Giving his Autumn Statement today, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said £1.23bn would be set aside to fund the initiative over the next two years, which includes £150m specifically allocated to upgrade school kitchen facilities.
The policy, announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in September, will give the 200,000 five- to seven-year-olds attending primary and infant schools in England a hot meal from Monday to Friday.
Osborne told the House of Commons: “We have found the financial resources to fund the expansion of free school meals to all school children in reception, year 1 and year 2.”
Other measures announced in the Chancellor's speech included:
- An extra £1bn of cuts from the budgets of government departments for each of the next three years
- £100m of Libor fines to be given to charities supporting military personnel and their families and those supporting the emergency services
- All 18- to 21-year-olds that have been unemployed for six months will be offered a work placement or traineeship, which if they don’t take up will result in their benefits being cut
- An additional 20,000 higher traineeships to be created over next two years
- Removal of National Insurance contributions for 18- to 21-year-olds
- A power for future Chancellors to set an overall cap on benefit spending, excluding state pension payments
Children’s charities welcomed the free school meals announcement, saying it would help improve children’s behaviour, attention and performance in school.
Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, said: “Regular, nutritious meals are crucial in supporting the healthy development of children and should provide some welcome relief to the finances of those families with young children who we know have been hit hard by the economic downturn.
“Providing free school dinners for all should also get over the stigma that prevented hundreds of thousands of eligible families claiming in the past – a particular problem in some of the poorest, inner-city areas of England.”
The Child Poverty Action Group chief executive Alison Garnham, said: “It’s great to see the government following through on the promise to provide free school meals to all primary school children up to seven years old. The pilot schemes clearly proved it’s an excellent investment with improvements to children’s attainment and healthy eating.
“It’s a policy that really helps families make ends meet too. Child Poverty Action Group’s research has shown that the cost of bringing up children is rising faster than headline inflation, so a policy like this that saves families hundreds of pounds is going to be a big help."
But the Children’s Society called for free school meals to be extended to a further 500,000 school pupils. Lily Caprani, its director of strategy and policy, said: “The government’s decision to make free school meals available to all infants is a significant step forward and we welcome today’s announcement showing how it will become a reality.
“There is also a need to go much further. It is vital the government makes sure the remaining 500,000 school children in poverty not covered by this announcement can get a free school meal.
"We look forward to working with the government as free school meals are rolled out and helping to make sure that the poorest children in these schools still benefit from the pupil premium.”