Essex: Criteria for free school meals is unfair, claims children’s charity
- Credit: PA
THOUSANDS of children living in poverty are going hungry because they do not qualify for free school meals, a charity has claimed.
Now calls are being made for a change in the way families in north Essex are assessed.
Today, the Children’s Society launches its Fair and Square campaign, which calls on the Government to make free school meals available to all children in poverty.
The charity says the benefits system discriminates against the children of working families on low incomes. At present, only single parents who work less than 16 hours a week and couples who work less than 24 hours a week can register for free school meals, while housing costs are not factored in.
But according to the Children’s Society, this approach excludes more than half of children who live in families where earnings are less than 60% of the national average.
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The charity has released figures which it claims show almost 115,000 children in poverty in the East of England are missing out on vital free school meals.
This number includes 3,000 from the Clacton area, 2,600 from Colchester and 1,500 living in the Harwich and north Essex constituency.
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It says it is speaking out now as the Government prepares to reform the benefits system with the introduction of the universal credit scheme due to launch in October.
According to the chief executive of the Children’s Society, Matthew Reed, for some children a free school lunch may be the only proper meal they get, while for a third of children whose parents the society spoke to, lunch was their main meal of the day.
He said: “It is shocking that huge numbers of children in poverty in the East of England are missing out on a free school meal.
“We know from the families we work with up and down the country that parents are struggling to make ends meet. Right now, the Government is reconsidering which children will be entitled to get free school meals. We urge them to take this opportunity to make sure all children in poverty get a free school meal.”
The campaign reflects the concerns of Colchester Liberal Democrat MP Sir Bob Russell, who submitted a written question to the Secretary of State for Education, David Laws, last year. Mr Russell called the way children are assessed for school dinners a “huge anomaly”.
He added; “In a prosperous country like ours, children in poverty should be fed properly. Just as a car needs petrol, so a child needs sufficient food to ensure they grow up healthily.
“Not having enough food can affect both a child’s physical and intellectual development and impact their chances in life. Providing food ensures they don’t develop health conditions in later life which has serious implications for the public purse in terms of the level of remedial care they will receive from the NHS.”
However, MP for Harwich and north Essex Bernard Jenkin said: “The idea that there are over 115,000 children in the East of England today who are malnourished is absurd. Where there is a problem is in the definition of poverty, which is not a reliable indicator of need.
“The universal credit system will provide a much more realistic assessment of who should qualify for benefits.”