A distressing reality confronts thousands of children in Sefton and Knowsley as they grapple with hunger daily, pinned down by what critics label a ‘cruel’ government policy.
A collaborative report by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA) sheds light on the plight of approximately 5,000 impoverished children in Sefton and Knowsley who are excluded from accessing free school meals (FSM) due to stringent eligibility criteria.
The report underscores the inadequacy and restrictiveness of the qualifying standards, which render thousands of children ineligible for this vital support. While infants are entitled to FSM, older children from Year 3 onwards must belong to households receiving universal credit with an income below £7,400 annually to qualify. This threshold, frozen since 2018, fails to adjust for rising inflation and the escalating cost of living crisis.
A spokesperson for the CPAG condemns the government’s policy, asserting that it leaves children across the North West hungry and unable to focus on their education. They warn that the current numbers should serve as a wake-up call to policymakers.
Shockingly, statistics reveal that one in three children across the region live below the poverty line, with a staggering 100,000 school-age children enduring poverty without access to free meals.
The report not only exposes the dire situation but also advocates for urgent action. It calls upon both Local Authorities and schools to facilitate greater access to free school meals while stressing that the primary responsibility rests with the central government.
However, a council member expresses dismay at the government’s failure to address the issue adequately. They highlight the council’s efforts to extend support through means-tested free school meals and vouchers, but lament their constrained budget, slashed by over 50% since 2010, limiting their ability to aid all affected children.
Similarly, another council representative of Knowsley voices concern over the 2,000 children in poverty in the borough who fail to meet the government’s criteria for free school meals. Despite ongoing lobbying efforts, uncertainty looms over the continuation of vital support schemes beyond April 2024.
In response to the CPAG report, a spokesperson for the Department of Education defends the government’s actions, citing an extension of eligibility for free school meals to more groups of children than any previous administration. They affirm their commitment to supporting vulnerable households, ensuring that children retain entitlement to free school meals despite changes in family circumstances.
As the debate intensifies, with local authorities struggling to cope with escalating demands amidst budget cuts, the urgency for comprehensive government intervention becomes ever more apparent. The report’s call for a strategic plan to address child poverty resonates deeply, emphasizing the immediate necessity of providing universal access to midday meals in schools.
The plight of these children in Merseyside serves as a stark reminder of the human cost of policy decisions, compelling a re-evaluation of priorities and a concerted effort to ensure no child goes hungry in one of the wealthiest nations on earth.