An 11-month-old baby and her mother are bringing a case in the high court to try to secure the baby’s right to free vitamins, formula milk and nutritious food.
In the first case of its kind, lawyers for the mother and baby are arguing the baby should not be excluded from the UK government’s Healthy Start scheme, which aims to reduce child poverty and health inequalities. The programme provides vitamins, nutritional advice and weekly vouchers to buy healthy food such as fresh fruit and vegetables or infant formula to low-income families with pregnant women and children up to the age of four. It is intended to benefit those with the “greatest need”.
However, under current Home Office rules, the eligibility criteria excludes some of the UK’s poorest children from migrant backgrounds. As part of the hostile environment, some migrant families, even if they have the right to live and work in the UK and have British children, are unable to claim mainstream benefits, which is the trigger for eligibility for Healthy Start. Changes to the immigration rules and to the eligibility criteria for welfare in 2012 means many parents who are lawfully in the UK cannot claim any benefits.
Studies have shown that children in this group often suffer extreme poverty and deprivation. Thousands of migrant families, often headed by a single mother, are barred from accessing benefits, leaving them in dire “working poverty”.
Many have part-time jobs as carers and other kinds of low-paid work to fit around childcare. As a result of these immigration rules, babies and toddlers from the most financially deprived households are going without the nutritious food and vitamins needed for a healthy start in life.
In December 2020, judicial review proceedings were launched, challenging the eligibility criteria for the scheme on various grounds, including that it is indirectly discriminatory against children and mothers from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, breaches their human rights and is inconsistent with the intended purpose of the scheme to alleviate poverty among the most economically disadvantaged children.
The high court has granted permission for the challenge to proceed to an expedited trial.
The income of the mother of the 11-month-old baby is almost 40% less than that received by families claiming welfare benefits, who are eligible for the Healthy Start scheme. On this very low income, the mother is struggling to afford a healthy and nutritious diet for her baby.
Olivia Halse, associate solicitor at Matthew Gold & Co, who is bringing the legal challenge, said she welcomed the high court giving the case the green light.
She said: “It is an unfortunate fact that children from low-income families and those of BAME backgrounds are more likely to develop poor nutritional outcomes due to the lack of nutrition they receive at a young age. This can impact their health, development and wellbeing throughout childhood and later in life. This scheme was intended to address these issues and help eliminate food poverty and health inequalities. But the eligibility criteria adopted excludes the very poorest children.
“We hope that these legal proceedings will result in a change to the eligibility criteria so that thousands of disadvantaged families, most of whom will be from BAME backgrounds, will be able to benefit from the scheme and these children will have a chance of a healthy start in life.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said they could not comment on ongoing legal proceedings.