t they? But no, he is waiting to start it in September because if he starts it now, or after the upcoming Easter holidays, the scheme would finish just before his Mayoral election, and that would not be helpful to his campaign, would it?


Secondly, why has he announced it now? Because he is feeling the heat about his disastrous ULEZ expansion scheme which punishes the poorest in London and he is trying to divert attention away by buying votes ahead of next year’s election.


In summary, this is ill thought-out, politically motivated gesture politics by a Mayor desperate to deflect attention from the bad press he is getting about ULEZ. He is trying to buy people’s votes with freebies. However, the problem is that whilst he is giving with one hand he will be taking much, much more away with the other. But the real moral of this story is that there is no such thing as a free lunch.” 


In response to questions, the Portfolio Holder stated that there was no intention to reverse a decision by the previous portfolio holder in October 2020 not to provide food support to children in the school holidays, emphasising the range of support available including support and food for 9,200 children in the holiday period. She argued that if the Mayor wanted to help poorer families he should stop making excessive tax and public transport fare rises and the ULEZ expansion.  She agreed that, according to the Mayor’s own statement, 30% of children in London already qualified for free school meals, and she was aware of concerns from some educational charities that schools could miss out on vital Pupil Premium funding.