The Bill

The Free School Meals (Automatic Registration of Eligible Children) Bill 2015-16 was introduced by Rt Hon Frank Field MP on 15 December 2015 under the Ten Minute Rule.

The Bill is described as:

A Bill to provide local authorities with the duties and powers required to identify and automatically register all children eligible for free school meals; to provide for an opt-out where the family wishes; and for connected purposes.

This Bill is expected to have its second reading debate on Friday 4 March 2016.  

The Bill has not yet been published.  As a result the extent of the Bill is not yet available.  However, education policy is devolved to the four countries of the UK and previous debate has focused on the position in England.

At the Bill’s First Reading on 15 December 2015, Mr Field said that:

The Bill…will compel local authorities to use their housing benefit data to counter hunger by identifying, first of all, the 160,000 children who are eligible for free school dinners but who, for some reason, do not claim.

[HC Deb 15 Dec 2015 c1406]

Mr Field also wrote an article in the Guardian on the issue:

Free school meals

In England, the following eligibility rules apply for free school meals (FSM), as set out on

Your child may be able to get free school meals if you get any of the following:

  • Income Support
  • income-based Jobseekers Allowance
  • income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • the guaranteed element of State Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit (provided you’re not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190)
  • Working Tax Credit run-on – paid for 4 weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit

Children who get any of the above benefits in their own right (ie they get benefits payments directly, instead of through a parent or guardian) can also get free school meals.

Children under the compulsory school age who are in full time education may also be able to get free school meals.

All children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 also receive free school meals.

General information on school meals is available in the Library briefing School meals and nutritional standards, SN04195.

Estimates of how many children are eligible for free school meals are unregistered

There is no ongoing annual official estimate of pupils eligible, but not claiming free school meals. In 2013 The Department for Education published Pupils not claiming free school meals. In it they compared data on benefit receipt and FSM figures and estimated that nationally around 200,000 children aged 4-15 ‘appear to be entitled’ but were not claiming FSM. This implies that around 14% of pupils entitled to FSM were not claiming them. This rate was highest for those at either end of this age range with 21% of 4 year olds and 22% of 15 year olds. It was also higher in less deprived areas; 23% in the South East and Eastern regions and more than 30% in some local authorities. 16 local authorities had ‘apparent’ full registration of FSM pupils. Wirral’s under registration rate was put at 17% or 1,000 pupils although this is only an estimate and subject to a large degree of uncertainty (see Annex).

Online eligibility checking system (ECS)

The online eligibility checking system (ECS) launched by the Coalition Government can be used to assess eligibility for free school meals.  A response to a Parliamentary Question asked in December 2014 sets out that all local authorities in England have now signed up to this scheme:

Philip Davies: To ask the Secretary of State for Education, which local authorities have signed up to the online free school meal eligibility checking service.

David Laws: All 152 English local authorities are signed up to the Eligibility Checking System (ECS).

The ECS can be used to determine entitlement to both free school meals and free early education for two-year-olds, and the pattern of checks and frequency of use is different for each local authority.

[PQ 216678, 1 December 2014]

A further response from October 2015 noted that:

Sam Gyimah: The department’s records indicate that all English local authorities have used the eligibility checking system for free school meals.

[PQ 13032, 30 October 2015]

 The Eligibility Checking Service can be accessed online:

It is necessary to log in to use the service, but eligibility can be checked for FSM using a pupil’s name and postcode.

Some guidance for local authorities on the ECS is also available.

Related posts