Letter: Universal credit - one million children in poverty to miss out on free school meals
Date published: 19 December 2017
It was heartening to read on Rochdale Online last week that 'Councillors noted at the recent full council meeting (on Wednesday 13 December) that the full move to Universal Credit in other parts of the country has caused ‘considerable financial hardship’ for many of those people moving onto this new system of benefit payments.'
Also, hat, 'All political group leaders are to jointly write to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions asking that the system of Universal Credit is redesigned to remove inherent risks', 'Local political group leaders call for Universal Credit to be redesigned to remove inherent risks', Rochdale Online, (15 December 2017).
It is essential that all children in poverty should be entitled to a free school meal because they bring positive educational and health benefits, ensuring that disadvantaged children get a nutritious meal each day.
Current eligibility criteria mean that when a family starts working more than 16 hours per week they lose all entitlement to free school meals. The government has indicated a similar situation would happen under universal credit with families losing all entitlement after earning a certain amount, for example £7500 per year.
This creates a huge deterrent for families to move into work or take on more hours or pay, as they could actually be worse off due to the loss of free school meals.
Families are worried.
Of the parents The Children's Society surveyed, 79% said they were worried about the financial impact of moving into work and losing free school meals for their children.
Extending eligibility for free school meals to all children in families in receipt of universal credit will remove this deterrent for parents to go into work or work more. It will also ensure all children in poverty can have a free school lunch. This will require additional investment, a cost that can be borne by government, or part-funded by contributions from parents who are in work and whose children under our proposal would become entitled to free school meals.
91% of the public believe children in poverty should receive a free school meal.
All children whose families receive universal credit should continue to receive free school meals. I do not agree with the introduction of an earnings threshold of £7,400 to determine eligibility for free school meals under Universal Credit. This is for three key reasons:
1. A million children in poverty will miss out on a free school meal
Under this proposal, a million children in poverty will miss out on a free school meal and it will be almost entirely children in poverty in working families who miss out. Worth around £400 a year per child, free school meals can represent a substantial proportion of a struggling family's income. In addition, they often entitle children to other support, such as help with school clothing, trips or music lessons.
2. Free school meals bring crucial educational and health benefits
There is evidence that eating a healthy school meal improves concentration and classroom behaviour. Another study demonstrated that improved school meals reduced sickness absences and led to better results in English and Science.
3. It deeply undermines the principle of 'making work pay'
This proposal deeply undermines the objective that Universal Credit will support families into work, ensuring they are always better off for every hour that they work. In fact, many families will actually end up on a lower overall income because of taking on additional work.
To make up for the loss of free school meals, a family with three children currently earning just under the proposed £7,400 earnings limit would need to work more than a day extra every week at the National Living Wage.
Parents on Universal Credit - many of whom will be working families - can take part in the UK consultation on Universal Credit and reiterate the importance of Free School meals to keep children in financially struggling families fed.
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:
The views expressed are those of the author of the letter and not those of Rochdale Online.