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Southampton MP Alan Whitehead calls for children in poverty to get free school meals
AN MP has made a plea for all children in poverty to receive a free school meal - after it was revealed that 5,500 poor Southampton youngsters are missing out.
A shocking 3,100 children in Mr Whitehead's constituency must pay for daily school meals, despite living below the breadline - 55% of the youngsters in the area.
A further 2,400 pupils in neighbouring Southampton Itchen - 45% of children in that seat - are not eligible, according to research by The Children's Society.
They miss out because their family income is above the threshold to qualify for a free meal - even though it is below the poverty line.
Meanwhile, campaigners have warned the problem will get worse when the flagship 'Universal Credit' benefits shake-up is brought in, later this year.
Now Mr Whitehead has warned that a free school lunch may be the only hot, nutritious meal that many poorer children are likely to receive.
And he has pointed to evidence that providing a healthy meal helps children to concentrate in school and improves their learning.
Mr Whitehead said: “When the Tories last ran Southampton, they rejected national funding for free school meals for all local pupils.
“The government could now help put that mistake right by extending free school meal coverage to working families below the poverty line.
“It's a cost effective way of providing financial help for working families and reaching our legally binding targets on child poverty.”
However, The Children's Society has warned of the threat that more poor children will miss out on free meals, when the Universal Credit is introduced.
That is because of a proposal end payments of certain benefits - and also the trigger of entitlement for a free school meal - if a household earns more than £7,500.
At present, children are entitled to free meals if their families earn less than about £16,000, unless they receive a working tax credit (WTC) top-up.
The Society said a lone parent with three children earning up to £11,500-a-year would be better off taking a pay cut to below £7,500 - or quitting work altogether - under the plans.
Ministers are believed to have delayed key decisions on implementation of the Universal Credit, because of the controversy.
Matthew Reed , the society's chief executive, said: “Right now, the government is reconsidering which children will be entitled to get free school meals.
“We urge the government to take this opportunity to make sure all children in poverty can get a free school meal.”