My Lords, the Department for Work and Pensions has been working closely with the Department for Education to support the delivery of their eligibility criteria for free school meals for universal credit claimants in England. When the Social Security Advisory Committee, which is independent of government, looked at this issue in 2012, it found that there was no rigorous research evidence to show that the provision of passported benefits acted as a work disincentive.
My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. I would like to remind the Minister of the policy promise that was made in a White Paper back in 2010 when universal credit was first introduced, and I want to put to her a question that relates to a statement made in the foreword by the then Secretary of State:
“Universal Credit will mean that people will be consistently and transparently better off for each hour they work and every pound they earn”.
Does the Minister accept that, under the proposals which are being brought forward, that proposition will no longer always be true?
The simple answer to the noble Lord is no: I do not accept that. I think it is important to dispel straightaway any potential misunderstanding of what we are doing to safeguard the free school meals system for the future. The Government’s purpose here is to ensure that the programme continues to reach the most disadvantaged households in a way that is consistent, simple and fair. As the rollout of universal credit continues, it is no longer fair to retain the temporary measure, which we always said was temporary, that allows all households in receipt of universal credit to access free school meals. That said, the new rules will ensure that the provision of meals continues to be targeted where it is needed most, with 50,000 more children expected to benefit by 2022 as compared with the previous benefits system.
My Lords, the noble Baroness has not actually answered the noble Lord’s question, so could she do so now? Can she also give an assurance that no one will be sanctioned if they are required to increase their earnings to the point which takes them over the eligibility limit and they lose their entitlement to free school meals as a result?
I have to take issue with the noble Baroness, because I feel that I have answered the question. I want to stress that the reality of this is that every child receiving free school meals now, and any child subsequently given free school meals while the universal credit rollout is under way, will have their entitlement protected until the end of the rollout or until the end of the child’s current phase of education, whichever is later. We want to ensure that, through the universal credit system, we are doing absolutely our best to give our young people the best possibilities in life; this is not the same as the old legacy benefits.
My Lords, perhaps I may put the question for the third time. At the moment, if someone reaches a certain level of income, they lose free school meals but at that point they gain working tax credit, which is worth much more. What the Government are proposing under universal credit is that, when a household’s earnings exceed a cash fixed point of £7,400 a year, once the system has been rolled out, a household in that situation will immediately lose free school meals for all of the kids. Someone could be offered an extra hour of work or a small pay rise and face the choice of either turning it down or accepting it and losing free school meals for all of their kids. While the Minister has said a great deal about the transitional protection during the rollout, when the system beds down, is not the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, right that this will fly right in the face not only of the quote from Iain Duncan Smith, but of the whole point of universal credit—at such huge expense and great disruption?
My Lords, I heard quite a lot of what was said in another place yesterday, and I am afraid that quite a lot of it is misinformation. One only has to look at Channel 4’s FactCheck, which looked at the claims made by the Opposition about children losing free school meals and was clear that the Government are not taking free school meals from the 1 million children who currently get them. I quote the article directly:
“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 which are more generous than the old benefits system.
My Lords, on what basis was it decided that the earnings threshold for eligibility in Northern Ireland would be double what it is in England? Is this because poor children in Northern Ireland are twice as malnourished as they are in England, or could it be political expediency?
My Lords, it is not a question of political expediency. In fact, the earnings threshold in Scotland, introduced last August, is lower than what we propose to introduce in England. Let me also explain further, referring—as the noble Baroness opposite did—to the threshold. The £7,400 relates to earned income and does not include additional income through universal credit. Depending on its exact circumstances, a typical family earning around the threshold would have a total annual household income of between £18,000 and £24,000, but let us remember that if we allowed free school meals to continue beyond the transitional period when universal credit is rolled out, we would include parents earning over £40,000 or £50,000. Is that absolutely fair? Is that what noble Lords opposite want?
My Lords, we have years of clear evidence that tackling child hunger improves outcomes at school and improves achievement and social mobility. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of these proposals on child hunger and on our investment in our children’s futures?
I thank the right reverend Prelate for her question. That is why we have chosen not to monetise free school meals; if we did, the benefits of a hot meal in the middle of the day could be lost for 1.1 million of the poorest children. That is because there would be a risk of children not getting the free school meal if it were just added to the rates for UC. We believe that the nutritional needs of children should be paramount. We therefore think it is right that free school meals should continue to be provided in the way we propose.
My Lords, the issue is actually about ensuring that children receive the right treatment. There is not an issue about—
I am seeking to answer the question. The devolved nations have decided on different thresholds for their own parts of the United Kingdom, but at the end of the day we want to ensure that we can target free school meals to those who need them. Let me also be clear that, throughout the current rollout of universal credit and until 2022, no parents of a child who currently gets free school meals will have to pay for their meals. It is either then or when they finish their primary or secondary education—whichever comes later.