The value of Healthy Start vouchers are once again being debated in parliament this afternoon – this time being brought up by a local Manchester MP after a report by Sky News revealed that desperate parents are stealing formula from shops or watering it down / mixing it with other milks.
I felt I had to write something to give voice to the parents Visit from the Stork has been working with and to join the increasingly desperate plea of both local and national charities to the government and NHSBA services to increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers in line with inflation and widen the eligibility criteria in order to safeguard families and the wellbeing of children.
The Healthy Start scheme is meant to provide parents with the support they need to start making healthier choices for their children – ‘a nutritional safety net’ as the Food Foundation writes – and an extra helping hand with buying the essentials. In 2021, the government increased the value of Healthy Start payments to £4.25 a week in pregnancy, £8.50 per week for children under 1, and £4.25 per week for babies 1 year and older. They also announced the change from paper vouchers to an online digital system which gave payment cards to households with the intention of making the scheme much more accessible.
Since then, things have gotten worse. Amidst the cost of living crisis and 27% of households with children under 4 in England now living in poverty (Jan 2023), there has now only been a nationwide 64% average uptake of the scheme, leaving thousands of families without the extra ££ in their pockets. This means the Government has not reached their own target of 75% uptake by March 2023. Last year those who did try to switch from the paper system to the online one were plagued with technical difficulties, despite knowing they were eligible. In addition, the average cost of baby formula was £12.11 in March 2023 – 12% higher than in 2022 (ONS) and up to 23% higher than at the start of 2020 (Infant Nutrition Trust).
In Greater Manchester, we have been delivering baby essentials to parents in crisis since the beginning of the pandemic – including baby formula – and have seen the shocking price rises for ourselves as we buy it full price from the shops using our funding and in line with UNICEF recommendations. In 2020, an £8.50 voucher would have been enough to buy a tin of formula or a weeks worth of fruit and vegetables – now it is just not enough.
Recently, we undertook some work for 10GM and the Healthy Start ‘Taskforce’ to learn more about what barriers are facing parents in Greater Manchester when they try to apply for the Healthy Start scheme.
We worked with The Bread and Butter Thing to engage with families using their weekly food pantries in Levenshulme, Swinton and Eccles. Over 245 families were given leaflets explaining about the Healthy Start scheme and were asked to pass it on to anyone they knew who may be eligible. We also phoned our Stork Support clients who had received baby essentials from us and invited them to our pop up sessions.
Our team went out to the three chosen pantries and spoke to the families waiting to collect their food. We found that many were not eligible for the scheme due to their income, despite claiming UC and struggling – as you have to be earning less than £408 a month. We also found that language barriers meant that parents were just not aware of the vouchers, were afraid to apply or simply didn’t have the internet or the understanding of the information they were required to give.
We also managed to support three families 1:1 during our pop up sessions but had two frustrating unsuccessful applications, as the full eligibility criteria is not made clear.
For anyone supporting someone with an application here’s some of what we found;
- If it is someone’s first claim and they have more than one eligible child but have not registered their baby with universal credit or the register office, then it is worth making a claim for the oldest children only and then contacting the helpline to add the baby on once a change of circumstances has been completed.
- When a claim is unsuccessful, it does not give a reason why – which would be extremely off putting to families doing the application on their own. It is worth ringing the helpline to see potential reasons for rejection.
- The family details have to be inputted EXACTLY as they are on the benefits journal including spaces or capital letters.
- The next step of activating the card requires someone to understand english enough to call an automated number and then type in numbers / letters from their letter attached to the card.
Our initial work may have been small but it was an important learning experience for our team who see parents in our group sessions, at our Emmanuel Hub and 1:1 who could be eligible for Healthy Start and are not yet receiving it. We are going to continue to be part of visible efforts to increase the uptake of Healthy Start in GM and provide the 1:1 support to families where needed.
Our recommendations –
- We fully support the debate in parliament today and join the national calls to increase the Healthy Start voucher value in line with inflation
- We also want the NHSBA to increase the eligibility of Healthy Start to all means tested benefit claimants and to increase the age eligibility up to 5 years as recommended by the National Food Strategy.
- We also urge the government to make all families with NRPF eligible for Healthy Start
- Call for regulation of the Infant formula industry, with a price cap and more retailers providing own-brand formula (as legally all stage 1 milks have to be the same)
If you’re a parent struggling to manage even with Healthy Start vouchers get in touch with your local MP to add to the debate and make sure this topic doesn’t leave parliament.