Around 160,000 children will lose out on free school meals because of the way the Government is rolling out Universal Credit, according to a new report.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies claims the refusal to increase the £7,400 earnings cut-off point in line with the cost of living will see 100,000 children deprived of free lunches by 2022.
A further 60,000 youngsters are also set to miss out because of other changes to the benefits system.
The IFS also confirmed that a million more children would get free lunches if the Government continued its temporary policy of giving the benefit to all families who currently receive Universal Credit.
And in a direct contradiction of claims by Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, the IFS warned some children who currently receive free school meals will lose that benefit once Universal Credit is introduced.
However, the IFS confirmed that 210,000 children who would not have got free lunches under the current system will now receive them thanks to Universal Credit - meaning a net gain of 50,000.
Labour accused the Tories of “fiddling the figures”, while the Department for Education did not respond to a request for a comment.
IFS report author Tom Waters 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.”
Free School Meal Facts
- All children in Year 2 or below get a free school meal
- After Year 2, parents claiming one of a range of benefits are entitled to free school meals.
- Around 1million children get free school meals after Year 2
- Around two-thirds of those children are from the lowest-earning families.
Parents qualify for free school meals if they receive either income support, jobseekers allowance, employment support allowance or the full allocation of child tax credits.
With Universal Credit abolishing all these benefits, the Government needed to create a new measure of eligibility.
In areas where Universal Credit had already been rolled out, it was decided that any family qualifying for the benefit would get free school meals – but this was only a temporary measure and was never planned to apply to the whole country.
Labour argues a million children are losing out on a free meal by the Government refusing to continue this policy when the scheme is extended across the country.
The Government is instead going to set the eligibility cap at £7,400, meaning that anyone who earns a penny over this amount will not be able to claim for free school meals.
The Tories are refusing to take into account any cost of living pay rises into the threshold level. That means if a parent earning £7,399 gets a wage increase of just £2 they will lose their eligibility for free school meals.
The IFS calculates that while about 210,000 children who would not have qualified for free school meals under the old system will now be eligible, about 160,000 (13%, or 1 in 8) of the 1.3 million children who would have qualified will find themselves ineligible.
In a debate on the issue in March, Tory MPs including Chris Philp, Michael Tomlinson, and McVey all claimed that no child who currently receives a free school meal would lose their entitlement.
What They Said:
Esther McVey: “It took a ‘Channel 4 News’ FactCheck to point out that no child who currently receives meals would lose their entitlement and that, in fact, some 50,000 more children would benefit under our proposals when compared with the previous system.”
Chris Philp: “It is clear that no children currently in receipt of free school meals will have them taken away.”
Michael Tomlinson: “Children currently in receipt of free school meals will not lose out.”
But the IFS confirmed some children would indeed lose out as once they leave primary school, their eligibility for free school meals is reassessed – and will be done under the new criteria.
According to the Government’s consultation response published in March: “Once Universal Credit is fully rolled out, any existing claimants that no longer meet the eligibility criteria at that point (because they are earning above the threshold) will continue to receive protection until the end of their current phase of education (e.g. primary, secondary).”
Waters said: “Children who are currently in Year 2 or below will still be at primary school by the time that the Universal Credit rollout has finished.
“Therefore, based on the quote above, our understanding is that once they hit secondary school, it is possible for them to lose FSM entitlement.
“Technically these children are not currently receiving means tested FSMs - because they are universal for Year 2 and below in England and Scotland - but nevertheless they are receiving free school meals, in some cases would have continued to receive them under the old system, but will not do so under the new one, once they hit secondary school.”
Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner 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.”