Laura Rodrigues is a policy officer at the Children’s Society
Free school meals are a vitally important means of providing financial support for poor families, as well as health and educational benefits for their children.
Yet under the new benefit system, Universal Credit, entitlement to free school meal will be completely revised. The government should take this unique opportunity to effectively integrate free school meals into Universal Credit, making work pay and helping struggling low income families.
Currently 1.2 million children, living in poverty, are missing out on the benefits of receiving free school meals.
Seven hundred thousand of these children are not even entitled to free school meals as their parents are working – more than 16 hours in lone-parent familes; more than 24 hours in families with a couple.
The Children’s Society’s survey of parents in receipt of free school meals found that nearly eight out of ten are worried about the financial implications of losing free school meals if they move into work.
Unless the government changes course, this situation looks set to worsen when Universal Credit is rolled out. It is anticipated that the imminent public consultation will suggest an earnings threshold, where families will lose entitlement to free school meals once they start earning more than a modest sum.
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This threshold could have negative consequences for thousands of families who would find themselves caught in a situation where they would be better off cutting their hours, or their pay, in order to bring them into entitlement to free school meals.
This so called “benefit cliff edge” is completely incompatible with the Universal Credit’s stated aim of ensuring work always pays. Were an earnings threshold of £145 per week used for entitlement to free school meals, The Children’s Society estimates that around 120,000 low-income families (including 350,000 children) would be caught on this “cliff edge”.
In order to ensure this does not happen, The Children’s Society is calling on the government to help these struggling working families by giving all children in poverty access to free school meals. This could be done by extending free school meals eligibility to all children in families that receive Universal Credit.
We estimate that this proposal would cost about £500 million per year. However, this could be substantially reduced if low income working parents (who are currently not entitled to free school meals) could be asked to contribute a small amount to the cost, meaning their children would receive a heavily subsidised meal.
This is a watershed moment for the future for free school meal provision in this country.