Government plans to revise the number of children eligible for free school meals after Universal Credit is rolled out do not go far enough and will lead to confusion for parents, Labour MPs say.
The Department for Education says about 50,000 more youngsters could benefit after eligibility becomes means-tested following the implementation of the controversial new benefits system.
A public consultation into plans to revise entitlement criteria is now underway, but shadow education secretary Angela Rayner says it will only cause confusion as Universal Credit - which replaces the six main benefits - is rolled out in stages.
“Frankly, it is astounding that the government have managed to get this far into the Universal Credit system before starting this consultation, on issues that will impact over a million children and their families,” she told HuffPost UK.
“As the government lumbers between plans it will create confusion for parents in areas that currently have Universal Credit, and baffling inconsistencies between those with and without it, before uprooting it all again in only six months’ time.
“Any expansions of eligibility for free school meals must be given the resources necessary, not just for those eligible for free schools meals, but in the funding for the pupil premium in the years ahead.
“Labour has repeatedly called for the government to pause and fix universal credit, which would give them the chance to get these important changes right instead of creating more confusion and uncertainty.”
MPs from across the Commons have repeatedly called on ministers to pause the implementation of Universal Credit due to families being left dangerously out of pocket while they wait for initial payments.
Work and pensions select committee chair Frank Field told the House on Thursday he had “no adequate language to describe the horrors” those forced to wait long periods for initial payments were experiencing.
He said changes to free school meals eligibility would make little difference unless the government automatically registered children who are entitled to them.
They are currently offered to children from households where parents or guardians are on benefits or working a small number of hours, with an income below £16,000 a year.
According to a government written statement, eligibility will change next year to include children from households with an income of up to £7,400 a year, excluding benefits - the equivalent of £18,000 to £24,000 a year including benefits.
Field, who revealed foodbanks in his Birkenhead constituency have stockpiled tonnes of extra food to cope with people being left hungry as a result of the Universal Credit roll-out, said: “The biggest single move the government could make to protect poorer children from hunger, as well as to boost their attainment prospects, would be to give local authorities the duty of automatically registering them for free school meals.
“There are currently many tens of thousands of children losing out on free school meals, as well as the pupil premium funding which is tied to those meals, because they are not registered.
“The total gains to hard-up families and schools from a policy of automatic registration would be worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Sadly, under the government’s current proposals, those children and perhaps many more will continue to go hungry.”
MPs say they expect the government may announce steps to cut initial waiting times for Universal Credit payments in next week’s budget.