Sadiq Khan has warned that his policy of providing universal free lunches in London primary schools is still not a “permanent” commitment.
The mayor announced on Tuesday that the policy – which began providing meals in September 2023 – will be extended into a second year, through to the end of the 2024/25 school year.
But in an interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service, he cautioned that this did not mean the policy was now a permanent fixture, due to a lack of dedicated funding for it each year.
Mr Khan has repeatedly said it is his “aspiration” for the policy to be kept in place indefinitely, but that he cannot make such a guarantee under City Hall’s current funding arrangements.
Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall has said she would keep the policy going “until the cost of living situation improves”.
Speaking at Torridon Primary School in Lewisham, the Labour mayor said he had been “candid with Londoners about how we’re going to pay for things”.
He said City Hall had been able to find £135 million to pay for the policy last year “because of the way we’d been prudent with our budget”. The money for the first year of the scheme came from higher than expected business rate receipts.
He added: “We’re setting our budget for this year and it’s the case that [with] a combination of business rates being more buoyant than we expected but also [by using] some reserves, we’ve managed to find £140m… to pay for these universal free school meals to be extended by another year, up until July 2025.
“But frankly speaking it shouldn’t be us having to pay for universal free school meals, it should be the Government.”
Free school meals across England were already being provided by the Government for all primary school children up to the end of Year 2. After that point, the Government only provides meals to pupils if they live in households on universal credit and earning less than £7,400 a year.
The Government has previously defended its record on free school meals, with a spokeswoman saying in September that ministers have “extended eligibility several times to more groups of children than any other government over the past half a century”.
Asked whether the policy would continue to have an uncertain future when City Hall sets its budget each year, the mayor said: “One of the problems we have is, there are some sources of income that are recurring and there are some that are one off. We’ve also got the additional problem of keeping an eye on reserves, for obvious reasons.
“We know from the Government they’ll be changing very soon the local government funding formula. We know there’s going to be a review shortly of business rates retention [rules].
“So what I can’t do is commit to things in perpetuity when I’ve not got a recurring source of income, so I’m afraid the bad news is [that] I can’t say to Londoners I’ll be providing universal free school meals in perpetuity.
“What I can do is continue to be candid and straight with Londoners and say I found the money for [the] 2024/25 [school year], we’re going to make sure we finish 2023/24.”
The mayor said City Hall had continued to “listen and engage with schools and boroughs”, and had decided to increase the amount allocated to each individual meal from £2.65 to £3.
Asked whether he will be making any other big announcements ahead of seeking re-election for an historic third term at City Hall on May 2, Mr Khan said: “Nice try – wait for the manifesto in relation to what we’re going to be offering in the third term.
“I hope Londoners will know from my track record, when I’ve got the means to do so, I do things like freezing fares, I do things like prioritising universal free school meals.”
He added that he wanted to make London “safer, more prosperous, more affordable and fairer as well”.
The mayor has faced questions this week after he on Sunday unexpectedly found £30 million of City Hall funding to boost the annual pay rise for 16,000 Tube staff. It led the RMT union to suspend strike action that would have shut the London Underground until Friday.
Mr Khan declined to say where that funding had come from, insisting however that this would become clear when he publishes his draft budget for the coming financial year next week.
“The consequences of a strike are awful for our city,” the mayor said. “According to just the hospitality sector, they would have lost £50 million this week. So if we can avoid strike action, we should try and do so.”
Asked whether he was worried that he had encouraged trade unions to take tougher action in future in the expectation of similar amounts of money suddenly being produced, Mr Khan said: “I’m incredibly grateful to our transport workers for the work they did in particular during the pandemic.
“I’m really proud [that] before the pandemic we reduced by more than 73 per cent strikes in London, by talking. I’m a proud trade unionist – it’s really important we recognise the contribution they make. TfL will be speaking to all the trade unions.
“I get on really well with all the trade unions, I get on really well with our transport workers.
“But also I listen to hospitality, I listen to retail, I listen to those who have appointments at hospitals, I listen to those who go to university – and the impact on them of the strikes would have been awful. So let’s hope we can resolve these things amicably.”