Welfare Foods and Healthy Start
Citizens Advice evidence on the provision of milk tokens
Good nutrition during pregnancy and in the early years is vital to the health and development of a baby. Milk provides an essential part of both an expectant mother's and a young child's diet. Many families on low incomes rely on milk tokens supplied to provide the means for ensuring their children have an adequate diet. On average, over 700,000 milk tokens are issued to families across the UK every month, and roughly one in five children under the age of five depend on them.
The Welfare Foods Scheme, provided through the Department of Health (DH), aimed to help pregnant women and children under five in low-income families to eat healthily. It provided tokens with which to buy milk, infant formula, and vitamins. From November 2006, Healthy Start replaced the Welfare Foods Scheme. Healthy Start has been piloted in Devon and Cornwall from November 2005.
Under the Welfare Foods Scheme, pregnant women and parents were supposed to receive tokens for either seven pints of milk or 900 grams of infant formula each week. Under the Healthy Start scheme they should receive a voucher worth £2.80 per week which can be spent on milk, infant formula and fruit and vegetables. For each child under one they should receive an exta voucher.
However, since changes to the administration of milk tokens in 2003, CAB evidence shows that many recipients have experienced significant difficulties accessing this vital support. Citizens Advice fears that these problems will continue with the roll out of Healthy Start, since there are no current plans to change either the system or the administration.
Citizens Advice Bureaux have reported clients experiencing delays in receipt of tokens of four week to 16 months.
Whilst milk tokens are issued automatically to all those who are eligible and receiving tax credits, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) currently only sends tax credit claimant information to DH on a four-weekly basis. The DH then informs the Token Distribution Unit which distributes the voucher. A considerable delay is therefore built into the process, before parents receive any tokens.
Thousands of tax credit claimants receive manual payments. CAB evidence strongly suggest that this can increase delays still further up to 16 months, as their eligibility for milk tokens is not included in the information passed to DH.
In 2003 the responsibility for the administration of milk tokens passed from the local benefits agency to HMRC. Since this shift, many claimants have reported that trying to make contact with someone regarding their milk token award is nothing short of a nightmare. CAB evidence shows that staff at Jobcentre Plus, HMRC (tax credits helpline) and Milk Tokens Distribution Unit (DH) fail to understand which department is responsible for which parts of the claim process. Claimants are passed between the different departments with no one taking responsibility for their claim or query.
Although thousands of pregnant women are receiving milk tokens, the DH does not currently collect data on the number of pregnant women who may be eligible for free milk under the Welfare Foods Scheme, so the level of take up is not known. However, our evidence suggests that many pregnant women are not informed of their entitlement to milk tokens. Subsequently they either struggle financially or the baby simply doesn't get nutrition vital for its health.
Under Healthy Start, a claimant will receive a voucher worth £2.80 rather than a token worth seven pints of milk or 900g of infant formula. The CAB service is concerned that the shift to providing a monetary value voucher risks leaving vulnerable parents unable to buy the same items provided under the old token system. The price of items will vary, both from one area and shop to another, and over time.