Today the House of Lords is debating the future of free school meals in England, with ramifications for hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty.
As a charity working with vulnerable children, we see day in and day out the toll that poverty takes, when it’s a burden that no child should have to bear. Food is fuel, but for many children in poverty, lunchtime doesn’t mean refilling their tank for an afternoon of learning, or running around the school field. If mum or dad were short on money for the shop this week, it might mean jam sandwiches again, or wolfing down your friends’ lunchbox rejects.
People, and indeed many politicians, are often shocked when I tell them that almost one million children who are living in poverty in England don’t currently get free school meals. The majority of these children are missing out simply because their parents are working and they therefore don’t qualify, no matter how much they’re struggling.
The scandal of working poverty should come as news to no-one, with more than two-thirds of children in poverty now from working families. Under the system that Universal Credit is replacing, only children from families claiming out of work benefits are entitled to free school meals. But the face of poverty is changing: the gig economy, stagnant wages and the rising costs of the essentials have put working families of all shapes and sizes under intolerable pressure.
As the government has been gradually introducing Universal Credit, all families who have moved onto it have been entitled to free school meals for their children. This has been good news for families moving onto the much maligned new benefits system. If continued, it would mean almost every schoolchild in poverty would be eligible for free school meals. Although the government said it would look again at their policy for providing free school meals before the full roll out of Universal Credit, we and others had hoped that the government would grasp this as an opportunity to help all schoolchildren children in poverty.
Instead, the government has decided to introduce a means test to restrict the numbers of children on Universal Credit who will be eligible. Under the government’s new plans, once a working family earns over £7,400 a year their children will no longer be entitled to free school meals (though this doesn’t affect universal free school meals for children in reception through to year 2). This change in the law is the subject of the Lord’s debate today.
Not only will it fail to reach most children in low income working families, the means test itself will put many parents in an incredibly difficult position where they may be worse off if they up their hours at work or get a pay rise. Providing lunches for their children at school costs parents more than £400 a year per child – a huge sum if you’re on a low income. But because of the way that universal credit is calculated, parents with one child will actually need to earn more than £1,100 a year more, the equivalent of working over two hours more each week at national living wage, to make up for the loss in free school meals if they tip over the means test threshold. This undermines one of the founding principles of Universal Credit, to always make work pay. Analysis we produced jointly with Child Poverty Action Group and researchers at the University of York suggest several hundred thousand families could be caught by this free school meals “poverty trap”.
The government claims that no child who is currently getting free school meals will lose them, by putting protections in place to prevent this happening. Indeed, the government argues that 50,000 more children will benefit from free school meals under Universal Credit than under the system it’s replacing.
These assurances, though welcome, fall far short of the decisive action we would expect from a government that says it is committed to tackling injustices. One million children in poverty still desperately need their help, and it must be ensured that work pays for low income families.
The government has the power to make a tangible, powerful change to the lives of hundreds of thousands of children who don’t have the guarantee of a decent lunch each school day. But it is on course to let this golden opportunity slip through its fingers. That’s why today’s debate in the Lords, which could lead to a new call on the government to rethink its plans on free school meals, is so crucial.
Children living in poverty deserve every bit of help the government can give them, and we urge Peers debating this issue today to call on the government to do more.