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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 April, 2003, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
Poor families 'miss out on free food'
Children eating school meals
By Sarah Toyne
BBC News Online personal finance reporter

Milk
Mothers are waiting for milk tokens

Some of the UK's poorest families may be missing out on free school meals and milk tokens for young children, campaigners have said.

The problems are related to delays with the new tax credit system which has left some of the UK's most needy in financial difficulties.

Under additional eligibility rules, introduced on 6 April, children of families with gross incomes of less than 13,230, who are receiving the Child Tax Credit - not Working Tax Credit - can now receive free school lunches and children aged under five can get milk tokens.

Children of families who continue to receive income support, income based jobseekers' allowance and those who qualify under the asylum rules will still be entitled to free school lunches, the government has said.

According to the Treasury 75,000 extra children will benefit from free school meals, under the Child Tax Credit, which will be worth about 500 a year for a family with two children.

Families that have not yet received their awards notices will not be entitled to claim, as the new entitlement is based on the calculation.

A small notice at the foot of a tax credit notice informing people they may be eligible is not good enough
Martin Barnes, Child Poverty Action Group

Meanwhile, the government has admitted milk token payments are being delayed because of system problems.

Martin Barnes, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, said: "We are talking about some of the poorest families in the country, where a couple of days delay can cause worry and hardship.

"The key thing is the government has got to look at some form of compensation scheme. They are not just missing out on the cash, but other benefits as well."

Free school meals

Even if parents have received awards notices, child poverty campaigners say they may not realise they are eligible for further help because the information is given at the back of the awards' leaflet.

They should definitely relax the rules
Steve Webb, Liberal Democrats

Martin Barnes accused the government of poorly promoting the change - and said the information would not encourage people to claim.

He told BBC News Online: "Much can be done to make claiming easier and CPAG believe that a small notice at the foot of a tax credit notice informing people they may be eligible is not good enough."

Campaigners say parents need to be aware of the entitlement to free school lunches because they cannot backdate a claim.

"Governing bodies with a duty to provide a free school lunch, have legislative backing to resist requests for monetary compensation for the loss of free lunches where no application has been made," the government has said.

Steve Webb, Liberal Democrat Work and Pensions spokesman, called on the government to backdate payments.

"For low income families the cost of school meals is a significant burden.

"Therefore any delay where they can't recoup the cost will cause serious short-term problems for families and may result in them scrimping on meals They should definitely relax the rules."

Hit and miss

How parents will find out about their entitlement to free lunches will also depend on the individual policies of local authorities.

At authorities contacted by BBC News Online, policies differed widely.

Cambridge Education Associates, which run the London Borough of Islington schools said it was writing to each parent in the borough to inform them of the new criteria.

But other councils said they would leave it up to schools or were relying on the Inland Revenue to tell parents.

Other councils had not updated their information on free school meals on their websites, which meant people may not be aware they were eligible.

Stephanie Spiers of the Milk for Schools charity told BBC News Online: "We would like to know how local authorities are being monitored over the introduction of free school meals.

"It also appears there are some differences in interpretation of the new legislation, and about when it comes in."

Others have wider concerns.

Free school meals are a standard poverty indicator - used by the inspectorate, Ofsted, to judge how well one school is doing compared with others "in similar circumstances".

So the more parents are claiming free meals, the better a school appears to be doing in its annual "performance and assessment" report.

Free milk

Anyone who receives Child Tax Credit will also qualify for milk tokens if they are not working more than 16 hours a week, and have a child under 5 and a family income below 13,230.

Unlike school meals, they will not need to claim as eligibility will be assessed by the Inland Revenue as part of the tax credit award process.

But system problems mean parents face delays.

The Department of Health has promised to backdate payments, and those eligible will receive a cheque as a cash payment for any backdated entitlement.




SEE ALSO:
Child tax credit worries continue
26 Apr 03  |  Business
Tax blunder apology from minister
28 Apr 03  |  Business
Minister admits tax credit problems
26 Apr 03  |  Business
Tax credit delay infuriates parent
15 Apr 03  |  Business


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