Permanently extending free school meals to families with No Recourse to Public Funds is a welcome lifeline
3 min read
Yesterday the Department for Education announced that free school meals will, from 19 April, be permanently extended to all families affected by No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). This is very welcome news.
The change announced by the department yesterday makes permanent a temporary policy measure introduced by the government in 2020, in response to the pandemic. This extended access to free school meals to four groups of children in families affected by NRPF on a temporary basis.
I know from speaking to my own constituents that this was a lifeline for many over the last two years. Low-income families with NRPF cannot access benefits like Universal Credit because of their immigration status, meaning that they often struggle to make ends meet. Giving children in these families access to one hot, freshly cooked meal per day made good policy sense – but it also left many children out.
The DfE needs to clarify urgently whether children from families with insecure immigration status will now be eligible
Yesterday’s announcement is a big step forward for several reasons. It makes what was a temporary measure permanent, providing certainty to families who are facing significant pressures on their budgets as the cost-of-living spirals. It also expands provision beyond the four groups to which the original change applied. Although this needs to be urgently clarified by the DfE, it appears that this change will also apply to children from families whose immigration status is insecure. As this includes some of the most excluded and disadvantaged children in our society, this could make an important difference to their lives.
There is important work left to do in terms of communicating this change, so that families living in poverty – and schools – can benefit. The DfE needs to clarify urgently whether children from families with insecure immigration status will now be eligible.
Frontline organisations, like Praxis, who work every day with families affected by NRPF, have witnessed a number of barriers that have prevented children from accessing free school meals even after the temporary measure was introduced in 2020. These include lack of access to information, and fear of data sharing with the Home Office. The latter will need some careful thinking about if families with insecure immigration status are to really benefit from this change.
The Work and Pensions Select Committee, which I chair, recommended in June 2020 that the NRPF condition should be suspended altogether while the pandemic lasted. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
The Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the position of children in families with NRPF, and has heard harrowing evidence from families affected. We plan to publish our recommendations soon after Easter. But, in the meantime, after the Chancellor’s Spring Statement contained no help at all for families dependent on benefit support, yesterday’s announcement is a welcome step.
Stephen Timms is the Labour MP for East Ham and chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee.
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