School lunchtimes have just got more expensive for some families claiming Universal Credit. Changes to the eligibility for free school meals come into force earlier than expected on April 1st.
Free school meals eligibility on Universal Credit is changing in England on April 1st
The government will proceed with its plans to change the threshold for free school meals eligibility under universal credit from April 1st 2018, children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi has announced.
A new earnings threshold of £7400 per year is being introduced.
The government says once benefits are taken into account, a typical family earning that amount will take home between £18,000 and £24,000.
The Children’s Society fears this will mean work will not always pay and families will be better off making less.
It said a one-child family would have to earn £1,124 a year extra to make up from the meals loss and a three-child family £3,582.
If the £7400 limit is applied equally across the year, it would mean monthly net earnings of £616, which is roughly 18 -19 hours per week at the National Minimum Wage. Earning more than the threshold will mean that the entitlement to free school meals will not be available to a new UC claiming household after 1st April.
The new earnings threshold will replace the current set-up whereby all pupils from universal credit-claiming households get free meals.
If your household is already eligible for free school meals under Universal Credit, you don't need to worry about having to find cash to pay for the kids school dinners;
Transitional protection is being introduced at the same time which will mean that the entitlement to free school dinners will remain in place for any child, who is eligible for free meals on April 1st, who is still of school age until the end of their phase of education e.g. primary or secondary.
The exact wording on the protection is as follows;
"We propose to protect the status of every child currently eligible for free school meals at the point at which the threshold is introduced, and every child who gains eligibility under the new arrangements during the roll-out of universal credit until the end of the roll-out. Following that period, we will protect all pupils who were protected and are still of school age until the end of their phase of education - for example, primary or secondary school."
A priority action for UC claiming households with children of school age will be to ensure that their entitlement to free school meals is claimed before March 31st to ensure that the entitlement is protected under the above protected status.
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The announcement in detail:
The government has responded to the Department for Education's consultation on eligibility for free school meals under universal credit in England.
Whilst the government reports that 56 per cent of the 560 responses received through the consultation website agreed with the proposed net earnings threshold of £7,400, it acknowledges that a significant proportion of respondents (together with more than 8,000 people who sent emails as part of a Children’s Society free school meals campaign) believed that free school meals should be extended to all households on universal credit. However, the government response advises that -
‘Introducing a net earnings threshold remains the fairest and most practical way to ensure that children from the lowest-income families receive free school meals, and benefit from the early years pupil premium. We will introduce an annual net earnings threshold of £7,400, which will typically equate to an overall household income of between £18,000 and £24,000 once benefits income is taken into account, depending on individual circumstances.
Eligibility will be verified by using an equivalent monthly check verified from the household’s most recent universal credit assessment periods. Our threshold is comparable with that introduced by the Scottish government for free school meals eligibility, and we consider it fair and appropriately targeted.’
In addition, the government confirms the measures it will take to -
◾ protect families who would otherwise have lost eligibility for free school meals because of the change;
◾ also protect families who become eligible during the roll-out of universal credit;
◾ provide earnings checks for up to three months where families have fluctuating earnings that take them over the threshold; and
◾ explore ways to ensure that ‘very low-income families’ can receive free school meals during the initial assessment period for universal credit.
In force from 1 April 2018, the Free School Lunches and Milk, and School and Early Years Finance (Amendments Relating to Universal Credit) (England) Regulations 2018 (SI.No.148/2018) include provision for the introduction of an earnings threshold for a child or their parent in receipt of universal credit to limit who can establish entitlement to free school meals.
The threshold applies to earnings calculated over a 'relevant period' - which can, in any particular case, be one, two or three universal credit assessment periods preceding the request for a free school meal - and is set at -
◾ £616.67 where there is earned income in a relevant period made up of one universal credit assessment period that immediately precedes the date of the request for a free school meal;
◾ twice that amount (£1,233.34) where the relevant period is two assessment periods before the date of request (in cases where the single period threshold is exceeded in the first assessment period); and
◾ three times that amount (£1,850) where the relevant period is three assessment periods (in cases where the single and double period threshold is exceeded in the first two assessment periods preceding the request for free school meals).
In addition, the order provides for transitional protection for those children eligible for a free school meal by reasons including eligibility for certain social security benefits so that entitlement continues to the later of either 31 March 2022, or the date the child completes the stage of education the child was undertaking on 31 March 2022.
NB - Minister for Education Nadhim Zahawi provided further details of how transitional protection will operate when a universal credit earnings threshold is introduced in a Westminster Hall debate on free school meals yesterday, stating that -
‘We propose to protect the status of every child currently eligible for free school meals at the point at which the threshold is introduced, and every child who gains eligibility under the new arrangements during the roll-out of universal credit until the end of the roll-out. Following that period, we will protect all pupils who were protected and are still of school age until the end of their phase of education - for example, primary or secondary school.
Those protections will apply to those on universal credit and the legacy benefits that qualify a family for free school meals. We are not proposing to make any changes for those eligible for free school meals because they are in receipt of asylum support or pensions credits. Those households will therefore remain entitled to free school meals for a long as they retain those benefits.’
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