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SNP pledge free school meals for all primary pupils

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media captionJohn Swinney made the pledge in a speech to the virtual SNP conference

The SNP has pledged to expand free school meals to all primary school pupils in Scotland.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said if the party retains power after the Holyrood elections in May, it would fund free breakfasts and lunches for all children in P1-P7.

He told the SNP conference that the scheme would also run in the school holidays - not just term time.

The Scottish Conservatives announced a similar policy in September.

However the Scottish Greens said free school meals should be provided in high school as well as primary school.

Currently all pupils in P1 to P3 in Scotland are entitled to free school lunches.

They are also available to older children whose parents are in receipt of certain benefits.

The SNP's scheme is expected to cost £230m a year.

It would be implemented from August 2022, making Scotland the first nation in the UK to offer universal free primary school meals.

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Mr Swinney made the commitment as he warned that Scotland was facing a "tsunami of child poverty" if UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak imposes a "second wave of austerity".

Praising the free school meals campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford, Mr Swinney said: "We must recognise that this is not just an issue for the very poorest.

"This is an issue for working families, forced to feed children from foodbanks or go hungry themselves."

Children who currently qualify for free school meals have been able to receive them during the holidays this year, amid concern about the impact of the pandemic.

Meals were distributed in schools that remained opened or through direct cash or voucher payments.

Mr Swinney said: "Hunger doesn't take a holiday and so neither can we.

"Just as we extended free meals through the holidays this year and next, if re-elected we will extend free school meals through every school holidays. All primary school pupils. All classes. All year round."

Concern over timescale

Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said he was pleased Mr Swinney had decided to "follow our lead" on the free school meals policy.

But he said there was no reason to wait two years to implement the programme.

"We can deliver this now, so our young people get the benefit as soon as possible," he said.

"As the SNP are now supportive of our policy, there is no reason why this can't pass through the Scottish Parliament as the priority it clearly is."

Meanwhile Ross Greer, the Scottish Greens' education spokesman, welcomed the SNP's adoption of "half" of the party's school meals policy.

"Hunger doesn't stop when a child goes to high school though, which is why we have always insisted that free school meals should be provided to all children and young people, at every stage of their education," he added.

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image captionNicola Sturgeon told delegates Scotland is "on the cusp" of making history

The annual conference, which is being held virtually because of the pandemic, follows a decisive victory for the SNP in last December's general election in which it won 48 of the 59 available seats.

Party activists will also be buoyed by a number of recent opinion polls suggesting a majority of Scots are now in favour of leaving the UK.

Earlier Nicola Sturgeon opened the conference by telling delegates she has "never been so certain" that Scotland would become independent.

Opposition parties say such a vote would be divisive, and the focus should be recovering from the Covid pandemic.

And some within Ms Sturgeon's own party argue a "Plan B" is needed if the UK government refuses to agree to another referendum.

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