Big Interview: A mission to save Free School Meals

Big Interview: A mission to save Free School Meals

Government proposals for a new low-income threshold of just £7,400 will mean a million children in poverty miss out on free school meals, a leading child poverty charity warns

By Jane Renton

Sympathy for the devil is not easy. Universal credit (UC) has been hugely controversial. The reform of the welfare system and its replacement, universal credit, which is nearing the completion of its roll out, has cost the country tens of billions of pounds, resulted in agonising delays in benefit payments for some of the most vulnerable people in our society as well as a lot of flak for the beleaguered Tory government.

So you can imagine my surprise when Dr Sam Royston of The Children’s Society, an organisation that has helped hundreds of thousands of children escape destitution and poverty throughout its 130-year history, believes that at least one crucial aspect of UC – albeit in its original inception – offered one of the most significant breakthroughs in improving the lot of children living in poverty in England today.

“In its current form, all those families on Universal Credit are entitled to receive Free School Meals for their children under the current governing statutory instrument,” explains Sam.

That means that over time an additional one million children from low-income working families would in effect be helped by receiving a free, hot meal at school each day, something that The Children’s Society believes would have made a significant improvement to the quality of their lives.

But as the rollout of UC gathered apace, things took a distinctly downward slide. The government it seems suddenly panicked over the costs involved and is now attempting to revoke its earlier stance, which was to extend Free School Meals (FSM) to all children in families on UC.

The reversal is why The Children’s Society has now taken up its cudgels to campaign against this to ensure that those children continue to benefit from FSM. The charity is also urging the school food industry to get behind it. The benefit is not only vital to the children involved, but also the economic bedrock on which much of the industry rests. Figures from January 2017 show some 1.13m being entitled and claiming FSM, accounting for about 14% of all children in UK state education.

The society is urging everyone – especially those working at all levels in the school food industry – to write to their MPs to urge them to help reverse this retrograde step. The charity is also compiling case studies to show the impact of increasing levels of poverty on school life. Again, it is urging those involved in school catering to come forward with their experiences and anecdotes.

“We want school heads, teachers and catering staff to tell us their experiences,” says Sam. “We want to know their experiences of what is really going on in schools right now and the effects on children from working but low-income families who may be missing out on lunch.”

It seems that ministers have been concerned about the costs involved in providing FSM to all families in receipt of UC and said they would re-visit the issue and take another look at FSM entitlement once the rollout progressed.

“For some time, there have been warnings that while they would continue to allow FSM to those families on UC for a time it would only be as a temporary measure,” adds Sam.

That has now culminated in a consultation document over future eligibility for FSM by the Department for Education, which is currently under consideration by Parliament over a 40-day period. The document also establishes a net earnings threshold of £7,400 per annum, which means that the children of anyone earning above this level won’t be entitled to the FSM benefit.

The government is attempting to portray this document as something of an improvement – a PR victory even – by emphasising that an additional 50,000 additional pupils will be eligible for the entitlement than under the previous system.

Such an increase, however, is statistically insignificant: moreover it does not take into account the alarmingly high levels of child poverty among working families and as there is so far no mechanism with which to increase the threshold in line with inflation and wage rises, it is possible that many more children still will fall from the entitlement threshold in coming years.

Worryingly, the government shows every sign of digging its heels in over this issue. With estimated savings of only a billion pounds to the public purse as a result of the new UC system, it seems that ministers are desperate to make further savings, even if it means backtracking on popular previous benefits such as free prescriptions and school meals.

But by digging their heels in so, ministers risk making a mockery of the most basic principles underpinning UC, which was that no-one should be trapped in welfare and that work must be financially preferential to a life on out-of-work benefits.

“The consequences will be potentially disastrous,” says Sam. “The new proposal over FSM introduces the biggest cliff edge I can ever recall in the benefits system. The government should have left things as they stood.”

Figures gathered by The Children’s Society show 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 extra every week – to make up for the loss of FSM.

“One of the things that really grates is that people may be better off not working in order to save their children’s entitlement to FSM. It is a real issue and a perverse outcome of the current proposal,” argues Sam.

Under the system that is currently being replaced by UC, only families where parents are working too few hours to claim Working Tax Credit are entitled to FSM. However, the earnings boost they receive through Working Tax Credit more than makes up for the loss of FSM – meaning they were not left worse off on increasing their hours.

The regions that face the worst poverty are likely to be the worst affected should the new eligibility criteria become law. In London, 212,000 children in poverty are projected to miss out on a free school meal, with a further 130,000 likely to miss out in the West Midlands and a similar number in the North West.

“The government has a golden opportunity to ensure that almost every child in poverty in England does not go hungry at school. They must not let that go,” urges Sam.

“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 in poverty will miss out if this change is introduced,” he adds.

If you want to stop those changes from becoming law, The Children’s Society asks to urge your MP now to make your views critically clear. For further information, visit bit.ly/2H6JxDY at childrensociety.org.uk.