Government must do more to boost uptake of Healthy Start
Today I’m presenting a bill to Parliament which would ensure that families who are eligible for the Healthy Start scheme are registered to receive it.
Healthy Start provides vouchers to pregnant and new mothers and their young children to enable them to purchase fruit, vegetables, milk and vitamins. Support is available for those on incomes of less than £408 per week from the tenth week of pregnancy, and for their children up to the age of four.
For these young families, the scheme is important in helping them to afford a healthy diet that helps them thrive, all the more so as the cost of living crisis bites deeply into household budgets – food inflation soared to 14.6 per cent in the 12 months to September. Yet take-up of the scheme is low – around 60 per cent across the country. Many families who could be benefiting from the scheme are failing to do so.
My bill would confer powers on government departments and agencies to ensure families eligible for Healthy Start are automatically registered for it
Efforts have been made to increase take-up through publicity campaigns, supported by government and urged by industry bodies such as the Association of Convenience Stores, who say more action is needed. The Greater Manchester Poverty Action Group is piloting an initiative with Kellogg’s to give parents access to a financial inclusion officer in informal settings such as school breakfast clubs – signposting to Healthy Start will be part of the offer. Some retailers, such as Iceland and the Coop, have topped up their customers Healthy Start vouchers. But barriers to take-up continue and appear to have been exacerbated by the recent switch from paper vouchers to the provision of prepaid cards.
Digitalisation ought to have improved the scheme’s efficiency, for families and for retailers. But for some families it has increased cost, or reduced choice and access. There are concerns about the high cost of data usage for those applying online, or of calls to the helpline for those who apply by phone and are not on a payment contract. The prepaid cards can be used in retail outlets displaying the Mastercard sign, but that has meant that some outlets that previously accepted the vouchers no longer do so, including small independent stores selling culturally appropriate foods, market stalls, and sales at the “farm gate”, which can play a vital role in the rural economy.
Sorting out these problems is crucial to ensuring the scheme works as it should to reach all families who are entitled to benefit from it. Feeding Britain have proposed automatically registering those eligible for Healthy Start when they apply for a benefit like universal credit or council tax benefit (with an opt-out option for those who don’t wish to access it). But ministers have so far thrown administrative objections in the path of what would surely be a sensible and straightforward way to achieve a very significant increase in take-up. This computer says no response is very disappointing.
Solutions can be found if there’s a will to do so, and my bill would confer powers on government departments and agencies to work together to ensure families eligible for Healthy Start are automatically registered for it. Retailers are keen to see take-up improve; they know this would help their customers at a time when the cost of the weekly shop is putting households under great pressure.
My bill won’t reach the statute book, sadly, but I’m delighted to have support from dozens of colleagues from across the House for what it proposes. Healthy Start is a good scheme, and everyone wants to see more families benefiting from it. The government must now act to make sure that they do so.
Kate Green, Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston.
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