One million children living in poverty in England will miss out on free school meals under universal credit proposals, new findings from The Children’s Society reveal.
As universal credit has been rolling out, all families in receipt of the new benefit have been automatically entitled to free school meals.
However, the government is planning to introduce means testing for free school meals under universal credit, which The Children’s Society warns will fail to reach one million children in poverty and will create a ‘cliff-edge’ where many families would be better off taking a pay cut.
Figures from The Children’s Society show that once a family with one child passes the £7,400 threshold, they would need to earn £1,124 a year more, the equivalent of working 2.4 hours more each week at national living wage, to make up for the loss in free school meals.
Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said: “The government has a golden opportunity to ensure that almost every child in poverty in England does not go hungry at school.
“There are significant, proven benefits for children’s health, education and their futures in making sure they have a healthy lunch every day, but at least one million children will miss out if this change is introduced.
“Continuing to provide free school meals for all children on universal credit would not only help vulnerable children, it would also prevent low income parents being left worse off if they take on more hours or get a pay rise.
“Universal credit was designed to always make work pay, but these plans will undermine that very principle.
“If the government wants to show it is truly committed to tackling the growing crises of inequality and child poverty, delivering free school meals for children in low-income working families is a crucial step.”
The regions worst affected by child poverty stand to lose the most from the proposed eligibility criteria. In London 212,000 children are projected to miss out on free school meals, in the West Midlands with 130,000 children and the North West 130,000 children.
If the government continued to offer free school meals to all children whose families claim universal credit, around two million children from poor and low-income families in England would benefit once roll out is completed.
Under the benefits system that universal credit is replacing, only families where parents are working too few hours to claim working tax credits are entitled to free school meals.
The government proposals will mean that just 700,000 of the 1,700,000 school children in poverty who could be helped, will receive free school meals.
Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “The Conservatives are failing to tackle child poverty, refusing to even commit to a reduction target, and holding our children back.
“We need to make sure that work always pays and this proposal does nothing of the sort, instead it creates a serious ‘cliff edge’ for families on the lowest incomes.
“Labour will introduce universal free school meals to end the scandal of children going hungry at school.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The fact is over 50,000 more children will be entitled to free school meals through our eligibility proposals following the rollout of universal credit.
“It’s right that we make sure this support reaches children from the most disadvantaged families and we’re consulting on this issue to make sure that’s the case.”
The consultation on free school meals entitlement under universal credit closes on 11 January 2018. The Children’s Society is asking supporters to submit responses to the consultation via its website at: www.childrenssociety.org.uk/fsm.