I beg to move,
That this House has considered future eligibility for free school meals and the pupil premium.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. With the support of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George), I called this debate because of our serious concerns about the Department for Education’s consultation, “Eligibility for free school meals and the early years pupil premium under Universal Credit”. Those concerns arose following my oral question on universal credit and free school meals to the new Secretary of State last week, when, unfortunately, he completely missed my point.
The Government are disregarding the concerns of many in this House and outside it that their actions will push more children into poverty. Labour Members know that poverty is not an inevitability, but a symptom of failure to harness political will, think innovatively and take bold steps forward. This whole issue encapsulates that neatly. In my contribution, I will focus on the concerns flagged up by the consultation’s proposals and discuss what should be done to mitigate those concerns and why.
In my letter to the consultation, I said that I am a huge supporter of rolling out hot and healthy universal free school meals for all children—I always have been. That will be no surprise to hon. Members, who know that I have banged on about my support for wider access and the provision of free school meals for more than a decade now, and I will continue to do so until all children receive a hot and healthy meal in the dinner hall.
In the current transition to universal credit, all families claiming the new benefit are entitled to free school meals, which is great, but the Department’s consultation aims to roll forward that reform by rolling back one of its most progressive measures. By removing the universal entitlement to free school meals under universal credit and introducing a £7,400 threshold for eligibility for free school meals, the Government are forcibly creating a cliff edge that will be detrimental to families, especially children. That seems utterly ludicrous.
As the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), wrote when the White Paper on universal credit was published in 2010:
“At its heart, Universal Credit is very simple and will ensure that work always pays and is seen to pay. Universal Credit will mean that people will be consistently…better off for each hour they work and every pound they earn.”
The Opposition do not disagree at all with the principles that he set out, but sadly, the reality has failed to live up to the promise made eight years ago. We all know lots of the reasons behind that, which ultimately led to him resigning, but that is a whole other story.
The proposals set out in the consultation are diametrically opposed to that 2010 vision and what it was meant to achieve, especially around making work pay. To give one example of how the proposal will be detrimental: someone with three children in their family who earns just below the £7,400 threshold is set to lose out on £1,200 in free school meals if they work only a few hours more or get a pay rise. The family’s annual wages would have to increase from £7,400 to almost £11,000 to make up for what they lost by rising above the eligibility cliff edge—a problem that would not occur under the working tax credit system because the legacy benefits system provides an offsetting income boost at the point that free school meals are withdrawn. Under universal credit, however, there is no equivalent mitigation.
Another example, provided to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak and me by the fabulous Dr Sam Royston of the Children’s Society, is that a single parent with no housing costs and one child would be £26 better off per week under the old working tax credit system than under universal credit. The Minister may think £26 per week a meagre amount, but for many outside this place it can determine whether or not they can eat or heat their home. The child of the single parent in Dr Royston’s example is not entitled to free school meals either under working tax credits or under the proposed universal credit rules, so it may seem that they will be no worse off, but the only way they can be so entitled is if the transitional plans are made permanent, so that all children in a family that claims universal credit receive free school meals.
My hon. Friend will be aware—as I am, since I represent a rural area—that one of the problems with free school meals is how many parents will not claim them because of stigma. Does she agree that changing to universal credit will only make that worse?
Yes. One of my reasons for supporting universal free school meals is that the stigma would be removed. It was proved in the excellent school food plan commissioned under the former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), that that was one of the benefits of universal free school meals. The poorest kids, who are entitled to them anyway, are the ones who benefit the most.
As a teenager, I was entitled to free school meals, but because of the stigma I did not take them. I used to refuse to queue up for my token, so I went without, which resulted in my developing a very controlling relationship with food and a lot of problems at home. I totally support my hon. Friend’s proposal, because free school meals for all children will mean that they all get a healthy meal and the stigma will disappear.
I completely agree about the stigma; I raised the same point with the Minister the other day in the Chamber. However, does the hon. Lady agree that there is another way? Instead of enfranchising everybody, we could have an auto-enrolment scheme that was linked to the benefits system, rather than a system of people self-declaring as eligible.
I agree about auto-enrolment: parents should not have to apply. However, the point that I am trying to make is that any family eligible for universal credit should automatically get free school meals through auto-enrolment. If the cliff edge is brought in, it would be detrimental to that vision that we probably all share.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the more we spend on the administration costs of the proposed system, the less money will go towards the pupils? Having an easier system would mean we could spend more of the money on what it should be spent on: the meals that we want children to have.
I absolutely agree. Administering the cliff edge will mean huge costs. We should learn from the current system for free school meals for infants.
I am aware that many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, so I had better get back to setting out my concerns. What we want to prevent is families avoiding pay rises or working more hours for fear that they will lose out. That is not making work pay, and it is not what the system was intended to do when it was set up. If the Minister and his Department, alongside the Department for Work and Pensions, were truly in favour of making work pay, they would at the very least have made provision to avoid that issue—even keeping the status quo would work. They have known about the problem for seven years; I have banged on about it for years, and so have my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak, since before she was an MP, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and other hon. Members. Sadly, it seems that the Government are keen to power on without even considering the impact of their policies on a child’s life. It would be welcome if the Minister set out how he believes the threshold and its implications are consistent with the Government’s aim to make work pay.
Another concern about the consultation is the figure of 50,000 more children who we keep hearing will benefit from free school meals by 2022. On the surface, it is welcome that the Government have estimated that more children will be receiving free school meals under their plans, but it is deeply concerning that analysis by the Children’s Society has found that more than 1 million children living in poverty would miss out on a free school meal because of the cliff edge. In the consultation document, the Government say that 50,000 children will benefit by the end of the roll-out, when the transitional protections are at their capacity. Herein lies the crux of the problem: the document also states that 10% of children—113,000—will lose out on free school meal entitlement. That is because children will fall off once the transitional protections come to an end, as they move from primary school, where they will have the protection when it comes in, to secondary school, where their entitlement will end.
I would therefore welcome clarity from the Minister about how he will protect children who risk losing their free school meals when they move from one stage of their education to the next. If he cannot give us answers in this debate—that would be a shame, but I am aware that time will be an issue—I would be more than happy to take him up on his offer to meet me if he is still happy to do so. I am very grateful that he made that commitment.
I want to offer the Minister a solution, which I have already touched on. It makes total sense for the current transitional system to be made permanent so that all the children in a family on universal credit receive free school meals. That would not generate any extra bureaucracy, it would be fairer and it would help make work pay. It would be exactly what the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green intended when he envisaged and enacted the policy. It would negate any of the concerns that I have mentioned and that other hon. Members may mention. It would push the cliff edge to a much higher earnings threshold and overcome the fear of deductions from earnings, which turn the Government’s proposals against making work pay. We do not want people to refuse pay rises or extra work for fear that they will lose three lots of free school meals.
That is not the only reason to maintain the status quo. Free school meals also have significant benefits for a child’s life. I will never miss an opportunity to sing the praises of the universal principle of free school meals. As several hon. Members have already mentioned, they reduce stigma. In its response to the consultation, School Food Matters quoted the comments of a headteacher about how universal infant free school meals had reduced stigma:
“Despite being in an affluent London borough, 27% of the children at our school are currently entitled to free school meals but nearer 40% have been entitled to free school meals within the past 6 years.”
That is what matters for the pupil premium. The headteacher went on to say:
“This is a clear indicator that many of the families are only just about managing.”
This shows that if the Minister goes ahead with the current proposals, we could see more and more of the “just about managing”—the JAMs, who the Prime Minister referred to in her first speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street—being left behind. Would that not go against what this Government are all about?
The Minister knows that I have a keen interest in supporting children from low-income families by giving them healthy meals, both in term time and in the holidays. We had the excellent private Member’s Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and I know that the Minister is considering pilots with regard to it, which is very welcome. By implementing my proposal, the Government would ensure that those children have access to a healthy meal that would benefit their education, their health and their wellbeing.
The evidence is out there and I am sure that the Minister has a copy of the school food plan lying around in his office; if he has not, I have a spare one, or I am sure that I get John Vincent or Henry Dimbleby, its writers, to send him one. I advise him strongly to go away and read it, as it is excellent from cover to cover, especially chapter 11, which is about the benefits of free school meals. In said chapter, there are references to the evaluations of the free school meal pilots established by the last Labour Government under Ed Balls, which showed that there was a 23% increase in vegetable consumption, a 16% decline in the consumption of soft drinks—because there were no packed lunches—and an 18% decline in the consumption of crisps. Those pilots also benefited a child’s education, with children in receipt of a free school meal in the pilot areas on average two months ahead of their peers outside the pilot areas and 2% more children reaching their target levels in maths and English at key stage 1, while at key stage 2 the impact was between 3% and 5%. If we want to close the attainment gap, there is nothing better than to start by making sure that the kids are all fed.
The hon. Lady says “there is nothing better”, but potentially there is: breakfast. All the studies show that disadvantaged children perform a lot better once they have had a breakfast, and in fact children in middle-class families and higher-earning families, where the parents are busy and going off to work, often suffer as well, because they are not getting that important breakfast, which is, after all, the most important meal of the day.
Absolutely—the hon. Lady will not be surprised to learn that I totally agree with what she just said. However, I do not see it as an either/or situation, as I want both those things; I want children to be getting their breakfasts and then getting their lunches. When there were the pilots for universal free school meals, lots of schools could manage to provide both, because even when there was an offer of universal free breakfasts, not all of the children had them; only about 18% to 20% of the children took up that offer. It is very affordable to provide such breakfasts and usually it is the children who really need them who take them, whether they are from busy working families or from poor families. It is a very good policy.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with me that instead of cutting back breakfast clubs we should be developing them. However, there is also the issue of “holiday hunger” throughout the summer period, the Christmas period, Easter and everything else, and we really should look to develop policies in that regard rather than cutting back.
Yes. My hon. Friend might not have realised what I was referring to before; it was to the private Member’s Bill promoted by our right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead on holiday meal provision, which the Minister has committed to running some pilots on. Hopefully, they will prove that point.
On the benefits of universal free school meals, I will just add that when they were piloted, the most marked academic improvements were among children from less affluent backgrounds. That is a very important point to make.
I think the Minister is a common-sense kind of guy; I have found that in my dealings with him in all-party groups that we have worked in together over the years. So I am sure that, on hearing the figures that I have cited, he will agree that the reason for all of this work is that children are more attentive and ready to learn, because they have a healthy meal in their tummies that is fuelling their learning.
I am just about to finish.
The proposals in the consultation would jeopardise all of that, because those children would have to go back to bringing in packed lunches and only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional requirements that our fabulous school food does now. It has been improved beyond recognition.
I will give way to the hon. Lady very quickly.
I know that the hon. Lady is just coming to the end of her remarks, but I just wanted to pick her up on one thing. She is making compelling arguments for the benefits of free school meals and breakfasts. I think that many of us would support her in wanting to make sure that children are well fed at school. However, she has not touched on the costs of doing those things, the trade-offs, and the choices that might have to be made to ensure that a generous supply of free school meals is available.
The hon. Lady might not be aware, because I do not think that she was a Member at the time, but after the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath commissioned the school food plan, he agreed with all 17 of its recommendations. He put money to 16 of them straight away and the 17th one was for universal free school meals; he accepted the arguments for that recommendation and said he would provide money for it when it could be found. Money was found for universal infant free school meals, under the coalition agreement with Nick Clegg, and those meals were introduced.
The point has already been made; it has been proved. The money can be found, because universal free school meals more than pay for themselves, and the benefits that we get from them outweigh the initial costs, including the amount saved on administration because they are universal. There are a whole host of arguments around this issue, but in a sense I am detracting from what this debate is about, so I will conclude.
I hope that the Minister has been listening intently; in fact, I am sure he has, because he has looking at me and I have seen he is. I hope he will do the same with other speakers. The new system was presented as a way to eradicate poverty, but instead the introduction of the measure that we have been discussing could cement poverty in our society, and at worst there could even be a rise in poverty among “working poor” families. If that happens, we would go through all these changes for naught, and children would be just as badly off in the future—maybe even worse off—and that would be at the behest of the Government. I am sure that is not what they want, so I hope that the Minister will look at this issue seriously and perhaps think again, for the sake of the children out there who we are all here to support.
I have to call the first of the Front-Bench speakers no later than 5.36 pm. Eight Members are seeking to catch my eye, one of whom had not informed the Speaker’s Office beforehand that they wished to speak in this debate. If we are going to get everyone in, I am afraid that there will have to be a short limit on speeches of two minutes and thirty seconds.
Let me begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing this debate and for eloquently and forcefully putting across the reasons for it and the flaws in how things are processed.
I want to discuss this issue in context of my region. The Greater Manchester area has the highest rate of child poverty in the country. I have three concerns about the Government’s proposed changes to the eligibility criteria for free school meals. First, and from a regional perspective, the areas worst affected by child poverty stand to lose the most from the proposed changes. Places with among the highest rates of child poverty, such as my constituency of Manchester, Gorton, will have a high number of children who are no longer eligible for free school meals. The effects of this will need to be picked up by already-stretched local councils and charities.
Secondly, the Government are turning their back on the 10% of pupils from poor households who would not be eligible for free school meals under the proposed changes. In the city of Manchester, there are 5,000 children eligible for free school meals under universal credit who would not be eligible under the proposed criteria. Thirdly, the Government are undermining their own principle that universal credit should make work pay. In some cases, taking on additional work would mean families ending up on a lower overall income, instead of people being rewarded for working harder.
Changes to universal credit are already projected to push a million more children into poverty by 2022. We must not additionally take away the right for children in poverty to access free school meals.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate. She is a very strong advocate for helping children in our schools, and although I do not agree with everything she said, I support the direction she is moving in.
One thing that we can agree on is that the legacy system is not fit for purpose. It has many peculiarities, one of the most perverse of which is that the children of those on working tax credits do not receive free school meals. That means that somebody working 16 hours a week on the national minimum wage might have a take-home pay of £120, but they might live next door to a family in which somebody is working 15 hours a week on £25 an hour and taking home £375 a week, and yet their family still gets universal credit. The system absolutely must be reformed to make it fairer.
Under the circumstances, finding a threshold is probably the most cost-effective way, although it brings problems, as the hon. Lady has highlighted. There has to be a cut-off, and it is much better done in terms of income rather than hours, but that creates a cliff edge. This is a policy area where unless one goes to the extreme recommendation of giving all children free school meals, it is like being on the Old Man of Hoy—there is a cliff edge in every direction. There is a cliff edge at the end of universal credit or when someone moves on to working tax credits or at £7,400. The line must be drawn somewhere, and it is best drawn where more children will be on free school meals after the reform than there were before. In the long term, there may be a technological solution, whereby every child has a charge card. That would get over the problem of stigma, as everyone would pay in the same way. No one would know how much money the state was putting in, and it could be tapered. We could create a genuine universal credit.
Finally, I very much respect the hon. Lady’s position, and I look forward to hearing from the Labour Front Bench whether the Opposition support it. If so, where will they find the £600 million that the Resolution Foundation has said the meals will cost, or the £6.2 billion that would be required to give everyone the pupil premium, because it is a passporting benefit? Given the fiscal responsibility rule, that would have to come from additional taxation. The millions watching on parliamentlive.tv deserve to know where that taxation will come from.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who has done great work on child poverty and school meals. I am proud to be standing here on the anniversary of women’s suffrage. This debate is on exactly the sort of issue that women were given the vote for and to stand in Parliament to speak on. The issue hits children most of all, but women primarily and in particular single parents.
I was shocked to read the consultation document, having worked on universal credit for many years. One of the best things about universal credit was the fact that all children on universal credit were entitled to a free school meal. I applaud the fact that the coalition Government legislated for that. It would be a backwards step to look to take that away and introduce a cliff edge at just £7,400 a year of earnings, which is equivalent to just 18 hours a week on the minimum wage. Under universal credit, someone loses 63% of everything they earn. If someone on a low wage is only getting 37% of what they earn back into their pocket and is losing free school meals for their children—those are worth on average £429 for one child and £858 for two children—that is a huge disincentive to work.
I urge the Minister to look into the work of the Children’s Society. It has calculated that a single parent with two children would need to earn £11,000—that is, £4,000 more—to overcome that cliff edge under universal credit. That is no incentive to work, and a million children in poverty will not gain the free school meals that they need. A family in poverty cannot afford to feed their children to the best nutritional standards, as they would want to do. A free school breakfast would help.
I agree with the hon. Lady about those in poverty, but those moving from working tax benefits on to universal credit could be earning up to £40,000 as a household, if not more. Is it appropriate that we give those households free school meals, or is that a misuse of resource?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I greatly appreciate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). The frustration with this issue is that the whole concept behind universal credit is about making work pay. It was defenestrated in 2015 by George Osborne removing the £3 billion and doing it per annum from the work allowance, so it does not make work pay an awful lot. There are lots of clunky bits within universal credit, which I have talked about ad nauseam and which just seem to get worse and worse, which is rather frustrating. Then there are free school meals, which are a tremendous success, yet the Government may well be laying a statutory instrument that will fundamentally not make work pay.
The estimated cost that parents will be paying for a child is £400 if their income is beyond the income floor of £7,400. Imagine I have an income of just over £7,500 and three children. That makes £1,200 before I even get out of bed. Does that make work pay? No, it does not. The rational decision by the parent or parents will be: “What’s the point? There’s no point me doing that extra bit of work and going over £7,500.” That is totally counterproductive.
Unusually for me, I ask the Minister on behalf of the Government to go swinging back to the Treasury and to say to his esteemed colleague, “Government, do nothing.” I know that there are various erroneous, scurrilous rumours going around Parliament and Westminster these days that the Government are not doing an awful lot, but in this case I urge the Minister to do nothing at all. He should not introduce the statutory instrument. The Government should let all children who will be going on to universal credit receive free school meals. I know that would cost £500 million to £600 million, but under the old system things remained the same, because when people went beyond 16 hours the working tax credit made up the difference. I urge the Minister to go back to the Treasury and say, “Do nothing. Let all children on universal credit receive free school meals.”
I, too, want to refer to the work incentive, because improving it was supposed to be the fundamental advantage of universal credit. That was set out fully and ably by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) from 2010 onwards. For example, the document “21st Century Welfare”, which was published in July 2010, states in chapter 2 that
“someone at the National Minimum Wage would be less than £7 per week better off if they worked 16 extra hours…A system that produces this result cannot be right.”
We all agreed with the right hon. Gentleman about that, yet the universal credit system, which is supposed to remove all these problems, will introduce a benefit trap far worse than anything in the legacy system. There is nothing in the legacy system under which someone earning a few hours of extra work will end up hundreds of pounds worse off because they have lost their free school meals.
I do not think I can, given the time limit, but I want to comment on the point that the hon. Gentleman made in his speech. He suggested that the answer could be an electronic card system and the contribution to school meals could be tapered away with the universal credit taper. I made that proposal in the Welfare Reform Bill Committee on 13 June 2011, when I moved new clause 3. I was making exactly the point that a fixed-income threshold for entitlement to free school meals is disastrous for work incentives. There is some merit in his suggestion that that would be a long-term solution, but I suggested it seven years ago, which I am afraid is a reflection of the failure of Ministers. Seven years on, they have not come up with a solution to this very serious problem.
The difficulty is that universal credit was never seen as a whole-of-Government initiative. When the Government that many now on the Opposition Benches supported introduced tax credits, it was a whole-of-Government initiative. Gordon Brown made sure of that. Under this Government, universal credit is a matter for the DWP, so the Minister present no doubt feels that it is not for him to worry about work incentives in the social security system. However, he should be worried about this issue, and I hope he will change his policy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate.
This Government have presided over a total failure to address this country’s economic flaws, to the extent that food banks are now a major food supplier in Britain. Free school meal eligibility is linked to the pupil premium, which is a valuable source of school funding for the most deprived schoolchildren, so it would be a casualty of the proposal. The free school meal consultation, which would see the earnings threshold for free school meals eligibility lowered to £7,400 per year, is a result of a flaw in the design of universal credit. The legacy benefit system contained an in-built trigger for free school meal eligibility. All children whose families are on universal credit receive free school meals, so the Government are trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Has the Minister not considered that such a low threshold for free school meal eligibility is, in fact, a disincentive for parents to seek additional work? With school meals costing £437 per year, per child, undertaking an extra two hours of low-income work is not financially prudent for any parent. I urge the Minister to consider the human consequences of Government plans, in terms of physical and mental health and quality of life. Will he commit to maintaining free school meals eligibility for all children whose families are on universal credit?
Universal credit was a noble ambition, and Labour did not question the principle of it, but it has been executed so poorly that it has impoverished many people in the communities where it has been rolled out, to the extent that the use of food banks has risen by 30% six months on. It is a sad indictment of the Government that food poverty is having such a profound impact on children. In 2017, some food banks reported that more than 40% of their beneficiaries were children.
I point the Minister to the 2015 autumn statement, which committed the Government to maintaining pupil premium spending at current rates until 2020. Will he guarantee that spend, should this policy be implemented?
I, too, am proud of the work done by my north-east colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). This policy means that the Government expect families that are already struggling to find around £10 per week for each of their children to enjoy a school meal, or resort to cheap sandwiches and other rubbish to ensure that they are fed. I ask the Minister: which element of the universal credit payment will cover that cost, which runs to £800 for a family with two school-age children for a school year? No wonder we cannot find a charity that supports the policy. I ask the Minister whether the Government really think that successive Governments enhanced free school meal provision just for the fun of it. Do the Government truly believe that there was not strong evidence to back such a policy? Do they not understand that these changes will mean hungry children on their watch?
I am not one to be kindly towards the Government, who are responsible for the escalating number of children in poverty in the UK, but today I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, as with many other policies related to children, the Government have just not understood the consequences of their proposals. They need to act now, before we have a hunger crisis in our schools. I know that the Minister will say that no child currently on free school meals will be taken off them, but it is about the future and the next group of children, whose parents are public sector workers—cleaners, car park attendants, shop workers and so on. All of them have seen little growth in their income for nearly 10 years. Does he not agree that it would be bizarre to have two children in the same class, one who is getting fed, and one who is not, despite their families having the same income?
This morning, I met with the British Association of Social Workers. Its new research shows that poverty can result in parents being judged unable to care for their children and seen to be neglecting them. That in turn can lead to more children ending up in care, and possibly even adopted, because there was insufficient food on the table. How, in the 21st century, can it be right that a child is removed from their family just because they are poor? That policy, or more accurately that cut, is both shameful and destructive. The Government cannot claim to be providing anything for the next generation, except the erosion of public services, a reduction in social mobility and, now, the erasure of attainment in schools, by removing a positive policy that has changed many millions of children’s lives for the better.
Today, the Minister could accept that children will suffer under these school meal proposals. I just hope that he is listening, and that the Government will put the matter right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for securing today’s important debate.
We have been told many times by the Government that universal credit was designed to make work pay. These plans tell a different story. Universal credit was supposed to mean no cliff edges, so it would always be worth a household working extra hours to earn more. Free school meals are worth £437 per child, so even for a household with a single eligible child, taking just an extra hour of work per week on the national minimum wage would mean a loss of income under the new proposals. The Children’s Society estimates that a million children will miss out on free school meals under the new proposals. It is therefore not a case of work paying, but of some of the poorest children in society paying for another Tory policy that is set to bring yet more anguish and confusion to the botched universal credit roll-out.
Headteachers have voiced concerns that the proposed scheme would be complicated to manage and confusing for parents. Clearly the Government have not learned from their poor general election results. I remember the parody “strong and stable Tories steal the food from the children’s table” doing the rounds in response to the Tory manifesto policy to axe free school meals. The Government should know that they have no mandate to reduce school meals, and it makes no sense to do so.
Last summer, 47% of children who received support from food banks in the Trussell Trust’s network were between five and 11 years old, and 4,412 more three-day emergency food supplies were given to children during the summer holidays than in previous months. We know that children on free school meals already underperform in schools. Why would any Government choose to make life more difficult and more challenging for those children? Why would a Government that claim to want to tackle inequality, to help the disadvantaged, to tackle child obesity and to help out the “just about managing” come up with a policy that does the exact opposite?
I agree with the Child Poverty Action Group, which has said that the Government have missed an opportunity to alleviate the crisis by increasing the eligibility and uptake of free school meals, ensuring that all children from low-income households receive a nutritious meal at lunchtime. If a family is in need of universal credit, it stands to reason that the children should be eligible for free school meals. It is just another example of the Government using the universal credit system to make the poorest in society, including children in working households, even worse off.
I commend the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing the debate. It is a great shame that a significant number of people who wanted to contribute for longer than a couple of minutes could not. I encourage the hon. Lady to take the matter forward so that the debate can be continued under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, because it is clearly an important topic. As I intimated to you, Mr Hollobone, I will speak for only three minutes, as I wanted to reduce my time to allow others to get in earlier on.
I welcome the Minister and wish him well as he takes on his new role in the Department. Summing up, we have had excellent speeches from the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and the hon. Members for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), for High Peak (Ruth George), for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin).
As probably the youngest Member currently in the Chamber, when I saw that the debate was on free school meals it conjured up images of the mince and tatties and the custard that we had at Milncroft Primary in Glasgow. I should declare an interest, as I am married to a teacher, so I have first-hand experience of my wife coming home and telling me about the importance of free school meals and breakfast clubs. I pay tribute to my colleague on Glasgow City Council, Councillor Norman MacLeod, who has passionately argued for free school meals, and I echo what the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West said in that regard.
Before touching on a couple of things relating to Scotland—I know at this stage hon. Members normally groan, but unfortunately the third party summing-up rights mean that we have to take part in these debates, which is why I will try to keep my remarks brief—I will touch on three particular issues. The hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) made the point about money, and I think the same point was made by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately). I took part in last night’s debate about the orders introduced by the Government, particularly on social security and pensions. In my time in the House I have already seen the Government pursue a benefits freeze, the 1% public sector pay cap, the barbaric rape clause and the medieval two-child policy. A number of hon. Members in today’s debate made the point that we should be looking after people on the lowest rungs of society, and the most vulnerable in society.
I am conscious of time, but I want to draw attention to the fact that in Scotland, with cross-party support, we have introduced legislation that enshrines a target for reducing child poverty by 2030. would like to see this Government do that as well.
I say to the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West to keep going on with this. It has been a good debate, but we need cross-party consensus. Today is the beginning of that, not the end.
I welcome the Minister to his place in his new Department. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). She is a tireless campaigner as the chair of the all-party group on school food and she has shone a light for many years on this issue. She is also the first Sharon in the 100 years of women being elected to this place, so I congratulate her on that, too. I heard her on Radio 4 a few weeks ago when she was campaigning on secondary ticketing. Unfortunately, the grammar school and private school-educated kids could not get around the fact they were talking to a Sharon. Anybody who was in the Chamber on Friday when she gave her personal testimony in the debate on the registration of stillborn children will know that I have heard nothing more powerful in this place for many years. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate.
I doubt that anyone would dispute the importance of a benefit as wholesome as school meals. As a former primary school teacher, I saw the difference between those kids who got a full school meal and those who brought the rubbish in the packs—the chocolate and the drinks. I actually saw the impact on the difference in attainment during the afternoon. Governments have worked—together with Jamie Oliver—to improve nutritional values in school meals. We know that the provision of free school meals helps to reduce health inequalities, focuses attention in the classroom and brings benefits to attainment. As I said, I have seen it in my own experience.
The Government cannot deny that 1 million children living in poverty in working families are on these benefits. Those both in and beyond this place have outlined the conundrum carefully. By setting a net earnings threshold of £7,400 per annum to determine eligibility for free school meals under universal credit, the Government are contradicting their own stated aim of universal credit, which is to make work pay. If a household is earning just under £7,400 and has the chance to earn slightly more money, the Government are presenting working families with a cliff edge. There are clear questions the Minister needs to answer.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the example in the consultation document of a parent gaining free school meal eligibility is misleading? When they transfer from tax credits to universal credit, they will lose £1,600 a year. Those are not the children who should not be getting free school meals.
I cannot agree more with my hon. Friend. We talked about cliff edges. What assessment has the Minister made of the cliff edge issues? In particular, how many children will be affected and how much will it cost families to make up the shortfall?
A second and connected issue has been flagged in the debate: the pupil premium. Pupil premium is additional funding targeted at raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. It is currently targeted at children registered as eligible for free school meals, looked-after children and children who have had a parent in the regular armed forces at any point since 2012. Since the introduction of universal infant free school meals, schools have been missing out on that vital additional resource, as parents do not need to register for free school meals, which is the basis on which pupil premium is calculated. For schools already experiencing real-terms cuts to their funding, that is a vital additional resource that they can ill afford to miss out on.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time we broke the link between free school meals and the pupil premium and broadened the calculations for the pupil premium, so that it also includes social disadvantages such as bereavement, mental health problems, divorce and so on, which can affect attainment?
I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman, although I would say that only a former policy adviser would frame a question in the way that he did.
We know that for disadvantaged pupils having a full belly helps them perform. We had a fully costed manifesto at the general election, unlike the Conservative party, which—on its insult and injury tour—was taking away free school meals and making sure that it had no costed proposals for it. Labour would reintroduce free school meals as a universal benefit across the system so that we get proper learning and attainment in our school system. We cannot afford not to do it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing this important debate. I thank all colleagues who have spoken today, including the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and the hon. Members for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin).
I worked closely with the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West on the all-party parliamentary group on water safety and drowning prevention. I hope we can continue to work closely today. May I also say how moved I was by her heartfelt speech in the debate on the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill last week? It really moved the whole House, and people beyond.
Today’s debate is timely, as we have considered the responses to our public consultation on changing the entitlement criteria for free school meals and the early years pupil premium. I will be publishing the Government response shortly. It is all part of the drive to ensure every child has the opportunity to make the most of their life, no matter where they live or their background.
Let me start by restating the importance this Government attached to providing hot, nutritious free school meals to the most disadvantaged children. We are committed to continuing to provide those meals to families in need. Last year, about 1.1 million disadvantaged children in our communities were eligible for and were claiming a hot free meal, which saves families around £400 per year, as we have already heard today.
Under the existing benefits-based criteria, children whose parents or guardians receive one or more of the qualifying benefits, such as income support, jobseeker’s allowance and child tax credits, can make a claim to a school and are entitled to receive a hot meal. However, the simplification of the welfare system through the introduction of universal credit means that a number of the benefits that currently entitle families to free school meals will cease to exist.
To ensure that any families moving on to universal credit in the early stages of roll-out in the pilot areas, which we have heard much about today, did not lose out on their entitlement, in 2013 universal credit was added temporarily to the list of qualifying benefits for free school meals pending the introduction of the eligibility criteria. The same temporary measure was introduced for the early years pupil premium when that additional funding for disadvantaged three and four-year-olds was first introduced in 2015, and for the free early years entitlement for two-year-olds, which my Department has consulted on separately. As planned, we now need to replace the temporary measure with clear eligibility criteria under universal credit as its national roll-out accelerates.
In setting the new criteria we have followed five clear principles. First, our approach must protect children from a sudden loss of a hot meal as a result of the changes. Secondly, our approach must be fair in how it treats children and families, and target our support most effectively to those on very low incomes. Thirdly, it must enable more children to benefit from these entitlements. Fourthly, it should be as straightforward as possible, both for parents to understand and for schools to deliver. Last, but by no means least, it must be consistent with the approach the Government have taken to determining eligibility for other passported benefits as universal credit is rolled out.
I have a lot to say. Forgive me—I will try to address some of the issues that hon. Members have brought up in the debate. I will make some headway and see where we are on time.
Based on those principles, the proposal we have consulted on is to introduce an earnings threshold for free school meals and the early years pupil premium of £7,400. That is equivalent, depending on a family’s exact circumstances, to an income of £18,000 to £24,000, once benefits are taken into account. We will publish our response to the consultation shortly. I will briefly set out our thinking on the proposals in more detail.
Let me just set out the thinking, and then I will address some of the issues that colleagues raised.
First, to ensure our proposals do not result in any child losing out on a hot meal from one day to the next as a result of these changes, we propose to offer generous protections. We propose to protect the status of every child currently eligible for free school meals at the point at which the threshold is introduced, and every child who gains eligibility under the new arrangements during the roll-out of universal credit until the end of the roll-out. Following that period, we will protect all pupils who were protected and are still of school age until the end of their phase of education—for example, primary or secondary school.
Those protections will apply to those on universal credit and the legacy benefits that qualify a family for free school meals. We are not proposing to make any changes for those eligible for free school meals because they are in receipt of asylum support or pensions credits. Those households will therefore remain entitled to free school meals for a long as they retain those benefits.
Let me make some progress. I want to share a lot of information with colleagues.
The proposals will not affect the criteria for universal infant free school meals, which will continue to be available to all pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2, regardless of income. I am sure the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West supports and agrees with that proposal.
Once roll-out of universal credit is complete, we will move to an earnings-based system, similar to the one introduced in Scotland. Any household earning below that earnings threshold and claiming universal credit will be entitled to claim free school meals for their children. We estimate that, as a result of the threshold, by 2022 about 50,000 more—not fewer—children will benefit from a free school meal, compared with the previous benefits system. That means we will be targeting our support more effectively towards low-income families and the most disadvantaged children.
It is only right that we set a threshold and do not allow every family on universal credit to be eligible. Let me explain why. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) said, some families can earn more than £40,000 a year and still receive a small amount of universal credit. I think that is a good thing, because it ensures that they are incentivised to continue to work. Although it is right that those families receive some universal credit, free school meals should continue, in my and many people’s opinion, to be targeted at the most disadvantaged families and those on much lower incomes.
Let me share this with hon. Members. If we do not set new criteria, the effect would be that about half of all school-age children would be eligible for free school meals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, the additional cost would be £600 million for free school meals, or £6.2 billion if we include the pupil premium, which follows that. In contrast, about 14% of children are eligible for free school meals today. That would not be a good deal for the taxpayer, in my opinion, and nor would it be targeting public funding at those in the most need. We have to remember that we want to target money at the frontline of teaching in our schools.
Fair enough. I will write to colleagues about the issues I do not address.
The one issue I want to address, because it was picked up by many colleagues, is the cliff edge. First, universal credit removes the major cliff edges in the legacy system, such as 16 hours, so we are moving to a system that is better overall in that respect.
Secondly, the protections we outlined during the roll-out period will ensure that no child loses out on eligibility until after the end of universal credit roll-out. If their parents move over the income threshold, they will continue to be eligible. In the longer term, however, we need to set a threshold to ensure our support is targeted at those who need it most.
Let me pick up the point about the Labour manifesto, which the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) mentioned. The Labour manifesto contained a commitment to free school meals for primary school pupils and said that it will be paid for by a VAT rise on private schools. That is illegal until we leave the European Union. Universal free school meals, which the hon. Gentleman is suggesting now, requires a much bigger number—up to £6.2 billion—so I would like to hear from Labour where that massive increase will come from. It must come from massive tax rises. I think I shall end there, Mr Hollobone.
I thank the Minister for leaving me time to make some closing remarks.
This has been an excellent debate, although in my opinion it was far too short—it was over-subscribed, which is a good thing, but in the time allocated we obviously had too many speakers. I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) to seek a Backbench Business debate, as she was unable to set out fully her expert knowledge in this area. Indeed, all my hon. Friends had to curtail their speeches.
I am very happy that the Minister agreed to meet me—as I think he did—
Excellent. Will the Minister also extend that invitation to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak, who as he knows is a member of the Work and Pensions Committee? She has considerable expertise in the area.
I again encourage the Minister to read the school food plan—in particular, chapter 11, on the benefits of free school meals. The School Food Plan Alliance would happily meet him and become his new best friends if he wanted to take them up on that.
The cliff edge needs addressing—it is far too low. If there needs to be a cliff edge for all the reasons the Minister set out, it needs to be substantially higher up: £7,400 is too low.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).