Comments were made at a meeting of Leeds City Council’s children’s scrutiny committee today (Wednesday), where it was claimed that Government regulations meant children from some families in receipt of the new Universal Credit benefits were still not able to receive free school meals.
It was added that one in five pupils eligible for free meals did not take them up.
A council officer told the meeting: “The statistics on take-up of free school meals have been consistently stubborn over the last few years.
“There was some work done by Leeds University several years ago, and one of the things it brought out at the time was that the general view that it was down to stigma was not really the case.
“Their findings were that it was more down to the quality of the food and general experience. And there are many schools around Leeds who put quite a bit of effort in trying to increase the uptake of free school meals by improving that experience.
“One of the problems that schools do face is that the pressure of the curriculum often means lunchtime is something to be got through, rather than an experience in itself.
“We did conduct a campaign to increase the uptake. Perhaps this is something we want to look at again.
“The council’s catering service has been very good at working with schools to improve the situation at lunchtime, and where they have worked with schools, they have seen benefits.”
Coun Karen Renshaw (Lab) asked: “Are there a number of families who have difficulty accessing free school meals because of the zero hour contracts their parents will be on?”
The officer responded: “There are families that do not get past the first hurdle, they are not eligible because of the benefits system. The Government has now issued guidance on how Universal Credit will have an effect on that.
“Initially [the children of] everyone on Universal Credit received a free school meal, which was actually more than the previous entitlement. They have now brought in different measures which will try to mean that the number of children eligible is similar to the previous situation.
“There will be quite a number of families where, because they don’t fit the natural benefit route, they might not be eligible, and it is difficult to know what we can do about that.”
It was not made clear how many children or families will be affected by this.
Universal Credit (UC) is a single payment received by people who are on low incomes or out of work.
It gets paid once a month, rather than weekly or fortnightly and replaces jobseekers’ allowance, child and working tax credits, employment support allowance, housing benefit and income support.
The scheme has been gradually rolled out around the country, with Leeds fully moving onto the new system in October 2018.
the Government has argued UC is designed to simplify benefits and incentivise work, but campaigners believe the changes are penalising the most vulnerable in society.