Free School meals and statutory neglect during COVID-19

Free School meals and statutory neglect during COVID-19

Andy Jolly

Following campaigning from civil society organisations, including NELMA and Hackney Migrant Centre, the UK government has agreed to extend eligibility for Free School Meals to people with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The NRPF rule is a provision in the immigration rules which removes the right of some categories of migrants to access welfare support, including homelessness assistance, council housing and social security benefits such as universal credit and child benefit. There is growing evidence of the impact that this has in increasing poverty, particularly for children, with examples from support organisations of families having to decide between paying rent and paying for school meal bills. During research in Birmingham for my PhD, conducted before the pandemic, more than 9 out of 10 families with NRPF I interviewed were food insecure, meaning they did not have enough resources to maintain a balanced diet for their household.

In this context, the announcement that the government has eased restrictions on accessing free school meals is welcome, and will provide a lifeline for many households with NRPF. However, on closer examination, there are some significant problems with the way the details of the policy. The government guidance published on 20th April places two crucial restrictions on eligibility. First, it only extends free school meals to certain children:

  • Children of Zambrano carers (carers from a non-EEA state whose residence is required in order to enable a child or dependant adult, who is British, to live in the UK, or the rest of the EEA).
  • Children of families with no recourse to public funds with a right to remain in the UK on grounds of private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • Children of families receiving support under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 who are also subject to a no recourse to public funds restriction.

This leaves undocumented migrant children – those without any legal status in the UK –unable to access free school meals unless they are receiving subsistence support from local authorities under the Children Act. There are likely to be substantial numbers of children across the UK in this position. Recent research by ICRD for the Mayor of London found that there are likely to be 220,000 undocumented children in the UK.  In comparison, there are relatively few people supported under the Children Act 1989. There are no official statistics on the number of families with NRPF supported under the Children Act.

However, a survey in 2011 found that there only 6,500 people with NRPF were supported by local authorities in the UK. My own research using freedom of information requests to local authorities found that urban local authorities in England were supporting an average number of 43 families with NRPF. Furthermore, six out of ten families with NRPF who approached local authorities asking for support under the Children Act 1989 were refused support. This leaves a large number of households who are likely to have no means of income, and unlike other migrants with NRPF have no legal right to paid employment, and as a result face destitution and food insecurity.

The second restriction on eligibility for free school meals under the new policy is that even if a family meets one of the criteria above, households would need to be below a maximum household earnings threshold of £7,400 per annum. A notional family of four with an income as low as £6 per person per day would be over the threshold. To put this into perspective, according to analysis by the IFS, last year, the households below average income (HBAI) poverty line for a family of four after housing costs would be £19,084, and even the so-called ‘absolute poverty line’ (based on the HBAI figures for 2010-2011) would be £17,992 per year. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation Minimum Income Standard calculator estimates that family with two primary school-age children would need a combined household income of £23,874 per annum for a reasonable standard of living after housing costs (See table).

Comparison of NRPF free school meal threshold

Measure Amount per annum
NRPF Free school meal threshold £7,400
Absolute poverty line £17,992
HBAI poverty line £19,084
Minimum income standard £23,874

These restrictions in access to meals for children during the pandemic could affect perhaps tens of thousands of households in the UK, and prevent children from being able to access food to prevent malnutrition. However, they are very much consistent with the trend of ‘hostile environment’ policies by successive governments which use destitution, or the threat of destitution, as a tool of immigration policy to try to encourage undocumented migrants to leave the UK. This is underpinned by a system of everyday bordering where members of the public, teachers and social workers are enlisted in enforcing immigration restrictions for children whose immigration status renders them less worthy of support.

I describe this dynamic as statutory neglect, a situation where children have experiences resulting from exclusionary policy or legislation which would be considered as neglectful if caused by a parent or carer. It seems that a policy of refusing school meals to hungry children because of their parents’ immigration status very much fits this definition. The continuing restrictions on the ability of children from the most isolated households to access a daily meal presents a very real danger that, despite the progress on extending the eligibility for free school meals, the government will continue to neglect the needs of migrant children by putting anti-immigration policy ahead of public health.


Andy Jolly is a Research Associate at the Institute for Community Research and Development at the University of Wolverhampton. His research focuses on undocumented migration, child welfare and food insecurity. He is currently working on a research project exploring local authority responses to people with NRPF during the Covid-19 pandemic. His twitter handle is @Andy_Jolly.

Photo by Prudence Earl on Unsplash