Health chiefs and politicians in Trafford are warning that the government risks a major ‘public health crisis’ unless a scheme to help struggling families is improved.
Trafford Council Leader, Cllr Tom Ross, and Helen Gollins, Trafford Council’s Director of Public Health, and are now calling on the government to update the Healthy Start Scheme as soon as possible.
They have written a letter to the Department of Health and Social Care asking for Healthy Start payments to increase in line with rising food prices and to simplify the application process and make it more inclusive to increase uptake. There have been recent reports of desperate parents watering down condensed milk and stealing baby formula to keep their new-born babies fed properly.
Andrew Western, MP for Stretford and Urmston, is also supporting the campaign.
Under the scheme, pregnant women and parents and carers who have children aged three or under may be eligible to payments of just £4.25 for each week of pregnancy from 10 weeks, then £8.50 a week for babies up to one year old, and £4.25 a week for children up to four years old. Those requiring help applying online can attend any Trafford Library for assistance, and are asked to bring their National Insurance number and proof of benefit with them.
Last year, the government changed how the money was handed out from paper vouchers that could be redeemed at supermarkets to a prepaid card system. However there have been technical difficulties in this process. It is estimated millions of pounds worth of the benefit go unclaimed across the country and this means families who are entitled to help are facing hardship due to complications in the system and delays in being accepted onto the digital scheme.
The value of the benefit has not changed since April 2021, although analysis from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service found the price of infant formula has increased substantially since then, with the cost of the cheapest brands increasing by more than 22%.
In the letter, Cllr Ross and Helen Gollins have backed calls by Sustain and the Food Foundation to address the need for urgent improvements to the scheme.
The letter says: “Many of our families in Trafford rely on Healthy Start to supplement their family income and enable them to buy the basics that they need for their children to thrive. Trafford Council is committed to supporting our children and families to have the best start in life, and this is reflected in our corporate priorities – reducing health inequalities and supporting people out of poverty.
“The increasing cost of living comes on top of a pre-existing poverty crisis in the UK. In Trafford, around 12% of children experience income deprivation, with this rising to 44% in our poorest communities. In Greater Manchester, more than half of households with children surveyed on food security had experienced low or very low food security in the 12 months up to September 2022 – and this increased from 51% in spring 2022.
“The Government’s targeted Healthy Start scheme provides a vital nutritional safety net for families facing food insecurity. Yet major issues persist, including the fast-diminishing value of scheme payments against rising food prices, and continuing digitisation and data access issues, risking a public health crisis. The relative value of the voucher compared to the cost of the food required by families to have a Healthy Start is woefully inadequate. “
They are calling for the Government to:
- Immediately raise Healthy Start allowance in line with inflation and thereafter, commit to review the value every six months
- Provide sub-local authority level data backdated to January 2023
- Refine the digital application process so that it provides feedback for unsuccessful applicants
- Provide clearer and easier to access FAQs covering more topics
- Urgently invest in additional capacity for the Healthy Start helpline and ensure users are well-supported through the application process
- Expand Healthy Start eligibility to all families on Universal Credit and equivalent benefits with children under 5 years old as recommended in the NFS.