Kirsty Williams, Cabinet Secretary for Education
Today, I am launching a consultation on the Welsh Government’s proposals for revised eligibility criteria for free school meals in Wales. It is necessary that we consult as a result of the UK Government’s introduction of Universal Credit as part of their welfare benefit changes. We remain deeply concerned about the fundamental flaws of Universal Credit and we are extremely disappointed that the UK Government is persisting with its roll out, despite ours and others call on them to halt the roll out and address these issues.
At present, eligibility for free school meals is based on receipt of one of a range of welfare benefits, which are being replaced by Universal Credit.
Universal Credit is currently being rolled out across Wales. The Department for Work and Pensions’ latest published timetable indicates a gradual expansion of Universal Credit to jobcentres across Wales, with the rollout in respect of new claimants due to complete in Wales by December 2018. Some families already in receipt of the welfare benefits which it will replace, and who have had a change in their circumstances, are already being migrated on to Universal Credit. All remaining claimants are currently expected to be migrated onto Universal Credit between 2019 and 2022, although, the Department for Work and Pension’s timetable is subject to change .
As an interim measure, the Free School Lunches and Milk (Universal Credit) (Wales) Order 2013 came into force on 6 September 2013. This extended the eligibility criteria for free school lunches and milk to include all families in receipt of Universal Credit, to ensure that families who might previously have been able to claim free school meals did not lose out.
Universal Credit will replace a number of “in work” benefits such as Working Tax Credit, receipt of which would not currently result in eligibility for free school meals. By the time Universal Credit is fully rolled out, we estimate that the free school meals caseload in Wales would treble under this extended eligibility criteria. This would mean that around half of all pupils would be eligible for free school meals compared to 16 per cent in January 2017.
It is important to be aware that no additional funding has been provided to the Welsh Government to manage the impact of the UK Government’s welfare benefit changes on free school meals.
The Welsh Government is proposing to introduce an annualised net earned income threshold of £7,400 for Universal Credit claimants in January 2019. An earned income threshold is the approach that is being taken in the other home nations. Depending on their individual circumstances, a typical family earning around £7,400 per annum would have a total household income of between £18,000 and £24,000 per annum once benefits are taken into account.
We estimate that this threshold would increase the number of children benefitting from free school meals in Wales by around 3,000 by the time Universal Credit is currently expected to be fully rolled out in 2022. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding our estimates due to factors such as behavioural change. Our estimates are also subject to change as Universal Credit rollout plans, economic forecasts, and the underlying data used in our analysis, continue to be updated.
Although the proposals have been carefully designed to ensure that the vast majority of children who now receive free school meals continue to receive them, there would be some who lose their entitlement. That is unacceptable, therefore the Welsh Government is proposing to include transitional protection measures which will protect families from losing entitlement to free school meals for a limited period of time, helping to avoid hardship by giving them more time to adjust.
The earned income threshold and transitional protection proposals would mean the Welsh Government would be spending around an additional £10 million a year between 2019-20 to 2022-23 providing free school meals, according to our latest estimates – this is despite no additional funding being provided by the UK Government.
This consultation is available at https:https://beta.gov.wales/eligibility-free-school-meals and will close on 14 September 2018.
In taking this work forward, I want to engage openly and comprehensively and I look forward to comments from stakeholders.