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There is one characteristic which is shared by some of the most efficient and effective parts of the modern welfare state: auto-enrolment. 

Whether it is for workplace pensions, Cost of Living Payments, or the Warm Home Discount, the proactive use of data to administer schemes which boost people’s living standards has proven to be one of the best tools available to ministers – especially in any attempt to change behaviour as well as to help poorer households with the stubbornly high costs of food and other essentials.

This tool is particularly adept at tackling one of the issues which has long bedevilled parts of the welfare state; namely, low take-up among households who are eligible for support but do not access it due to a lack of awareness, difficulties in navigating the application process, or stigma.  

The opportunity to use this tool to strengthen the nutritional safety net – Healthy Start and free school meals – must now be grasped if Rishi Sunak is to realise his aspiration, which we share, of reducing the numbers of people needing to use food banks before the next general election.

Healthy Start is a brilliant NHS scheme through which families on low incomes, with children under the age of four, receive at least £4.25 each week toward fruit, vegetables, and milk. However, more than 200,000 potential beneficiaries are currently missing out on the scheme, representing 37% of all those who are eligible. That figure rises to 45% in the area represented by Mr Sunak. The best estimates suggest that a similar number of children in England are eligible but not registered for free school meals.

In respect of free school meals, take-up could be maximised by giving all local authorities the tools they need automatically to identify and then register all eligible children in their area for free school meals (with an opt-out function for families who do not wish to be registered). For Healthy Start, it is central government departments that know which children are eligible but not registered to receive their entitlement, and upon whom those tools would need to be bestowed. Taken together, these two measures could boost family budgets to the tune of more than £100 million a year. 

In Bright Blue’s Building Up: The future of social security, the authors propose the creation of a Social Security Digital Platform which, amongst other functions, would enact a policy of auto-enrolment. This would ensure all households in receipt of certain benefits are simultaneously signed up to other forms of support for which they are eligible. Such a move would represent a welcome and lasting piece of welfare reform.  

In the short term, there is a backbench bill being presented to the House of Commons, with cross-party support from 60 MPs, which would secure full take-up of Healthy Start by shifting it from ‘opt in’ to ‘opt out’. Were the government to accept this bill, and initiate a process of auto-enrolment, it would at a stroke begin to move the welfare state onto a more proactive footing and, in doing so, ensure hard-pressed families are able to make healthier choices while stretching their budgets further.

Andrew Forsey is National Director of Feeding Britain. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Sandy Millar]