By Martin Kelly
Alison Johnstone, the Green MSP for Lothian, and food spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, has welcomed plans for free school meals for primary schoolchildren but urged Scottish ministers to ensure the roll-out benefits local economies.
Ms Johnstone was responding to an announcement today from First Minister Alex Salmond who confirmed plans to introduce free school meals for P1-P3 children.

The move will affect 165,000 youngsters, and is claimed will boost health and educational attainment.  It will also save families £330 a year for each child.  The policy is a long standing SNP commitment as was made possible due to consequential funding resulting from a similar policy that was introduced in England.

Mr Salmond said: “Under this Government, Scotland has made free meals available in every primary school to families which receive child and working tax credits. A step which hasn’t being taken in England and Wales, and which has contributed to 10,000 more pupils registering for free school meals.

“Now I am delighted to tell this chamber that we can go further. I can announce today that after discussions with our partners in local government, we will fund free school meals for all children in P1 to P3 from next January.

“That measure will build on and learn from the pilots we established in the five local authority areas in 2007/08.

“It will remove any possibility of free meals being a source of stigma during the first years of a child’s schooling, it will improve health and wellbeing, and will be worth crucially £330 each year for each child to families across the country.”

However the Scottish Green MSP warned that Ministers had to address the quality of food being served up to youngsters and more needed to be done to ensure schools used more local produce.
Research last summer by Ms Johnstone revealed that the chicken served in school meals in six of Scotland’s seven cities is not sourced in Scotland, but is instead imported from as far away as Thailand.

Ms Johnstone, a member of Holyrood’s economy committee, welcomed the announcement and said:

“Rolling out free school meals is a welcome, common sense move but ministers must also address what is being served up to our children.  Our councils need support to make buying choices which have positive impacts for local farmers and producers.  I will continue to put pressure on ministers so that they do not waste this golden opportunity.”

Also announced today by Mr Salmond was an expansion of free childcare aimed at every two-year old in Scotland that comes from a workless household.  The pledge will cover 8,400 children by August this year and is expected to be increased to 15,400 by 2015.

Mr Salmond told MSPs: “These are important and immediate announcements, but they fall short, I readily admit, of the transformation that is required in Scottish society.

“We need to create a tax, welfare and childcare system that doesn’t plunge children into poverty as the UK Government is doing, that puts us on a par with the best childcare systems in the world.

“And that is why the future of Scotland’s children is the future of Scotland, and why Scotland’s future is an independent one.”

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, whose party voted against the free meals policy, attacked the free school meals plan claiming it was not one she would have prioritised.

Ms Lamont said: “I have to be honest, both as a mother, as someone who taught some of the poorest children in our communities for 20 years, school meals would not be my priority in addressing child poverty,”

Moving onto the childcare announcement, the Labour MSP accused the Scottish Government of making a false offer and added: “We have said, as the First Minister has said before the holidays, that we make our priority the 10,000 vulnerable children who would benefit from better childcare.

“Six weeks ago, it was the First Minister’s priorities, and for all the noise from his front bench, it is not his priority now.

“Rather than help families now, he chooses to make it a false offer for a referendum when he has the power to do so now.  He makes them wait so he can engineer a false argument for changing the constitution.”

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said the free meals policy had been paid for using “Westminster money”.

She said: “A cynic might say that the SNP, having promised the earth and failed to deliver for years, has only now re-discovered its commitment to free school meals because the coalition government is delivering it.

“Today, we have a Westminster policy delivered with Westminster money, and the SNP playing catch-up but trying to claim the credit.”

Responding for the Scottish Lib Dems, Willie Rennie said: “The best educational investment we can make is in two-year-olds, because that can change their life,”

He added: “If we’re going to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty we can make efforts at later stages – we can do stuff about youth unemployment, we can try and improve life chances through schools – but the best impact we can make is in doing it at the age of two.”

The free school meals announcement has been welcomed by representatives from the third sector and trade unions.

Graeme Brown, Director of Shelter Scotland, said: “At a time when the pressure on household budgets is forcing many families to make hard choices and cut back on essentials, this move by the Scottish Government is very much welcomed.”

John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group, told BBC Scotland: “The pressures on families and their ability to support their children are extraordinary, so providing a free school lunch to children in primary one to primary three is a very immediate, direct and well-evidenced way of supporting families at a time of increasing pressures.”

Alex McLuckie, Senior Organiser for GMB Scotland, which is the largest union representing catering staff across Scotland’s 32 local authorities, said: “There is so much good in this announcement.  It will help tackle poverty and social exclusion and help remove the stigma some attach to free school meals.”


Peter A Bell
2014-01-07 20:36

Sometimes the sheer. bloated immensity of Johann Lamont’s hate-fuelled idiocy looms so large it obscures even the massive stupidity of Ruth Davidson. Here we have the clown-princess of the “Scottish” Tory Party making a total arse of herself by trying to pretend that the free school meals policy being implemented by the Scottish Government is actually a gift from Westminster.

2014-01-07 21:33

“Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said the free meals policy had been paid for using “Westminster money”.”

Erm, does Scotland have any other source of finance at the moment?

Ruth Davidson, Department of the Blindingly Obvious.
2014-01-07 21:42

That was the line being touted by the BBC too.
2014-01-07 21:43

Westminster money, Ruth ? Of course its Westminster money – we rely on Westminster handouts – that’s the way that devolution in its current form works. But we can change all that on September 18th…
2014-01-07 21:46

Well if I was a labour supporter and I heard the leader of my party disagreed with the providing of free school meals for all primary classes 1 to 3, I would be looking for either a new party or new leader,perhaps both, it simply beggers belief that labour could go so low.

And maybe someone should instruct Ruth Davidson that the money provided by Westminster actions for this policy is our own money. She redefines the meaning of “placing ones foot in ones own mouth”.
2014-01-07 22:34

In her rush to condemn yet again RD exposes her view of our country as a dependent nation and any consequential dividend is purely our BIG BROTHER giving us a bit more pocket money, for which she wants us to be truly grateful. How subservient does she want us to be? Then there’s JOLA, what is the relevance of her points about teaching kids and being a mother? What better priority could there be than ensuring our kids in P1 to P3 get at least 1 square meal a day, at a time when working people and some on welfare are becoming ever dependent on food banks. Just what part of this is not good governance? I recall a recent TV documentary espousing the benefits of the Finnish education system and particularly how kids interacted with their teachers at meal times in the school and the benefits thereof. Imagine how radical we could be with increased expenditure on early years education if only we had full control to choose priorities that give all our children the best start possible in life?
2014-01-07 23:17

I am at complete loss to understand the criticisms of this policy announcement by Labour, LibDem or Tories. Do they not understand the difference this will make to many children? Do they not understand that children need fed? Its a pretty basic need. Surely just this once they could have simply welcomed this announcement as Alison Johnstone did.

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