Tens of thousands of children to lose free school meals

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Around 160,000 children will fall out of eligibility for free school meals under the universal credit system, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

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Around 160,000 children currently eligible for free school meals will lose their entitlement under the new universal credit system, warns the IFS

The IFS estimates that around one in eight (13 per cent) of the 1.3 million children currently eligible for free school meals (FSMs) will lose their entitlement because of the Government’s new means-tested measure of eligibility.

The findings are published in a new report, out today, into the impact of the change to the rules concerning entitlement to FSMs.

The introduction of universal credit, which replaces the current benefit system, means that the Government needs to change the eligibility criteria for FSMs.

Currently, families on benefits stop qualifying for FSMs when they are working 16 hours and week and start receiving working tax credit.

Under the new system, which is currently being rolled out, households would stop being eligible for FSM when they are earning £7,400 a year (excluding benefits). The roll-out is forecast to be complete at some point in 2022, but new claimants will all be on UC by the end of next year. The IFS says that 100,000 children will lose out on FSM by 2022. A further 60,000 children will miss out because of other changes to the benefits system.

However, the think tank finds that 210,000 children who would not have received FSM under the current benefits system will be eligible thanks to universal credit, meaning a net gain of 50,000 – the same number quoted by the Department for Education.

The majority of those that will benefit from the new system of eligibility are children of lone parents.

The change to the eligibility system does not affect the universal FSMs policy for pupils in Year 2 or below in England and Scotland.

The IFS analysis also shows that if the earnings threshold under the universal credit system was increased in line with the Consumer Price Index or earnings, around 100, 000 or 80,000   children respectively would be entitled to free meals in 2021-22 than under the current plan.

IFS research economist Tom Waters, who co-wrote the report, said, ‘The change in the structure of the benefits system inherent in universal credit means that the Government was always going to have to come up with a new way of determining which children qualify for free school meals.

‘This meant it either had to spend more public money on them in total or create some losers. Its chosen path does a combination of the two.

‘It creates a substantial number of losers, but also a greater number of winners, with children of lone parents and of working parents especially likely to gain entitlement.’

The shadow education secretary Angela Rayner accused the Government of not being ‘straightforward with the families who will lose their eligibility for free school meals’.

Commenting on the report, she said, ‘Ministers claimed time and time again that nobody would lose a meal under their plans, but the IFS have revealed that one in eight children who were eligible before universal credit could find their meals taken away once the Tories’ plans are imposed in full.

‘That is before we even account for the hundreds of thousands more who would have received a meal if they had kept the system as it is now.

‘Yet again, the Tories are fiddling the figures rather than facing the facts. They wrongly claimed they were increasing schools funding, were caught double counting the same money on breakfasts and now their defence of cutting back on school meals has fallen apart.

‘It is time for the Government to think again and abandon plans that would leave so many children ineligible for a hot meal, and listen to Labour’s call for universal free school meals for all primary pupils.’

Chief executive of the Children's Society Matthew Reed said, 'Once roll-out of universal credit is complete, the new free school meals means test will put many parents in an incredibly difficult position where they may be worse off if they up their hours or get a pay rise. We’ve calculated that parents who tip over the threshold will have to earn more than £1,000 a year extra per child to make up for the loss in free school meals. This completely undermines the core principle of universal credit to ensure that work always pays.

'We urge the Government to rethink these proposals and provide free school meals to all children whose families claim universal credit so that no child has to go hungry at school.'

The Department for Education has been contacted for a response.

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