The three-hour debate will take place in the House of Commons on Tuesday (13 March) following Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Spring financial statement.
The Government wants to bring in means-testing for funded two-year-old places and set an income-threshold for free school meals. Currently all families receiving universal credit are entitled to free school meals, as part of the transition process to the new benefits system.
For those families that are affected, Labour argues that the income threshold will create a cliff-edge, meaning some parents could be better off either reducing their hours, or not taking additional hours or pay rises, because moving just above the income threshold would leave them hundreds of pounds worse off for each child affected. This directly undermines the Government’s stated aim of Universal Credit, to make work pay.
The Children’s Society has estimated that over a million children in poverty will not be eligible for free school meals under the Government’s plans, but would be if the transitional measures of making all children in families receiving universal credit eligible for free school meals remained in place.
As part of the same measure, the Government is also planning to remove free childcare for two-year-olds from those earning above the threshold.
However, the Department for Education has estimated that under the new eligibility criteria around 8,000 more children would take up the two-year-old places once universal credit is fully rolled out, compared to the number currently receiving it.
Labour also intends to challenge the Government on its decision to axe employer childcare vouchers, which are being phased out and replaced with tax-free childcare.
Ministers have been accused of imposing controversial policy decisions through ‘statutory instruments’, a form of legislation that is fast-tracked through Parliament, often without a vote of the full House of Commons or Lords. Labour has used an obscure parliamentary process known as ‘praying against’ the regulations to secure the votes in motions relating to Universal Credit, Children and Young Persons and Social Security, which will be debated straight after the Chancellor’s statement.
The Democratic Unionist Party’s ten MPs usually vote with the Conservative’s minority Government.
However, the DUP also opposes the Government’s plans to change the eligibility criteria for free school meals, with DUP member Jim Shannon sponsoring an Early Day Motion against the proposals. It has also opposed the abolition of childcare vouchers.
Angela Rayner MP, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said, ‘The Tories are trying to leave over a million children without access to free school meals and struggling parents without childcare. To add insult to injury, they are trying to sneak this heartless plan through without proper scrutiny from MPs.
‘Tory MPs who believe that over a million children in poverty should go without a hot meal at school should be honest with their constituents and actually vote for it.
‘But this is a Government with no majority in Parliament, and with opposition to the policy by those that are propping them up, the Tories should take this chance to think again.’
The Government claims that more families will benefit from the changes than under the old system before universal credit.
A Department for Education spokesperson said, ‘No child who is currently receiving a free school meal will lose out as a result of this change and it is misleading to suggest otherwise.
‘The fact is under our new criteria, we estimate that by 2022 around 50,000 more children will benefit from a free school meal compared to the previous benefits system. It’s right that we make sure this support reaches children from the most disadvantaged families.’