We now come to the four motions on universal credit, children and young persons and social security, which will be debated together. I must inform the House that the Speaker has certified the two motions on children and young persons as relating exclusively to England, and as falling within devolved legislative competence. The motions relating to those statutory instruments are therefore subject to double majority voting, by the whole House and by Members representing constituencies in England. I should inform colleagues that this is a three-hour debate. It is very well subscribed; there are more than 40 Back Benchers wanting to speak. I hope that both Front Benchers and Back Benchers will bear that in mind.
I beg to move,
That an humble address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Universal Credit (Miscellaneous Amendments Saving and Transitional Provision) Regulations 2018 (S.I., 2018, No. 65), dated 22 January, a copy of which was laid before this House on 22 January, be annulled.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following motions:
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Free School Lunches and Milk, and School and Early Years Finance (Amendments Relating to Universal Credit) (England) Regulations 2018 (S.I., 2018, No. 148), dated 6 February, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7 February, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Local Authority (Duty to Secure Early Years Provision Free of Charge) (Amendment) Regulations 2018 (S.I., 2018, No. 146), dated 6 February, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7 February, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Social Security (Contributions) (Amendment) Regulations 2018 (S.I., 2018, No. 120), dated 31 January, a copy of which was laid before this House on 1 February, be annulled.
I ask all Members of the House to bear in mind what Madam Deputy Speaker has said when they make interventions. I will try to be as brief as I possibly can.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), the shadow Chancellor, has said, this Tory Government have created a crisis on a scale that we have not seen before. Today, they did nothing to tackle it, and in these regulations they seek to make it even worse. If the House does not vote for our motions today, more than 1 million families will lose out. First, they will lose their free school meals.
Does the hon. Lady agree with Channel 4’s FactCheck, which says:
“This is not a case of the government taking free school meals from a million children”?
These are children who are not currently receiving free school meals, and in fact the Government’s proposals would see 50,000 extra children receive free school meals. Perhaps the hon. Lady could stop giving inaccurate information to the House.
The hon. Gentleman should know that his Government have introduced transitional arrangements, and we are clear that under the transitional arrangements, those 1 million children would be entitled to free school meals. With the regulations, the Government are pulling the rug from under those hard-working families.
In my own boroughs of Oldham and Tameside, a total of 8,700 children growing up in poverty are set to miss out. In the Secretary of State’s own area, the total is 6,500. So much for the light at the end of the tunnel that the Chancellor mentioned over the weekend on “The Andrew Marr Show”!
My hon. Friend makes an important point, because childhood obesity is an important issue at the moment. The Children’s Society found that 1 million children growing up in poverty will lose out on free school meals that they would have been entitled to. Incredibly, the Government have the audacity to claim that they are being generous. They want to pretend that no families will lose because the small numbers who are benefiting under universal credit will not lose out now.
Is it not right that money should be placed where it is most needed? That is where we need the most support. When universal credit is fully rolled out, it is absolutely a fact that 50,000 more children will be getting free school meals. It is not right to mislead about this issue.
I am sure that the hon. Lady does not believe that I am trying to mislead the House. Let me be absolutely clear: many people, including MPs, wrongly believe that all children in poverty already get free school meals. That is not currently the case. But under the transitional protections under universal credit, those 1 million children would be entitled to the benefit. Through the secondary legislation, the Government are pulling the rug from underneath those families.
That is absolutely right—my hon. Friend did make a really important point. Those who currently get free school meals who were not part of universal credit were in households on out-of-work benefits. If these regulations were to go through, the people on whom they would have the most detrimental effect would be those in work.
The current system would help more than 1 million more children than the plans we are voting on today. The former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), once wrote that universal credit
“will ensure that work always pays and is seen to pay”,
yet under these plans, universal credit will mean that work does not pay for hundreds of thousands of families. Those just above the threshold would be better off earning less.
One of the biggest and most fundamental errors that the hon. Lady and her party are making is in their understanding of what transitional protection is about. I helped to design this, so let me inform her—[Interruption.] Perhaps Labour Members would like to listen as they might learn something. Transitional protection was designed to protect those moving from tax credits into universal credit so that they did not—if this would have happened to be the case—lose any money in the transition. It was not about increasing to the degree that she is talking about the numbers in receipt of free school meals. Under universal credit, more will receive free school meals than would have been the case under Labour’s plans.
The right hon. Gentleman acknowledges the fact that under the transitional protections many more in-work families would have received free school meals than will be the case under the Government’s secondary legislation. We hope that Conservative Members will help those hard-working families by ensuring that passported benefits do apply to them. We hope that they will help out those who are just about managing, which was what the Prime Minister claimed that she was going to do in the first place.
I absolutely agree about that. [Interruption.] Conservative Members keep saying that we are scaremongering, but it is absolute fact that under the transitional arrangements that currently apply, as they do in my constituency, which was one of the first to roll out UC, free school meals do cover those applicants who receive universal credit. The regulations will remove that right for those individuals, which is scandalous.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent opening statement. Does she agree that the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) almost makes her point for her? He made it clear that this is about making sure that people who are currently in receipt of benefits and free school meals would not be worse off when they transition, in which case they are going to be worse off under these regulations—[Interruption.] He is making that case for her. For all the huff and puff from Conservative Members, one would have thought we would remember that this is about children and families who are living in poverty in work. We should be doing our utmost to help them, not having a semantic argument.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.
As I was saying, people should not just take our word for it. They should look at what the Children’s Society has said about those 1 million children who will not receive free school meals if the regulations come into force.
My hon. Friend is making a very persuasive case. In the Bradford district, more than 10,000 children who are living in poverty will miss out on free school meals, but Northern Ireland will be exempt from the same policy. Are not the Government putting their own political benefit before child poverty?
You have had your chance, thank you. As I said—[Interruption.] Hon. Members have been told that more than 40 people want to speak in this debate, and I am trying to give way as best I can. The hon. Gentleman has already intervened once; I think that was more than enough.
Those who are just above the threshold would be better off earning less under these proposals. The Government are pulling the rug from under their feet, because once they earn above £7,400, they will be about £400 a year worse off for each child they have in school. So just when did the Government abandon the principle that work should pay? Perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us why she will be voting for a policy that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) said, is twice as generous in Northern Ireland as it will be for her own constituents?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Universal credit has had add-ons and add-ons ever since the Government proposed it. That has made it very complex and, as I have outlined, work will not pay for some in receipt of it if these proposals go forward.
I would like to make a little more progress and address the issue of free childcare. Once again, the Government have a policy in transition—one that they are seeking to restrict. About 200,000 two-year-olds are currently eligible for 15 hours of free childcare, but there will be more than 400,000 two-year-olds in families receiving universal credit. Ministers have refused to say how many children will be eligible under their policy, so will they finally do so now? I ask that because hundreds of thousands of children may lose out under their plans. Once again, some of the most vulnerable children are first in line for Government cuts.
In this House, we all believe in an honest and balanced debate, so may we just hear from the hon. Lady that it is clear that 50,000 more children will be entitled to free school meals under universal credit than under the previous system, and that 7,000 more children will be entitled to the two-year-old free offer—it is more, not fewer?
The Government have plucked the 50,000 figure from their own consultation document, but it had no accompanying methodology, so I am not convinced. Indeed, that makes up less than 5% of those who are in poverty. The regulations would mean that those who would currently be eligible for support under the transitional protections this Government laid out for universal credit would have that rug pulled from under them—[Interruption.] Conservative Members can keep making faces, but those are the facts.
Once again, this creates a cliff edge for families in receipt of childcare, and the policy will squeeze the income of working families who are already struggling to get by. Under universal credit, they have to pay their childcare costs up front and then claim the money back. With childcare costs rising faster than wages, meeting these costs up front will make it impossible for many working families to make ends meet, so yet another barrier is put in their way. Only months ago, several Conservative Members asked the Chancellor to look again at the taper rate because it meant that work would not pay for low-income families. Today’s vote is on exactly this issue. When the Government have already made those families bear the brunt of their cuts, adding yet another burden is just wrong.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being extremely generous with her time. The Labour party manifesto committed to extend free school meals to all primary school pupils. This is an additional extension of free school meals to a lot more children who are in secondary school. Will the hon. Lady please tell us how much that would cost and how her party would fund it if it was in power?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the “School Food Plan” that was published in July 2013 recommended that the Government looked into free school meals for infant and junior schools. The Labour party manifesto was clear that we would just extend that. It was unfortunate that the Government chose not to do as recommended, instead just giving it to infants. If Conservative Members would like to see our costings and manifesto, I am sure I could provide that, because there were many more costings in our manifesto than there were in the Conservative manifesto—[Interruption.]
Order. This is an extremely important and very serious debate. The hon. Lady has taken a lot of interventions. When she takes interventions, there is no point in just shouting at her; it is important to listen to her answer. The same will go for when the Secretary of State is speaking.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The Government are phasing out childcare vouchers as they transition to a policy of tax-free childcare, but that policy is simply not working. The introduction of tax-free childcare has been so shambolic that the Government fell 90% short of their take-up target, and spending was less than 5% of their projection. Instead, nearly £1 billion that was earmarked for childcare was returned to the Treasury. Yet the Government are still pushing ahead with their plan to phase out childcare vouchers, which will leave families hundreds of pounds worse off and directly transfer Government support to those who are better off.
My hon. Friend may have seen written answers I have received from the Government showing that 10,000 of their own officials still use childcare vouchers, and the same number are signed up to a Ministry of Defence scheme. Does she agree that if Ministers will not protect their own officials, they should at least stand up for our armed forces?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The armed forces do a magnificent job for us and it is an absolute scandal that they will also be caught up in this and made worse off as a result of these measures.
Members from all parties will know that hundreds of their constituents have written letters and signed petitions to express their concerns about these policy changes, yet the Government continue to push ahead with them, and have tried to do so by the stroke of a ministerial pen. The only legislation that has come to this House is the regulations before us, which complete the phase-out for those who change employers after April. We have therefore called for a vote on the regulations, and we want to make it clear that if the House passes our motion, we are sending a clear message to the Government that it is time to think again and keep childcare vouchers available.
The regulations on universal credit apply new sanctions to those who are currently protected and cut the time period that claimants have to provide evidence. Despite the Government’s rhetoric on people with disabilities and mental health needs, it will be them who suffer. Charities have urged the Government to reconsider, with Mind saying that the regulations will
“make the system harder to navigate at a time when people are unwell and most in need of support.”
Why is the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions ignoring those voices and making the system even harder for the very people the Government claim they want to support?
Self-employed people are the absolute bedrock of our economy. The Chancellor spoke of start-ups and new businesses in his statement earlier, but this legislation will make things harder for self-employed people. The TUC warns that a short start-up period for the minimum income floor could close businesses with the potential to become sustainable and profitable. The rules could discourage people from self-employment entirely. So, again, why is the Secretary of State making things so much harder for the people her Government claim to support? We know that the self-employed are more likely to be on lower earnings than employees, yet in its recent welfare trends report, the Office for Budget Responsibility confirmed that the low-paid self-employed face a much tougher benefits system under universal credit. On average, those affected are set to lose around £3,000, so the savings seem to be coming from the pockets of the low-paid self-employed. Why is the Secretary of State pursuing a policy that will make so many self-employed people much worse off?
The regulations make the universal credit system even more complicated, with the introduction of the surplus earnings rule. As universal credit is based on the previous month’s income, a self-employed claimant could get substantially less universal credit than an employed claimant earning a similar annual income. Successive Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions have said that universal credit will be simpler and will make work pay, but once again they are proposing the opposite.
All these statutory instruments share a common theme: they are about the support that we offer to families and their children, particularly those already struggling to get by. I remember when the Prime Minister said that the mission of her Government was the acronym JAMs—I am starting to think that really it stood for “Just about May’s survival”. It was meant to be about those who are just about managing, yet under this Government, there will be JAMs today and there will still be JAMs tomorrow, because instead of helping them to get on and get by, the Government are making their lives ever harder. Today is a chance to say that enough is enough. I commend the motions to the House.
As the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) is on the Opposition Front Bench, may I start by congratulating her on her promotion? I am sure that she would have liked to have got it in happier circumstances, but none the less I welcome her to her role. I hope that she does not fall victim to the bullying culture of the Leader of the Opposition’s office, as the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) has.
Well, well, well, what a strange old topsy-turvy world we find ourselves in. Measures so strongly fought for and won by claimants, MPs, stakeholders and charities only months ago are now being opposed by the Opposition. These changes were proposed by the most vocal defenders of benefits, and they are now being obstructed. We in the Chamber should not be giving the public misinformation, but unfortunately that is what has been happening so far.
Last month, stories emerged from Opposition Members—particularly the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner)—that have been repeated today: namely, that our plans for entitlement to free school meals would deprive more than a million children. It took a “Channel 4 News” FactCheck to point out that no child who currently receives meals would lose their entitlement and that, in fact, some 50,000 more children would benefit under our proposals when compared with the previous system.
I understand that it is the nature of the Opposition to oppose, but the scaremongering and misinformation from the Opposition has surely reached a new low as today they seek to annul regulations that consist largely of changes that were introduced purely to support benefits claimants—changes that Opposition Members have themselves called for. All this after a recent intervention by the UK Statistics Authority, which made it clear that the claims made by Opposition Members about universal credit causing poverty, debt and eviction were not supported by the evidence.
Of course, the scale and nature of the change represented by universal credit means that scrutiny is inevitable and important, and I welcome that, but unsubstantiated and exaggerated claims about widespread problems caused by universal credit amount to nothing less than scaremongering. They cause claimants alarm and, in the worst cases, stop them getting the money that they are entitled to, yet we find ourselves here again, debating universal credit, with the same false alarms coming from the shadow Cabinet—only this time we are debating the very regulations that we have designed to address the legitimate concerns of Opposition Members and our stakeholders.
The Secretary of State has said that claims should not be made when they are unsubstantiated. I have been asking parliamentary questions about the £50,000 increase that is in the consultation response, and I have received no facts about how the figure has been arrived at—none whatsoever. Will that be published, please?
Will my right hon. Friend dispel some of the myths and scaremongering that have been put out by the Opposition and reassure my constituency, where universal credit is being fully rolled out, that those already in receipt of free school meals will not lose that eligibility?
I will carry on for a bit, and then I will gladly take some more interventions.
We are not just debating these regulations today, but trying to save them from the Opposition, who would be happy to destroy this extra support for our benefit claimants. Perhaps I should remind the House of some of the changes that are in these regulations and what benefits they will bring to claimants. After all, the policy underpinning these regulations has been widely debated and supported both inside and outside this Chamber. The regulations abolishing waiting days will help many claimants by, on average, £160, while reducing the time taken to receive the first monthly payment. These regulations bring into effect the housing benefit transitional payment, which amounts to two weeks of housing benefit at the start of the claim. That is worth, on average, £233 towards helping claimants stay on top of their housing costs as they move into universal credit. These regulations increase the work allowances and are worth around £68 a year in further support for those who are striving to enter work.
The Secretary of State is attempting to provide a stout defence of the impact of universal credit. Why is it then that, only last month, her colleagues on Stirling Council proposed three years’ worth of mitigation against the impact of universal credit, worth more than half a million pounds?
Actually, if the hon. Gentleman looks at what this Government introduced in the Budget, he will see that it was a package of support worth £1.5 billion for the country. What we are doing is supporting people as best we possibly can. Additionally, these regulations fund temporary accommodation through housing benefit, which has been widely called for and unanimously welcomed by local authorities.
These regulations follow on from a host of other changes that we have already implemented, including making our telephone lines Freephone numbers, extending the maximum repayment period for advances from six months to a year, increasing the maximum advance that claimants can receive to up to 100%, changing the guidance to ensure that, when private sector housing claimants come on to universal credit, we know whether their rent was previously paid directly to the landlord and can ensure that that continues.
Meaner even than the master in Oliver Twist’s workhouse, the Secretary of State seeks not just to stop the second helping, but to stop any meal at all. I ask her to come to Norfolk. If these changes go through, 12,500 children will be denied a hot midday meal. How does that square the circle in relation to making work pay? Please, can she tell us —anything?
Unfortunately—I think that I was taught this as a child—when someone has totally lost the argument, they make up the facts, and that is what we are hearing from the Opposition. Although we have brought in all the requests that they wanted to support more people into work—I have just read out the list—they just scaremonger and make things up as they go along. I hope that it is clear to the whole House that these regulations will bring in real and tangible benefits for claimants and that, as promised, we are making the changes necessary to continue to deliver universal credit safely and securely, with all the necessary support that claimants need.
I want to be clear about another thing, too, because Members have stood up during past universal credit debates to recount stories of cases where their constituents have reported difficulties with universal credit. Where that has happened, we have immediately sought to address the concerns, because it is vital to us all that we get this right, so that we can deliver the most modern, forward-thinking, flexible benefit in the world, and that is what this Government are seeking to deliver. This benefit will be at the cutting edge of support throughout the world—that is what this Government are delivering.
On problems with universal credit, the Secretary of State will, I think, recognise that the last thing that families earning a bit less than £7,400 a year will want is a pay rise, because if they get it, they will immediately lose their free school meals and be much worse off as a result. That is a very serious problem for work incentives, which used to be a big priority for her Department. Does she recognise that major problem?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a fair point that I would like to address. By contrast, the other points that we have heard so far have been fabrication. He mentioned people earning £7,400. Actually, with universal credit, we are talking about people who will be bringing home somewhere between £18,000 to £24,000. He is quite right—[Interruption.] If Members will kindly let me finish this answer to the very pertinent question asked by the right hon. Gentleman, as this is now a personalised benefit where people will have their own work coaches, we will not seek to put someone in a less advantageous situation. Therefore, if people look at the money that is coming in and the extra support that is coming from school meals, they can see that we will not seek to do that to an individual. A work coach will be working with individuals to help them to progress in work, so that they are in a better situation.
On work incentives, can the Secretary of State confirm that there have been two studies—one in December 2015 and another in September 2017—both of which showed that people on universal credit were more likely to get back into work than those people on the predecessor benefits? Therefore, this is helping to get people back into work.
My hon. Friend is quite correct. Further studies show that people on universal credit are much more likely to look for work than people on jobseeker’s allowance—86% of those on universal credit, compared to 34% of those on jobseeker’s allowance. Under the legacy benefits came things that I am sure we all remember, such as the 16-hour rule, which trapped people on benefits. That will not happen under universal credit because it pays people to work, every hour that they work.
My right hon. Friend is doing a fantastic job. She has pointed out the absurdity of the Opposition’s position, whereby they will now vote against the changes that will benefit those who most need them. Alongside that, they are now voting for a policy that would deliver free schools meals to families earning £40,000 a year. Does not she think that the Opposition are for the few, not for the many?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. Perhaps these are honest mistakes by the Opposition; I am not sure. Under universal credit, people can be in work and not in work. Perhaps the Opposition do not understand the complexities of this system, which is helping people into work and then to progress at work. As my right hon. Friend said, if we allowed free school meals in every family on universal credit, those families could include parents earning £40,000 a year. As has always been the case, we support people on free school meals from families who are either not in work or in low amounts of work.
Jobcentres in my constituency tell me with some passion that universal credit is really helping them to get more people into work. The Government have also listened to concerns about universal credit and are making improvements. Does it not baffle the Secretary of State and is it not bizarre that the Labour party is trying to block those improvements, when the Government are doing exactly the right thing?
My hon. Friend is spot on, and the incredulity with which she says what the Opposition are stopping points out the ridiculousness of their position. Not only have we helped an extra 3.1 million people into work, but these regulations help the most vulnerable and will bring in an extra £1.5 billion of support.
I will carry on for a little bit more before taking more interventions from Opposition Members.
I turn to the Free School Lunches and Milk, and School and Early Years Finance (Amendments Relating to Universal Credit) (England) Regulations 2018. The Government have recently published their responses to two consultations on the earnings thresholds to receive free school meals under universal credit. The scope of these consultations includes entitlement to free school meals, the early years pupil premium and free early education provision for two-year-olds. The intention of these regulations is to replace the transitional criteria introduced in 2013. These transitional measures made all families on universal credit eligible for these entitlements—a move that was necessary so that no household should lose out during the early stages of the universal credit roll-out. Having fully considered all the responses to the consultation, the Department for Education laid these regulations before the House on 7 February to replace the temporary criteria with the new earnings threshold. This is what much of the debate has centred on so far. I hope that we have given clarity and the Opposition now understand why accepting these regulations would be so helpful to their constituents.
This change to benefits shows how untrusted the Government are on benefits. If they are trying to sell something good, they cannot, because they are so untrusted on benefits. If the system is so fantastic, why do 80% of people who come to see MPs get their benefits? Why should not the system just work? [Hon. Members: “What?”] Some 80% of appeals for universal credit—
It would be helpful if hon. Members did not just make up statistics and facts as they went along, as we just heard from the hon. Lady. Hon. Members should listen to us regarding the support that we are now providing to claimants. As I said, it is a topsy-turvy world. There was a ding-dong when the Opposition were calling for the changes. Now that we are introducing the changes, we are back to another ding-dong and they do not want the changes—but never mind.
I turn to the regulations concerning national insurance contributions and childcare. These regulations align the tax and national insurance treatment of employer-supported childcare, where parents opt into the new tax-free childcare scheme. They remove the national insurance disregard to new entrants to the scheme, once the relevant day has been set. They are vital to ensure that the tax system operates fairly and consistently and that the Government can target their childcare support effectively.
For many parents, being able to afford good-quality childcare is essential for them to work and support their families. That is why we are replacing the childcare vouchers with tax-free childcare, which is a fairer and better-targeted system. Tax-free childcare is now open to all eligible parents, who can get up to £2,000 per child per year to help towards their childcare costs. More families will be able to access support through tax-free childcare because only about half of employed working parents can access vouchers, and self-employed parents were excluded from vouchers. Therefore, 1.5 million families are now eligible for tax-free childcare compared with about 600,000 families currently benefiting from vouchers.
Will the Secretary of State clarify something she said in relation to people getting pay increases that then perversely lead to them being worse off? She appeared to say that she would instruct personal trainers to put that right financially. I can hear a shudder going around benefits offices up and down the country at the idea that she has unilaterally said that if any constituent of ours faces being worse off as a consequence of a pay rise, perversely, her personal trainers will compensate them for that loss.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because it allows me to explain that universal credit works on a tailor-made basis, so that the claimant will always be in contact with their work coaches to work out what is better, how progression would be better and why they would be taking reasonable work because it makes them better off. I am not saying this unilaterally. I ask all Opposition Members please to go to their local jobcentre and meet the work coaches, who can then explain how the system works.
In 2013, the Government announced the introduction of tax-free childcare as the successor to childcare vouchers. The passing of the Children and Families Act 2014, which legislated for tax-free childcare, had cross-party support. Tax-free childcare is now fully rolled out, and the date for the closure of the voucher scheme to new entrants is April this year. This was set out in the 2016 Budget, giving two years’ notice. Parents receiving childcare vouchers can continue to use them while their current employer continues to offer the scheme.
Universal credit is far more generous, as my hon. Friend points out. Up to 85% of childcare costs will be given to people who need it.
Under the childcare voucher scheme, the estimated cost to the Exchequer of forgone employers’ national insurance contributions is £220 million per year. This is paid to employers and voucher providers to administer the schemes, so it is not surprising that voucher providers are lobbying hard to keep the scheme open. However, we are focused on delivering a better childcare offer for working families. Tax-free childcare is simpler to administer for childcare providers, who will not have to deal with multiple voucher providers. These regulations will bring the national insurance contributions relief in line with the income tax treatment. They are an essential step in reforming Government childcare support to provide a fair and well-targeted system. Closing the childcare voucher scheme to new entrants will ensure that more Government support goes directly to parents and helps working families to reduce their childcare costs.
With the consultation that the Government are carrying out on abuse of women, does the Secretary of State recognise the threat of financial control and abuse posed to women by the single payment? Would she be willing to consider making individual payments of child tax credits to the mother, and so on, the norm? Charities have demonstrated that women who are being abused will not apply for exception because they feel they will come under physical abuse.
The hon. Lady makes a good point, and that is why it is possible to split payments according to need. The devolved Administration in Scotland have the right to alter these rules and provide extra support, should they wish to, but it is safe to say that payments can now be split, and we have listened to those concerns.
We are also listening to colleagues in Northern Ireland, who have raised specific circumstances relating to certain public sector service employers, and have committed to ongoing engagement with them to look at these issues, as tax-free childcare continues to roll out to replace employer-supported childcare. We have seen the success of 30 hours’ free childcare for three and four-year-olds in England, so we are committed to working with the Northern Ireland parties to administer childcare support of that kind in Northern Ireland, in the absence of an Executive.
For the reasons I have set out, annulling these regulations would deprive families and their children of the important and positive support that this Government are determined to offer and would have a range of very negative effects, so I call upon the House to oppose the motions.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to these motions for the Scottish National party. I will use the bulk of my time on early-day motions 1004 and 921, as motions two relate only to England or England and Wales.
The universal credit regulations referred to in early-day motion 921 cover most of what was announced in the Chancellor’s autumn Budget, after months of negative headlines for the Government about universal credit. It was the Government’s big sell to their concerned Back Benchers, which was really not much. For instance, they reduced the waiting time before universal credit can be paid to recipients from six weeks to five, which was a welcome but very wee step.
Meanwhile, the Government also included more controversial measures such as changes to the rules on surplus earnings and self-employment losses, which come into force next month. They removed the automatic temporary exemption from work search and availability requirements for illness for claimants who have been found fit for work, and they reduced the time people have to register and supply evidence regarding a change in their circumstances from one month to 14 days.
The Government’s tweaks to the welfare system over the last eight years and the drip, drip, drip of cuts are slowly eroding the value and support it provides. It is completely unfair to expect people on low incomes to cope with the fact that their benefit will be frozen and fail to meet their costs of living, while the Government continue to add layers of punitive bureaucracy designed to trip them up. An individual financial sanction or one person missing the deadline for an increase in entitlement is of tiny financial value to the Department for Work and Pensions, but it is proportionally an enormous chunk of that person’s income. Yet this Government seem content to make these changes off the cuff, in the same way they tweaked the universal credit work allowance, which eroded its value, and the same way they tried to tweak personal independence payments, to stop people with severe mental health problems receiving the higher rate. It is underhand, and it is appalling.
I received an official warning recently that universal credit will be rolled out in my constituency next month. I have been working closely with my local citizens advice bureau to make sure there is a joined-up response to the issues as they unfold, as it has done in many Members’ constituencies. I am worried about the impact that the roll-out of universal credit will have on local employers and their employees, because the picture elsewhere has been disastrous. The continued roll-out of universal credit is having a devastating impact on claimants, with debt and rent arrears through the roof.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking about the roll-out of universal credit. We had the roll-out in Redditch just a few months ago. I can assure him that, according to the manager of the jobcentre, who has worked there for 30 years—an independent person working day in, day out to help people—the roll-out is much better than any previous system. Maybe he would like to visit Redditch and speak to her.
I have no reason to doubt what the hon. Lady says, except that the experiences of Members on the Opposition Benches are rather different. I point her and her colleagues to my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), who has been working tirelessly on this not only while he has been a Member of the House but while he was leader of Highland Council, when universal credit was first tested in Highland. He has been knocking against a brick wall trying to get the DWP to listen to the concerns that he has found in his area, and his experience is not the same as the one the hon. Lady says she has had in Redditch.
I intervene in response to the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), who said how wonderful jobcentres are and how much work they do. I do not know whether she has had the same experience as me, but in my city of Glasgow, the UK Government have closed six jobcentres, and in my area of the east end of Glasgow, they have just butchered three out of four jobcentres. How can we go and find out how things are going in jobcentres, when her Government are busy closing them?
I absolutely concur with my hon. Friend, who has been an assiduous campaigner to protect and save the jobcentres in his constituency. Even at this late stage and after some of their doors have closed, I hope that the Government may listen and finally provide a reprieve.
It is right that we acknowledge the knock-on effect felt by landlords, whose incomes are in turn being squeezed due to tenants falling into arrears because of successive cuts to universal credit. The SNP has continually called for the roll-out of universal credit to be paused and properly fixed. That is not just about reducing the wait time by a week for those receiving universal credit, but about restoring the original principles of universal credit, which have been cut back so far to their roots that they have been battered.
The UK Government’s woeful ignorance on this is shameful. The evidence of the social destruction caused by universal credit in its current form is clear from report after report by expert charities. Such social destruction is not masked by the line, repeated ad nauseam by the Government, that universal credit is getting people into work. It is not much good for people if this is just a shift from out-of-work poverty to in-work poverty. We know there has been a rise in the rate of in-work poverty, and we also know that 67% of children—I repeat, 67% of children—currently living in poverty do so in a family where at least one person works.
I agree with the hon. Lady, which is why we are looking to introduce some flexibilities in Scotland, where we have the minimal powers to do so.
The Government must open their eyes to the crisis that they have created for workers, people who are sick or disabled, landlords and tenants, and employers, and urgently halt and fix universal credit before any more of our constituents have to suffer. In Scotland, the Scottish Government are using some of their minimal new powers in this area to give people in Scotland more choice over the universal credit payments and enable them to manage their household budgets better. We of course want to do more, and we wish that the whole of universal credit had been devolved to allow us to do so.
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. Again, I hope that the Government are looking at her private Member’s Bill, which is due to be given a Second Reading on Friday, and that they will do what is right and is needed so that all areas of these isles can bring about the changes that are required.
Turning now to early-day motion 1004 on the changes to national insurance contributions that come into force on 6 April, much of the comment in this area has been not about the regulations themselves, but about a policy underpinning one of the changes. That policy is the UK Government’s decision to introduce a new scheme to support parents’ childcare costs—tax-free childcare—and to close employer-supported childcare schemes to new applicants from April 2018. Parents will not be able to receive support simultaneously from both the current scheme and the new tax-free childcare scheme, but parents who wish to remain in the old childcare vouchers scheme will be able to do so while the current employer continues to offer such a scheme. There is no obligation to switch to the new scheme, but existing voucher schemes will be closed to new applicants from next month.
The delivery of affordable childcare is crucial for the development of children as well as for providing for families. Fundamental to that is that parents on low incomes need to be protected from the impact of enormous childcare costs. That is one of the major barriers to resolving the gender pay gap and the gender employment gap. Childcare continues to be expensive and inflexible.
We are deeply concerned about the UK Government’s plans to close the childcare voucher scheme to new entrants from April this year. The SNP wishes to support policies that deliver for parents, ensuring that they have the resources and flexibility they need to give their children the best start in life. The UK Government must support working parents by keeping the scheme going, alongside the tax-free childcare scheme, so that parents can choose what is most suitable for their needs and offers the most support for their family. We must also consider in more detail the impact that the introduction of tax-free childcare will have across all different family types.
One of the key problems is that this is an extremely complex area, and the interaction of two schemes with the benefits system is an additional layer of complicated bureaucracy for parents. For example, the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group highlighted in February that universal credit and tax credit claimants must seek advice before applying for tax-free childcare:
“If an existing tax credit claimant makes a claim for TFC, even if they do not claim any help with childcare costs through tax credits, their whole tax credit claim will be automatically terminated. If they live in an area where universal credit full service has rolled out they may find that they are not able to claim tax credits again and this is very confusing.”
That is a significant issue with the new scheme, so how are the Government making people aware of it? We know that the DWP is notoriously bad at awareness campaigns, as we have seen with the WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—or the massively under-marketed Access to Work programme. We also know that the UK Government’s benefit changes are already creating confusion for people. Figures from the Government Digital Service have revealed that claimants appear to be encountering significant problems with the Government’s Verify system for universal credit, with 48 out of 91 needing help at a jobcentre to set up an account.
In Scotland, the SNP Government have committed to almost doubling the funded early learning and childcare entitlement by 2020, from 600 to 1,140 hours, in a bid to transform the life chances of children in Scotland. Our universal childcare offer is unmatched in the rest of the UK. In Scotland, all three and four-year-olds, and eligible two-year-olds, will benefit from 1,140 hours. The full entitlement is estimated to save families over £350 per child per month, or £4,500 a year.
Before I conclude, I would like to touch briefly on the other two motions, which relate to devolved matters. On the free school lunches and milk motion, every child at a local council school in Scotland can get free school lunches in primary 1, 2 and 3, regardless of financial circumstances. Some children in funded childcare before starting school can also get free meals. That is a year more than is currently provided in England. The UK Government’s universal credit system requires arbitrary thresholds, which create a cliff edge for parents, as has been discussed. We continue to call on the UK Government to devolve powers and funding so that we can take control of universal credit in its entirety in Scotland and deliver it in the best way possible for the people of Scotland.
Finally, on the free childcare motion, we have committed to fully funding our transformative expansion of early learning and childcare entitlement to 1,140 hours by 2020, and we have a track record of delivering on the previous expansion from 475 hours to 600 hours.
In conclusion, in all these areas what is clear is that when issues are devolved we see better policy and better outcomes for the people of Scotland.
I welcome the universal credit regulations that the House is considering. We should not forget that universal credit is an important reform that is getting more people back into work and helping them to stay in work. People are getting help and support from DWP staff that they did not get in the past.
I think that a mark of the policy is the enthusiasm shown by jobcentre staff. I had the privilege of visiting my local jobcentre in 2014—I have visited it since, of course—alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). That day they were holding a regional training conference for up-and-coming leaders, and when we walked into their training room, which was full of civil servants, they all immediately started applauding my right hon. Friend. That showed me that they do not owe any Government anything, in terms of support or loyalty. It showed me that they think the reforms that he was introducing, and that the Government are now rolling out, are worth doing. Having visited the people who work in jobcentres, and having spoken to them since, it is clear to me that they think that the reforms are now making a real and positive difference.
I will not say that the roll-out of universal credit has been without challenges. We all know it has, which is why the Government are putting forward this package today worth £1.5 billion. We should also acknowledge that if the package is voted down, people who need help might not be able to receive their advance within five weeks or get the extra six months to repay any advance, and they might have to go back to seven weeks of waiting time while their claim is processed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also raised the possibility of people being in a worse position with regard to housing benefit. The House therefore needs to think very carefully before voting down these regulations, which are positive and are what Opposition Members wanted just a few months ago.
On free school meals, it is important to point out that the regulations we are debating today do not change the entitlement for year 1 and 2 children, all of whom receive free school meals. We also need to be careful with the figure of 1 million children losing out. As soon as I heard that figure—on that same afternoon—I accosted the Education Minister during a vote to ask him whether it was true. He said clearly that it was not true, so we need to look at the facts.
My hon. Friend will recognise that the Opposition’s proposal on free school meals in their manifesto was to pay for them by charging VAT on private schools, which is illegal under EU law. Does my hon. Friend find it confusing that they would prefer to stay in the single market and the customs union, when that would be at odds with that policy?
My hon. Friend demonstrates the complete confusion and disarray of the Opposition, not just on this policy but on our future outside the European Union. That goes to the heart of the situation: this is all about political dogma, rather than practical ideas and practical help for people.
The new system is more generous than the old system. I will come on to the external evidence that explains that in a moment.
Returning to what I was saying about free school meals, under the old system of jobseeker’s allowance as soon as a parent worked 16 hours, or two parents worked 24 hours, they lost their children’s entitlement to free school meals. The crux of this debate is comparing and contrasting that with what we are moving to. All those currently in the system have been eligible, because of transitional arrangements. Conservative Members have made it clear why the transitional arrangements were put in place. Under the new system, when everybody is on universal credit and these regulations are in place, by 2022 an additional 50,000 children will be eligible for free school meals. I hear all the noise from Opposition Members, but they should not just take my word for it or that of other Conservative Members. They should go on to the “Channel 4 News” FactCheck website, which says:
“This is not a case of the government taking free school meals from a million children who are currently receiving them. It’s about comparing two future, hypothetical scenarios.”
Both of them are more generous than the old benefits system.
The Labour party frequently looks for us to improve the situation and the lives of the most vulnerable. That is what this policy and these regulations are doing today, but unfortunately, Labour seems not to let the truth and the facts get in the way of a good story. There is too much political dogma and it is putting that before people. The Government are putting people first. This system will be better than the system was hitherto and that is why I will support the Government tonight.
The measures that we are debating expose what has been happening to our country since 2010. In the name of deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility, the Tories have allowed the poorest and most vulnerable to become poorer and even more vulnerable. A Prime Minister who once courageously warned her own party that it was perceived by too many as the nasty party is presiding over a Government who have a cavalier disregard for social justice and the poverty that shames our country.
It is true that in the aftermath of a global financial crisis, any UK Government would have had to make tough choices, striking the right balance between spending cuts, tax increases and investment in growth. However, the reality is that too often they have made the wrong choices—choices motivated by an ideological project to wither the state, irrespective of its impact on local communities, the poorest in our society and growth.
Could the hon. Gentleman just remind us all that a note had been left by a member of his Government that said, quite properly, there was no money left? Not only have this Government restored our economy, but in so doing they have absolutely protected the very people that matter to all of us. This is tribal nonsense.
The hon. Gentleman is rewriting history. The fact is that if the Labour Government had fixed the roof when the sun was shining, when that crisis came along they could have weathered the storm. That is what this responsible Government have been doing since 2010.
The right hon. Lady’s party wanted us to regulate the banks and the financial services sector less than under the regulatory system we had in place. It committed to matching our spending and borrowing and did not want us to rescue the banks. Imagine if that prescription had been followed at the time we were dealing with the financial crisis.
The Government’s choices are motivated by an ideological project to wither the state, irrespective of its impact. Their disproportionate cuts have choked off growth and destroyed too much of our social fabric. Their tax changes have failed dismally to tackle tax avoidance or to ensure that, in tough times, those with the most carry the greatest burden. Their failure to invest in infrastructure, skills and jobs has led to economic growth that is anaemic compared with similar economies. The Government’s own assessments predict that this economic failure will be made even worse by the uncertainty and instability that are the inevitable consequences of Brexit.
Perhaps the right hon. Lady will agree with me on this point: history will record that the referendum was nothing to do with the national interest or giving voice to the will of the people. It was David Cameron’s fix for managing the Tory party through a general election.
I am not giving way again to the right hon. Lady. Far from being the party of economic competence, hers is the party of economic chaos.
To be clear, the policies we are opposing today are neither necessary nor acceptable in a civilised society; they are political choices made by this Tory Government. As we have heard in this debate, Tory Members are in denial. Too many of our fellow citizens might as well be living in a different country from the one they describe. The reality for those people is food banks, perpetual debt, a poor quality of life and a lack of hope for themselves and their children. Some, of course, are dependent on benefits, but increasing numbers are people in work on permanent low pay and insecure contracts. This should offend any Member who believes not only in social justice but in the future of mainstream politics. Here and abroad, people who feel left behind by mainstream politics are increasingly turning to anti-establishment nationalism, which spreads hate and division. That is another reason these policies are so irresponsible.
A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman denigrated Brexit, yet his own area of Bury voted to leave the EU. How would that have helped with the politics of disenfranchising people and making them turn towards extremes?
The hon. Gentleman entirely misses the point. Of course I believe that the result of the referendum must be respected; I question the motive for the referendum in the first place. It was David Cameron’s folly—that is how history will remember him—and was done in the interests of the Conservative party, not those of our country.
I too have respect—some—for the hon. Gentleman, although it is beginning to wane. I do not want to fall out with him, but I would make one point to him. It is not good enough just to blame it all on David Cameron. The hon. Gentleman, like me and the majority of people in the House, walked through the Lobbies in support of a referendum, and we are now dealing with the consequences. We were all complicit in agreeing that the British people should vote and determine whether we stayed or left.
I simply say—I think that history will bear this out—that it was done purely to keep the Conservative party together and to get through a general election. It had nothing to do with the national interest and everything to do with the arrogance of the then Prime Minister and Chancellor in believing that they would almost inevitably win such a referendum.
I will turn now to the measures on universal credit and free school meals. The Government could hardly have made more of a mess of universal credit. The National Audit Office stated that the project had suffered from
“weak management, ineffective control and poor governance”.
Is that the responsibility of the current Secretary of State or her predecessor? Perhaps she would like to respond—no? Okay. Cuts to universal credit passed in the last two years have left a majority of families worse off on universal credit than under the system it replaces, and this further reduction in support will add to their financial pain. The proposed threshold could have a negative effect on work incentives and risks creating poverty traps for families on universal credit, which goes completely against the Government’s goal that universal credit should always reward work.
In the 1980s, Tory policies created a deeply divided society. They have learnt nothing from history and are once again fuelling a cycle of intergenerational deprivation that hurts those most affected but which in the end damages us all. I hope the House will today force the Government to rethink these regressive measures.
I do not approach the matters in the statutory instruments lightly, and I will tell hon. Members why. I was brought up by a single parent who was widowed a month before I was born, who worked shifts in a factory and who got by on a widow’s pension, child benefit and the money she made and by managing that money carefully, so I know only too well the impact that such changes can have. But I also know that people in those situations are acutely concerned about changes coming down the line and the alarmist things being said currently. I appeal to the Opposition, particularly the Front-Bench team, to think of those people when they make alarmist statements. By all means have legitimate, fair and open debate, but do not trot out numbers that are simply not true; do not let people believe that something as precious as free school meals is being taken away from them when that is not the case. I ask those on our Front Bench whether these changes remotely resemble what has been proposed by Labour Front Benchers. They are not changes that I could support, but they are nothing like what Labour is proposing.
I thank the Secretary of State for Education for his letter outlining the Government’s position on free school meals. In it, he states:
“The proposed changes to the eligibility criteria have been designed to ensure that support is targeted where it is needed most, meaning that those on the lowest incomes remain the focus of Free School Meals…
No child will lose their meals during the rollout of Universal credit as a result of these changes.
Our plans mean an extra 50,000 children will be eligible for a nutritious meal at school by 2022.
Labour’s claim that our changes could leave over a million children without this is deliberately misleading.”
As I have said, there are people out there in the real world who think that something will be taken from them and their children, which causes them concern and alarm. I question whether there is a deliberate attempt to weaponise the vulnerable, just as people once boasted about the NHS being weaponised in order to rig votes. I urge Members not to do that, because they will cause fear and anxiety where it is not required. There is enough fear and anxiety in those households as it is.
The letter continues:
“Since 2010, we have extended the availability for free school meals to disadvantaged students in further education and introduced universal infant free school meals.
When Universal Credit was introduced, the Government were clear that they would set a new criteria for free school meals. To ensure that no one was adversely affected during its roll out, the Government temporarily made Universal Credit a qualifying benefit for Free School Meals, regardless of income. As was made clear at the time, this was always an interim measure…
If you receive a free school meal now—you will continue to do so until the end of the rollout of Universal Credit, planned for 2022, and then to the end of either primary or secondary school (which ever you are in at this point).
For example a child in year 5 on a FSM now, whose parents are on UC but have an income of £40,000, will continue to get a FSM until the end of secondary school.”
I know that many colleagues want to take part in the debate, but I particularly want to thank the Government Front Bench for a robust defence of an important policy. Let us nail the myths, the untruths and the attempts to frighten people. If the Labour party continues to peddle things that are untrue, it behoves us to state what is true and not to frighten the vulnerable, many of whom we are all proud to represent.
I have been raising these issues in the Chamber for a number of years. Why is that? First, those we are talking about today, whether they are above or below the arbitrary thresholds that the Government are setting, are by their nature very low-income families who are struggling every day to get by. Secondly, the whole point of universal credit was to remove cliff edges from the system, so that once people reached a certain point they would not suddenly lose a number of benefits that make quite a significant difference to a “just about managing” family. Those arbitrary thresholds are taking away the very principles of that position.
I recently spoke to a number of parents in Moss Side, in my constituency, about their predicament. Those who had lost free school meals described acutely what it meant to them. Some had two, three or four children, which meant that they were losing £10 or £11 a week per child. Moreover, they were losing bus passes, the entitlement to free school uniforms and the entitlement to free school trips. What were they doing? They were not going to pay that £10 or £11 to the school for free school meals, so most of them were sending their children to school with white-bread jam sandwiches to last them for the entire day. That is not something I want to see happening in my constituency.
The need of these families has not changed; they are still on the breadline—they might be just above it, but they are still absolutely operating on the breadline. The impact of losing the two-year-old offer for these families could mean that about £54 a week is suddenly gone because of this cliff-edge. For those with children aged two this is particularly pernicious, because we are probably talking about young mums who are re-entering the labour market for the first time, and we are disincentivising them from working. The real problem with the Government’s policy is that it breaks the principle of universal credit: it is putting into the system disincentives to work more or take on higher paid work for, by their definition, low income, just-about-managing families.
My wider point is about the impact of these policies on social mobility and supporting these families to get on in life. The mothers I spoke to in Moss Side also had the school headteacher there, and she told me about the impact of the loss of free school meals on her school budget. This is a single-form entry primary school in Moss Side where the needs of the community are the same today as they have ever been. About 25 out of 30 children in year 6 are on free school meals, and coming in from nursery are about four or five; that is because of changes already coming in. We must remember that this has a huge impact on school budgets as well, because of the loss of the pupil premium.
I want to talk particularly about the developmental gap at the age of five and the impact of this particularly stringent new threshold on receiving the two-year-old offer. I fully supported the Government in bringing in the two-year-old offer for disadvantaged families, and we know from the evaluation that where that is given in a quality setting it can transform the life chances of those children, so surely we should be debating how we can extend that provision for more disadvantaged families, not reducing it.
Analysis I produced last year showed that many of the tax-free childcare offers and the three and four-year-old offer coming in disproportionately benefit better-off families: 75% of that extra money going into tax-free offers, and the three and four-year-old offer will go to the top 50% of earners in this country. Lower-income families and those on universal credit will reap very little benefit from these other offers. We are therefore going to see lack of social mobility getting entrenched, not being addressed.
I will leave everybody with the words of the Prime Minister, who said that to
“build a great meritocracy in Britain, we need to broaden our perspective and do more for the hidden disadvantaged”.
These new measures will narrow the current provisions, not broaden them.
We are debating a number of important statutory instruments, and in the light of the time constraints, I will confine my comments to the measures relating to free school meals.
The benefits of free school meals for those who need them have been set out today and in the past. While it is absolutely right that we debate these new eligibility criteria for free school meals, although it is disappointing that there are no Liberal Democrats in the Chamber, it is also right that we do so with a focus on facts, not inaccurate claims—the Secretary of State made the position clear—that these proposals take away free school meals from children. In fact, as has been set out, it is estimated that by 2022, under the new regulations, about 50,000 more children—more, not fewer—will benefit from a free school meal than under the previous benefit system.
The approach in these regulations not only extends support to more children, but ensures, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) made clear, that we target that support at those who most need it and where it will have the greatest impact in changing lives. As he also set out, the Government have always been open and clear that when universal credit was rolled out, there would be new criteria, but that no child currently on free school meals would lose out until 2022, and that those in either primary or secondary school would continue to benefit while in that school.
Much is being made of claims that 1 million children will have free school meals taken from them, but that is simply not accurate. I am not usually one to cite “Channel 4 News”, but on this occasion, like my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), I will quote its FactCheck verdict, which reads:
“This is not a case of the government taking free school meals from a million children who are currently receiving them. It’s about comparing two future, hypothetical scenarios, one of which is more generous than the other.”
Both of them are more generous than the old benefits system.
I will not, because I am conscious of the time.
An issue such as this, which is of real importance to many people, quite rightly excites strong passions and strong arguments, but it is important that we stick to the facts. An Opposition who are unable to muster coherent arguments against actual Government policy are instead taking issue with hypothetical Government policy and scenarios. I am committed to ensuring that disadvantaged young people can get a free nutritious meal at school, and I am sure that that is true of all colleagues on both sides of the House, regardless of where they stand on these two hypothetical scenarios. These measures mean that more people will be able to get free school meals than at present, which is why I will be voting with the Government to extend the eligibility for free school meals.
These regulations will affect millions of families up and down the country, so it is only right that we are able to discuss them today. The Government consulted from November to January on introducing an earnings threshold that would restrict free school meals to families with net earnings under £7,400 per annum. The consultation received 8,981 responses. However, the Government excluded 8,421 of those responses from their analysis, meaning that fewer than 4% of respondents agreed with the Government. Surely that goes against every rule of public consultations. Talk about statistics being used against vulnerable people!
In 2010, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions promised in the White Paper on universal credit that it would
“ensure that work always pays and is seen to pay. Universal Credit will mean that people will be consistently and transparently better off for each hour they work and every pound they earn.”
I am glad that my hon. Friend has picked out that point. She will have heard the Secretary of State saying that jobcentres would advise people not to take extra work or to get a pay rise because they would end up worse off. Is that not absolutely contrary to the whole principle of universal credit that she has just read out?
Yes, absolutely. We know that the Government are today reneging on the former Secretary of State’s commitment.
Free school meals are worth far more to a family than £400 a year per child. That might not seem to be a lot to some hon. Members, but to those families it is an absolute lifeline. By introducing a £7,400 threshold for eligibility, the Government are forcibly creating a cliff edge that will be detrimental to families, especially children. To give just one example, someone with three children in their family who earns just below the £7,400 threshold is set to lose out on £1,200-worth of free school meals if they work only a few extra hours or get a pay rise. The Opposition’s proposal would simply remove the huge cliff edge and the work disincentive for families who most need support. It would take away the barrier to working extra hours or seeking promotion. Our proposals would therefore make work pay. The Government’s proposal is in fact the new 16 hours, which they said was a disincentive.
Yes. We can all cite the numbers from our constituencies. Even Conservative Members need to think about what they are doing to some of the poorest children in their constituencies. In the example I just quoted, the family’s annual wages would need to increase from £7,400 to almost £11,000 to make up for what they would lose by rising above the eligibility cliff edge. That problem did not occur under the old tax credit system, because that provided an offsetting income boost at the point at which free school meals were withdrawn. However, there is no equivalent mitigation under universal credit.
The Children’s Society has been much maligned today and has been cited as giving duff statistics—Conservative Members should be ashamed of themselves. It estimates that the cliff edge will mean that a million children in poverty will miss out on free school meals once universal credit is fully rolled out. They will miss out on something that is crucial for their physical and mental development.
The Government have said that 50,000 more children will benefit by the end of the roll-out in 2022, when the transitional protections are at capacity, but I and many others struggle to understand how that can be the case. Parliamentary questions tabled by my hon. Friends and others have gone unanswered, and the Government cannot just pluck figures out of the air, as they claim so many others have done. At least we can back up our claims with evidence from the Children’s Society, Gingerbread, the Child Poverty Action Group and Citizens Advice, all of which agree that this statutory instrument would take free school meals away from a million future children—[Interruption.] It would. If the SI does not come into force, a million more children will receive free school meals—[Interruption.] Conservative Members can shake their heads all they like.
During my recent Westminster Hall debate, I offered Ministers a solution that would mean that all children in universal credit households would continue to receive free school meals. As somebody asked earlier, I can say that it would cost half a billion pounds—not a huge cost to feed over a million of the poorest children. My proposal would see around 1.1 million more children in years 3 and above from low-income families receiving free school meals compared with under this change.
If we were to maintain free school meals for absolutely everybody on universal credit, does the hon. Lady think it would be right to prioritise those coming from the legacy tax credit system, who could be earning up to £50,000 a year, instead of opening up eligibility and getting free school meals to more children in poverty?
I am running out of time, so— [Interruption.] Perhaps Conservative Members would let me finish before they use up all my time. I was going to say that while I cannot go into the full details, because of the time, I understand from the Children’s Society that a small number of people are getting up to £40,000. Those people are in large families with severely disabled children. The large amount of money is down to how much they receive for those children. It is disingenuous to use that as an example and to make out that all those families are receiving that amount.
The Minister claimed yesterday that my proposal would result in around half of all pupils becoming eligible, increasing the figure to 3.3 million children. Even the much-cited Channel 4 FactCheck article states that our proposal would extend to 1.1 million children, making the total 1.8 million children. When we talk about facts, Conservative Members need to get their facts right. Where do the extra 1.5 million children come from?
Opposition Members know that I have been the first to stand up and challenge the Government on universal credit, and the Government have listened. First, at the 2016 autumn statement, we reduced the taper rate from 65% to 63%, which cost the country £700 million but put around £300 into families’ pockets. Secondly, I worked with the Government at the end of last year to secure £1.5 billion of comprehensive improvements: two weeks’ extra housing benefit for those transitioning on to universal credit with housing payments; double the advance payment and twice as long to pay it back; direct payments to landlords; and a slowed-down roll-out. Those were all things that the Opposition asked for, so I am staggered that they are asking us to vote against them today.
For the past two years, I have worked not only with my colleagues, but proudly on a cross-party basis to achieve those improvements. Today is a big wake-up call. These motions are not about improving universal credit, but simply about playing politics. I have seen that for the first time. The Government have taken the time to understand how best to transfer a lump-sum benefit such as free school meals into a tapered system such as universal credit. An earnings threshold is perfectly acceptable to all reasonable people—by the way, we are talking about taxpayers. The only possible improvement I could encourage Ministers to look at is automatic entitlement if there is a disability in the family.
Let us get the facts straight. All reception, year 1 and year 2 children will continue to receive free school meals—full stop. The measures apply only to year 3 and beyond. All those currently receiving free school meals will continue to receive them until the end of their phase of schooling or 2022, whichever is the further away. Labour is creating false headlines by saying that any child will lose. Under the proposals, the Government will focus better on children who are in, or at risk of, poverty. That is, as we have heard, around 50,000 children by 2022.
Conservative Members know that no children will lose their existing entitlement to free school meals or free childcare as a result of our policies. Meanwhile, my jobcentre says that fear of universal credit is the biggest challenge that it faces in the roll-out. Will my hon. Friend comment on where that fear might be coming from?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. That fear is particularly prevalent on social media. There is a saying that a mistruth can travel halfway around the world before the truth has even put its boots on. That is happening with universal credit, aided and abetted by social media. Universal credit is not even in my constituency yet, but I hear from constituents who are worried about it. Oddly enough, I can put their minds completely at rest when I explain it to them.
As I have mentioned, tax credits recipients automatically get free school meals at the moment, which could mean that a family on £50,000 a year receives them. That cannot be right—[Interruption.] People on legacy tax credits who do not have disabilities in their family—those on the old benefit system who are transferring over—can have regular incomes of up to that level. The new system expands the criteria so that we can get to more children who need our support, not fewer.
Although I understand that a key part of any charity’s role is lobbying, I am disappointed in the Children’s Society. Its suggestion that 1 million children will lose free school meals is simply not true. Labour has jumped on that bandwagon, and it has taught me a lesson. There are colleagues from all parts of this House—SNP Members included—whom I trust and respect, and with whom I will continue to work to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society, but if people think that the Labour party is the answer to tackling poverty, they are being misled. Today—this is a big wake-up call to me—the Labour party has clearly shown that it is prioritising headlines over improving the lives of struggling families. If you want a headline spun, Mr Deputy Speaker, ask the Labour party; if you want a competent job done, ask the Tory party.
I want to focus on a single point. The proposals for eligibility for free school meals are catastrophic for work incentives in the welfare system. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith)—I am sad to see that he is not in his place—used to tell us that the central point of welfare reform was to improve work incentives, but these proposals rob universal credit of its most attractive feature.
The Secretary of State for Education used to be in charge of universal credit, but this is not so much a criticism of him as a criticism of his predecessors. Ministers in the Department for Education have had seven years to solve the problem—admittedly, it is difficult and technical—of how to define eligibility for free school meals against the backdrop of universal credit. Instead of solving the problem, they have simply adopted a very lazy solution. In doing so, they are creating a very big problem for work incentives in the welfare system. One day, future Ministers will have to resolve that problem. It is disappointing that under the leadership of the Secretary of State, who understands universal credit as well as anybody, they have gone down this very lazy line.
My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) has just quoted from the universal credit White Paper, which sets out the philosophy that underpins the new benefit. I will quote another bit from chapter 2, which makes clear the principle that
“increased effort will always result in increased reward.”
That is what UC is supposed to be about, but under these proposals that will not the case. As we have heard, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told us that, when someone is just below the threshold, the jobcentre will advise them not to put in any more effort, not to get a pay rise and not to put in more hours. The jobcentre will recognise that, if they were to do that, they would end up worse off.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. The whole idea about UC was that it was supposed to get rid of cliff edges and benefit traps, but instead it is introducing a benefit trap far bigger and far worse than anything in the old benefit system. This is completely scuppering the whole purpose of UC. If it is true, as the Secretary of State told us, that jobcentre coaches are going to say to people, “No, don’t take on extra work. Don’t get a pay rise. Don’t go for more hours because if you do, you will end up worse off,” how are people supposed to progress? Surely all of us would recognise that the point about this system is to encourage progression, not to have bureaucrats telling people, “Oh no, don’t progress because if you do, you’ll end up worse off.” This is a catastrophic holing of the whole purpose of UC, and it is not as though only a few people will be affected.
The prospectus was that UC would solve all these cliff edges and benefit traps, but instead it is creating one that is much bigger. It has been calculated—I am indebted to the Children’s Society for this calculation—that more than 1 million people will be caught in the trap if these proposals go ahead. I will explain to the Education Secretary exactly why that is; he can read this in briefing the Children’s Society has provided. Some 280,000 families are affected, containing between them more than 700,000 children. Among those are 125,000 families earning below the threshold who risk being worse off if they take on extra work or get a pay rise, as the Work and Pensions Secretary recognised. In addition, there are 150,000 families earning above the threshold who would be better off if they reduced their earnings to below the threshold, so that they would then qualify for free school meals. What sort of system is that? Everybody will recognise that we do not want a welfare system that puts people in that position, but that is the system we will end up with if this statutory instrument goes through. The Children’s Society calculates that almost 21,000 families—containing more than 80,000 children aged eight to 15—who earn more than £7,400 would be better off if they cut their earnings to below the threshold to qualify for school meals. This is a catastrophic arrangement.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate, particularly after my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen), whose speech was really powerful. It showed how badly Opposition Front Benchers have misjudged this debate. For weeks, outside this House, they have sought to pretend that we are taking free school meals off 1 million children, but that has come to this House and has bombed, because it is not true. The reality is that not a single child currently eligible for free school meals will lose them and that, under UC, 50,000 more children will be eligible for free school meals. This shows the limits of an approach that is all about the viral video and getting something that goes around on social media quickly; it goes too quickly for the fact-checkers to catch up with, but when it comes to this House and we learn the facts, it absolutely bombs.
If people are serious about being in government, they have to make choices, and this Government have made choices. The Opposition say they would like simply to give free school meals out universally, as part of a wider strategy in which we can just spend more money on everything and no one will have to pay any more tax—of course, it is all nonsense. It is the kind of dangerous nonsense that led to the Government borrowing a quarter of all the money they were spending in 2010, a disastrous situation in which we also had half a million men and women thrown on the dole in the worst economic meltdown for a generation.
If we choose priorities that enable us to do important things for working families with children, that allows us to extend eligibility for the new tax-free childcare from 600,000 people to 1.5 million people, to have important things such as the 30 hours’ free childcare offer, to have the important two-year-old childcare offer, which under UC is being expanded by another 7,000, and to have the more generous childcare element of UC, which is going up from 75% to 85%.
Prioritisation also helps with important interventions such as the pupil premium, with another £2.5 billion for the most disadvantaged children, and the new fair funding formula for schools, which is backed up by another £1.3 billion. The year 7s I met the other day at Beauchamp College in my constituency, of whom 60% will be eligible for the pupil premium, will get to go to Cambridge, do a science project and see their lives and opportunities absolutely transformed, because we are prepared to take the difficult decisions, to invest in those children’s futures and to give them a better chance in life.
It is incredibly important that we do not simply drift back to the mistakes of the past. Compared with what it was like when I was at school, the help for children who are less advantaged is so much better now. We have done brilliant things such as destigmatising free school meals: pupils no longer go in with their money, so it cannot be seen who is on free school meals and who is not. When I think back to what it was like when I was at school, I can see the big improvement we have made since my generation.
We have seen big improvements for working families with children because even as we have brought down the worst Government Budget deficit in this country’s entire peacetime history, we have prioritised, and we have done so in ways that help the most vulnerable and that help to improve life chances for those who do not have them.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, in which I wish to focus my remarks on childcare and free school meals.
I put on record that the Liberal Democrats are proud of the role that we played in the coalition Government to secure a generous tax-free offer on childcare that helps many families. Although it is true that it will extend to more families, it is also true that many others will be left out. That was never the intention. Many parents—particularly those with older children, lower childcare costs or lower incomes—will find themselves worse off under tax-free childcare than they would have been with childcare vouchers. It is unfair to close the scheme to new entrants, particularly because, unsurprisingly, the information about the closure of the scheme has not been spread as far and wide as it could have been. I urge all those parents who are listening to the debate—I am sure that there are many—to do their research before April, so that they can decide what is best for their families. All we are suggesting is that tax-free childcare and childcare vouchers are kept open concurrently, so that we can provide maximum flexibility for families. Surely, the Government would agree that that would be a good thing.
I hope that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the former Liberal Democrat Ministers David Laws and Sarah Teather for battling to secure universal free school meals for all children in key stage 1. Soon after I was elected, I visited West Oxford Community Primary School and had the pleasure of meeting the catering manager. She told me that, despite being sceptical of the policy initially, she now thinks it is brilliant. She took great pride in telling me of a boy from a deprived background who did not eat much veg at home because it is quite expensive. Slowly—slowly—she got him to love broccoli.
I am a primary school governor, and the teachers at the school are absolutely clear—this is backed up by the evidence—that universal free school meals are beneficial for learning and attainment and help all children. The Government like to nick Liberal Democrat policies—including same-sex marriage, the pupil premium and lifting the income tax threshold, as we heard in the spring statement earlier—and I am not precious, so they can have another one: extend free school meals to all children in primary schools. If not that, they could at least extend them to all children on universal credit.
Unlike under tax credits, universal credit creates an absurd situation wherein a single-parent household on the national living wage will have to work eight more hours to make it work. Surely, that is not what the Government intended. Linked to that, of course, is the fact that the number of children on free school meals will affect the pupil premium. I posit that that is the reason why the Government will not roll out free school meals to all children on universal credit—because, yes, it would be prohibitively expensive and would stop the targeting of the pupil premium.
May I suggest to the Secretary of State that, to sort that out, just decouple them? They are, in their own right, worthy policies. They are policies that are working and there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. May I urge the Government to think again on free school meals and to think again on closing the childcare voucher scheme?
It is good to follow the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). She talked about the years when our two parties were in coalition, and we all recognise and welcome the fact that we have those universal free school meals for infant children; it was a positive step forward.
I was not intending to speak in this debate this afternoon—and I am someone who is always happy to debate with anyone—but I was moved to speak not just because I have received quite a bit of correspondence from concerned constituents on this matter, but because I genuinely believe that it is incumbent on all Members of this House to argue and to make their points. In doing so, though, we must make sure that what we say is grounded in fact, and that we do not play fast and loose with the arguments, because what we say here has very real consequences for people in our constituencies.
Some very worried parents have been in contact with me today. This situation is rather like the time when the shadow Front Bench claimed that 40,000 children would wake up in poverty on Christmas day because the Tories refused to pause and fix universal credit, and the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority said that that was not fully supported by the statistics and the sources on which it had relied. I am afraid that it appears to me that the Opposition are at it again. Therefore, I want to use my remarks this afternoon to speak directly to those concerned parents in Corby and east Northamptonshire who have been in touch with me about this issue.
First, we would all agree that free school meals, and the provision of those free school meals, should be targeted at the most disadvantaged children; I would like to think that there was universal agreement on that point. To say that meals are being taken away from those disadvantaged children is simply plain wrong. It is not just me who is saying it—[Interruption.] Opposition Members can chunter all they like, but that is the case. The independent “Channel 4 News” FactCheck website exposed all of this for exactly what it is and I recommend that everybody takes a look at it. “Channel 4 News” would not necessarily be considered to be a friend of the Conservative party, but it made this point none the less. No child will lose their free school meals during the roll-out of universal credit as a result of these changes. In actual fact, an extra 50,000 children will probably have access to free school meals by 2022. I would welcome that, and I would expect the Opposition to welcome that, too. I cannot possibly see what there is to argue against in that position. Again, I make the point that, since 2010, we have extended the availability of access to free school meals to disadvantaged students in further education and introduced universal infant free school meals.
We should not look at this issue in isolation; other things are going on as well that are very important to those families. Not only do we have record numbers of people in employment, but we have also taken 4 million of the lowest paid out of income tax altogether. We have cut income tax for 31 million people in this country, and we have focused on the principle that being in work should always pay. Any fair-minded person in this country would agree that that is the right approach, but that, of course, there should always be a safety net for those who find themselves in need. That is exactly what this policy, in a holistic sense, allows.
I am proud of our record. I have to say that I am slightly perplexed by where we find ourselves today, because rather like on police funding, on local government funding, and on protecting our industries from dumping on our market, the Labour party tonight will vote against extending free school meals for another 50,000 children, and I find that extraordinary.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove). The Government know that stopping free school meals for the poorest children is a shameful policy. They sought to bring the measures in using statutory instruments, in the hope that any challenge would be ineffective. It is clear that the Government do not want to explain this indefensible change.
Some 3,700 children in Bedford are set to miss out on vital support if free school meals are withdrawn from families on universal credit. The Government need to understand that the poverty trap is very easy to get into, but very difficult to get out of. Every penny counts for those families, and for many working families there simply are not enough pennies to get through the month. Last summer, 47% of children who received support from food banks were between five and 11 years old.
I am sorry, but I cannot. Many other Members want to speak and it is fair to give them a chance.
During the summer holidays 4,412 more three-day emergency food supplies were given to children than in previous months, and 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?
A number of Members want to speak. It would be unfair if I gave way, as the hon. Gentleman has spoken already.
Why would a Government who claim to want to tackle inequality, to help the disadvantaged, to tackle child obesity and to help out those who are just about managing come up with a policy that does the exact opposite? The new earnings limit is a huge step backwards. According to the Children’s Society, 1 million children in poverty who could benefit now will not. This policy also undermines one of the main reasons given for introducing universal credit in the first place—to ensure that “work always pays”. The new rules will create a situation where working families will be punished for taking on extra hours or accepting a pay rise because they would have their free school meals taken away. These are worth around £400 a year per child—a huge sum for those on a low income.
A recent report from the Food Foundation highlights the deprivation gap, which has increased by more than 50% in a decade. Children in the poorest areas of England are twice as likely to be obese as their wealthier neighbours. The Government could have tackled that problem by increasing the uptake of free school meals and ensuring that all children from low-income households receive a nutritious meal at lunchtime. Instead they are taking those meals away. The Government should have learned from their attempts to take away free school meals in the manifesto that they put to the country last year that they have no mandate to reduce school meals and it makes no sense to do so. Schools cannot teach hungry children. If the Government were serious about life chances and social mobility, they would not be taking food out of the mouths of babes.
We live in strange political times both in this country and across the Atlantic, where we frequently hear reports about fake news. In such times it is therefore particularly incumbent on Members of all parties in this House to be very careful about the way in which they use and present facts, because democratic discourse is impossible without honest and accurate facts. We undermine our entire system of democracy when elected Members of this Parliament play fast and loose with facts.
We have heard Members in this debate saying that free school meals are going to be reduced—that was the phrase used by the previous speaker. Other Opposition Members have said that free school meals would be “taken away”. It is clear that those statements are not accurate. Several colleagues have referred to the “Channel 4 News” FactCheck discourse on this matter, and it is clear that no children currently in receipt of free school meals will have them taken away. In fact, more children will receive free school meals as a result of these proposals. It is simply untrue to say that 1 million children will have their free school meals taken away or reduced. By making comments implying that, the shadow Education Secretary, who I can see chuntering, is doing our democracy a disservice.
Perhaps the hon. Lady is trying to insinuate that there was a Government policy that would have provided extra school meals, but for some kind of U-turn. The “Channel 4 News” FactCheck is clear about that as well, and the Government have also been clear about it. There was an interim transitional measure. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), when he was a junior Skills Minister, made that clear when the scheme was set up in April 2013, and my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), when he was a junior Education Minister, made the same point last July. It is wholly inaccurate to suggest that there was ever a hypothetical Government policy under which these children would ever have received extra school meals.
The shadow Education Secretary has done this House and herself a great disservice—[Interruption.] Indeed she has the right to speak, but she ought to take care to be accurate when she does so, because her words matter and she should weigh them carefully.
The hon. Lady and her party have suggested that everybody in receipt of universal credit should receive free school meals. That has never been the policy of the Government, but apparently it is the policy of the Labour party. That would entail about 50% of schoolchildren receiving free school meals. She was asked, in a direct question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), how much this policy, which goes beyond that in the Labour manifesto, would cost and how she would pay for it, but she declined to answer. If she is advocating this policy which goes far beyond current Government policy—as she clearly is—she ought to explain how much it would cost and how she would pay for it, because promising things for free without explaining how they would be paid for is a deeply irresponsible thing to do. I will support the Government in this evening’s Divisions.
It is time to be frank. Universal credit is currently a failure. It is not working how it was meant to. It is not supporting the people who need it. Its roll-out happened too fast, which meant that there has not been time to fix the many issues that have been brought to the House’s attention.
Twenty-four per cent. of children in my constituency live in poverty. In some areas, that figure increases to 40%. For some of the children whose parents are on universal credit, the hot, nutritionally balanced meal they have for lunch at school will be their main meal of the day. In no way is that a good situation to face, but at least those children are being fed. Well, not if Government Front Benchers have anything to do with it. Removing free school meals from those families who are claiming universal credit and who need them the most is deplorable. What kind of society do we want to live in? What Government in their right mind would take a hot meal off a child in need?
I am going to make progress.
Let me take hon. Members back to the 2016 Conservative party conference, where the Prime Minister said:
“I want to set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics built on the values of fairness and opportunity where everyone plays by the same rules and where every single person—regardless of their background, or that of their parents—is given the chance to be all they want to be. And as I do so, I want to be clear about something else: that a vision is nothing without the determination to see it through. No vision ever built a business by itself. No vision ever clothed a family or fed a hungry child. No vision ever changed a country on its own. You need to put the hours in and the effort too.”
Why are the Government not following the Prime Minister’s vision? Is it another sign of how she is in position but not in power? If she still believes in her own words, she must stand up and stop this attack on the poorest in our society.
My local authority, Kirklees Council, has seen a 20% increase in pupils claiming free school meals over the last four years, which goes to show how hard the Government’s austerity programme is hitting families. There has been a huge spike in food bank use, which also shows that we are a country on the cliff edge. Food banks do an amazing job of supporting those in need, and I commend the work of local food banks such as the Welcome Centre, which serves my constituency.
What kind of country do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a country where a child clings to a teacher’s hand as the school holidays approach, not wanting to leave school because they know they will be hungry for the next six weeks? Do we want to live in a country that chooses to let disadvantaged children go hungry? Do we want to live in a country where a child comes to school with a lunchbox filled only with a slice of stale bread? I have witnessed those things, and I can say that it is certainly not the kind of country I want to live in. Some 6,400 children in Kirklees will lose their free school meals because of the Government’s actions. I will bring my remarks to a close with a thought from Buzz Aldrin: if we can conquer space, we can conquer childhood hunger.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker), but I have not heard any real vision at all from Labour Members. It is disgraceful that their only vision for working-class people in this country is to remain on benefits. Universal credit is getting people into work. Some 63% of people on universal credit get into work, compared with 59% who were on jobseeker’s allowance.
No one can tell me that I do not know what it is like to grow up in a working-class family. I grew up in a working-class area of south London, where there was no hope or aspiration for working-class kids like me. We were told that all we would achieve was a lifetime on benefits. Our working-class communities up and down this country can achieve a lot more, and universal credit will help them to do so.
The second reason I am particularly angry with Labour Members is that they are spreading fear. I think they underestimate the fear they are causing in this country. When I was growing up, my family were poor. My dad worked as a labourer, and he did not often know when his next job was coming. If his job finished early, he did not get paid. If the subcontractor did not get paid, he did not get paid. There is a sickening, gnawing feeling in your stomach when you are not sure where the next penny is coming from. To tell 1 million families in this country that they will lose free school meals when that is absolutely wrong is scandalous, and Labour Members should be ashamed.
Let me reiterate the facts. All children in reception, year 1 and year 2 will continue to get free school meals, thanks to this Government. No existing recipients of universal credit will lose free school meals, thanks to this Government. Some 50,000 extra children will get free school meals who currently do not, and that is down to this Government. The means testing will not affect those who are earning just over £7,000, but those who are earning around £19,000 to £24,000. I do not think that Labour Members understand the impact they have when they spread this fear—and it is not a genuine mistake; it is political point scoring and using working-class families in this country as a political football. They should be ashamed of themselves.
I will be supporting the Government. I will be supporting 50,000 vulnerable families getting free school meals. If Labour Members vote against those working-class families, they need to look at themselves in the mirror, because it is the same thing they did a few months ago when they voted against 60,000 young people in this country benefiting from the abolition of stamp duty for first-time buyers. Labour Members talk about supporting working-class families in this country, but it is the Conservative Government who are actually delivering for them.
I will limit my remarks to the universal credit portion of this debate. In accepting the failures so far, the Government have made some changes, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) pointed out, the changes due to come into force in April do not go far enough. Ministers should pause the roll-out of universal credit and review all the processes.
I want to go through a couple of the issues, but I could speak for a lot longer on many of the issues affecting my constituents. My constituency was a pilot area from 2013, and went from live service to full service in June 2016. Local agencies, Highland Council and I have been voicing such concerns since the pilot, and the proposed measures do not scratch the surface of what is required. The Secretary of State said earlier that this benefit will be “at the cutting edge”. I say to those yet to experience full service that, yes, they will see more cutting, particularly when it comes to the housing arrears that are being built up.
Like other local authorities, Highland Council is paying the price, and this will have an impact on all our communities, not just on people who are on universal credit. The additional administration costs alone are running at hundreds of thousands of pounds, but rent arrears continue to soar and will have an impact on the delivery of much needed housing, for example.
I welcome any change that allows such things to happen. I would point out that we made that request of the Government for many years, and the concession was finally made, as I have pointed out, but much more needs to be done.
Rent arrears continue to soar, as I have said. Rent arrears due to universal credit were already at £1.6 million in Highland in 2016, but they were at £2.2 million in March 2017, and just six months later they were at £2.7 million. The average rent arrears for someone not on universal credit is £250, but for those on universal credit it is £840. We know that 30% of private landlords have already evicted a tenant because of universal credit arrears. According to the DWP’s own figures, this means that over 70,000 tenants in private accommodation face the threat of eviction due to the shambles of universal credit.
The UK Government continue to ignore the plight of people with a terminal illness who are forced to meet work coaches. I give credit to my local jobcentre, which has tried to put in place local workarounds to overcome the faults in the process. The UK Government must listen to MND Scotland, MND UK and Macmillan CAB, and remove these conditions to allow the terminally ill and their families some dignity as they face the end of their life. I ask Ministers to meet me to discuss how that can be brought forward. MND UK has said it does not believe that people who have claimed using DS 1500 should have to meet and have a conversation with a work coach, as this is highly inappropriate. The Government have already been found to have acted unlawfully in relation to 1.6 million people, at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £3.7 billion, and they should not risk the same kind of slap-down over their treatment of the terminally ill.
As the roll-out continues, many more right hon. and hon. Members will feel the sharp effects on people and their communities. Ministers should go further in acknowledging the systemic failures before it adds more costs to people’s lives and drains local government of vital resources.
I am pleased to be called to speak in this important debate, and it is a pleasure to follow so many powerful speeches by Conservative Members.
Yet again, we heard it said from the Labour Front Bench that children in poverty will lose out in relation to free school meals. First, that is factually inaccurate; and, secondly, figures on poverty are often bandied around in this place, but it is time we had a grown-up conversation about both poverty in general and child poverty in particular. So often, the Labour party uses relative poverty as a measure. When there is a recession, a fall in average earnings will of course mean that suddenly—hey presto!—children are lifted out of poverty: the poverty statistics improve. For example, in 2008, following Labour’s recession, there was a sharp reduction in the proportion of children in workless families living in relative poverty. Living standards had not improved and incomes had not increased, but, as a result of the measure that Labour used, suddenly children were lifted out of poverty. Conversely, when real wages rise, poverty rates increase, despite the fact that people’s incomes have not fallen.
It is time we had a grown-up conversation about this, because relying on that measure fails to tackle the root causes of poverty and could result in Governments pursuing skewed policies. Work remains the best route out of poverty, which is why I firmly support universal credit and these measures. These measures are part of a £1.5 billion package brought in by this Government. Frankly, I am surprised that Opposition Members will not support them this evening.
That brings me to free school meals. Children currently in receipt of free school meals will not lose out. In fact, 50,000 more children will benefit from free school meals than under the legacy benefits system. Free schools meals should be targeted at the most vulnerable. It is not a fair allocation of resources that a family with a total income in excess of £40,000 is entitled to free school meals. Neither would it be right and proper to aim free school meals at 50% of children, yet that is what would happen if these measures are not allowed to proceed this evening. Free school meals should be targeted at the most disadvantaged. These measures will ensure that help is targeted at those who need it most, and that should attract support from both sides of the House.
I have been texting my team furiously during the debate to check, double check and triple check that what I am about to say is accurate. I asked them to ring the DWP and the Library and then assure me that this is right. The vast majority of my constituents who currently receive tax credits are not on universal credit and will not be migrated on to it for some time, and they will not be protected by transitional arrangements, which will not apply. I have just checked this with the DWP and the Library. This is about the future denial of free schools meals, and it is valid that we have a conversation about that. I am not interested in embellishment in this debate, because the truth is enough.
For people who are in work and in poverty, or looking for work and in poverty, food is a huge part of their expenditure. It is a never-ending struggle to make sure that there is enough to eat, and that children are getting enough to keep them healthy and well. Children cannot concentrate in school when they are hungry—we all know the arguments. For many young people, that one hot meal is all they will get. I have not been told, despite the claim being repeated time and again, what calculation was used to reach the figure of 50,000 for the number of extra children who will get free school meals. I am sorry, but I am just not able to believe that on a whim, or on a calculation that was plucked out of thin air.
Under the current system, families are normally entitled to free school meals if their income is under £16,190. That will be changed to £7,400 per year, unless it is covered by transitional protections. The reduction to £7,400 is, frankly, delusional. Who will it help? What is the figure based on? Which advisers, experts or charitable organisations have the Government met who actually think that slashing the threshold is a good idea for children in low-income households? The BBC rang around headteachers to try to get a quote on these changes, but not one headteacher knew about them, so what consultation has there been with schools?
There are 2,000 children in my constituency who rightly receive subsidised school meals. The reason that new claimants after 1 April will not be protected is not that they no longer need that protection or need those meals; it is due to arbitrary cuts. This change will ensure that more children are in poverty and that more people have to access food banks. The Government may be able to justify that in this Chamber, but how can they justify it to a child? Taking all the proposed changes together with all the changes that have already happened to the so-called social security system, the only conclusion I can draw is that there is no security anymore. That is not embellishment: I know poverty when I see it staring me in the face in my constituency surgeries. We do not need to lie, we do not need to embellish. The truth is good enough: these changes are shambolic.
As a fellow north-easterner who also has a great deal of poverty in his constituency, perhaps I might be allowed to speak in this debate.
I will be blunt. I am tired of the Opposition playing games with this issue, not just today but over the preceding weeks and months. Let us be very clear: by 2022, 50,000 more children will have free school meals than is the case today. Nobody—not one child in any school, anywhere in our country—is going to lose the free school meal they currently receive. I must admit that I am somewhat surprised, even by the standards of the Labour party, by today’s claims. It was only a month ago, in response to a letter from me, that the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, wrote to rebuke the now former shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), about her use of statistics in this field. All the claims were found by the UK Statistics Authority not to be supported by statistics, or by the sources on which they purported to rely.
We can add today the frenzied assertion that universal credit will leave 1 million children without a free hot school meal. That is wrong, not just because of its flimsy attachment to reality, but because it creates needless anxiety in the communities we serve. We need to be very clear about why universal credit is being introduced in the first place. The hostile approach with which Labour has chosen to approach the issue is regrettable and damaging. It is not about what is right for the jobless or for the working poor in our society; it is about what is in the electoral interests of the Labour party.
The reality is that the professionals I have spoken to at the DWP have told me repeatedly that this system is working and that they believe it is doing the right thing by the people whom they serve. Women like Sindy Skelton—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) wants to accuse Sindy of being a liar or of misleading me in some way, but I think that jobcentre staff up and down our country have every right to be angry at the way in which they are permanently castigated by Opposition Members as somehow the embodiment of a cruel and faceless state. Ministers have demonstrated time after time that they will take whatever action is necessary to make sure that universal credit delivers the outcomes we all want. If Labour is serious about helping people into work, and serious about supporting the most vulnerable in our society, it should give up the cheap posturing we have seen today. Many Labour Members know in their heart of hearts that they have over-embellished and laid things on a bit too thick. In the end, there is a serious debate to be had about poverty reduction.
My hon. Friend made a very powerful speech on this theme earlier. I think what she says is true. In fact, there is a pretty sparse attendance on the Opposition Benches, given that this was meant to be an open goal. This was absolutely all about clips for the TV news, Facebook pages and Twitter—“The heartless Tories ripping food out of the hands of kids.” Well, that is not happening. None of us came into politics to make anyone’s lives worse. I am sick and tired of being told that we are somehow the bad guys because we believe in running a balanced economy and focusing on helping those in need, rather than trying to use them as political footballs to achieve political goals.
As the chair of the all-party group on universal credit, I want to lay out the facts of the measures for Members from across the House. I am very sorry that they have not been before Select Committees to allow them to look properly at the case. Unfortunately, the facts in the Government’s case are wrong. They claim that this is about parents of school-age children who are on about £7,400 a year and say that, with other benefits, those people will be on between £18,000 and £24,000 a year. However, according to the benefits calculator on the gov.uk website, we are thinking about a single parent with one school-age child who is on £14,200. She will be on the poverty line but will not be eligible for free school meals. Under tax credits, that single parent would have been £1,600 a year better off. She will lose that money and her child will not be able to claim free school meals. She will be £25 a week worse off and will still have to pay around £11.25 a week towards school meals. She does not get a free school meal at the moment, but she can afford that, because she is on tax credits, which is a far more generous system.
This is the trouble with universal credit: it cuts an average of £1,300 a year from working single parents. At the moment, one in three of the children of these single parents is in poverty. Gingerbread, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Children’s Society, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation all say that universal credit will increase the number of children in poverty over the next four years by 1 million. Not only will those children be in poverty, but now, thanks to a statutory instrument, they will not be able to claim free school meals. They will not get that hot, nutritious meal at lunchtime that will help them to concentrate throughout the day and to realise the levels of nutrition that they need. This also affects their eligibility for school trips through the pupil premium.
My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), the chair of the all-party group on school food, gave Education Ministers the proposal of delinking the pupil premium to enable pupils to still be able to receive free school meals. Children might not be in poverty now and might not be receiving a free school meal, but they will be in poverty in four years’ time, thanks to the cuts introduced under universal credit. They will not be eligible for a free school meal either, and they should be. Not to make that change, not to look properly at it and to go on figures about benefits that are wrong—to try to mislead the House with figures in a consultation document that are blatantly wrong about the people’s income—does a disservice to the 1 million children and the 280,000 families who will be on the cliff edge and seeing a disincentive to work. Across this House, we all want to see an incentive to work. Any parent with children who is earning between £7,400 and around £11,000 a year will not be better off in work.
My hon. Friend mentioned decoupling the pupil premium. Under the Digital Economy Act 2017, that is now possible. Schools already know how to claim pupil premium for the universal infant free school meals offer. Does she agree that we are totally able to decouple the two?
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. In a Westminster Hall debate a few weeks ago, Conservative Members said it was because of the cost of the pupil premium that they did not want free school meals extended, and that we could therefore set the pupil premium at the level proposed by the Government. We must, however, make sure that every child in poverty is entitled to the free school meals they need so that they have a better chance in school and better life chances, and to ensure that we try to eradicate child hunger instead of increasing it.
We are here to improve lives and to raise the sum of human happiness. We know that the best way out of poverty is work and that purposeful work is the key to human happiness, and we all want to give kids the best possible start in life, which includes meals for the poorest and high-quality pre-school childcare, which we know improves outcomes for the most disadvantaged children in our country.
We know, too, that universal credit is helping to improve lives. It has been on offer in my constituency for some time and has now been fully rolled out. The feedback I get from the jobcentres that serve my constituency—job coaches tell me this with great passion—is that it is helping them to help people, and helping people to get into work, increase their hours and find better work. It is overwhelmingly a good thing. I spoke to my local citizens advice bureau to find out what problems it was experiencing, following rumours that universal credit was causing trouble, and on the day I went in, there had been two calls about universal credit. I asked what they were. One was, “How can I get it?”, and the other was, “Am I eligible?” So people were calling the CAB because they wanted to be on universal credit, because they had heard good things about it. I am therefore really concerned that we are hearing such misleading information in the Chamber, when we know that universal credit is helping people to get into work, stay in work and find better work.
The Government have listened to and addressed concerns about universal credit, for instance by giving people better access to advance payments and not making them wait for payments. The Government are doing exactly the right thing to make universal credit work even better, and Labour Members should be supporting that, not trying to block it. I am worried that they are stuck in the 1970s. Perhaps then it was okay to give up on people and condemn them to a life on benefits, but we know now that that is not the right thing to do. They should be supporting us to help their constituents to get into work and stay in work.
On free school meals, we have seen a shocking abuse of figures. We know that as a result of the Government’s policies, 50,000 more children will get free school meals and no child will lose their right to them, so let us not have any scaremongering about children losing free school meals. Let us also have a bit more clarity about how Labour might pay for their proposals which, according to latest estimates, would cost the country an extra £100 billion and increase borrowing per family by £4,000. I say to Labour Members, “Let us do the right thing.” Let us not play party politics, but help to make people’s lives better.
I am mindful of the time, so I will not take up as much of it as I had planned.
It is disappointing that there are now few ways in which the House can express its opinion, but one of those ways is by our debating and voting on statutory instruments. We see time and again on Opposition days the House making its voice clear. In October, the House voted by 299 votes to zero to call for a halt to the roll-out of universal credit, but that did not happen. Conservative Members talk about parliamentary sovereignty and the will of the House being listened to, but they do not then follow through. I am glad, therefore, that we have an opportunity today, on a binding vote, to make our view clear to the Government.
Today we are debating four statutory instruments. I will focus on the one relating to universal credit, but before I do so, I want to touch on childcare vouchers. I and many other Members are worried about the UK Government’s plans to close the childcare voucher scheme, so we urge them to reconsider. I want to draw a contrast with some of the family-friendly policies that we are pursuing north of the border, such as the baby box scheme, which gives children the very best start in life from birth—that sends a strong signal about equality. We have free school meals for children in primaries 1 to 3 and the doubling of childcare provision. On the latter, I must declare an interest, as my son is starting nursery in August, and is very excited about going to Sgòil Àraich Lyoncross. The Scottish Government have made it clear that children should be able to get such childcare, and it is good that we are delivering on that.
I wish to commend the new city government in Glasgow led by Susan Aitken. In the last council budget, they announced that free school meals would be rolled out to primary 4. As someone who is married to a primary school teacher, I know at first hand the importance of schoolchildren having a warm and nutritious meal inside them. I welcome the efforts of Glasgow City Council to tackle holiday hunger as well.
I will focus briefly on universal credit, because I am mindful of the time. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), who has done a power of work on universal credit since long before it was fashionable to talk about it. He has, I believe, been pursuing the issue since 2013. I think that his work on terminal illness is especially important. There have been some pretty unedifying scenes on both sides of the Chamber today. We should be mindful of the fact that we are talking about real people, and, in particular, about people with terminal illnesses. That message should go to all of us, including me.
I have made it clear to journalists that I have no interest in being on “Newsnight” or “Question Time”, or in clocking up views in Nigeria on YouTube like my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black). I see the job of being a Member of Parliament as being out in the constituency listening to people and hearing about lived experiences. I appreciate that at various points during the debate, the Government will say that the Opposition are scaremongering, and they can say that to a certain extent—they would be expected to say it. However, as a constituency Member of Parliament, I speak to constituents regularly, and people at the Parkhead housing association, the West of Scotland housing association and the Glasgow NE food bank say that universal credit must be halted.
I have a qualified welcome for this important debate. I will touch briefly on universal credit and free school meals.
On universal credit, I welcome what has been done by the Chancellor and a succession of Secretaries of State. Universal credit is there to get people into work and to ensure that, when they are in work, they can take on more work, make progress in their careers and, ideally, cease to be dependent on welfare payments. That is what we want to happen, and the system has been reformed over the years to become better and better.
I have very little time, but I want to highlight the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen). She captured brilliantly the reforms that have been delivered in recent years and made the point that a debate that should have been about improving universal credit has turned into a headline-grabbing agenda by the Labour party.
I have visited the two jobcentres that serve my constituency, and the enthusiasm of the staff in both of them for universal credit was incredible. I was blown away by their support for it. They can help people now: rather than being faceless, grey, stand-offish organisations, they can engage with people in a way that has not been possible for them before. We should support universal credit enthusiastically—and, yes, where improvements need to be made, let us make them.
On free school meals, we ought to have a vision that the children who are most in need should receive them, but they should not be received by the children of those who are earning a significantly higher amount of money. It is disappointing that Labour Members will vote today to prevent 50,000 children—the poorest children in our country—from receiving free school meals when universal credit is rolled out and will vote to ensure that families with an income of more than £40,000 a year continue to receive them. I think that the Labour party has the wrong values, but it is not just the Labour party: in my constituency, the Liberal Democrats have been putting out propaganda saying that the children of those who earn more than £7,400 a year will no longer receive free school meals. That is not a cut-off; it is only a fraction of the actual income.
Because of the time constraint, I will end my speech by saying that I support the Government and their actions.
I would like to feel able to thank every Member who has spoken in the debate, but, frankly, the only meals Tory Members are interested in are when their rich donors pay them to have them. Those are the only meals they are interested in. [Interruption.] That is all they are interested in.
That has upset Tory Members; they are deeply upset about it. The four statutory instruments taken together would end childcare vouchers, restrict the number of children receiving free school meals and limit access to universal credit for the self-employed and disabled people.
No, I will not.
Far from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, this Government have indicated once more their relentless desire to throw some of the poorest into the shade. While the Chancellor came to the House today to pat himself on the back, with no sense of irony whatsoever, these new regulations remind us that austerity is far from over. Depriving some of the poorest children in the country access to a free school meal on its own would be considered shameful, but paired with the restriction on childcare vouchers and the introduction of tougher criteria for universal credit, we have a cruel cocktail of cuts and misery—and Tory Members know a lot about cocktails as well when they are at their meals.
The Children’s Society estimates—[Interruption.] Fact check: the Children’s Society estimates that the changes the measures the Government are seeking to introduce will see 1 million children in poverty unable to benefit from free school meals because of them pulling the rug on the current transitional arrangements, and to add insult to injury, by setting an income threshold for the children of those on universal credit to qualify for free school meals, the Government are creating a cliff-hanger which will leave around 350,000 families worse off. [Interruption.]
The hon. Gentleman now has to answer one very simple question. He and his whole Front -Bench team have been putting it about that 1 million children will lose their right to free school meals. Will he now stand at the Dispatch Box and apologise to the House for misleading the public?
What I will say is this—[Interruption.] If Tory Members want to listen, I am more than happy to say this:
“I am unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self-imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.”
That is from the right hon. Gentleman’s resignation letter.
Why do the Government feel the need to cut the number of children who are eligible for free school meals? Why are the Conservatives keen to limit the number of parents eligible for childcare vouchers? And why do Ministers seem content with ensuring that the self-employed and disabled on universal credit are worse off and at further risk of sanctions?
The Chancellor’s mantra, as with his predecessor, has been fiscal prudence, a concept hijacked by an ideologue for ideological purposes. He has long proclaimed, whether on spending on public services or on the welfare state, that there must be belt-tightening. In the name of balancing the Budget, we have seen almost a fifth of women’s refuge shelters close under this Government’s cuts, while 41% of children’s services are unable to perform their statutory duties. Yet the Chancellor can somehow conjure up money to give large multinational corporations and the wealthiest £70 billion-worth of tax cuts by the end of the Parliament; no belt-tightening there.
If we look at the decision to cut the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p alone, research—fact—has shown that those earning over £1 million pounds a year have saved on average £554,000 from 2013 to 2018. There was no belt-tightening there, either. [Interruption.]
Over the past five years, this tax cut has cost the British taxpayer £8.4 billion. That £8.4 billion could instead have fully funded universal credit, extended free school meals or ensured tax-free childcare for all. Fact check: that is a fact.
Childcare remains the biggest cost for working households. For some families, the childcare bill is crippling their finances. The childcare voucher scheme is not only popular but well subscribed, with some 780,000 parents using vouchers and more than 50,000 employers offering childcare voucher schemes. Most employers who provide vouchers currently do so through salary sacrifice schemes, exempting recipients from income tax and national insurance on vouchers up to a maximum of £55 a week. The scheme has its flaws—for example, it does not cover self-employed people and requires employers to be registered—but overall, most parents and employers who use the scheme believe that the system works, and an overwhelming majority want it to stay. There is another fact check.
It is not really surprising that the Government are planning to pass regulations this evening that would close the scheme to new applicants, particularly considering their shambolic introduction of the alternative tax-free childcare scheme. The Government’s much-awaited tax-free childcare scheme opened to parents this year, a full five years since it was originally announced. [Interruption.] That is another fact that Conservative Members do not like. To call the roll-out disastrous would be a grave understatement. On top of the delays, HMRC’s website crashed, forcing the Government to pay nearly £1 million to parents in lieu of childcare payments. Hardly a great start! Under the current voucher system, the amount of childcare a family gets is tied to their earnings. Under the new system, it is based instead on expenditure, so the childcare system will benefit those who can afford to spend the most, with the Government’s headline figure of £2,000 tax free reserved for those parents who have an extra £10,000 lying around.
It is well known that the tax-free childcare scheme is the pet project of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. She has consistently called for better value for money when it comes to public spending and said that the Government should avoid spending money that they do not have. However, under the new scheme, parents sending their children to independent schools will also be able to claim the £2,000 tax-free amount for childcare. How can the Chief Secretary justify that? Surely, the money spent giving a tax break to those who can afford to send their children to some of the most expensive fee-paying schools in the country could instead be used to ensure that a million children do not lose access to free school meals. There is no reason why the Government should not listen to the calls of the Opposition, of parents and of employers across the country who want to keep the voucher scheme open and extend it to the self-employed.
I should like to turn now to the Local Authority (Duty to Secure Early Years Provision Free of Charge) (Amendment) Regulations 2018 and the Universal Credit (Miscellaneous Amendments, Saving and Transitional Provision) Regulations 2018. As we have heard, the first of these instruments creates new eligibility criteria for families applying for 15 hours of free childcare for their two-year-old through universal credit—
The facts do rile them, don’t they? They have asked for facts all afternoon. Then they get a few and they just don’t like them. I shall be coming to a close very shortly. It is as simple as this. Fortunately, at least the public now have a clear choice between the two parties: a Government of the past wedded to a failed ideological nightmare, or a Labour party that will govern for the many, not the few. Finally, is there any vulnerable group or person that this self-obsessed, clapped-out, washed-out, out-of-time Government are not prepared to attack?
There are sometimes days when Ministers have to come to this House to defend difficult decisions that have had to be made, but this is not one of those days. Today, we are talking about increasing spending and widening eligibility. I would never dream of accusing any Member on either side of seeking to mislead the House, but I will make a more general point: the mere repetition of a falsehood does not turn it into the truth.
We have had fully 24 Back-Bench speeches in this debate, and I will seek to respond to as many as I can in the short time available. There are five main elements to our support in early years and childcare, and each one is a bigger offer than under Labour. First, there are 15 hours a week of free early education for disadvantaged two-year-olds. There was no such entitlement under Labour. Today’s regulations amend the eligibility criteria, introducing an equivalent earnings threshold of £15,400, which typically equates to somewhere between £24,000 and £32,000 in total household income. By 2023, we estimate that around 7,000 more children will benefit from the entitlement compared with the previous system.
Secondly, there is the universal 15 hours a week free childcare for three and four-year-olds—more hours than under Labour and now with the early years pupil premium, which was also not available under Labour. Thirdly, there are an additional 15 hours for working parents, and guess what? No such offer existed before 2010. Fourthly, up to 85% of childcare costs can be reimbursed through universal credit, which is a higher percentage than was ever available under tax credits. Finally, tax-free childcare will provide support for nearly 1 million more families than the existing vouchers scheme.
I have heard the concerns about the timing, and I can confirm that, following the hon. Lady’s representations, we will be able to keep the voucher scheme open to new entrants for a further six months.
Tax-free childcare will mean that more people become eligible, regardless of their employer and including the self-employed for the first time. The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) raised concerns about families having to pay childcare costs up front, but I reassure her that the flexible support fund is available to help in such cases.
I am short of time, so if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will come back to her if there is time.
Turning to free school meals, we have extended the availability of free meals since 2010, going much further than Labour. The Conservative-led coalition extended free meals to disadvantaged students in further education institutions and introduced universal infant free school meals. We are investing £26 million in a breakfast club programme over the next three years, using the soft drinks industry levy.
When universal credit was introduced, we made clear our intention to set new criteria for free school meals, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) rightly pointed out. We stated that intention in our response to the Social Security Advisory Committee report on passported benefits in March 2012. We repeated it in April 2013, when we introduced a temporary measure enabling all universal credit families to receive free school meals during the early phase of universal credit, and we have repeated it again several times since, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) mentioned. We are now, as we always planned, introducing new eligibility criteria to ensure that those entitlements continue to benefit those who need them the most.
Under our new regulations, we estimate that by 2022 around 50,000 more children will benefit from a free school meal compared with the previous system. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who is shaking her head, asked about the methodology, as did the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) and, I believe, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock). We responded to the Social Security Advisory Committee on that exact point, and it put the information into the public domain.
I cannot. No child who is receiving free meals now or who gained them during the roll-out of universal credit will lose their entitlement during the roll-out, even if family earnings rise above the threshold, as my hon. Friends the Members for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) and for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) mentioned. Once roll-out is complete, those children will be protected until the end of their phase of education—primary or secondary—as my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) reminded us.
The protection arrangements will enable hundreds of thousands of children to continue to receive a meal during the roll-out, even if family earnings exceed the threshold. The £7,400 threshold relates to earned income, and it does not include additional incomings through universal credit. Depending on their exact circumstances, a typical family earning around our threshold would have a total annual household income of between £18,000 and £24,000.
The hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) said that the threshold was arbitrary. It is not arbitrary; the thresholds for these passported benefits are set at such a level as to hold the eligibility cohort steady, except that in the case of free school meals we took the decision to make it somewhat more generous than the previous system. The threshold is comparable, by the way, to that in the approach in Scotland, where there is a net earnings threshold equivalent of £7,320.
It is simply not true to say that we are introducing a cliff edge; there has always been one. The simple fact is that a child either gets a lunch or does not. A plate of food does not lend itself well to being tapered, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) has said. Some have suggested that we could convert the benefit into cash—that is true, of course—so that we could have a taper, but the whole point of free school meals is to guarantee that an individual child will receive a nutritious and healthy lunch.
Extending eligibility to all children in households on universal credit would result in around half of pupils becoming eligible. We estimate that that would cost in excess of £3 billion a year more by 2022. The additional meal costs alone, excepting the deprivation funding, would be in excess of £450 million a year—quite close to the figure mentioned by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West. I reiterate that eligibility is going up, not down, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) said.
I am running short of time, so I will turn to the regulations on universal credit. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions earlier outlined the changes in these regulations for UC. They include the removal of waiting days, which will put an average of £160 extra in people’s pockets and get them into the monthly routine sooner, and an additional two weeks of housing benefit to smooth the transition to universal credit. That one-off, additional, non-recoverable payment is worth an average of £233 to 2.3 million claimants over the roll-out period. Those measures form part of the £1.5 billion package of reforms that the Chancellor announced at the Budget. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) said that he was surprised to hear that Labour Members would be voting against those measures. I suggest that their constituents will be even more surprised.
I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not; we are very short of time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) reminded us in her unique style, the Government are committed to tackling injustices, removing barriers and widening opportunity. Because of the strong economic management that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor recapped for us earlier, we are able to continue our bold and ambitious programme of social reform extremely quickly.
I already confirmed that we would have this period to reflect concerns and to allow the bed-in.
Our approach is working, including through advances in education, ensuring everyone can get the best start, unprecedented investment in childcare to support career choices and household budgets and universal credit, helping people into work, faster. In this generation, we have employment at record levels, household incomes at record levels and income inequality down. For the next generation, we have major improvements in the early years foundation stages, 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools and a 10% narrowing in attainment between the rich and poor. Today’s legislation continues this important work. I am proud of the enhanced support we are offering families through these programmes, and I commend the regulations to the House.
More than three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motions, the Deputy Speaker put the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Order, 8 March).