TENS of thousands of the region’s poorer children will lose their right to free school meals under the Government’s welfare revolution, a shock report has warned.
The Children’s Society has raised the alarm over the harsh impact of the new “universal credit”, to be introduced in October next year.
The shake-up will end payments of certain benefits – and also the trigger of entitlement for a free school meal – if a household earns more than £7,500.
At present, children are entitled to free meals if their families earn less than about £16,000, unless they receive a working tax credit (WTC) topup.
The switch threatens to remove free meals from 120,000 poorer families in England with more than 350,000 children, including several tens of thousands in the North-East.
More than 25,000 youngsters in the region already miss out, even though they are classed as living in poverty – because the family income threshold for a free meal is lower.
But the Children’s Society said the shift to the universal credit would make the situation far worse and leave 120,000 families with a bill for school meals of about £367 a year, per child. A lone parent with three children earning up to £11,500 a year would be better off taking a pay cut to below £7,500, or quitting work altogether.
The report triggered anger in County Durham, where every primary pupil received a free hot lunch under a two year trial launched by Labour – but it was axed by the coalition Government.
Roberta Blackman-Woods, Labour MP for Durham City, said: “The Government is neglecting some of the poorest families in the country by planning to take away free school meals from 350,000 children.”
Studies have found pupils who eat school meals are more likely to behave and concentrate.
They are also less likely to eat junk food outside the school gates.
Children’s Minister Sarah Teather admitted the Government had to “think hard” about entitlement to free school meals under the universal credit, but said: “No plans have yet been set and we will be consulting later this year. We remain totally committed to continuing to provide free school meals to children from the poorest families.”
The Children’s Society report also highlighted how 1.2m poorer children failed to claim free school meals, while another 700,000 in poverty were not entitled to them in the first place.
Last night, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, backed that campaign, saying: “Nutritional meals are vital for all low income families.”