Vulnerable South Tyneside families missing out on thousands of pounds of food vouchers during cost of living crisis - MP slams Government over 'botched' scheme
Vulnerable families in South Tyneside are missing out on tens of thousands of pounds to help them stay well fed and healthy due to the ‘botched’ handling of a Government scheme, according to an MP.
The Healthy Start Scheme offers vouchers worth £4.25 per week to pregnant women and children aged on-to-four years, and £8.50 per week to children under one who are in low-income families.
The vouchers can be used to be essential foods for staying health, such as fresh, frozen or tinned fruit and vegetables, pulses and grains, cows milk or infant formula.
But the system is being digitised, and the Government stopped issuing paper vouchers on March 31.
South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck said the vouchers have been ‘a lifeline to so many’ but anyone receiving them was re-register as there is no automatic transfer to the new system.
The MP said there had been an ‘alarmingly low’ take-up, which she put down to poor communication and glitches in the system.
Food charity Sustain has estimated that in 2021 alone, South Tyneside had missed out on £180,777, with a take up of 65.65% – meaning more than 44% of those in need were not getting the help available.
Ms Lewell-Buck said: "In England, Wales and Northern Ireland as a whole, 46% of eligible missed out on an estimated £69million of free fruit, vegetables and milk across the whole year.
“As we enter a cost-of-living crisis, this is simply unacceptable. The scheme needs effective, national promotion in order to achieve its objectives to tackle health inequalities.
“Since the process to digitise the scheme began in October 2021, there have been countless reports of beneficiaries being turned down for cards despite being entitled, cards failing at the tills and calls to the helpline going unanswered.
"To add to the disarray, families without payment plans on their phone are being charged premium rates when trying to call the helpline for assistance.”
The MP called on Health Secretary, Sajid Javid to intervene what she called a ‘fiasco’.
“His department must develop a communications package to help increase the uptake of healthy start vouchers,” she said.
"They need to extend the paper vouchers urgently until they are confident the digital scheme is working as it should.
"They need to investigate why eligible beneficiaries are being rejected and resolve the technical errors as soon as possible.
"They need to publish uptake data for both paper and digital vouchers, as well as data on the number of rejections and a progress report.”
Ms Lewell-Buck added call lines should be moved to free 0800 numbers and the Department for Health ‘must commit to promoting the scheme more widely, so it reaches more families in need’.
“If the Government is serious about tackling food insecurity, then they must take urgent action now,” she said.
Sofia Parente, campaigner at Sustain, added: “Hundreds of thousands of families missed out on free milk, fruit and vegetables last year. Almost £70 million went unclaimed. With food prices spiking, it’s even more important that families know this benefit exists and to come forward to claim it.
"But the Government must prioritise fixing the digital Healthy Start cards.
"There have been multiple problems, with eligible families being rejected, cards not turning up or functioning at tills and calls to the helpline going unanswered. We are in a cost of living crisis and families need this benefit.”
The Department for Health was contacted for comment.