NELMA’s local victory in Hackney: A great start, but not enough

NELMA’s campaign calling on the government to provide free schools for all children who need them launched on 29 September 2018. Speaking in solidarity with the campaign, several local leaders have since publicly committed to help change the discriminatory rules that deny many children who are living in poverty a decent meal in school. This is happening because they have no access to benefits due to their parents’ immigration status.

At the moment you need to be in receipt of certain benefits to qualify for free school meals. However, there are families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) who are excluded from accessing almost all benefits, regardless of their need. Families where the parents have visas, families where the parents are currently undocumented, and families with British children can all be subject to the NRPF condition.

When NELMA met our local MP Diane Abbott (who has spoken about hunger in schools before) at a Hackney meeting called by the Hackney Labour Ethnic Minority Forum, she denounced the current system and said she’d join us as “part of a process where we can hopefully change the law and develop a system that reflects the best of the British people.” At the same meeting, Hackney mayor Philip Glanville claimed he was disgusted ”to find out that this was happening in Hackney”, and he committed to meeting the “need” of children locally by  “writing to schools, or funding those school meals” while pushing for national change.

Tangible change

NELMA have tried to hold Glanville to his word, and the result of further discussion is that Hackney Council have recently pledged to begin factoring school meal costs into their financial assessments for families with NRPF who are receiving Section 17 support — the only emergency support available to those who cannot access mainstream benefits –from Hackney. Where children receiving Section 17 support in Year 3 and above are not currently receiving free school meals, the council have now raised subsistence support to pay for school meals at a rate of £2.50 per child per day in primary schools and £3 in secondary schools. The changes apply to anyone under 18 resident in Hackney, no matter what borough their school is in.

This is a good start, but it’s an incomplete victory. One mother we spoke to has past school meal debts of £1000. The Hackney changes won’t automatically clear her debts, or the debts of other Hackney families who have accrued arrears over years of exclusion from free school meals policy. Furthermore, the changes only benefit Hackney-resident children whose families have been able to secure Section 17 support from social services. They won’t improve the situation of the many thousands of other children, including those without documents, whose families are less likely to approach social services and do not receive Section 17 support. Like Southwark Council’s provision of free school meals to children regardless of immigration status on the condition that they are in a Southwark primary school, Hackney’s new policy provides cautious council support for just some of the children who need free school meals. It fails to address the needs of all children living and studying in the borough who are experiencing extreme poverty. We will not be celebrating until free school meals are provided to all children who need them regardless of immigration status. Until then, children living in poverty will continue to survive on a pack of crisps or one jam sandwich a day while their classmates’ parents can apply for free school meals. Until then, unacceptable food provision in English schools will continue to stand in the way of children’s health and opportunities.


Reluctant councils

We are not surprised that councils are being so cautious. 2018 was also the year the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston, visited the UK. Alston’s statement indicted the UK government; their regime of austerity, he wrote, inflicts ‘misery’ on children so violently and so needlessly that it should be considered not economic policy but a ‘punitive’ method of ‘social re-engineering.’ He stated that 14 million people in the country live in poverty, with four million ‘more than 50% below the poverty line’, 1.5 million in destitution, and particularly ‘difficult’ circumstances for ‘those who have no recourse to public funds as a result of their immigration status.’ The UN’s research demonstrated that child poverty in the UK is only getting worse, with a 7% ‘rise in child poverty’ predicted between 2015 and 2022. Alston reported seeing children ‘showing up at school with empty stomachs’ and meeting teachers personally giving students food to take home. Throughout, Alston reminds us of the context of these figures: devastating cuts. There was a 49% real-terms reduction in government funding to local services between 2010 and 2018. The brutal cycle sees needs raising higher and higher (with child poverty levels already at an estimated 40%) while councils are more underfunded than ever.


The fight continues

The government gets away with stretching local councils to the point where children go hungry and support from social services is denied to huge numbers of people who need it. We want to push all local leaders to respect the health needs of children and support NELMA’s campaign. Last year’s dialogue with Hackney Council demonstrates that individual councils can be held to account over free school meal provision, and that they do have a say over how their budgets can be used. The small victory shows that reforms can be made to local policy while we push for national change. We look forward to putting more public pressure on councils and on central government.


How you can help:

  • If you live in Hackney, remind your mayor Philip Glanville of his pledge and demand that Hackney council widen their provision of free school meals to incorporate all children who need them. See our factsheet for suggested reading on the issue.
  • If you don’t live in Hackney, get in touch with your local MP, councillor/s, and schools. Ask them how they will improve their free school meals provision. Demand that your council set public intentions to fund free school meals for all children who need them, regardless of immigration status. Template letters for MPs, councillor/s, and schools are here.
  • Join our campaign. Lobby central government by writing one of 10,000 postcards we have printed.
  • If you are involved with an organisation interested in changing this policy, we have an infopack you can download for your organisation.
  • We have developed a toolkit for schools geared towards those working or learning in schools who would like to find out more and discuss these issues in school. Download it here and use it in the classroom!
  • Arm yourself with facts. Push back against government denial of their policy’s impact by speaking out about how free school meal provision works in practice.