Kirsty Williams, Cabinet Secretary for Education
Following our consultation on revised eligibility criteria for free school meals in Wales, we are today publishing a summary report which sets out the key issues raised by respondents.
We consulted on a proposal to introduce an annualised net earned income threshold for Universal Credit claimants who wish to claim free school meals. If we do not introduce a threshold, we estimate around half of all pupils in Wales will be eligible for free school meals by the time Universal Credit is fully rolled out, compared to 16 per cent in January 2018. This would be unaffordable without difficult decisions being taken to re-prioritise funding which would result in cutting core funding elsewhere.
Although it is not unexpected, it remains extremely disappointing that the UK Government has failed to do the right thing by the people of Wales and provide the additional resources to manage the impact of the UK Government’s Welfare Reform agenda on free school meals. As a result, on top of the additional £5m we are providing in 2018-19, we are allocating an additional £7m from reserves in 2019-20, through the Revenue Support Grant, to support local authorities in meeting the costs associated with the proposed changes. This approach is in stark contrast to that in England, where the Department for Education has had to find the additional finances from within its own budget.
We will introduce an earnings threshold which will mean that households on Universal Credit who have annualised net earnings from employment or self employment of £7,400 or less will be entitled to free school meals. The net earnings amount does not represent a household’s total income as it does not include income from benefits, which significantly increase a household’s overall income. A typical family earning around £7,400 per annum would, depending on their exact circumstances, have a total household income of between £18,000 and £24,000 once benefits are taken into account.
Our most up to date analysis suggests that more children will be eligible for free school meals throughout the Universal Credit rollout period under an annualised net earned income threshold of £7,400 than otherwise would have been under the old legacy system.
Furthermore, alongside the threshold, we will also introduce transitional protection measures which will protect families from losing entitlement to free school meals for a limited period of time. This protection means that pupils eligible for free school meals when the criteria are changed, or any new claimants who gain free school meals during the rollout of Universal Credit, would be protected against losing free school meals whilst Universal Credit is rolled out across Wales, even if their eligibility changes. In addition, once Universal Credit is fully rolled out, any existing claimants who no longer meet the eligibility criteria will continue to receive protection until the end of the pupil’s current phase of education.
During the rollout of Universal Credit, we will keep the threshold under review by monitoring whether the number of eligible pupils differs substantially to what we have estimated, and to ensure those most in need are benefitting.
Our original intention was to introduce this threshold with effect from 1 January 2019. The consultation and recent engagement with stakeholders has convinced me that there is still much to be done if local authorities are to be given the support and guidance they need to introduce this new threshold. I am therefore postponing its introduction until early April 2019 which will allow us to set an appropriate programme of change management support in place for local authorities. In addition, the free school meal eligibility checking system, used by local authorities in Wales to check eligibility for free school meals, will be modified to take account of the new threshold.
When we launched the consultation on 6 June, I stated that we wanted to engage openly and comprehensively. I have touched on some of the key issues underpinning my decision, but I intend to publish an additional report setting out in more detail the Welsh Government’s responses to points raised during the consultation. I will make a further statement to announce its publication.
The summary report is available at https://beta.gov.wales/eligibility-free-school-meals