While I appreciate the concerns raised, I am assured that the introduction of Universal Credit offers a less fragmented, more fairly targeted system that will ensure more children will benefit from free school meals. No child eligible for and currently receiving free school meals will lose their entitlement as a result of the Universal Credit rollout.
The claim that one million children will lose out on free school meals is misinformed. This figure is based on a hypothetical situation where all children in receipt of Universal Credit receive free school meals, which was never the intention. If all children in families receiving Universal Credit were to become eligible for free school meals, around 50 per cent of all school aged pupils would be eligible. Instead, free school meals are rightly targeted at the children who need them most. The approach of setting an income threshold is comparable to the approach taken in Scotland where a similar net earnings threshold was introduced in 2017.
It is also worth highlighting that the Department for Education ran a public consultation, seeking the views of parents, schools, local authorities and charities on eligibility for free school meals. In light of this, transitional protections were proposed so that nobody currently receiving free school meals will lose their entitlement when moving onto Universal Credit.
I understand that there have been concerns about the extension of free school meals. This Government has extended eligibility for free school meals several times, and to more groups of children than any other over the past half century. Further, the holiday activities and food programme runs during major school holidays, and wider welfare support is available through the household support fund, which helps vulnerable families in need with essentials, such as food and utility bills.
As of 2022, around 50,000 more children are benefitting from a free school meal compared to under the previous benefits system. Over a third of pupils in England currently receive free school meals in education settings and the Government has just announced a further investment in the National School Breakfast Programme, extending the programme for another year until July 2024, backed by up to £30 million.
The Department spends over £1 billion each year on free school meals, including through the Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) programme and school breakfast clubs. This includes around £600 million on Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM). In June 2022, the Government allocated £18 million of additional funding for UIFSM to help schools provide for the 1.25 million children in reception, Year 1 and Year 2 with a free, healthy and nutritious lunch, in recognition of the rising cost of living.
Children must be supported to go as far as their talents will take them and I am glad that, following public consultations, free school meals can be extended to more disadvantaged pupils.