£258K of free school meals unclaimed

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AROUND 600 families across Hartlepool are missing out on free school meals worth about £258,000.

Research carried out by council bosses shows that hundreds of town pupils are missing out on a free lunch at school which their parents may not realise they are entitled to.

A campaign has now been launched to ensure children receive their entitlement, while Hartlepool Borough Council could also be boosted financially if the number of youngsters missing out drops.

Schools are handed a grant of £430 for each child that is given a free school meal and the new figures mean the local authority is missing out on up to £258,000.

The campaign is part of the council’s on-going drive to tackle child poverty and Councillor Jonathan Brash, the portfolio holder for performance, said: “As a local authority, we are committed to promoting the take-up of a range of benefits, including free school meals, so that people who need support actually receive it.

“The importance of free school meals to the education sector also cannot be overstated, given the Government’s announcement last year of an additional pupil premium of £430 to a school for every free school meal awarded.

“A new means-tested 16-19 bursary scheme has also been introduced to replace the abolished Education Maintenance Allowance.

“Money will be paid to young people who go on to either college or training after they leave school, but the amount of money given to colleges and training providers to fund the scheme depends on the number of young people entitled to and claiming free school meals.”

The number of missing claimants came to light after the council’s housing and council tax benefits team became responsible for the administration of free school meals earlier this year.

Free school meals can only be awarded if a “formal” application is received from a parent or guardian, though personal information already held within the benefits system that was supplied for a separate purpose cannot be used in any claim. Desperate council bosses are now ringing parents to increase the take-up.

Staff are now trying to contact potential claimants by either phone or letter to inform them they could be missing out.

Coun Brash added: “I do believe that there should be a system of automatic entitlement based on information already held, but until the legal position is clarified our staff will continue to try to contact all potential claimants and invite them to submit a claim.

“This work is being carried out as a matter of urgency and progress will be closely monitored to ensure that wherever possible people entitled to free school meals receive them.”

To try and make the process of applying for free school meals easier, the council has teamed up with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) so when people make new claims for welfare benefits, information required for a free school meals application will be collected by the DWP and passed directly to the council.

Anyone wishing to check whether they may have a free school meals entitlement can contact the council’s benefits team on (01429) 284188.