The Executive Bill will amend section 53 of the Education (Scotland) Act to ensure that the children of families moving on to child tax credit will continue to be entitled to free school meals.
The new tax credit system will be mandatory from the tax year 2004-05. However, during the current transitional year, claimants may opt to move to the new system or remain with the existing benefit arrangements.
Following on from the publication of 'Hungry for Success', the report of the expert panel on school meals, the Scottish executive is investing £63.5m over three years to support the panel's wide ranging recommendations.
These include the introduction of new nutrient standards for school meals and larger portions of nutritious food at no extra cost to parents.
The executive has also pledged to raise awareness of entitlement to free school meals through an information leaflet for all parents which should be available in the autumn and has launched a scheme to provide free fruit to pupils in P1 and P2.
This fast track legislation seeks to amend section 53 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, under which entitlement to free school meals currently extends to pupils whose parents (or pupils themselves) receive income support, income based job seeker's allowance or support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.
The amendment will ensure that, in prescribed circumstances, claimants making the switch from income support or income based job seekers allowance to child tax credits will not lose entitlement to free school meals.
Ministers will have the authority, through subordinate legislation, to prescribe the benef its, allowances and tax which convey entitlement to free school meals. This approach will give the necessary flexibility to keep pace with changes to the tax and benefits system.
The Tax Credits Act 2002 creates, among other things, a new tax credit (child tax credit) which will replace the child-related elements of income support and income related jobseeker's allowance.
Parents could claim child tax credit with effect from 6 April 2003. Tax year 2003-2004 is a transitional year. From tax year 2004-05, the child-related element of the two benefits will be removed and parents will be obliged to claim child tax credit if they wish to continue to receive income based financial support for their children.
Income support and income based jobseeker's allowance will remain as social security benefits but will be adult-related only. It is estimated that entitlement to free school meals for around 6,500 children will be affected by the change.
An estimated 7,000 additional children will be entitled to free school meals under the new tax credit system. The cost of this in the current financial year will depend on whether their families decide to claim tax credit in 2003-04 and therefore become entitled to free school meals for their children. On the basis that all who have a new entitlement decide to take this up, the cost to the executive would be in the order of £3m.