Jamie Oliver has renewed pressure on the government to expand free school meals, with George Osborne suggesting widening the programme could be the right way forward and Tony Blair saying the money could be found if politicians wanted to do it.
The television chef highlighted the issue as he was guest-editing BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday as part of his long-term campaign on free school meals.
Speaking on the programme, Osborne, a Conservative former chancellor, criticised the current “Tory dance” on the issue.
While stopping short of supporting Oliver’s campaign, he said: “The overall objective, which is having better fed, healthier kids, is a good one I certainly support and it may well be, in my mind – I’m not active in politics today – that providing for better free school meals for a much larger group of the population is the right way forward.”
Referring to the footballer Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign to get free school meals extended to the holidays during the Covid pandemic, Osborne added: “Certainly I think the current kind of Tory dance of like, ‘no, no, no’, and then footballer jumps up and says yes, and they go ‘all right’, is not a good one politically for my party.”
He also suggested the government needed to do more to tackle obesity, with an expansion of sugar taxes. Asked what approach he would take if he was still in government, he said: “I would extend the sugar levy to non-sugary products. And I would actually go ahead with that ban on advertising because I think that’s been well-versed now for many years and I think would be a good thing.”
At the moment, only the lowest income households get free school meals. Children of parents who are on universal credit and have an annual income of no more than £7,400, or are on another benefit such as jobseeker’s allowance, are eligible for free school meals.
There is also still controversy over free school meals during the holidays. In 2020, Rashford called for the government to extend its £15 free school meal vouchers – initially set up to feed children in term time when schools were closed by the pandemic – into the holidays. Johnson, and his then chancellor, Rishi Sunak, dug their heels in and refused, only to be forced into a humiliating U-turn each time after waves of criticism. However, since then councils across England have been quietly axing holiday food voucher schemes.
Blair said it was possible to find the money for free school meals and people would accept that investment in children’s future was critical.
The former Labour prime minister said it was important “particularly today, when the pressures on families are enormous, and when there are levels of poverty that we really haven’t seen in the country for a long period of time.
“For the sums of money you’re going to spend on early years, if you really have the will to do it I promise you, having been in government, you could find the money necessary to do this,” Blair added.
He urged Oliver to “do it as you did it before, which is to sit down with political leaders from both political parties and get them to make the commitments”.
The government did not put forward a government minister for the programme.
A Department for Education spokesperson later said: “We understand the pressures many households are under; that is why we are supporting more children and young people than ever before.
“Over a third of pupils in England currently receive free school meals in education settings and we have just announced a further investment in the national school breakfast programme, extending the programme for another year backed by up to £30m.
“We have acted on soaring energy costs through the energy price guarantee, saving a typical household over £900 this winter. The energy bills support scheme is also providing a £400 discount to millions of households this winter; further support is available for the most vulnerable, who will receive £1,200 each this year.”