THE Bishop of Portsmouth has urged government ministers to think again about proposals which he believes will cut free school meals for low-income families.
The Children’s Society estimates that welfare reforms tied to universal credit would see up to one million children denied eligibility for free lunches, if the government’s planned changes are rolled out nationwide.
The Rt Rev Christopher Foster spoke in the House of Lords, backing a motion which called for a delay in implementing changes to the policy, until a full impact assessment had been carried out.
The motion was carried by 167 votes to 160 last night.
Currently all families on universal credit can claim free school meals. But from April 1, children in Year 3 and above on universal credit in England will not normally be eligible if their parents earn more than £7,400.
Rev Foster said: ‘For working families just below the current threshold, this proposal would very clearly not make extra work pay.
‘They would be better off not seeking more paid work and leaving their children on free school meals, unless their family income increased by some considerable margin.
‘Those just above the threshold will be worse off under the regulations, facing school meal charges. They would be better off working less.
‘That is at best an anomaly, but I am tempted to describe it as an absurdity.
‘We are potentially creating anxiety, even despair, when we should offer hope and support. We are creating a cliff edge so that work does not pay.
‘I ask the government to think again and I do so from the bottom of my heart.’
Mr Foster spoke about a woman named Clare, whose oldest child receives free school meals.
Clare’s husband has been made redundant, and after 18 months volunteering in a local school, now works as a teaching assistant and earns £8,000. Clare had worked for 15 years as an NHS dental nurse, but her clinic closed.
She is now retraining as a solicitor, which will involve incurring a debt of around £56,000.
The bishop added: ‘These regulations will not help Clare and those like her overcome these short-term challenges.
‘They will add to them and hinder her from creating a long-term future for herself and her family, because Clare has no slack.
‘She told us her family of four survives on £10 a day for food and petrol with no luxuries.
‘Clare does not understand how the figure of £7,400 has been arrived at.
‘Nor does she understand how introducing an earnings threshold as low as that could possibly benefit people in her situation. I do not understand either.
‘She knows her eight-year-old daughter will, for now, continue to receive free school meals, but what of her son, who starts school in September and other children of their ages?
‘As she observes, initially it seems nobody will lose out, but in the long-term more and more people and more specifically, more and more children will.’