Will my child lose free school meals? Universal Credit changes, explained

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The Labour Party has launched a series of online adverts – and Parliamentary attacks – warning parents that the Conservatives are about to cut free school meals, taking hot lunches from one million poor children across the UK.

Are people right to be upset?

The claims are causing outrage and concern, and are certainly not without basis, but the reality of the policy shift being proposed is a bit more complex than Labour are setting out.

And crucially, if your child currently gets school meals, they are very unlikely to lose them with the changes being made. The reforms to free school meals are a consequence of the government’s flagship benefits policy, Universal Credit.

This is a measure by which the government are trying to place numerous different in-work and out-of-work payments – such as tax credits, jobseekers’ allowance, and similar benefits – into one simpler payment.

The scheme has been beset with numerous delays and setbacks, but is now being rolled out nationwide, in phases. At present, free school meals are given to students from poorer families – except for younger students, for whom the free meals are universal, following a policy introduced by the Liberal Democrats during the coalition government.

This is measured by tracking whether families claim certain out-of-work benefits (or if their parents don’t work many hours), which are soon to be replaced by Universal Credit – meaning the government needs to change its rules on free meals.

Who will these changes affect?

During the early rollout of Universal Credit, the government tackled free school meals quite simply: children from any family who received any payment through the scheme would be eligible for free school meals.

These rules were more generous than the previous system, and had they been kept in place would have meant around one million more children would have been eligible for free food once Universal Credit was nationwide. However, the government has now scaled back who will be able to claim free meals as the scheme is rolled out.

Once Universal Credit goes nationwide, children will only be eligible for a free meal if their parents earn less than £7,400 from paid work. This new rule, though less generous than the new system as it was being rolled out, is roughly equivalent to the old one – where children kept their eligibility for free meals if their parents worked less than either 16 hours for a single parent or 24 hours for a couple.

Crucially, though, the government has exempted any child whose parents are currently on Universal Credit from the new thresholds, meaning none of them will lose their eligibility for free school meals.

This means the government is not being untruthful when it says no child will lose meals due to the change.

Are Labour telling the truth?

But that doesn’t mean Labour’s advert is entirely dishonest either: what the party has done is work out how many children would have been eligible for meals under the previous Universal Credit rules versus the new system, and found around one million fewer children are eligible under the new one – meaning a million poorer children in the future will lose out on getting a free hot meal.

This is more-or-less the difference between snatching a hot meal from a child today versus just not cooking one for her tomorrow.

One exception to this new system is Northern Ireland, where the DUP – upon whom Theresa May relies to prop up her minority government – have managed to secure a higher earnings threshold for free school meals, making the system there much more generous.

There’s no clear policy reason for the government to believe that children whose parents earn £12,000 in Northern Ireland need a free meal when the same family in England wouldn’t – sometimes these things come down to pure and simple politics.

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