Theresa May’s alliance with the DUP is facing fresh criticism after it emerged that the Government is set to protect Northern Ireland from free school meal cuts due to be imposed on poor children in England.
Labour is staging a last-gasp Parliamentary vote next week to block changes to universal credit benefit thresholds that could see up to a million English youngsters denied eligibility for a free hot lunch.
The cuts planned for England stand in sharp contrast to the situation in Northern Ireland, where children of the “working poor” will get stronger protection, HuffPost has learned.
In legislation due before MPs on Tuesday, English families on universal credit will see the income threshold for free school meals slashed to £7,400 a year.
But in Northern Ireland, where the Government has just taken direct control of spending budgets, the same threshold for eligibility will be nearly double that rate, at £14,000.
May already faces claims that she has “bought” the Democratic Unionist Party’s support with a pledge of £1bn in extra funds for Northern Ireland, at a time when the rest of the UK continues to suffer from Tory austerity.
It emerged on Saturday that Cabinet Minister Michael Gove and ex-minister Priti Patel had attended £1,500-a-table dinners and fundraisers for the DUP in recent months.
A tranche of £410m in new funding for Belfast was released by Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley on Thursday, including £80m for “immediate health and education pressures”.
But some in the DUP are uneasy at the plans for free school meals cuts in England, at a time when their own constituents will be better protected.
DUP MP Jim Shannon last week signed a Commons early day motion that urges the Government to “continue to provide free school meals for all universal credit claimants and ensure that no child goes hungry at school through no fault of their own”.
With the Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government suspended, the UK government now directly sets its budget and has decided to maintain the £14,000 threshold for the province secured by the DUP last year.
Although a transitional scheme in parts of England gives all claimants the right to free school meals, ministers believe that the £600m cost of extending it nationwide would be too expensive.
However, Labour hopes to get the DUP and Tory rebels to abstain or vote against a statutory instrument implementing the universal credit changes next Tuesday in the Commons.
Ministers tried to get the legislation through on the nod last week but Labour succeeded in securing a full vote next week.
The Opposition believes that with so many children set to lose out in key marginal areas, Tory MPs will be nervous of being seen to back the plan.
With a wafer-thin majority that depends on the DUP’s 10 MPs, May is again at risk from a Parliamentary ambush as the Opposition deploys an obscure procedural device to ‘pray against’ the legislative order.
The vote will take place after the Chancellor’s Spring Statement on the economy.
On the same day, the party is also aiming to block the Government’s phasing out of employer childcare vouchers and plans to means test parents of two-year-olds receiving free childcare.
But it is the axeing of free school meals for youngsters on universal credit that has sparked the biggest backlash.
The Children’s Society and the Resolution Foundation think tank have warned that because of the way that universal credit is calculated, parents will face a ‘cliff edge’ where they lose out if they earn a penny over the £7,400 threshold in England.
Those with one child will need to earn an extra £1,100 a year to cover the cost of school meals.
The regions worst affected by child poverty stand to lose the most from the proposed eligibility criteria.
In London 212,000 children are projected to miss out on free school meals, in the West Midlands with 130,000 children and the North West 130,000 children.
A new Labour analysis of the impact of the changes also shows the scale of the number of families set to lose out and the potential political fall-out.
Many of the children affected live in key Tory Westminster marginals and Tory councils due for re-election this May.
In Theresa May’s own local borough of Maidenhead, 3,300 children are estimated to be denied a free school meal under the plans.
And in a string of Tory councils being targeted by Labour this May, the number of families set to lose out could swing the results.
Tory council Number of children to lose free school meal eligibility
Milton Keynes 5,400
NE Lincolnshire 2,600
Also at risk are the Tory-held Parliamentary seats of Milton Keynes North & South, Plymouth Sutton, Putney in Wandsworth, Chipping Barnet in Barnet, Calder Valley in Calderdale, Dudley South and Stourbridge, Walsall North and Swindon South.
In Milton Keynes, the number of children set to miss out is larger than the combined majority of the two Conservative MPs, Labour says.
Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner MP told HuffPost: “It’s bad enough that the government are trying to take school meals from struggling families but it’s even worse that they tried to sneak it through without a vote.
“So we’re making sure that elected MPs will get to make the choice, and that their constituents can hold them to account.
“Tory MPs and councillors will pay the price at the ballot box if they vote for take free school meals from children growing up in poverty.
“And they will only make it worse by supporting a threshold twice as generous in Northern Ireland as it is for their own constituencies. I urge the government to take this chance to think again.”
Universal credit is the system being rolled out by the government to replace six benefits including income support, housing benefit and Jobseeker’s Allowance.
At the moment, all children in all households that have been switched to universal credit also qualify for free school meals.
But as many current benefits aren’t eligible for the extra help, the Government worries that once the system is rolled out nationally that would lead to a dramatic expansion in the numbers entitled to the hot lunches.
The Government insists that the £7,400 threshold for England is more generous than the current £6,240 threshold for those not yet on universal credit.
Ministers say that an extra 50,000 families will benefit and stress that the changes will only affect new applicants.
Some Tory MPs, who have been lobbied by campaigners in recent weeks, say that it was never the intention to make the free meal eligibility widespread.
Backbencher Rachel Maclean, whose Redditch seat is a classic Tory-Labour marginal, said in a blogpost: “If all children in families receiving Universal Credit were to become eligible for free school meals, around 50 per cent of all school aged pupils would be eligible.
“Instead, free school meals are rightly targeted at the children who need them most, with around 14 per cent of children eligible for and claiming free school meals last year.”
Yet the Resolution Foundation points out that 1.7 million children were in line for free school meals if the Department for Education had rolled out across England the current universal credit transitional arrangements.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “No child who is currently receiving a free school meal will lose out as a result of this change and it is misleading to suggest otherwise.
“The fact is under our new criteria, we estimate that by 2022 around 50,000 more children will benefit from a free school meal compared to the previous benefits system. It’s right that we make sure this support reaches children from the most disadvantaged families.”
Labour’s 2017 election manifesto pledged to give all primary school children a free school meal, to end the stigma of poorer children being singled out and to make it easer to reach all youngsters.
The DUP and Northern Ireland Office have been contacted for comment.