MPs will debate the proposed £7,400 income threshold for Free School Meals (FSM) eligibility under Universal today (13th March).
The government has said that it will stick to its proposals to introduce a cap of £7,400 for families which, once all benefits are included, equates to a total income of £18,000-£24,000 a year. The decision has been met with criticism from the school food industry and from children’s charities, as well as the Labour Party, which has secured a debate to vote on the issue.
Labour argues that the cap will create a cliff-edge for parents that mean some families will be better off not working or reducing their hours rather than moving above the income threshold and finding an additional £400 a year per child to pay for school meals.
The party supports The Children’s Society’s recommendation to continue to offer FSM to all claimants of Universal Credit, as the system currently stands. It argues that one million children would lose out from a free school meal.
This is also supported by the Children’s Food Campaign, which found that nine in 10 members of its Parents’ Jury survey support FSM for any child living in poverty.
“Our survey with parents of school-age children showed overwhelming support to make free school meals available to any child from a family living in poverty, and this is a huge missed opportunity to do just that,” said Barbara Crowther, co-ordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign.
“It is a cruel blow to around one million children who might have become eligible for Free School Meals but will now miss out. The fairest and simplest solution would have been to ensure all children in families receiving Universal Credit are also universally eligible for Free School Meals. Instead the new earnings threshold will undermine the principle of ‘making work pay’ – as parents falling slightly above the net earnings threshold will then lose their entitlement to Free School meals, which are estimated to be worth £400 per year per child. This is a backwards step for the 1 million children who might have benefitted, and for their parents too.”
Adding further weight to the argument, it has been revealed that the £7,400 threshold will not apply to Northern Ireland. The UK government controls Northern Ireland’s budgets and has agreed to retain the £14,000 income threshold for FSM that was set last year.
Today, MPs will vote to annul the regulation and motions are also being tabled in the House of Lords, with dates for debates to be confirmed. However, the new regulations are due to commence from April.