Bishop of Durham asks about universal credit and free school meals

The Bishop of Durham received the following written answers on 23rd March 2023:

The Lord Bishop of Durham asked His Majesty’s Government, further to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Trussell Trust report An Essentials Guarantee: Reforming Universal Credit to ensure we can all afford the essentials in hard times, published on 27 February, what assessment they made of the recommendation contained in that report to “introduce an Essentials Guarantee” to ensure those on Universal Credit are not going without essential items.

Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con): The Government is committed to a sustainable, long-term approach to tackling poverty and supporting people on lower incomes.  As seen in measures announced by the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement, the Government have committed to a series of measures to ensure support for UK citizens. Raising the Universal Credit award by 10.1% to bring rates in-line with national inflation and ensure claimants are supported.

The current rates of income-related benefits such as Universal Credit do not represent a minimum requirement, and are not described as such in legislation or Government literature. The Government specifies the rates which are applicable to different benefits, and these may vary according to claimants’ circumstances.

There is no objective way of deciding what an adequate level of benefit should be as every person has different requirements. Income-related benefit rates are not made up of separate amounts for specific items of expenditure such as food or fuel charges, and beneficiaries are free to spend their benefit as they see fit, in the light of their individual commitments, needs and preferences.

The Government understands the pressures people are facing with the cost of living, which is why, in addition to the £37 billion of support we have provided for cost-of-living pressures in 2022/23, we are acting now to ensure support continues throughout 2023/24.

We will be delivering further cost of living payments, worth up to £900 for claimants on means-tested benefits, £300 for pensioner households and £150 for those on disability benefits.

For those who require extra support, the Government is providing an additional £1 billion of funding, including Barnett impact, to enable the extension of the Household Support Fund in England in the next financial year. This is on top of what we have already provided since October 2021, bringing total funding to £2.5 billion. In England this will be delivered through an extension to the Household Support Fund backed by £842 million, running from 1 April 2023 to 31 March 2024, which local authorities use to help households with the cost of essentials. It will be for the devolved administrations to decide how to allocate their additional Barnett funding.

The Lord Bishop of Durham asked His Majesty’s Government:

  • how many children are in receipt of Universal Credit but are not eligible for free school meals.
  • what plans they have to review the earnings threshold for those eligible for free school meals given the increased cost of living.

Baroness Barran (Con): Since 2010, the number of children receiving a free meal at school has increased by more than two million. This is thanks to the introduction of universal infant free school meals, alongside protections put in place as benefit recipients move across to Universal Credit. Over a third of pupils in England now receive Free School Meals (FSM) in education, compared with one in six in 2010.

The department believes that the current eligibility threshold level, which enables children in low-income households to benefit from FSM, while remaining affordable and deliverable for schools, is the right one. The department does not have plans to change the current eligibility conditions for FSM, but we will continue to keep eligibility under review to ensure that these meals are supporting those who need them most. The department continues to monitor the consequences of the rising cost of living and is working with other government departments to provide support to disadvantaged families.



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