HC 576 Progress towards the implementation of Universal Credit

Written evidence submitted by LACA Ltd

Background of LACA

LACA was formed in 1990. It is the professional body representing 750 catering managers who provide services to all sectors of local authorities across Scotland, Wales and England. These services include meals in the community (‘Meals on Wheels’); social services catering; elected member and staff catering; civic catering and school meals. Without doubt the largest provision of meals and services by the members is school lunches. In the region of 3 million meals are served on a daily basis in more than 23,000 state schools. The annual turnover is in excess of £360 million. Approximately 100,000 staff are employed in the industry. LACA has been represented and worked closely with Government Departments in England in particular the Department for Education, the Department of Health, and the School Food Trust for some considerable time and The Welsh Government. In addition LACA has worked on a number of projects with the Foods Standards Agency and The Department of Work and Pensions on Extending Working Lives.

The particular interest and important issue for the members of LACA is the present Passported Benefit of Free School Meals and its future with the introduction of Universal Credit. LACA responded to the Social Security Advisory Committee consultation document on passported benefits. The consultation on the proposals for free school meal benefits has not yet been published. This makes it difficult for LACA to respond fully to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee Inquiry into the progress towards implementation of Universal Credit.

LACA’s response and evidence on the specific areas that the committee is particularly interested in is as follows:-

The proposed arrangements for claims and payments and the provision of support and advice for claimants, including the presumption of a predominantly online, self-service claims process; monthly payment to one person in the household; and arrangements for providing telephone and face-to-face support and independent advice for claimants who need it.

The presumption of a predominately on line, self-service claims process and monthly payment to one person in the household causes concern to the members of LACA on two levels.

· The entitlement and receipt of free meals is based at present on unemployed and low-income families. Many of these families do not have a computer or access to the internet. They cannot afford nor have the necessary knowledge to use this medium and may deter those entitled to apply for this essential benefit

· At present most benefits are paid weekly or two weekly. To change to monthly payments could lead to grave financial and budgetary difficulties to these families. Clarification on whether monthly payments means 13 four weekly or twelve calendar month payments? It is hoped that budgeting support will be provided and made easily accessible to support this transition.

· The administration of the entitlement to free school meals is carried out by the local authority responsible for Education. At present it is for many authorities, still a paper based claim. The decision whether a child meets the criteria to receive free school meals is made by the Local Authority. The decisions and any outcomes when challenged are safeguarded and mechanisms are in place that ensures open and transparent results, which may be lost if this becomes a fully automated system. The assumption that all systems are electronic and can be incorporated into this new delivery method is not the case.

· There will be families who will be in receipt of benefits through Universal Credit but do not qualify for free school meals. These benefits will be paid monthly into a single bank account. The majority of school meals are paid for on a weekly basis. As already mentioned some families will find managing their budgets difficult. The failure of the retention of the money to buy school meals will lead to many of these children missing out on a nutritionally balanced meal. This in turn will reduce the number of pupils taking the meals which not only impacts on the health and well being, attainment and development but will impact on the cost of providing meals if economies of scale are reduced or lost. The benefits of school meals be they free or paid are:-

· For a huge number of children, the school meal is their only cooked nutritional meal each day, as noted in the recent report by The Children Society http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/tcs/fair_and_square_campaign_report.pdf. This provides in excess of one third of their daily nutritional requirements and at least one portion of vegetables. It is widely recognised that many children do not receive enough vitamins and minerals in their diet; particular concern is with teenage girl’s consumption of iron which is too low, causing anaemia. The school menu is nutritionally planned to ensure the provision of these vital nutrients. In many schools a breakfast service is also provided. In very deprived areas some children are entitled to a free breakfast as well as lunch. It is therefore essential these children are given the post possible nutritional support through the free school meals service.

· There are many pieces of research, case studies and statistical information available regarding the importance of school meals in the development of children, including those by the School Food Trust on School Lunch leaning and behaviour – Secondary and Primary and The link between child nutrition and health.

· Good eating habits and diet formed in childhood will lead to a healthier population for the future and lead to longer life and less pressures on the National Health Service.

The impact of the changes on local authorities, including budgets, staff and support for claimants

The impact of the changes on local authorities, including budgets, staff and support for claimants are considerable. For four years from 2013 to 2017 it will be necessary to administer a two tier system side by side. At present within the 150 local authorities, each one has its own system; it could be argued that everyone does it differently. Recent budgetary cut backs resulting in lower staff levels may result in difficulties in delivering two systems simultaneously which could result in claims being delayed and parents and pupils not benefitting at the time of need. Additional resource may be required to cope with a two tier administration resulting in higher costs to run the service which may impact on the level of funding for meals.

Within the process there is an electronic checking system (ECS) that is used by most authorities but it is not compulsory. This system will need re programming for Universal Credit and to work alongside the existing system whilst in operation at an additional cost to government. With the fragmented school system is the question of who is going to deal with the allocation of free school meals in Academies and Free Schools?

At present Academies and Free Schools do not have access to the present procedures other than through a local authority

The level of the earnings disregards.

Eligibility for and operation of passported benefits.

The level of earnings disregards and therefore eligibility for and operation of passported benefits is of great importance. The level of earnings disregards needs to be set as high as possible. There is a very high number of children whose parents are working but on very low incomes who could lose their entitlement to free school meals. This vulnerable group of present recipients of free school meals are very poor and as recorded in this response the school meal provides them with good nutrition. By setting the threshold as high as affordable, the fewest number of families will b e affected by this.

It is to be hoped that the earnings disregard is not set so low that it may be more financially beneficial for employees to stop working as they would be better off on Universal Credit.

Conclusion

LACA hopes that this response clarifies some of the issues we see regarding the passported benefit of free school meals.

We are very concerned about how the introduction of Universal Credit will affect the future of the vital provision of free school meals, which in many instances is the only nutritionally balanced meal that these children receive.

If you need any further information or clarification please get in touch. We would be pleased to attend the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee and give evidence on this matter if required.

17 August 2012

Prepared 7th September 2012