Children from migrant families risk going hungry without free school meals

Ministers temporarily extended free school meals to children from low-income migrant families earlier this year, but campaigners are worried they could be rescinded soon leaving thousands of children without nutritious food

The Government must extend free school meals to pupils from low-income migrant families to stop thousands of children going hungry, according to a collective of dozens of charities.

In a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, organisations including The Children’s Society, UNISON, Action for Children and Project 17 demanded permanent legislative change to protect children whose families have no recourse to public funds.

The ‘hostile environment’ policy means households who haven’t yet qualified for permanent residency in the UK are not entitled to support through the welfare system like Universal Credit, tax credits and in many cases free school meals.

The letter read: “The forthcoming school year will be hugely challenging for every child, but whether a child is able to eat and learn should not depend on their parents’ status.

“The Government must not allow any child living in poverty to fall behind at such a pivotal moment in their lives – now and in the future.”

Research by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford showed that by the end of last year, nearly 176,000 non-EEA children were living in families with no recourse to public funds – an increase of roughly 33,000 since 2016.

In April ministers gave some NRPF children access to free school meals, but the measure was only temporary to cover the extra challenges faced by families during the Covid-19 crisis.

The charities said the future of the change is uncertain, with concerns that when the policy is reversed thousands of children will be left without access to a nutritious meal every day.

As well as writing to the education secretary, solicitors have been instructed to challenge the free school meals eligibility criteria – blasted as discriminatory and “a breach of children’s human rights”.

Sam Royston, director of policy and research for The Children’s Society, said: “It is unacceptable that thousands of children, whose lives have already been turned upside down by the pandemic, could lose out on free school meals.

“Adjusting to being back at school will already be a tremendous challenge for most, but whether a child is able to eat should not depend on their parents’ immigration status. The latest figures show that the number of children affected by the NRPF condition is increasing, meaning many more are now at risk.

“The extension of free school meals for children affected by NRPF has been a lifeline, but we know that the impact of the pandemic will be felt for years to come. The Government must permanently extend free school meals to all low-income migrant families who have no recourse to public funds, to help ensure that every child can return to school with the hope of a bright future.”

Black and minority ethnic families are disproportionately impacted by the policy, leaving many who are already struggling to make ends meet – while incurring the costs of leave to remain applications – without the vital support of free meals for their children.

Last month councils pleaded with the Government to suspend NRPF as they were struggling to keep up with the demand for support from families left without a welfare safety net.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have temporarily extended free school meal eligibility to include some children of groups who have no recourse to public funds in light of the current unique circumstances many families face at this time.

“This will continue for the duration of the summer holidays and while the outbreak impacts schools.”