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Free school meals revamp ‘could leave million children without hot food’

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said Government changes to eligibility were an absolute scandal.

Labour has warned more than one million children could be left without hot food after ministers announced major changes to eligibility for free school meals.

The Government has confirmed that children in families with net earnings up to £7,400 will be entitled for the meals under the new Universal Credit benefit system.

Education minister Nadhim Zahawi said around 50,000 more children will benefit from a free school meal by 2022 compared with the previous benefits system.

But shadow education secretary Anglea Rayner said: “It is an absolute scandal that the Conservatives are pressing ahead with a plan that could leave over a million children without a hot meal in schools.

“These plans will create a dangerous cliff-edge in the Universal Credit system and make it harder for families on low incomes to make ends meet.

“The Government should have taken this opportunity to listen to Labour’s call for all children in families receiving Universal Credit to be eligible for free school meals, but instead they have chosen to make life harder for millions of parents across the country.”

The Government announcement follows public consultations on eligibility for free school meals, the early years pupil premium and the free early years entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds, in light of the national rollout of Universal Credit.

The free school meals measures have previously been dubbed “a huge new benefit trap” given families may be tempted to earn less money in order to qualify.

Campaigners have argued that all families claiming Universal Credit should be able to claim the meals.

The Children’s Society previously said 700,000 of the 1.7 million school children in poverty would receive free school meals under the plans.

A tweet on The Children’s Society Policy Team’s Twitter account said: “Disappointing that @nadhimzahawi’s first ministerial action will be to remove eligibility that would enable an additional 1 million children in poverty to receive free school meals.”

Around 10% of the 1.13 million pupils receiving free school meals would no longer be eligible under the changes, though the Government has said these children will continue to get them.

“It is right that we must continue to offer the most disadvantaged young people additional help and I am pleased that, following public consultations, we can extend free school meals and the free early education entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds,” said Mr Zahawi.

“Tens of thousands more children will be entitled to free school meals by 2022 compared to the previous benefits system.

“I’d like to thank everyone who responded to these consultations; their views will help to ensure every child can access a world-class education and the support reaches those that need it most.”

A typical family earning around £7,400 per year would have a total household income of between £18,000 and £24,000 once benefits are taken into account, depending on their specific circumstances.

This is higher than the £16,200 earnings threshold that currently entitles pupils to free meals, but much lower than the £55,000 threshold that would have come in without the proposed changes.

The £7,400 threshold will also apply for the early years pupil premium, which gives additional funding to early years settings to boost the attainment of pupils from low income families.

The Government is also introducing a net earnings threshold of £15,400 per year under Universal Credit for eligibility for the 15-hour free early education entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds.

It is estimated that by 2023 around 7,000 more children will benefit from the two-year-old entitlement.

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