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Continued challenges in the uptake of Healthy Start Payments

22nd May 2024

New analysis published today by Sustain (an alliance of organisations and communities working together for a better system of food, farming and fishing) estimates the value of unclaimed Healthy Start payments to be an estimated £57,914,354 a year across England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Sustain is calling on the Government to move to an auto-enrolment system to ensure that all eligible families benefit.

The data has been gathered from uptake rates of the Healthy Start scheme across England, Northern Ireland and Wales. It shows a worrying picture that, despite the digitisation of the Healthy Start Scheme which saw uptake rates increase from 50%, the number of individuals across the country remains persistently low at 62.4% for April 2024. The current system for enrolment relies on eligible families to opt-in once they are made aware of the scheme. However, due to lack of awareness of eligibility, more than 220,000 infants, young children and pregnant people in England, Northern Ireland and Wales are missing out on this much-needed scheme.

As part of their campaign, Sustain has published a map which shows the uptake rates and shortfall by local authority, and serves to highlight the postcode lottery of uptake to the Healthy Start Scheme. Birmingham shows the largest shortfall of £1,634,488.44, while the London Borough of Newham has an uptake rate of 50% resulting in a loss of £636,898.60 to families. The London region is the worst hit, with nearly £10 million missed out by families, followed by the North West region, where over £7.8 million is going unclaimed.

Interestingly a similar scheme run separately in Scotland, under the name Best Start Foods, has a 92% uptake rate – so there may be lessons to learn from the Scottish approach.

Together with the Food Foundation and other organisations advocating improvements to the Healthy Start Scheme, Sustain is calling on Government policy-makers to:

  • move toward auto-enrolment onto the scheme
  • increase the value of Healthy Start payments in line with inflation
  • expand eligibility to all families on Universal Credit, to mirror the Best Start Foods Scheme
  • expand eligibility to all families with young children with No Recourse to Public Funds who are on very low incomes.

This topic is being debated in Westminster this afternoon, focusing on the above call.

What is the Healthy Start Scheme?

The Healthy Start Scheme provides a vital nutritional safety net to eligible pregnant people and parents of young children on low incomes. These payments can buy fruit, vegetables, pulses, milk, first infant formula and vitamins. Infants under the age of one are entitled to a weekly payment of £8.50, while pregnant people and children under four are entitled to £4.25. It also provides vitamins for children under 4-years-old and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. This is available in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to those on Universal Credit and are more than 10 weeks pregnant or have at least one child under 4 years old and the family’s monthly ‘take-home pay’ from employment is £408.

For those living in Scotland, there is a similar scheme call Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods. This scheme is similar to Healthy Start, however, payments are higher at £5.30 per week for pregnant people and children aged 1 to 3 years old, and £10.60 per week for babies under 1 year old.

Health visiting services are ideally placed to promote the Healthy Start Scheme with families and to help reduce this shortfall, especially during the current cost-of-living crisis. There are many families who may not previously have been eligible but, due to change in circumstance, are now. It is important that we check eligibility with every family and support them through the new application process, and also ensure that those who were on the old scheme have re-registered for the new scheme as they will not have been automatically transferred.

Vicky Gilroy, iHV Head of Innovation and Research, said:

“The iHV welcomes the continued spotlight on this important scheme and the call to ensure that all families in need have access to and receive this vital support – to give babies and children the resources they need to eat well and grow up healthy. Health visitors are ideally placed through their universal reach to promote and support families to access the scheme and the support they are entitled to. However, the system needs to be made simpler to access and more widely available to meet the needs of families.”

Vera Zakharov, Sustainable Food Places Local Action Coordinator at Sustain, said:

“The Healthy Start Scheme is not meeting its full potential with over a third of eligible individuals from low income households missing out. Auto-enrolment to the scheme is the best and fairest way to ensure every eligible baby, young child and pregnant person benefits. Furthermore, Healthy Start must follow Scotland’s Best Start Foods scheme and increase the value of payments in line with inflation, as well as removing the unacceptably low income thresholds that unfairly disqualify many families facing sharp food insecurity.”

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