Consideration of Lords amendments
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
Let me take the opportunity to thank hon. Members in this House and noble Lords in another place for their contribution to the passage of this groundbreaking Bill. It aims to drive the lasting eradication of child poverty and establishes a framework for accountability by requiring annual reports to be made to Parliament on action taken on the Government’s child poverty strategy.
Members of this House and peers in another place agreed that progress against the 2010 target to halve child poverty should be reported clearly and as part of the Bill. The Government accepted that proposal and Lords amendment 1 therefore requires the Government to make a report to Parliament on the 2010 target. The report must be made as soon as reasonably practicable after the end of the 2010 target year and in any event not later than 30 June 2012.
Lords amendments 2, 3 and 4 add to or clarify the policy areas that must be considered by the Secretary of State when preparing a child poverty strategy. There was wide agreement that the strategy should include a measure on support for parents, to increase their capacity to support their children’s development. That is reflected in Lords amendment 2. Lords amendment 3 recognises the importance of addressing mental health in tackling child poverty. Lords amendment 4 ensures that the Secretary of State, in preparing a UK strategy, will not only focus on those children who are easy to lift above the poverty line, but consider those children whose disadvantage is greatest.
Hon. Members in this House and peers in another place agreed that there should be a direct requirement to consult children when preparing child poverty strategies. Lords amendments 5, 6 and 7 ensure that there is an explicit requirement for the Secretary of State, the devolved Administrations and local authorities to consult children and organisations working with them, as they see fit, when drawing up strategies.
Members of the other place also argued, rightly in my view, that consultation should be extended to parents, whose views should inform the development of the child poverty strategies, so Lords amendments 8, 11 and 12 place a duty on the Secretary of State, the devolved Administrations and local authorities to consult parents directly and to consult the organisations working with or representing them, as they see fit, when preparing their strategies.
In the context of the proposals to introduce these measures relating to child poverty, does the Minister accept that a child can be in poverty not only by reference to the criteria set out in clause 24, but because the degraded circumstances and moral environment of the family in question induce it? The problem is not just socio-economic; it relates to how a child is brought up, how it is treated, as we have found so often in the tragic cases that have led to death in many instances.
The hon. Gentleman is right, of course, that all kinds of disadvantage can affect children. As the Bill makes clear, the child poverty strategy that the Government will draw up needs a broad base. The partnerships of local organisations that address it also need to be broad. In the end, poverty is about income and that is why the targets in this Bill are set and drawn in the way they are. There is a shared determination across the House, which has been reflected in the debates on this measure, to reduce the incidence of child poverty and of low income, which causes it.
I am very interested in what the Minister has just said. Does he not accept that Lords amendments 1 to 4, in particular, take us back to what we argued for in Committee—that is, to an emphasis on the causes of poverty and not just on the financial amounts that are given?
We are all concerned about the causes of poverty. It is certainly true that in some respects—particularly, for example, as regards the amendment on the 2010 target—the Government have accepted what the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends were arguing for, and a report will be produced specifically on that target. However, I certainly would not agree with him that it was simply Conservative Members who were concerned about the causes of poverty. That concern was widely shared.
There were concerns in the other place that the Bill did not give enough recognition to the needs of “family and friends carers” who might look after a child full time but who do not have parental responsibilities. Lords amendment 14 extends the definition of “parent” to cover those who do not have parental responsibility but who are caring for children who live with them. The new definition, in conjunction with the provisions in clause 9, means that the Secretary of State must, when preparing a UK strategy, consider measures aimed at all persons who have parental responsibility for a child or who have a child living with them, including “family and friends carers”.
Lords amendments 9 and 10 remove the definitions of “parent” and “parental responsibility” from clause 17. Lords amendments 14 and 15 move the revised definition of “parent” and the existing definition of “parental responsibility” into part 3, thus ensuring that the widened definition of “parent” applies to the whole Bill and not just to part 1. The requirement for local authorities to consult parents, in Lords amendment 12, will apply the new, wider definition of “parent”.
Finally, Members of another place argued that the independence and effectiveness of the child poverty commission would be strengthened by permitting it, rather than the Secretary of State, to choose a deputy chair from among its members. We were persuaded that Lords amendment 19 would give the commission greater scope to regulate its affairs in the most efficient and effective way.
I hope that I have explained the amendments sufficiently, and I am grateful to those across the House and the other place who have supported the aims of the Bill and worked hard to achieve what is before us. I hope also that the House will be happy to agree to the amendments.
It is a pleasure to be back debating this important Bill, which has, as the Minister rightly says, enjoyed cross-party support. We have had useful debates on it, and I believe that the amendments agreed in the other place make what was a good Bill even better. The Conservatives are certainly pleased to welcome the amendments, and I was pleased by the spirit in which the Minister addressed his remarks.
Let me go through the amendments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) has pointed out, we are particularly pleased that the 2010 target has been inserted in the new first clause of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) proposed the same clause in Committee on 3 November 2009, but it did not find favour at that time, as the two Ministers currently on the Treasury Bench—the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman)—were not happy to support it at that stage. That change matters because, sadly, early progress on reversing child poverty has not been maintained since 2004-05. The report that will be produced on the 2010 target will provide an important opportunity to take stock and see what new approaches could be tried to ensure that progress does not continue to slip back and that further progress can be made on reducing the number of children in poverty.
I am particularly pleased that amendment 2 on promoting parenting skills has been made. Again, I tabled a similar amendment in Committee—amendment 2 to clause 8 —which was aimed at strengthening family relationships in order to reduce family breakdown, as well as having other aims. I hope that due attention will be paid to the provision of parenting skills. The research of academics such as Cowan and Cowan at the university of Berkeley in California, who gave a very informative presentation in the House not long ago, has shown quite conclusively that parenting work is even more effective if it is combined with work to strengthen the relationship between parents, where that relationship still exists. That is a welcome change.
Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to take part in the Committee. May I follow up my earlier intervention by asking my hon. Friend whether some reference to the circumstances in which children find themselves when there is moral deprivation in a household could have been included? Does he regard parenting skills as including trying to teach children the difference between right and wrong? In other words, the fact that they do not have money does not necessarily mean that they do not have happiness.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He touches on an important point regarding the causes of poverty, which are very complex. A central point that my hon. Friends and I have raised throughout the Bill’s progress through both Houses has been about paying due attention to the full range of those causes and particularly to making sure that the cycle of intergenerational poverty does not repeat itself. The elements that my hon. Friend has raised are important, and I am grateful to him for putting them on the record.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his efforts to improve the Bill, which was always a good Bill. Is he satisfied that there is sufficient focus in the amended Bill on giving more power to the wider family in dealing with related issues? When I talk about the wider family, I include grandparents, aunts and uncles.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that useful point. I shall speak shortly about the measures in the Bill on kinship care—the friends and family provisions—which go some way towards addressing the issues he raises. His point is also well made because we need to consider the wider context within which children grow up. Family—both nuclear and extended—is very important within that.
Returning to amendment 2, the inclusion of the amendment and the words “parenting skills” in the Bill goes some way towards providing recognition for what I call the vanished eighth building block from the “Ending child poverty: making it happen” document that the Government’s child poverty unit produced last year. The building block of family was clearly in the document but seemed to escape clause 8. The inclusion of parenting skills in the Bill is important. That is not all that we need to do in this area, but its inclusion is very welcome, none the less.
I am also delighted that mental health has been included, through amendment 3. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) for having played an important and useful role in Committee. He valiantly attempted to get recognition for mental health in the Bill on 3 November 2009 with his amendment 62, which hon. Members can read in column 292 of the Committee’s proceedings. The amendment was defeated by only one vote, so it nearly succeeded, and we had cross-party support on it. I am pleased that mental health is now included, as it is an important issue, which, for many families, must be addressed before they can move themselves out of poverty.
Lords amendment 4, on recognising the vulnerability of specific groups, is particularly important and welcome. We discussed that issue in Committee on 29 October when we debated amendment 2, which can be seen at column 213 of the Committee’s proceedings. I spoke about the issues that affect families with disabilities, who have particular needs, and I mentioned the needs of certain ethnic minority communities, such as the Bangladeshi community in London, in which there are particular problems. The recognition of vulnerable groups is useful. We need to recognise that we cannot have a one-size-fits-all strategy, and that certain groups will need particular focus, attention and outreach work. There are non-governmental organisations and others with particular expertise in this area.
I was at a seminar on child poverty this morning at which I heard about some work done by Save the Children, again with Bangladeshi women in London. The work had been especially useful and real progress had been made, and I commend it to the child poverty unit. It is worth the unit looking into that work further when it considers vulnerable groups, which, as I have said, are an important and useful addition the Bill.
Like my hon. Friend, I welcome Lords amendment 4 and its focus on those most at risk. However, does he share my concern that we do not have any criteria for understanding how to decide who are most at risk? Does he agree that that decision can be made only by looking at the causes of poverty, rather than simply using fractions of income between different groups? The change is welcome, but we need to understand how Ministers will make the decision.
As always, my hon. Friend makes a good and important point. He will know that I have continually raised the issue of how we deal with the causes of poverty, and with the strict income requirements that the Minister quite rightly raised. My hon. Friend is right that progress has been made, and that there has been some recognition at least that vulnerable groups should be included in the Bill, but he is also right to say that the Bill does not specify which groups are vulnerable. Further work will need to be done in that regard, and it will be up to the Secretaryof State and the child poverty commission to start answering the questions that my hon. Friend has quite properly raised.
Lords amendment 5 deals with how we can ensure that parents of children living in poverty, and the children themselves, are consulted as part of the work of the Secretary of State and the CPC. That is a very important amendment, and I was pleased to vote for what was amendment 56 when it was brought before the Committee. I am sorry that it was defeated at that time, but I am very pleased that the Bill has come back to us with this requirement to consult parents and children living in poverty.
What that makes clear is that consultation by expert proxy is not acceptable, in any walk of life. We should welcome consulting directly the people for whom we are trying to provide services and at whom legislation is directed. There is a lot of evidence to show that consulting people who are to be helped by legislation early enough—especially at a commissioning level—brings many advantages. For example, I learned last week that better social care for disabled children can be achieved at a lower cost if the consultation is done properly and carried out early enough, particularly at the commissioning level. There are advantages all round when that approach is taken, so the amendment is a very welcome addition.
The amendments on care provided by family and friends, or kinship care, are tremendously important, and I am very pleased indeed to see them added to the Bill as it comes back from the other place. We debated those issues in Committee, and to their credit Ministers committed to go away and look at this area. I am very pleased that the Government have agreed to the amendments.
These amendments recognise the vital work done by really important groups of people in looking after vulnerable children in poverty. The work often requires significant personal commitment, and it is absolutely right that there is recognition in the Bill of what these people do. That is particularly important, as there is evidence that the results for children who are looked after by carers who are family and friends are often superior to those placed in other categories.
There are questions about local authorities’ policies when it comes to placing children with friends and family carers, given that the evidence seems to suggest that that approach secures better outcomes. It is important that those people are recognised. The role of grandparents was raised earlier, and is particularly important in that regard. As I said, the amendments are very welcome for all those reasons.
Finally, Lords amendment 19 gives the CPC the ability to appoint its own deputy chair. I think that this is a welcome change, as it gives the commission a degree of independence in regulating its affairs. It is therefore a useful addition to the Bill.
Like both speakers so far in this debate, I welcome this group of amendments that their Lordships have put before us today. I am also pleased that the Government have accepted them and are not opposing them.
Many of the points that I want to make have been made already, including the importance of consulting the children directly. I am grateful to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for highlighting my amendment to that effect, which he was kind enough to support. However, I do wonder slightly why what was a bad idea in November is now a good one in March and April. It would be terribly churlish of me to complain when an idea that we supported is accepted by the Government, but it raises an issue in my mind about the point of the Committee stage.
The Minister has accepted that these are fairly good ideas, but it is a little frustrating when ideas that are put forward in a moderate way and with a broad degree of consensus are rejected almost for the sake of it. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that in the next term of government that he serves, and that he will perhaps be a bit more responsive to future amendments.
I welcome the recognition of the role of grandparents and other carers, and Grandparents Plus and other organisations have done a great job in raising our awareness of these issues. I know that they will look forward to ongoing discussion with the Government and local authorities about how the amendments are implemented in future.
I reflected on why the Conservatives were so enthusiastic about the 2010 target and the associated report. I assumed that they hope that some putative future Conservative Administration will be able to use the report as something to beat what they hope will then be the Opposition with. The Conservatives are unlikely to be doing so well on child poverty themselves by that point, so they will at least want to be able to say that the other lot were worse—
The hon. Gentleman says that that is churlish, but it would be nice to think that the 2010 report will not be entirely backward looking. However, I fear that that 2010 target will be missed. Although it would be nice to think that there will be announcements on Wednesday to put us back on track, I fear that there will not be and that it may be too late for that.
The report must not say merely that the target was missed because not enough money was spent, or whatever. It must give us lessons to learn over the following decade, so that we can get back on track. I hope that whoever is in government after the election will not see the report simply as an opportunity to score points about the record of the previous Administration. The interim target looks likely to have been missed, and the next Government must see the report as something from which we can learn, so that future targets are not missed.
I very much welcome the wide range of issues touched on in the amendments, especially the direct consultation with children and not just their representatives, and the involvement of wider care networks. Therefore, I shall encourage my colleagues to support the amendments.
It was a great pleasure to serve on the Bill Committee, and it would be a little churlish to attack the amendments before us today, or to point out the negative elements of some of them. They are very welcome, but I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb), to the effect that it needs the other place to introduce the same amendments that we tabled in Committee to get them through. That goes to the heart of the purpose of the Committee stage in this place.
This is a better Bill as a result of the changes that have been made, and I want to pick up on a couple of points to do with the first four amendments in this group. I am very pleased that the 2010 target has been included in the Bill, and it is worth reflecting on a couple of points that my noble Friend Lord Freud made in the other place. He pointed out that the 2004 turndown was still not fully explicable, and said that there was therefore a need for the report to put the various economic factors involved into context. He was of the opinion that that would inevitably highlight the differences between those that occurred, positively or negatively, simply because of income transfers and those that occurred because issues that were at the root of tackling child poverty had been dealt with. I hope that that report will do justice to distinguishing between them. Without that, it will not be possible to learn the lessons that ought to be learned from the report. It is a shame that the Government continually confused the need for that report with the report set out in clause 8. They are very different, and I am glad that that has been recognised.
In amendment 2, I welcome the addition of improving parenting skills and promoting parental support. However, that leaves the Bill slightly unbalanced. We wanted to include a number of other factors that would indicate the causes of poverty that need to be tackled. I am glad that parental support and skills have been added, but that does not take away from the need to look at other factors. It would have been more useful to adopt the broader approach for which my hon. Friends and I argued in Committee.
Like others, I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) for pursuing the important issue of mental health. In the other place Baroness Butler-Sloss summed it up well by saying:
“The mental health of children, especially children in socio-economically disadvantaged households . . . requires careful attention.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 March 2010; Vol. 718, c. 200.]
There are two disadvantages there, neither of which is necessarily immediately recognisable, and they may take some effort to identify.
Finally, with the focus of amendment 4 on those at most risk, it would be useful to hear from the Minister how those groups that are considered to be most at risk are to be decided. I appreciate that at this stage there may not be detailed plans for taking that forward, but we need an indication of how the most vulnerable are to be assessed.
All in all, I welcome the amendments. There is a sense of déjà vu about many of them, but they are no worse for that, as they came from a good stable, if I may mix my metaphors horribly. I am pleased that the emphasis has been put back on tackling the causes of poverty, rather than looking simply at income.
I shall follow what my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said about causes, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on insisting upon mental health being included in the provisions. Although I support the Bill and its objectives and do not doubt that it was discussed with enormous diligence in Committee, it seems to me as one entering the discussion at this stage that there is a problem in imposing duties to produce consequences that are driven by socio-economic statistical arguments.
For example, the Secretary of State is required to consider the needs of the most vulnerable groups of children when preparing a UK strategy. Under amendment 4, the Secretary of State
“must consider which groups of children in the United Kingdom appear to be disproportionately affected by socio-economic disadvantage”.
I get slightly worried when I hear such language. It attempts to achieve a worthy objective, which we would all strongly support, but it could produce an enormous amount of time-consuming additional form filling, regulations and analysis.
The heart of the child poverty issue is not necessarily, though it could be, a lack of money or any of the criteria set out in the Bill. There is also the problem of children being exposed, for example, to social networking facilities—[Interruption.] I can see some discussion going on, which is a little distracting. It is important to make sure that children are brought up in an environment in which they can tell the difference between right and wrong. That is a spiritual and moral objective, which is not included in the Bill.
I do not disagree with that at all. I am merely saying that in the Bill there seems to be a lack of awareness of the moral dimension, which I believe is necessary. Furthermore, the language of the Bill is largely based on statistics and socio-economic analysis, rather than on the kind of objectives from which we all assume that children and young people in poverty would benefit as a result of being brought up properly. It is quite simple.
With the leave of the House, I welcome the support for the amendments that has been expressed across the House. Let me respond to some of the points that have been raised.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who made a valuable contribution in Committee, asked how we would define the groups referred to in amendment 4. It is envisaged that those groups would be identified through careful analysis of the data on households below average income. On that basis, an assessment would be made about which groups should be examined most closely.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made fair points about what might appear to be a Government concession on the report about the 2010 target. The amendment that we considered in Committee required that a report on the 2010 target be produced within three months of Royal Assent. That would not be possible because the data would not be available till some time after that. The amendment before us is different and it works. Nevertheless, I would not wish—to pick up one of the words frequently used so far in the debate—to be churlish about the change that has been made.
May I say to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) that there is a variety of forms of disadvantage? That is right, and one could talk about many different kinds of disadvantage that children can suffer. The Bill, however, is about child poverty, and poverty is about a lack of money. I remember times when Conservative Members would have been reluctant to talk about poverty in those terms. I welcome the progress that has been made, and the fact that across the House we are able to talk seriously about poverty and recognise that lack of money is a problem. That is what the Bill is about, and it is right that we should legislate for that in this way. I am grateful to all those who spoke.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the move that he made in Committee, which we did, indeed, resist. There was a good debate on the topic in the other place and, for reasons that I entirely support, my noble Friend Lord McKenzie of Luton was persuaded that it would be right to make that factor explicit in the Bill. This was one instance in which the hon. Gentleman did not overstate his case, and I am glad that we have been able to accept it.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendments 2 to 12 agreed to.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 13.
Lords amendments 13 and 16 to 18 would make the legislative changes necessary to implement the announcement that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made in his December pre-Budget report to extend eligibility for free school meals to primary school pupils in England in working families with an income of up to £16,190 from September 2010. The extension will be phased in for up to 50 per cent. of pupils from September, with the remaining 50 per cent. of entitled pupils receiving free school meals in September 2011. Extending free school meal entitlement in that way would assist in the reduction of child poverty by supporting low-income families and improving incentives to work. Once fully implemented, it would benefit about 600,000 children and lift more than 50,000 children out of poverty.
If I could return to that point in a moment, I should be able to give the hon. Gentleman a fuller response.
Hon. Members will have noticed that the proposed new clause is headed “Free school lunches and milk”, and they may like to know that this year is the 39th anniversary of Mrs. Thatcher snatching the milk, so I feel particularly privileged to be here tonight moving an amendment that would put that strategy into reverse.
The hon. Gentleman asked why we are rolling out the process only to 50 per cent. of primary pupils in September. The reason is that some schools may need to increase their kitchen and catering capacity, and it also reflects the funding that is available: £85 million has been made available to support the roll-out from September, and further resources will be available from 2011. I accept that I have not fully responded to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall endeavour to return to that point.
I support the Bill, even though I do not support what the Minister said about Mrs. Thatcher. Does the Minister agree, however, that it is even more important to provide milk and nourishment to children in nursery education? It is probably more important than providing milk to children in primary education, and it would be easy to do. Will she consider that idea at some stage?
The hon. Gentleman is right: the earlier we start on such programmes, the better. That is why, for example, we have introduced the health in pregnancy grant, and why milk vouchers are still available for very low-income families. However, I am anxious not to stray beyond the terms of the amendment. The proposals and the PBR announcement were welcomed in the other place, and I urge the House to agree to these Lords amendments.
We welcome this group of amendments in relation to free school lunches—and milk, as the Minister has quite rightly pointed out.
The Minister might consider my first question rather underhand and technical, but I ask it at the start of my remarks just to give her time to find inspiration for the answer. What is the position for children in middle school years 5 and 6 in relation to the proposed provisions? I am not just being technical or awkward, because the whole of Bedfordshire has the middle school system, so it is a relevant question for the county and the area that I represent, as indeed it is for children in the three-tier system, where it exists, throughout the country. I ask that question at the beginning of my remarks to give the Minister time to find an answer to it.
I am grateful to the Minister for her comments in response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) about funding, but will she confirm that the funding for those free school lunches and milk would come entirely from local government? I spent some time in the Library earlier today trying to get to the bottom of exactly how the proposal would be funded, because in years gone there has been a tendency for central Government to place requests on local authorities, and a cheque has not always been attached to the second page of the letter. I am not saying that that has happened in this case, but I would be grateful if the Minister were to elaborate on that point.
It is worth putting on the record our recognition of the work of Rev. Paul Nicolson, who gave evidence to the Public Bill Committee on diet and nutrition as regards families in poverty. As Ministers will agree, he has been extremely persistent on that issue, and to good effect, too, so I am very pleased to pay tribute to him.
Has any thought been given to a possible perverse incentive of the measure, welcomed and supported as it is by the Opposition? It relates to the withdrawal of passported benefits when the incomes of parents increase. To illustrate my point, I think in particular of the single mother who came to my surgery a month or so ago, telling me that she was in work but on a fairly low income. I think that she earned about £900 a month, a very low income by any standards. When I discussed the ways in which she could try to earn a bit more, she expressed a very clear reluctance to do so, because she was worried about the withdrawal of her passported benefits.
On the basis of my constituent’s own research and experience of being paid a bit more at previous times in her life, she had clearly identified, and frankly felt, that she would be worse off, so she was happier to stay on a lower income and have the free dental care and other passported benefits, of which free school meals would be a part. Although the measure is welcome, it touches on withdrawal rates in respect of such matters, so I should be grateful to know whether Ministers have given any thought to that. I repeat, however, that the Opposition welcome the measure.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most exciting prospects for an incoming Conservative Government is to tackle the position of so many people who are stuck in poverty? They might be at a higher level than they were when this Government came to power, but none the less the poverty traps remain, and we need fundamental reform, looking very much at the way in which benefit and tax work together to disincentivise people who want to get on and improve their lives and that of their families.
As ever, my hon. Friend gets to the heart of the issue, and he makes a very important point. An urgent task for whoever forms the next Government will be to ensure that the benefits system incentivises work smoothly at every level of low income—in a way that it does not at the moment. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue, and he has been absolutely right on so many issues throughout our consideration of the Bill.
Hitherto we have debated the Schleswig-Holstein question, and tonight we have the Bedfordshire question. I hope, in anticipation of a note from the Official Reporters, that they know how to spell the former, because I certainly do not. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) rightly asked how middle school pupils will fare. I assume that the cut-off point will be as per that for primary school pupils, but we will wait to see what the answer is.
The intervention by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) was interesting because, in a sense, this is about a contrast between our saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if this happened?”, and his being about to support, I assume, with the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire, something that makes the problem that he describes worse. That is the paradox, is it not? We all want to do more for low-waged working families, but the distinction that I would make is that between what is known in the jargon as the unemployment trap and the poverty trap. The unemployment trap says, “Is it worth working at all?” and the poverty trap says, “Once you’re working, is it worth working harder?” We are improving the unemployment trap by saying “If you take a low-paid job you keep your free school meals, which you didn’t get previously, so we are helping with that,” but then we say, “Having got into a low-paid job we haven’t incentivised you to do overtime, or to train up, or whatever.” Even under a Conservative Government, those trade-offs would exist.
I well recall the statistics during the 1980s, when there were rather more people who simply did not find it worth their while to work at all. A lot more has been done as regards in-work support. The unemployment trap is a lot less severe than it used to be, but the in-work poverty trap is more severe, because more help is being given to low-paid families. We are at a different point in the trade-off. The support for free school meals is therefore welcome.
I have a question about take-up. The Minister used a figure of £16,100, which I assume is the cut-off point for working tax credit, or whatever, because there is no figure in the amendments, just a concept. Of course, punters will not have the faintest idea that at £16,000 they get this thing and at £17,000 they do not; and the number will presumably change every year if the thresholds are indexed, and so on. People will say, “How do I, as a low-waged family member on working tax credit, get to know about this? If I’ve been in the system for a long time, I’ll probably find out, but if I move from unemployment into low-paid work and come into the working tax credit system, how do I know that my child can get free school meals under the provisions of these amendments?” With a lot of these benefits, the theory is great but the reality is that many people do not claim them. I hope that the Minister can give a flavour of the strategy that will be in place to ensure that these entirely welcome rights are actually taken up by those who will benefit from them.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to respond to the points that have been made.
The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) asked how we were phasing in these measures, and the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) asked about the position of children in middle schools. The answer is the same to both of them. Let me explain how the amendment works. We have to make this change to primary legislation, because although it is currently possible to vary entitlement, it is not possible to do so according to the age of the child, so the amendment enables us to vary it in that way. We will introduce this for children in key stage 1 in September 2010 and for those in key stages 1 and 2 in September 2011. I hope that that satisfies both hon. Gentlemen.
The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire asked whether the money is coming from local authorities. It is new money that was announced by the Chancellor before Christmas, and the funding goes via the schools budget. I agree with what he said about Rev. Paul Nicolson, who has indeed been assiduous. He was assiduous in lobbying me before I was a member of the Government, and he is still assiduous in telling me his views, day by day, instant by instant, on the development of policy as we go forward.
What we are doing significantly improves incentives for parents. It was precisely because of constituency cases that we were experiencing, with parents coming to us and saying that they were not clear about whether they would be better off by moving into work given the loss of passported benefits when they moved from income support or income-related jobseeker’s allowance, that we wanted to extend the entitlement to free school meals to parents on working tax credits. This involves quite a significant sum of money. I do not know about other hon. Members, but I find that I am giving my children £3 a day for school meals. For someone with two children, that amounts to £30 a week. These are quite chunky sums coming out of people’s budgets.
I take the Minister’s point—she is right that these are significant amounts of money. To use the helpful distinction made by the hon. Member for Northavon, my question was not about the employment trap but the poverty trap. Has any research been done about that within the Department or elsewhere?
The calculations that officials have done using the models that we have suggests, as I think that I have said, that this measure will reduce the number of children in child poverty by more than 50,000, so the possibility that the hon. Gentleman raises would not be the case.
The hon. Member for Northavon asked whether we had any measures in the pipeline to encourage take-up, because obviously these things are only worth while if people avail themselves of them. The Department for Children, Schools and Families has been working with other Government Departments to develop a free school meals eligibility checking system known as “the Hub”, which enables local authorities simultaneously to check data from the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to ascertain whether a parent qualifies for free school meals. That system has significantly reduced bureaucracy. It is currently being extended to all parents to allow them to check their own eligibility and to apply online for free school meals. However, I will take away the hon. Gentleman’s point to see whether there is anything further that we can do in that respect.
With those few brief remarks, I ask the House to agree to the amendment.
Lords amendment 13 agreed to.
Lords amendments 14 to 21 agreed to.