There are widespread concerns that more children will be pushed into poverty by the government’s plans to change entitlement to free school meals, childcare vouchers and free childcare for two-year-olds – plans which will now be subject to a three-hour debate in Parliament thanks to the efforts of shdow education secretary Angela Rayner. We know that poverty is not an inevitability, but a symptom of failure to harness political will, think innovatively and take bold steps forward.
In the current transition to universal credit, all families claiming the new benefit are entitled to free school meals, which is great, but the Department of Education’s consultation aims to roll forward that reform by rolling back one of its most progressive measures. By removing the universal entitlement to free school meals under universal credit and introducing a £7,400 threshold for eligibility for free school meals, the Government are forcibly creating a cliff edge that will be detrimental to families, especially children. That seems utterly ludicrous.
As the former Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, wrote when the white paper on universal credit was published in 2010: “At its heart, Universal Credit is very simple and will ensure that work always pays and is seen to pay. Universal Credit will mean that people will be consistently…better off for each hour they work and every pound they earn.” Sadly, the reality has failed to live up to the promise made eight years ago.
The proposals set out in the consultation are diametrically opposed to that 2010 vision and what it was meant to achieve, especially around making work pay. To give one example of how the proposal will be detrimental: someone with three children in their family who earns just below the £7,400 threshold is set to lose out on £1,200 in free school meals if they work only a few hours more or get a pay rise. The family’s annual wages would have to increase from £7,400 to almost £11,000 to make up for what they lost by rising above the eligibility cliff edge—a problem that would not occur under the working tax credit system because the legacy benefits system provides an offsetting income boost at the point that free school meals are withdrawn. Under universal credit, however, there is no equivalent mitigation.
Another example, is that a single parent with no housing costs and one child would be £26 better off per week under the old working tax credit system than under universal credit. That can determine whether or not they can eat or heat their home. Any family eligible for universal credit should automatically get free school meals through auto-enrolment.
What we want to prevent is families avoiding pay rises or working more hours for fear that they will lose out. That is not making work pay, and it is not what the system was intended to do when it was set up.
Another concern about the consultation is the figure of 50,000 more children who we keep hearing will benefit from free school meals by 2022. On the surface, it is welcome that the Government have estimated that more children will be receiving free school meals under their plans, but it is deeply concerning that analysis by the Children’s Society has found that more than one million children living in poverty would miss out on a free school meal because of the cliff edge. In the consultation document, the Government say that 50,000 children will benefit by the end of the roll-out, when the transitional protections are at their capacity. Herein lies the crux of the problem: the document also states that 10% of children—113,000—will lose out on free school meal entitlement. That is because children will fall off once the transitional protections come to an end, as they move from primary school, where they will have the protection when it comes in, to secondary school, where their entitlement will end.
It makes total sense for the current transitional system to be made permanent so that all the children in a family on universal credit receive free school meals. That would not generate any extra bureaucracy, it would be fairer and it would help make work pay. It would push the cliff edge to a much higher earnings threshold and overcome the fear of deductions from earnings, which turn the Government’s proposals against making work pay. We do not want people to refuse pay rises or extra work for fear that they will lose three lots of free school meals.
That is not the only reason to maintain the status quo. Free school meals also have significant benefits for a child’s life. In its response to the consultation, School Food Matters quoted the comments of a headteacher about how universal infant free school meals had reduced stigma: “Despite being in an affluent London borough, 27% of the children at our school are currently entitled to free school meals but nearer 40% have been entitled to free school meals within the past 6 years.” That is what matters for the pupil premium. The headteacher went on to say: “This is a clear indicator that many of the families are only just about managing.” This shows that if the government goes ahead with the current proposals, we could see more and more of the “just about managing” being left behind.
On the benefits of universal free school meals, I will just add that when they were piloted, the most marked academic improvements were among children from less affluent backgrounds.
The money can be found, because universal free school meals more than pay for themselves, and the benefits that we get from them outweigh the initial costs, including the amount saved on administration because they are universal.
The new system was presented as a way to eradicate poverty, but instead the introduction of the measure that we have been discussing could cement poverty in our society, and at worst there could even be a rise in poverty among “working poor” families. If that happens, we would go through all these changes for naught, and children would be just as badly off in the future—maybe even worse off—and that would be at the behest of the Government.
Sharon Hodgson is shadow minister for public health. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate.