By Democrat reporters
The Scottish Government could delay the rollout of universal free school meals in primary schools until after the next Holyrood election. Daily Record political editor Paul Hutcheon is reporting today that a leaked briefing also claimed Ministers are looking at linking free meals in primary six and seven to the means-tested Scottish Child Payment.
Labour MSP Monica Lennon, pictured left, said: “Breaking promises to children is a disgrace. Humza Yousaf must keep his word to Scotland’s school kids.”
Free meals are available to all pupils between primary one to five and the Government is committed to extending the policy to older primary school children.
Expansion had already been delayed until later in this parliamentary term due to funding pressures and documents show this timescale could slip even further.
The briefing by council umbrella group COSLA stated: “Scottish Government officials approached COSLA officers at the beginning of June to see if it would be possible for Local Government to assist with their budgetary challenge in 2023/24 by agreeing to an extension to the timescale for fulfilling the commitment to universal provision in primary schools.”
In practice, the document says this would mean councils being able to use £70m of capital funding earmarked for the free school meal expansion as day to day spending.
It added that a further £10m would be available to support the expansion of free school meals to children in primary six and seven who are eligible for the £25-a-week SCP.
The briefing noted: “No discussion on revised timescales has taken place as yet, and both COSLA officers and Scottish Government officials are aware from earlier discussions with Local Government professional associations that a minimum of two summer terms (before an implementation date) would be needed to complete capital works.
“This could mean full roll out of universal school meals is beyond this Parliamentary term.”
The COSLA briefing continued: “Scottish Government has been clear that the commitment to universal provision remains, and that this is a delay rather than a change of policy.
“It would be expected that a delay to rollout would result in significant concerns being raised by a number of stakeholder, therefore Scottish Government should clearly communicate that it is a decision they have taken as a result of budget pressures.”
Finance Secretary Shona Robison, right, warned in May that the Government is facing a £1 billion budget shortfall for day to day spending next year.
Lennon, who has campaigned for universal free school meals for all pupils, said: “Expanding universal free school meals to all primary school pupils was a key SNP commitment, and all P6 and P7 children should have been included from August last year.
“The Scottish Government has failed to make this a national priority and progress has slipped. Any further delays would be a betrayal of a generation of young Scots.
“Local authorities are eager to get on with it, with Scottish Labour-led Inverclyde Council already making universal free school meals available to all primary pupils.
“If Humza Yousaf can’t prioritise rolling out universal free school meals during a cost-of-living crisis, why should people trust him and his SNP-Scottish Green government on anything else?
“My amendments to the Good Food Nation Bill sought to give children and young people legal rights on universal free school meals but this was shamefully blocked by SNP and Scottish Green MSPs.
“Ministers must come clean with the public and make an urgent statement in Parliament.
”In an interview with the Record earlier this year, Yousaf expressed scepticism that all children in secondary schools should be entitled to free meals:
“I’ve got a 14 year old now. Should people be paying for her free school meals when I earn a First Minister’s salary?
“I don’t think that’s the right way to use that money. I think the better way to use the money is to target it to those that need it absolutely the most.”
STUC General Secretary Roz Foyer, left, said: “It’s astounding to the point of incredulity that the Scottish Government, in the throes of a brutal cost-of-living crisis bringing families to their knees, fails to tackle child hunger affecting Scotland’s pupils.
“This approach, reneging in previous commitments and breaking promise after promise, will deliberately elongate the hunger of a child. Under what possible scenario do Scottish Government officials think purposefully withholding food from those that need it most is conducive to a ‘well-being economy’ or makes Scotland the ‘best place in the world to grow up’?
“Should this delay occur, the First Minister runs an incredible risk. Breaking promises to children is one thing; failing to deliver the policies of government to the nation is another.
“We know Tory Government austerity strains Scotland’s fiscal choices. That’s why, in our tax paper, we showed the Scottish Government how they could raise further revenues. They’ve chosen, until now, not to listen and Scotland’s pupils may now pay the price through all too avoidable hunger.
A spokesperson for the EIS said: “The EIS recently raised concerns about the threatened roll-back on the Scottish Government’s commitment to the delivery of free school meals for all Primary aged young people, following comments by the First Minister last month. The very next day after he made them, the Deputy First Minister gave assurances that the government would deliver on its already delayed manifesto promise.
“Fresh news of a potential time-lag until after the next Holyrood election is alarming given the growing prevalence of malnutrition among children in Scotland and the fact that food inflation sits stubbornly around 20%. Reneging on their free school meals commitment or even letting it slide even further down the priority list would be a betrayal of Scotland’s young people and a further blow to families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis.
“What we need instead is the Scottish Government acting decisively and swiftly to deliver school meals that are cost-free and stigma-free for all young people, in the interests of their health and wellbeing and their educational chances.”
Tory MSP Stephen Kerr, right, said: “Our young people look set to be short-changed once again by this failing SNP-Green government.
“A further delay in rolling out free school meals to all primary school pupils would be a typical example of ministers action not matching their grand rhetoric.
It is essential Scottish children are provided with high quality and nutritious food at school, which in turn helps families struggling during the cost-of-living crisis.
“This latest betrayal can be added to the long list of education failures on the SNP’s watch, much like the promised universal rollout of free laptops that has failed to materialise.
Commenting on reports that the rollout of free school meals for all primary pupils could be delayed until after the next Scottish Parliament election, Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Willie Rennie MSP said: “Free school meals are a way of ensuring that young children start the day with nutritious food.
“These delays and broken pledges are a perfect illustration of why voters should not vote for the Scottish nationalists.
“Nicola Sturgeon, Humza Yousaf and co made big promises but have completely failed to deliver.
“If they promised me it was raining, I’d be straight to the window to check.”