Nearly one in ten children in Greater Manchester have fallen into a nasty trap.
They live in poverty — but they can’t get free school meals, because government criteria are ‘too restrictive’, according to a new report from anti-poverty campaigners. The report, from GM Poverty Action (GMPA) and Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), suggests that 46,000 children out of Greater Manchester’s 585,000 under-15s — eight percent — fall into this category.
Government rules say free school meals can only be given to schoolchildren whose parents receive one or more of a range of benefits, including universal credit — but the family must earn less than £7,400 net annually to qualify. For its part, the Department for Education says this government has extended eligibility for free school meals since 2010.
A statement added: “We understand the pressures many households are under, which is why we have extended eligibility for free school meals to more groups of children than any other government over the past half a century – doubling the number of children receiving free school meals since 2010 from one sixth to one third. We have also put protections in place to ensure that children who are eligible for free school meals retain that entitlement even if their household circumstances change.”
But the issue has prompted an emotional response from Greater Manchester’s political top brass. Arooj Shah, Oldham’s leader, says it’s ‘personal’ to her. “It’s not just about numbers; it’s about human decency,” she added.
“We owe it to our children to provide them with the most fundamental of needs: nourishment. It’s disheartening that we’re even having this conversation in a society as advanced as ours.”
She isn’t alone. Joanna Midgeley, deputy leader in Manchester, says she’s lobbied the government for more help, but those ‘pleas have unfortunately fallen on deaf ears’.
“However we will continue to make the case for vulnerable residents in Manchester, and through programmes such as Making Manchester Fairer, do our part in alleviating the impact of deprivation and poverty,” she continued.
And Andy Burnham, the top dog in Greater Manchester, says ‘no child should be refused a hot, healthy meal, should they need one’. He also supports a review of the policy to introduce ‘targeted’ intervention for those who need it.
Their words come after the Local Democracy Reporting Service contacted all 10 Greater Manchester councils and the Mayor’s office following the release of the report. At the time of writing, eight of the 11 replied.
Oldham had 5,000 children in poverty but unable to claim free school meals, the third-highest in the city-region. Its council leader, Labour’s Arooj Shah, said: “When a child is living in poverty and cannot access free school meals, it’s a glaring sign that our system is failing them. The current criteria simply doesn’t reflect the harsh realities many families endure. It’s not just about numbers; it’s about human decency.
“We owe it to our children to provide them with the most fundamental of needs: nourishment. It’s disheartening that we’re even having this conversation in a society as advanced as ours. Our children, regardless of their backgrounds, deserve equitable opportunities from the outset.
“For me, this is personal. It’s about setting the foundation right – ensuring that no child goes hungry. It’s time for decisive action. I’ll relentlessly pressure the Government in my role as Leader, to acknowledge this pressing issue and work toward a solution. Our children’s well-being cannot wait, and neither should our resolve to address this injustice.”