How Universal Credit 'fiasco' will affect free school meals

By John Freeman

| 19 October 2017

I don't always agree with government policy - and with the present government I agree less than ever. But I can usually accept that there is something proper about the process. There is something, if not pleasing, at least worthy of professional respect about a law that has been through consultation, Green and White Papers, parliamentary scrutiny as a Bill, and then properly trialled before full roll-out, with guidance well-written by literate civil servants, and then - finally - implemented in a well-understood way across the nation. This has generally been the pattern during my time in public life. Since 2010, though, this has gone by the board. The first rounds of ‘austerity' - the ending of Educational Maintenance Allowances, and of Sure Start, for example - involved doing things that were categorically opposed to the government's stated principles.

With the present government, things have reached a new low. Universal Credit (I was tempted to write so-called Universal Credit) fails the basic test of competence. It is the poorest families and their children who are suffering and will suffer, and it is an absolute scandal. The notion of a simplification of the benefit system was a good one, but then it became a cover for cutting benefits to the least-well-off families. These are often hard-working families with low paid jobs, with at least one parent in employment. These families may have been just about managing until the Universal Credit fiasco both cut their benefits and failed to pay them in anything like a timely way. (Do you remember those catch phrases setting out the government's priorities - ‘hard working', ‘just about managing'?)

The whole thing is a disaster and any MP worth their salt will know it - and I don't know how any of them can support it. Theresa May has been shamed into removing the 85p per minute charge for calling the helpline - charging people to get financial help is such an obvious stupidity and gross injustice that MPs have forced a climb-down. But that's not enough, and even that will not happen for several weeks.

Here, though, I'm writing about a different specific feature of Universal Credit - the impact on free school meals.

Free school meals provide a much-needed and nutritious meal to the poorest children. Without free school meals, they will either go hungry, or they will buy rubbishy fried chicken, chips, or sugary snacks - which will harm their health and their learning.

Currently, the children of parents in receipt of working tax credit are entitled to a free school meal. So, what about Universal Credit? The new system has removed the ‘working tax credit' trigger for assessing families entitled to free school meals with, the government admits, no easy way of putting a new trigger in place.

The government can't explain how the issue will be dealt with, only saying that the details would be released ‘in due course' (a ‘Yes, Minister' phrase that can best be translated as ‘this year, next year, sometime, never'). In the meantime, Universal Credit is being rolled out nationally with all its other flaws and imperfections in design and implementation. This is simply crass incompetence - in some ways I hope it is just that, as incompetence can be put right. The alternative is that the government wants poor children to go hungry, perhaps with their families using food banks as a ‘lifestyle choice'.

I am ashamed to live in a rich country which shows, as a state, such little understanding or compassion for its own citizens when they need support - and which is prepared to see children unfed in order to punish (‘sanction') the parents. The only bright spot is that individuals remain willing to donate - but again it is often the poor giving up a little to help those even worse off. Food bank donations at Waitrose are much less than at the Co-Op.

When I was at school, in history I learned about the Jarrow Crusade, one of several hunger marches in the 1920s, and about the Great Depression, and thought that it really was as historical as my teachers taught, and that it couldn't happen again. I really hope that we don't again see media stories about children without shoes and warm clothes.

I will continue to support our local food bank - as usual I will donate my Winter Fuel Heating Allowance, and cans and packets. I'm just sorry it is necessary to have food banks in a country with GDP per head of nearly £35,000 - which is, in itself, clear evidence of gross and excessive inequality.

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