Government’s planned welfare reform

Government’s planned welfare reform, what do the changes mean for free school meals?

More than 350,000 children will lose their free school meals under the Government’s radical plans to reform welfare entitlement next year, an analysis by the Children’s Society has warned. The report argues that the system does not need reform as it estimates that half of all schoolchildren living in poverty are missing out on free school meals.

Over the coming months the Government will consult on the future of free school meals. The planned introduction of Universal Credit means that a completely new system of entitlement needs to be put into place in the next year.

At the moment lone parents working 16 or more hours a weeks (or normally 24 hours a week for a couple) are not eligible for free school meals – no matter how little they earn.

Six out of ten parents say that free school meal eligibility has a direct impact on their decision to move back into work, or work more hours.

The Children’s Society are urging ministers to listen – not just to them and other professional bodies – but to the voices of the vast majority of adults up and down the country, who know the huge difference extending entitlement will make to the lives their neighbours, friends – or even themselves.

The Children’s Society has launched its Fair and Square campaign, calling for all children living in poverty to get a free school meal. The facts are compelling. At the moment, more than half of all schoolchildren living in poverty in England – 1.2 million – are missing out on a free school meal. And 700,000 of those children are not even entitled to one. This is unacceptable. There is clear evidence that free school meals provide vital financial support to struggling families. For almost a third of children in families we surveyed, school lunch is their main meal of the day. Not forgetting that eating a healthy meal at lunch-time improves children’s concentration and can have improve classroom behaviour. Nutritious school meals for disadvantaged children can also help develop healthy eating habits. Extending free school meals to all children in poverty is a common-sense argument that already has widespread public support. When we polled adults across the UK, nine out of ten agreed that all children living in poverty should get a free school meal.

Elaine Hindal, Campaign for Childhood Director, The Children’s Society

Thousands of low income families rely on free school meals, but the means-testing rules can create a real disincentive to work; unfortunately, this is set to get even worse when the new Universal Credit is introduced. Currently, families that get means-tested out of work benefits like jobseeker’s allowance qualify for free school meals for any children they have in school. Low income working families can qualify, but only if they work under 16 hours per week (24 hours for couples) and earn less than £16,190 per year. This can create a substantial work disincentive since working families can lose the key benefit (worth around £370 per child per year) no matter how little they earn. In fact, of families in receipt of free school meals, who The Children’s Society surveyed, six out of ten said that the threat of the loss of free school meals has a direct impact on their decisions about moving into work or taking on additional hours.
One working parent said: the difference between me working or not is about £40, half of which is now paid out in school meals. It has a huge impact.

Sam Royston, Poverty and Early Years Policy Adviser

This Children Society report is extremely worrying.  The Government has not thought through the consequences of their reforms for some of the most vulnerable children and families. In addition eligibility for free school meals has been used to calculate the pupil premium and the Government is allowing Labour’s higher nutritional standards to slip.  Despite all the Government’s rhetoric , it is the poorest children who will suffer from their ill thought through policies.’

Kevin Brennan MP, Shadow Minister for Schools

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