South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay defends Universal Credit free school meals ‘cap’

Craig Mackinlay

South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay has defended his vote against a Labour motion to ensure the roll out of free school meals to all Universal Claimants regardless of income.

The Labour Party forced a vote on the issue this week in a bid to stop proposals for a £7,400 income threshold on free school meals eligibility but were defeated by 312 votes to 254.

The cap affects new Universal Credit claimants not those already in receipt of the benefit.

Currently, all children from households claiming UC are eligible for free meals but changes which will come into effect on April 1 mean new claimants of children in Year 3 and above, with an income of more than £7,400  excluding benefits, will not be eligible.

Children with parents already claiming UC will continue to receive free meals until 31 March 2022 – when the Universal Credit roll out will be complete -or “the end of their phase of education”, whichever is later.

This means primary pupils are covered to the end of Year 6 and secondary school until the end of Year 11.

MP Craig Mackinlay says the changes to free school meal eligibility will mean more children will benefit.

He said: ““The introduction of Universal Credit offers a more fairly targeted system that will ensure that work always pays and more children will benefit from free school meals.

“Transitional protections will be put in place that will enable hundreds of thousands of children to continue to receive a meal during the roll-out, even if family earnings exceed the £7,400 threshold. Importantly, nobody currently receiving free school meals will lose their entitlement when moving onto Universal Credit.

“Indeed, recent estimates suggest that by 2022, around 50,000 more disadvantaged children will benefit from a free school meal compared to the previous benefits system.

“It was a feature of the old legacy benefit of tax credits, introduced by Gordon Brown in 2003, that any family in receipt of Working Tax Credit was not able to receive free school meals. This is a feature that has been accepted without comment for 15 years and throughout the years of the Labour Government and so it is curious to see the fake outrage that we’ve seen this week. I call it unacceptable political opportunism designed to create fear and uncertainty. In broad terms, nothing changes.

“The £7,400 threshold relates to earned income and does not include additional family income through Universal Credit. Depending on their exact circumstances, a typical family having earned income around the threshold would have a total annual household income of between £18,000 and £24,000.

“Obviously earnings at the threshold level would attract no tax because of the dramatic increases in personal tax allowances over recent years, and of course, Universal Credit received is tax-free.”

Newington primary school in Ramsgate introduced free lunches for every pupil in 2014, the first school in the county to do so.

Head teacher Cliff Stokes said: “At Newington we would be appalled if this latest move by the Government becomes reality.

“We provide free meals for all children because all research suggests that children who have a hot meal at lunchtime are better learners as a result – it is not rocket science!

“The provision of free school meals is particularly important in an area where it has been identified that 47% of the children are living in poverty.”

As a district some 34% of children are recorded as living below the poverty line but in wards such as Newington this figure rises to 47% and is even higher in Cliftonville West with more than 52%, according to data from The End Child Poverty coalition.

South Thanet parliamentary hopeful Raushan Ara said the announcement had been made ‘under the radar’ while people were reacting to wider news of the suspected poisoning of a former Russian agent and his daughter in Salisbury.

She said: “Britain’s Conservative government has seen fit to stop the provision of free school meals to the poorest and most underprivileged children in the country. Sometimes, these free school meals are the only hot meals that these children receive each day. Now, our government have voted to stop them – sneaking their cruel policy “under the radar” at a time of national mourning.

“At the same time, these Tory “guardians of morality” have voted themselves a £5.8 million pound subsidy for their own food and drinks in the House of Commons bars and restaurants.”

Mrs Ara highlighted Thanet’s deprivation and low employment rates as well as national reports of teachers saying it is not possible for students to learn effectively if they are too hungry, thirsty or cold.