Humza Yousaf favours a more "targeted approach"
Poverty campaigners have hit out at comments from Scotland’s first minister that indicate he no longer plans to roll out universal free school meals.
Humza Yousaf instead said he favours targeting support at “those that need it absolutely the most”.
Speaking ahead of his anti-poverty summit, the first minister questioned whether his own daughter should receive free school meals.
Currently all children in local council schools in primaries one to five are eligible for free school meals, regardless of parental income.
He said while the SNP had a “proud track record” of universal benefits, going forward he will consider a more targeted approach instead.
“I’ve got a 14-year-old now. Should people be paying for her free school meals when I earn a first minster’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.”
Attending the conference, Marion Davis, director of policy & strategy at One Parent Families Scotland said: “We at OPFS would be extremely shocked and dismayed if the universal free school meals roll out in Scotland was halted to free up monies to pay for other initiatives.
“Certain policies do need to be targeted for those families most in need but this most definitely does not include universal free school meals.
“OPFS has campaigned for over 20 years for free healthy school meals for school-age children, which is to the benefit of all of Scotland’s children.
“We see this as non-negotiable. A child’s right to a healthy free school meal should be a universal right – no matter your background.”
Poverty Alliance director Peter Kelly, who also attended the summit, said: “The first minister has to recognise the injustice that leaves so many children in Scotland hungry and without food they need.
“With figures from the Trussell Trust showing record numbers of families accessing food banks, this is not the time to roll back on commitments relating to free school meals.
“We know that many low-income families just miss out on qualifying for means-tested free school meals, and many others don’t claim because of shame or stigma.
“The best way to tackle this problem is through universal free school meals that benefit all of our children and young people.”
He added: “The First Minister’s poverty summit was a timely opportunity to refocus on tackling the injustice of poverty in Scotland. Across all those who took part, there was a clear sense of urgency on the need to deliver real change.
“There was no shortage of ideas for action. We can expand funded childcare, use public contracts as a lever to improve pay and conditions in key sectors, and remove barriers to work for those people most affected by poverty – women, disabled people, people from Black and ethnic minority communities.
“Now is the time for the Scottish Government to turn those ideas into concrete action. We look forward to a follow up summit in the coming year to check where progress has been made.”
Nicola Sturgeon had previously committed to extending free school meals when she was first minister to primaries six and seven, with campaigners calling for that to be extended further into secondary schools.
But Yousaf signalled those plans may be scrapped, saying: “There’s a lot of discussion going on internally with my cabinet about how do we use all the powers we’ve got to our absolute maximum, and how do we target that money in our investment in the best way possible.”
He added: “I believe that if we’re going to make a difference in tackling child poverty, we have got to be more targeted in our investment. Parliament will be the first to know.”
He continued: “You get one crack at being first minister. I want to be judged, absolutely, as somebody who used all the power they have, focused it and made the difficult decisions, even if they were unpopular, all in order to make life better for those who are in the areas of the highest deprivation.”
The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) urged the Yousaf not to scrap the extension of universal free school meals.
The union’s general secretary Andrea Bradley said she was “deeply concerned” about Yousaf’s comments.
She said: “Reneging on a commitment to free school meals would be a massive and profoundly damaging mistake which would betray young people living in poverty across Scotland, and would be a particularly hard blow to families with school-aged children as they continue the hard struggle with the cost-of-living crisis.”