I want to comment first on the proposed child care amendments. Owing to the funding envelope within which we work we face a difficult financial choice about which group of parents to assist with child care costs. I warmly welcome the implication in the comments of Harriett Baldwin. Obviously, one would want to support funding for child care as far as possible, and in making an early selection about which group of parents should benefit we do not want to shut off the possibility of financial support for child care for more parents being an aspiration over time.
In saying that we wish to protect the child care support available for parents who work more than 16 hours, we are certainly not saying that we might not aspire in due course to see child care supported beyond that. The loss of financial support for child care will make working completely unviable and will be a dangerous and retrograde step that I do not believe Ministers have fully analysed.
It is important that we do not see child care provision simply as instrumentalising the return of parents to paid employment. Nowhere in the debate today have we said much about the welfare of the child. We do not know what short hours child care, if any, will be available in the child care market. It certainly seems to be a complicated and unlikely form of child care for parents to be able to access and it does not reflect the way in which child care provision is currently organised. Of course, child care providers might respond if more parents were seeking to buy shorter hours of child care, but the question that arises is whether it is a financially viable model for providers. I am not aware of Ministers investigating that, and I would feel more reassured about the validity of their proposals if they had been able to say a little more about what they meant for the market, its resilience and its potential for growth.
I would also have felt more reassured if Ministers had analysed the extent to which very short episodes of child care are or are not good for children. I genuinely do not know the answer, but I have a sense that putting a child in child care for two or three hours on two or three days a week presents an unstable stop-go approach. We certainly know that, for younger children, one-on-one care with a single main carer with whom the child can form a stable relationship is very important. Although I do not rule out the possibility that shorter episodes of child care could be good for children, I have not seen any sign that Ministers have investigated whether that is the case. It is extremely difficult for us to support a measure that has given no attention to the well-being of children.
On the proposals—or lack of proposals—in relation to free school meals, I do not blame Ministers for seeking to pass the problem to the Social Security Advisory Committee because it is an extremely difficult one to solve. The previous Government had been concerned about the cliff edge that exists as parents move off benefits and into employment and free school meals are removed wholesale. Parents have repeatedly told us as politicians that that is an incredible financial shock to low-income families as parents move into work. We have no idea what Ministers will propose in due course.
We have been struggling to find the model that will work. Models have been bandied around that could leave parents able to afford school meals on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but not on Thursday or Friday, or that might mean that they can afford school meals for some children in the family, but not for others. There is a real concern that what Ministers propose will still lead us to a cliff edge.
We need to be clear about the principles that we seek to achieve. I would like absolute clarity from Ministers that when they receive the recommendations and advice of SSAC, they will ensure that support is available for all children who need free school meals; that the system that is put in place will be simple for families, simple for schools to administer and simple for the Government, too; that child health will not be compromised because children currently eligible for free school meals and therefore accessing a healthier diet are in future shut out of such provision; and that the design of the system will not create work disincentives.
I have not yet seen any evidence that all those circles can easily be squared, unless Ministers are prepared to look again at the direction of travel that the Labour Government were following, which was, over time, to move towards extending the reach of free school meals. I accept that in the present financial climate it will be difficult to get all the way there, but Ministers need to think now about how they design the cliff edges and the tapers, because that is the foundation on which a future extension of free school meals to more children would be built.
The most comprehensive option would be to include a per child school meal element in the universal credit, which crucially would be paid directly to schools to provide meals, so that parents were not—by force, in many cases—obliged to use the money to meet other bills. I would like us to consider how a model could be designed that, when funding allows, would allow the money to be paid in full until the family reached their earnings disregard level, at which stage it would be withdrawn from universal credit at the taper rate, which we would like to have been maintained at 65%. That would mean that both DWP and families were contributing to the cost of school meal expansion. Entitlement could end when universal credit payments end, preferably when the imputed value of the school meal had been fully tapered out.
Achieving that vision immediately would undoubtedly create additional cost, which I recognise that Ministers want to avoid. Nevertheless, it is important that they give us assurances that they will seek at the outset to design a system that could be developed in that direction over time and as funding allows.
Amendment 68 relates to carers. A small group of carers seems to have slipped the notice of Ministers when considering the impact of the design of universal credit, specifically in relation to earnings disregards. We know that many carers can work only a very small number of hours because they are seeking to balance paid employment with substantial caring responsibilities. We also know that those few hours of work are very precious to them. They enable them to maintain contact with the labour market, they widen their social and external circles, and they provide a bit of a respite for the carers from the stress and strain of caring.
Where those carers are in receipt of income support, they can at present earn up to £20 a week from doing a few hours of paid employment without it affecting their benefit. In their proposals for universal credit, Ministers have provided for disregards for carers in a number of situations, but there seem to be some groups who will lose the benefit of that disregard as a result of the proposals before us. For example, some carers are caring for someone who does not live in the same home as the carer. Those carers may no longer enjoy the benefit of the earnings disregard. That seems completely at odds with the aspiration that Ministers have expressed for the universal credit, which is that every additional hour of work will pay.
I hope that Ministers will give careful attention to amendment 68 and consider what can be done to ensure that all carers are incentivised to take on even a few hours of work. What assessment have Ministers made of the number of carers who are left outside the ambit of the current disregard for carers, and of the cost of extending such support to all carers?
Finally, we cannot stress often enough how important it is that we ensure that payments for children go to the main carer of the child. Ministers seem to think it is good enough that couples have the option to make that decision, but very many families will, by default, allow all payments of universal credit to go to one member of a couple in a couple household, and we know from the evidence of the way in which the pension credit has been received in couple households that that is most likely to be the man.