MPs to debate free school meal scheme as 100,000 eligible disabled children miss out

4 mins read

Wednesday 10 January 2024

Tens of thousands of eligible disabled children are missing out on their free school meal entitlement due to their disability or sensory needs.

This is despite the law being clear that most should be offered an alternative such as a supermarket voucher.

Children with conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy and autism are subsequently missing out on the equivalent of £570 a year of financial help. This is causing families to get into debt and turn to foodbanks.

MP calls for simple fix to make big difference

Ian Byrne MP for West Derby is leading a Westminster Hall debate today, Wednesday 10 January, about fair access to free school meals for disabled children.

The Merseyside MP has a proud history of campaigning to eradicate food poverty.

He said: “Over 100,000 eligible disabled children are missing out on their free school lunch, which is truly shocking. Access to food is a basic human right. I want to see universal free school meals. But while we wait for that, we must ensure the current system is fair and equal.

“Disabled children and their families are already more likely to be living in poverty due to the difficulties of juggling care and work. Research shows they have also been disproportionately affected by cost-of-living pressures.

“I was determined to lead this debate to highlight the discrimination that is taking place, after meeting an affected constituent. I am calling on the government to update their free school meals guidance. It must be made clear that schools and councils need to provide an alternative, ideally a supermarket voucher, to disabled children who can’t access a free school meal in the regular way. This is a simple fix that could make a big difference.”

Children missing out for various reasons

Research we carried out in March 2023 found different reasons why disabled children can’t eat their free lunch:

  • 60% can’t eat school meals due to their health condition, dietary requirements or sensory processing difficulties.
  • 22% are off school due to a long-term medical condition or illness.
  • 18% are not in school as they have an education package provided by the council or are waiting for a suitable school place.
  • 6% attend a school without a canteen.

Last month, the government conceded that free school meals should be provided to eligible children who are unable to attend school due to their special educational needs and have a package of support often referred to as education otherwise than at school (EOTAS). This was in response to legal action by a group of parents.

As a result, almost 2,000 disabled children across England missing out on a free school meal can now get funding for one from their local council.

Families shouldn’t have to fight for help

Campaigners hope that this decision paves the way to all eligible children getting their free school meal. Today’s Westminster Hall Debate should be another catalyst to achieve that goal.

Natalie Hay founded the inclusive free school meals campaign three years ago. She realised many eligible disabled children were missing out on their free lunch, despite receiving supermarket vouchers in lockdown. She set up an online support group, which has grown to more than 2,700 affected family members.

Natalie said: “I am delighted that after three years campaigning, this issue is getting the attention it deserves. Following my legal action on behalf of families across the UK, a positive and equitable outcome is on the horizon for 2,000 disabled children missing out on their free school meal. Now we want the same outcome for the tens of thousands of others unfairly missing out on this vital support.”

Anna Bird, Chief Executive at Contact, said: “The current free school meals scheme is inaccessible to tens of thousands of eligible disabled children. We are grateful to Ian Byrne MP for championing this issue for affected families up and down the country.

“Almost all affected families say that missing out on school meals increased pressure on their weekly budgets. At a time when grocery bills are sky high, it’s vital that families get all the help they are entitled to without having to fight for it.

“We urge the government to act swiftly and update its free school meals guidance. This should make clear that local authorities and schools are legally entitled to offer reasonable adjustments to children who can’t have their free school meal in the regular way, such as providing supermarket vouchers.”

Want to watch the debate Live?

Tune in and watch the debate live on Parliament TV at 4.30pm.

We want to thank the almost 1,500 campaigners who asked their MP to attend today’s important debate.