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MPs get behind school meals data proposal



A backbench bill would require councils to use housing benefit data to identify children entitiled to free lunches 

More than 120 MPs are expected to demand a law change to require local authorities to use their own data to “abolish hunger amongst children”.

Ministers will be urged to place a new duty on local authorities to identify all local children who are eligible for free school meals and register them automatically.

Veteran Labour MP Frank Field is to introduce a backbench bill to force councils to use their housing benefit records to find the missing eligible children, and 125 MPs, including 27 Conservatives, have registered their support for the move

It comes after the Department for Education estimated that 160,000 poor children in England are missing out on the free hot lunches to which they are entitled. This has been accompanied by fears that the introduction of Universal Credit – merging six working-age benefits into a single payment – will make it even harder to identify disadvantaged pupils.

The Free School Meals (Registration of Eligible Children) Bill would force councils to use their housing benefit records to find the missing eligible children. Once identified, each family would then be told that their child has automatically been signed up to receive free school meals, with no need to fill in any forms.

List matching

Under the system, schools supply the names of parents, as well as their national insurance numbers and dates of birth, which are then matched against lists of people receiving housing benefit, for example. It is then a simple process for the council to tell the school which pupils are eligible for free meals – and for those children not to be charged.

Field, MP for Birkenhead, led a cross-party inquiry into the explosion in the use of food banks in Britain, which was published last week. He has said his own local authority of Wirral had identified almost 700 children who are eligible, but not registered for free school meals.

“The policy of automatic registration for free school meals has delivered a win-win situation in those areas of the country that have been bold enough to embrace it,” he said

“By guaranteeing many more of our poorest children a hot meal every lunchtime during term time, the policy ensures substantial numbers of children need no longer struggle to concentrate on an empty stomach.

“And, yet, a large number of local authorities - we don’t know how many - won’t take up the policy without a nudge from Whitehall. My bill would make it their duty to take it up.”

An added bonus is that the schools concerned would gain extra Pupil Premium funding - £1,320 at primary level and £935 for secondaries - for every child registered for a free school meal.

However, the bill is unlikely to be passed unless the government throws its weight – and parliamentary time – behind it.

Image from USDAgov's flickr stream, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons



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