Access to free school meals needs simplified

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Poor children miss out on free school meals in South Ayrshire because the DWP won’t let the council access benefit data. 

The Government department holds details of parents on benefits whose children would be entitled to dinners and South Ayrshire officials want to get the information so they can automatically enrol pupils for free school meals.

It is understood the DWP won’t allow the necessary council staff to see it because of data protection rules, a meeting heard. 

The council relies on parents to fill in forms every year, the council’s leadership panel heard last week. But a number of struggling families are unable to do so. As a result the number of registrations for free school meals is going down.

SNP Councillor William Grant raised the issue at the leadership panel. 

Depute chief executive Douglas Hutchison said the council could use the information to automatically sign kids up for free school meals to avoid forms, which would increase the number of meals handed out.

He added: “In the absence of an agreement with DWP we need to do everything we can to help schools support families to enrol for free school meals.”

Depute leader Councillor Brian McGinley said more support is needed because of high levels of deprivation, and council leader Douglas Campbell asked whether staff could fill in the forms.

The DWP are reviewing the matter with the Scottish Parliament’s social security committee as people currently have to provide proof they claim benefits when applying for free school meals.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “Tackling poverty will always be a priority for the UK government. We recognise that some families need more support and continue to work closely with our partners to look at what more can be done to help the most vulnerable and improve their life chances.

“DWP is happy to discuss the local authority’s concerns and provide any further support.”

Speaking at a meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s social security committee last year, Rob Gowans of Citizens Advice Scotland indicated that improvements could be made to the system, particularly in relation to information sharing and automating the application process. With a number of local authorites moving to a digital-by-default system the potential was there to automatically award benefits, by-passing a separate application process.