Earning curve

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Mike Watson on the government’s cynical attempt to remove free school meal provision from poor but in-work families

‘Dinner break’ business in the House of Lords is not often the scene of controversy. Tonight however, Peers will debate the government’s highly-contentious plan to introduce an earned income qualification for free school meals (FSM) once universal credit (UC) is rolled out.

The proposal, to be brought in through regulations, has met with widespread resistance and anger within and beyond Parliament – including from the welfare and education sectors. With the regulations scheduled to take effect from 1st April, my Lords colleague Steve Bassam has submitted a regret motion to delay implementation pending the outcome of a full poverty impact assessment.

The issue was debated in the Commons last week, when our Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner sought to annul the regulations. The government lost the argument but fended off the motion with the help of the DUP – hardly surprising, since Theresa May had enlisted their support by cynically announcing an exemption for Northern Ireland. No such cover will be forthcoming for Ministers in the Lords.

There has been much bandying around of eye-catching figures as to how many families will be affected by the regulations, the main thrust of which is to introduce an earnings limit of £7400 – net of tax and benefits. Beyond that figure, a family would lose its right to FSM.

Much of the campaigning has suggested it will effect around a million children in working families currently in receipt of FSM – a figure that is both right and wrong. Since UC roll out began, all families receiving it have been eligible for FSM but this is only a transitional arrangement until 2022.

At that point, when UC is fully rolled out, families will need to qualify for FSM and many will miss out. Estimates suggest a cost of around £430 a year per child, which is why our party believes the children of all families in receipt of UC should continue to receive FSM.

Without that safety net there will certainly be losers, with the government itself acknowledging that 10% of children eligible for FSM under the pre-UC benefits system would no longer qualify. That’s about 110,000 kids in total.

The government is also being rather disingenuous by claiming that 50,000 ‘additional’ children will receive FSM after the regulations come into effect. That has nothing to do with generosity on the part of the government, which has estimated that figure on the basis of the birth rate and its effect on the overall growth in the number of school pupils in 2022. Thus any increase in FSM eligibility is simply on a pro-rata basis.

One of the principal aims of the introduction of UC – after simply saving money - was to ensure that additional earnings would always leave families better off, avoiding ‘cliff edges’ in incomes. Under the £7400 earnings limit, many families will remain trapped in poverty because they will be worse off (through loss of FSM) if earnings increase to £7401. So much for Ministers stated intention of ‘making work pay’.

If Steve Bassam decides, as expected, to press his motion to a vote, he will have support of not just Labour Peers but many others from around the Lords. It is time to call out the government out on this open and cynical attack on some of the poorest in-work families in our country.

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

Published 20th March 2018

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