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By Stephen Powis
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Gavin Williamson urged to extend free school meals to protect thousands of migrant children from hunger

The Education Secretary has been urged to extend support to migrant children

3 min read

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has been urged to extend free school meals to protect thousands of migrant children at risk of hunger.

A group of 60 organisations and charities have called on the government to permanently extend the scheme to families given No Recourse To Public Funds (NRPF) status.

Such people are unable to access most state benefits, including Universal Credit, employment support allowance, housing benefit, and help with council tax payments.

It comes after new research from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford found an estimated 175,643 children were living in families impacted by NRPF in 2019.

Earlier this year, the Goverment temporarily extended free school meals to some migrant families in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

But the group, which includes The Children's Society, UNISON and Action for Children, have written to the Education Secretary warning there are growing fears the extra support could be withdrawn when pupils return to school in September.

"With its initial decision to extend free school meals, the Government made a positive step in recognising that the exclusion of families with NRPF from the welfare system means that they are especially vulnerable to crises and at a greatly increased risk of extreme poverty," they wrote.

"This is nothing new; the COVID-19 pandemic simply exposed the precariousness of daily life for thousands of NRPF families, where the absence of a safety net leaves them only one crisis away from catastrophe."

They added: "We ask that you urgently provide clarity to these families ahead of the return to school in September by confirming that they will continue to be eligible for free school meals – fully and permanently.

"Furthermore, the Government must review free school meals eligibility to include other categories of NRPF families, including undocumented children, who are especially vulnerable to destitution and exploitation."

The warning comes ahead of an impending legal challenge against the government over the eligibility criteria of free school meals, claiming the scheme is "discriminatory and a breach of children's human rights".

Sam Royston, Director of Policy and Research for The Children's Society, said it was "unacceptable" that families impacted by the pandemic could lose access to the programme.

"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."

He added: "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."

The Department of Education has been approached for comment.

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