Low-paid carer launches legal challenge against exclusion from Free School Meals scheme during the coronavirus crisis

Matthew Gold and Company solicitors has launched a legal challenge against the continued exclusion of many children from low-income families, including the children of key workers, from the Free School Meals scheme.

Following a previous threat of judicial review (read here), the Government extended Free School Meal eligibility to certain families with no recourse to public funds, including those who are permitted to work.

However, the Government set an earnings threshold of £7,400 per year (£616 per month) which is in real terms significantly less than the income threshold for other families eligible for this support. This serves to exclude working families who are struggling to survive on a low income and unable to access welfare benefits. This will include the many key workers, such as carers and NHS staff, who earn the minimum wage.

We represent three children, two of whom are British. Their parents have leave to remain subject to an exclusion from claiming welfare benefits (a “No Recourse to Public Funds” condition). Their mother is a care worker for the elderly and as her husband is unable to work due to the lockdown restrictions she is currently the family’s sole bread winner. The NRPF condition means that our clients cannot also claim welfare benefits to supplement their income.

Yet, because their mother’s income is higher than £616 per month, the children are not eligible for Free School Meals. That is in sharp contrast to other families on the same earnings, who are able to claim Universal credit and child benefit to supplement their income.

With the drop in household income and the children at home all day, the family are struggling to afford food and cannot pay their rent.

We have now taken the first steps to initiate legal proceedings by sending a ‘letter before claim’ to the government challenging the income threshold.

The children’s mother says:

“I am a Care Worker earning just above national minimum wage. I therefore do not earn anywhere near enough to provide for my five children and my husband who cannot presently work because of the coronavirus restrictions. We cannot buy enough food or pay the rent. As we have no recourse to public funds we cannot claim benefits to help with living and housing costs. But because I earn more than £7,400 a year, my children are not eligible for help with accessing meals or vouchers. I have to go to work worried about my family’s situation. I know there will be others in our position who are also finding it impossible to meet their children’s needs. I hope the Government increases the earnings threshold to help children from working families with no recourse to public funds”.

Solicitor Rachel Etheridge says:

“The Government’s decision to extend free school meals, albeit temporarily, to children of certain NRPF groups has no doubt benefited thousands of children. However, the decision to set the earnings threshold at £616 per month for these groups will mean that many impoverished children will continue to be excluded from the scheme.

Capping earnings at the equivalent for a family in receipt of means tested benefits disregards the fact that NRPF households will not be able to supplement their income with means tested benefits and will therefore be left surviving on much less than their counterparts who are able to claim benefits.

Of further concern is the fact our clients’ mother, like many others, is a hard working care worker who is currently providing invaluable services to the nation. Yet, she is currently in a position of not being able to adequately feed her family.

We urge the Government to increase the income threshold to a level capable of ensuring that low income working parents with NRPF are given the help they need to feed their children during the pandemic”.

Rachel Etheridge of MG&Co acts for the family.

Read here for the piece in the guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/15/call-for-free-school-meals-during-half-term-summer-england?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other