Humza Yousaf has suggested he will halt the rollout of universal free school meals in Scotland, as he called for a more “targeted” approach to tackling poverty.
Speaking ahead of his anti-poverty summit, the First Minister questioned whether his own daughter should receive free school meals.
He said while the SNP had a “proud track record” of universal benefits, going forward he will consider a more targeted approach instead.
He told the Daily Record: “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.”
Currently all children in local council schools in primaries one to five are eligible for free school meals, regardless of parental income.
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.”
Yousaf chaired a cross-party, anti-poverty group on Wednesday morning as he made tackling the issue his primary concern.
Ahead of the meeting, he announced an extra £4.5m in funding for after-school clubs.
He said: “I’m really pleased to be able to announce £4.5m of capital funding and that will go to help local authority schools to really actually use in quite a flexible way in whatever they need to do in order to help with school-aged childcare – holiday clubs, after school clubs.
“We know how pivotal they are in helping families, particularly from low-income households, stay at work or work longer hours if that’s what they’re wanting to do.”
Yousaf described poverty as the biggest challenge Scotland faces and said he “absolutely” wants to be judged on it.
“I’ve made it very clear and I’m not intending to shy away from it,” he said.
“We have statutory targets in relation to reducing child poverty and I should be held to account, and the government I lead should be judged by whether or not we shift that dial on child poverty considerably.”
Labour MSP Monica Lennon said it would be a “serious betrayal of Scotland’s children” if the First Minister U-turned on his party’s universal free school meals promises.
“Even the Scottish Tories are backing the campaign led by Scotland’s trade union movement and anti-poverty charities,” she said.
“The stigma of means-tested school meals stays with people for life.
“We need people in government who understand this, even if they haven’t experienced it.”
“Expanding universal free school meals is the right thing to do, and First Minister must listen.”
The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) urged the First Minister 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.”
She added: “In his comments, the First Minister seems to suggest that means-testing provision of free school meals is a preferable option, primarily for financial reasons.
“But that is misunderstanding the problem entirely.
“A key principle of universal provision of free school meals for all young people is about removing the stigma of free entitlement, to ensure that the young people who need free meals the most feel completely comfortable in accepting them.
“In a means-tested system, the stigma attached leads many young people to decline their free meal entitlement as they do not wish to appear ‘different’ or to become a target of bullying over their family circumstances.
“We need to create the culture in schools where all young people can enjoy meals together, free of charge and free of stigma.”