Motion to Consider
My Lords, the regulations before the Committee today were laid on 13 January under powers set out in the Childcare Payments Act 2014, which introduced the new tax-free childcare scheme. They were announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the 2013 Budget and will provide financial support to working families with their costs of childcare. Once the scheme is in place, the Government will meet 20% of eligible working families’ childcare costs up to an annual maximum of £2,000 for each child. Support will be delivered through childcare accounts, into which a parent will deposit their funds to pay for childcare and into which the Government will add a 20% top-up payment.
The regulations before us today were published for consultation between 14 July and 3 October last year, and I would like to put on the record my thanks to all those organisations and individuals who responded. As I will explain in a moment, the Government listened to the suggestions which were made and introduced some small but important changes to the way in which some of these regulations operate.
There are 18 regulations in all, but I am pleased to say that I do not intend to describe each of them in detail. However, I would like to give an overview of who will qualify for support once the new scheme is introduced. First, a person must be in the UK, over the age of 16 and have responsibility for looking after a qualifying child. It does not matter whether they are the child’s biological parent; they simply need to be responsible for their care. Secondly, the person responsible for the child must be in paid work, either for an employer or self-employed in their own business. If they have a partner, both partners will need to be in work. Providing support to the self-employed with their childcare costs is a significant, perhaps the most significant, advantage of the new scheme over the one it replaces; namely, the employer supported childcare scheme. As its name implies, that scheme was available only to people in employment.
The third eligibility condition is that the person’s income, and that of their partner if they have one, must be below the level which would make them liable to pay income tax at the additional rate of 45%. This currently applies to individuals with an income of more than £150,000 per year. Finally, someone will not be able to qualify for this scheme if they are already in receipt of support with their childcare costs from other government-funded schemes, most notably tax credits, universal credit and employer supported childcare. These are the eligibility conditions as they are set out in the Act. However, it is essential that the Government should retain the necessary flexibility to make adjustments to these conditions to ensure that the scheme remains properly targeted where it is most needed. This is why some of the detailed rules determining eligibility for support are set out in these regulations rather than in primary legislation.
I would like to draw the attention of noble Lords to some specific aspects of the regulations. First, regulation 5 sets out what is meant by a “qualifying child” for the purposes of the scheme. In broad terms, this is any child under the age of 12 or, in the case of a disabled child, under the age of 17. Regulation 9 defines what is meant by being in paid work for the purposes of the scheme. This is that a person will meet this condition if they receive as little as what someone would earn if they worked for one day a week at the prevailing rate of the national minimum wage, equivalent to around £52 a week, or £676 a quarter. Regulation 10 defines income in the case of self-employed parents. This broadly follows the well-established approach used for income tax purposes and is based on the net profit they generate from their business over the relevant period.
I will turn briefly to the ways in which the regulations have been amended following the consultation. Two significant amendments were made to the regulations as they apply to self-employed parents. The first concerns the requirement to generate a specified amount of profit every quarter. The point was rightly made that this had the potential to exclude self-employed people in very seasonal businesses where they are able to make a profit only at certain times of the year. To address this, the regulations were amended to give self-employed parents the option of meeting the minimum income level across a full tax year rather than in each quarter, as had been the case originally.
The second change applies to newly self-employed parents and again concerns the minimum income rule. The point was made that it is very common for new businesses not to make a profit immediately and that therefore it would be unreasonable to require them to reach the minimum income rule straightaway. The regulations were therefore changed so that someone starting out as self-employed will not be required to reach that level in their first entire year of trading. This will mean that they will not be disqualified from using the scheme as they struggle to make a profit when they are starting to establish their business.
A further change to which I would draw your Lordships’ attention concerns parents who are about to return to the workplace. The point was made during consultation that such parents need sufficient time to put suitable childcare arrangements in place before they start working. As originally drafted, the regulations provided a seven-day window during which a person could apply to open a childcare account in anticipation of starting a new job. The argument was made that seven days is simply too short to allow parents to make adequate childcare arrangements before they take up work after an absence. The regulations were therefore amended to allow someone to be treated as being in paid work where they have accepted the offer of a job up to 14 days before they actually start work. This will help to smooth the transition back to work and encourage parents back to the workplace.
Finally, I would like to refer to the position of those with responsibility for disabled children. As both the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield rightly pointed out at Second Reading of the Bill, such parents can face significantly higher childcare costs than other parents. The Government are keen to ensure that this is reflected in the way that the new scheme will operate.
As I said at that time, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury made a commitment in another place to consider whether it would be possible to increase the maximum amount which families with disabled children could receive from the Government. I am glad to confirm that the Minister has honoured that commitment. She has said that such parents will be able to receive up to double the amount of support that other parents will be entitled to. This will mean that they will be able to receive support of up to £4,000 a year for each disabled child, rather than £2,000 a year as is the case for other parents. This change, which has been warmly received by the childcare sector as a positive step for disabled children and their families, does not feature in the regulations which we are considering but will be brought into effect by a separate instrument. However, given the interest shown in the matter at Second Reading, I thought that it would be appropriate to mention it now. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the regulations. I particularly thank him for the way in which the Government have reacted to the consultation by introducing some detailed changes. I also thank him for what he has said about disabled children, in giving us notice of further regulation to follow. I have only one or two points to make about these regulations, which we are not going to oppose as we see value in more money being put into the whole issue of childcare. First, I have a couple of detailed questions about them and then some questions about whether the right balance has been achieved in terms of the distributive effect that the Act has.
Of the two questions about implementation the first is about NS&I, which has been the chosen instrument for these accounts. If I have read the impact assessment properly, I believe that there could be 2 million such accounts. I understand that when NS&I introduced what I think were called pensioner bonds in the new year, it processed 30,000 accounts and its systems failed. Can the Minister assure me that by the time this scheme is introduced, the NS&I systems will be robust enough to cope with the volume?
Secondly, the choices that people will have to make between this, the current scheme which is being phased out and other potential state sources of support are really quite complex. The Government acknowledged this by assuring us during the debate on the primary legislation that there would be an online calculator to help individuals. I wonder whether the Minister can give us some indication of progress on the online calculator. I think that these regulations are expected to be rolled out in the autumn which, in terms of delivering things, is relatively close.
The substance of my concern is in regulation 15. The Minister does not have to look it up; it is the £150,000 regulation. These regulations existed in draft when the original primary legislation was debated.
I think this is the order that specifies that it will be £150,000. That is a large figure. Perhaps this is because of the paucity of my friends, but I do not know a lot of people on £150,000. Indeed, the figure could rise to £300,000 in a household with an affluent wife and an affluent husband together. That seems to be a pretty high figure. I wonder why the Government have chosen such a high figure, because of the subsequent distributive effects.
In effect, the order was debated when the primary legislation was debated in the other place. I draw attention to the Public Bill Committee in the other place on 16 October 2014, when Vidhya Alakeson, then deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, said in evidence;
“Our analysis shows that 80% of families that will benefit from tax-free child care are in the top 40% of the income distribution. The evidence on how parents respond to child care investment is reasonably limited, but we know from self-reported surveys that parents with a family income of more than about £60,000 a year are not predominantly making work decisions and suchlike on the basis of the affordability of child care. The vast majority of this funding is targeted at those families, which suggests to me that you are unlikely to see much of a change in behaviour, but you will get a cost shift from parents to Government”.—[Official Report, Commons, Childcare Payments Bill Committee, 16/10/14; cols. 100-01.]
Does the Minister accept the Resolution Foundation’s analysis that 80% of the benefit will go to the top 40% of households? If not, does he have some Treasury-based analysis to counter that claim? I know of no other analysis. So far, the Government have not revealed any analysis that they have done; there is certainly no distributive analysis in the impact assessment. Therefore, I have to take the Resolution Foundation’s statement as the best analysis available.
The scheme will cost, say, £600 million a year—it varies by year in the impact assessment, but it is £600 million-plus. Well, 80% of that is half a billion pounds, which is a not inconsiderable sum. Is it true that half a billion pounds is being directed at the top 40% of households? Was that the Government’s intention, was it a mistake or do they not know?
The position that we took in the other place during the passage of the Bill is that if the upper limit had been lower, money would have been saved that could have been used to increase the percentage relief to those who qualify. Therefore, the distributive effect would not have been this apparently amazing situation where half a billion pounds is going to the top 40% of the income distribution. The Minister’s colleague in the other place, Priti Patel, was pressed on the matter of distributional analysis. At the end of one of her responses—before she was interrupted—to the Public Bill Committee on 21 October, 2014, which is now some time ago, she said:
“Officials are discussing with colleagues across Government the possibility of considering the matter in more detail and of carrying out distributional analysis of all Government child care support. Much child care support is outside the Treasury’s remit and lies with the Department for Education, and many of the schemes that exist have been touched on in the Committee”.—[Official Report, Commons, Childcare Payments Bill Committee, 21/10/14; col. 164.]
That seems to me like a promise of a report about the distributional analysis of government childcare support. Am I right in interpreting it as such a promise? If so, when do the Government intend to produce such a report, which I think we would all find very interesting?
As I said, the Opposition will not be resisting these regulations. We find them surprising. We find the very high figure that directs this money at such households sad. We are sorry that the Government have not pondered on representations that have been made on the various scales and introduced a lower figure, but nevertheless we will not oppose it. However, our view is that we should go much further. When a Labour Government is elected, we intend to extend free childcare from 15 to 25 hours a week for working parents with three and four year-olds, paid for by an increase in the bank levy. We intend to introduce a legal guarantee that parents of primary school-age children can access childcare from 8 am to 6 pm through their local school and we intend to reinvigorate Sure Start, returning the way local services work together to shift from sticking-plaster services to radically early help. We believe those reforms will direct appropriate public money, properly funded, at the real places of need with relation to childcare.
My Lords, the noble Lord asked me a number of questions about these regulations. First, is NS&I up to it, given the teething problems with the pensioner bonds? NS&I is up to it. It is an established provider of payment processor services within government. It manages the premium bonds. The difference between this and pensioner bonds is that those bonds suddenly became available and there was a great rush. These provisions will be introduced on a phased basis and there will be no incentive for hundreds of thousands of people, even if the phasing worked that way, all to want to do it within an hour or two of each other.
The noble Lord asked about the online calculator. As he pointed out, the scheme is due to be introduced from the autumn. The online calculator will be introduced in good time before implementation. It would be of no particular benefit to anybody if the calculator were available now, but it will be available well before the scheme is implemented.
I think the main burden of the noble Lord’s comments is about whether the £150,000 cut off is appropriate. It is worth pointing out two aspects of the context here. First, this scheme replaces one that has no limits to the income at which people can benefit. It also does not cover the self-employed, many of whom will not be high earners. In that respect, it is a more inclusive and fairer scheme. The other element of context is that the Government’s overall system of childcare support remains focused on people with lower incomes. Families in receipt of tax credits already receive more generous support with childcare costs than under universal credit. Support will be intended to cover up to 85% of the cost of childcare and will be available regardless of the number of hours worked. It is not a scheme about helping the wealthy. There is a question about where you put the cap. The only two logical places would be at the thresholds for the 40% or 45% tax rate. Any other limit between those two would involve a disproportionate amount of effort and administrative change. The Government took the view that, given the history of this scheme and the fact that the cap on those who can benefit is being reduced, the 40% threshold was too low. We want to support people with childcare at incomes above that level. Therefore, we went for this limit. An intermediate limit would have been complicated and confusing.
The noble Lord’s final question concerned what had happened to the commitment given by my colleague in another place, Priti Patel, to carry out a cross-departmental distribution analysis of all childcare support. I reassure him that officials across government are currently examining the feasibility of carrying out distributional analysis across all childcare support schemes, but this is taking time because of the complexities involved.
Committee adjourned at 8.21 pm.