MP Nadhim Zhawai has sparked anger among constituents following a controversial benefits shakes-up under which many children are set to lose out on free school meals.
The children and families minister revealed details of government plans to introduce a low income threshold for families receiving Universal Credit from April. It means once a working family earns over £7,400 a year their children will no longer be entitled to free school meals – although it will not affect universal free school meals for children in reception through to year 2.
The Stratford MP has been accused of being ‘far removed’ from his constituents and schools in the district after residents took to social media to voice their anger.
One wrote: “Again this is an example of our MP attacking families and those on low incomes. Add to this the proposed cuts to our schools, his complete inaction and comment on the closure of local children’s centres, and it’s a generation of children and families who will suffer.”
And another said: “It disgusts me that our MP chose to make such a decision. The need of a free school meal is likely because a child is already facing adversity. Why on earth should they then be further punished for a situation that is completely beyond their control?”
But Mr Zhawi dismissed criticism as Labour ‘scaremongering’.
He told the Observer: “The proposed changes to the eligibility criteria have been designed to ensure that support is targeted where it is needed most, meaning those on the lowest incomes remain the focus of free school meals.
“Labour is saying that we are taking away free school meals from children. I would like to reassure constituents that this is total fabrication.
“No child will lose their meals during the rollout of Universal Credit as a result of these changes.
“The government’s plans mean an extra 50,000 children will be eligible for a nutritious meal at school by 2022.
“Labour’s claim that the government’s changes could leave over a million children without this is deliberately misleading and is intended to scaremonger.
“Since 2010, the government has extended the availability of free school meals to disadvantaged students in further education and introduced universal infant free school meals.”
But Sam Royston, policy and research director at The Children’s Society, was among those disappointed.
“As the government has been gradually introducing Universal Credit, all families who have moved onto it have been entitled to free school meals for their children.
“This has been good news for families moving onto the much maligned new benefits system. If continued, it would mean almost every schoolchild in poverty would be eligible for free school meals. Although the government said it would look again at their policy for providing free school meals before the full roll out of Universal Credit, we and others had hoped the government would grasp this as an opportunity to help all schoolchildren children in poverty.
“Instead, the government has decided to introduce a means test to restrict the numbers of children on Universal Credit who will be eligible.”