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The Government chose to focus the available resource on primary school children rather than secondary school children to maximise efficiency. This is consistent with the strategy that early intervention has more impact. We know that the parents of young children face the greatest barriers to returning to work. Therefore, by focusing efforts here, allowing parents to return to work and not be penalised by losing their children's free school meals eligibility, there is the potential that 50,000 children will be lifted out of poverty. Also, the focus on primary school children means that good healthy eating habits will be learnt from an early age and so be likely to be carried on independently at secondary school.
With regard to the rollout across the UK, the provision of free school meals is a matter for the devolved Administrations. We are seeking powers in this Bill to extend free school meals to primary school children in the legal jurisdiction of England and Wales. Provision beyond that is a matter for the other devolved Administrations.
Finally, Amendment 33A, which was tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, is similar to Amendment 33 in that it seeks to specify a particular aspect of health that should be taken into account in developing the child poverty strategy. As with the previous amendment, it is our view that Amendment 33A is unnecessary because "health" is already wide enough to cover issues around healthy eating and nutrition. The building blocks listed here are broad areas for consideration and, if we keep subdividing the list of issues at subsection (5), we will end up with a very long list indeed.
Notwithstanding that and given our previous debate, we are minded to take away the issue of specifically adding "mental health". However, we would not wish to make the list overly extensive by adding "nutrition" to it. We believe that it is covered. It is not that the issue is not important, but it does not need to be specified in the Bill. I do not wish to imply that we do not recognise the importance of good nutrition, particularly for developing children, and of course we recognise that living in poverty can impact on the ability of parents to provide a nutritious diet for themselves and for their children. We have taken significant steps to ensure that all families have a nutritious diet and recognise the importance of healthy eating.
Perhaps I may give some examples. We published Healthy Weight, HealthyLives in January 2008, which set out how the Government will support everyone in society to maintain a healthy weight. That is supported by £372 million of funding over three years. School food has improved enormously. All school meals must now meet standards that help children to get the
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It is particularly important that children from our poorer families eat well in schools, as school lunch can be their most important meal of the day. The amendments that we are proposing to this Bill will increase eligibility of free school meals. We are also prioritising maternal nutrition, making a health in pregnancy grant of £190, as we referred to in our earlier debates.
I hope that I have assured the noble Baroness on behalf of the noble Earl that the Government attach great importance to ensuring that people of all ages are well nourished. We do not see it as necessary, however, to include the word "nutrition" in the Bill. We have given consideration to extending free school meals to secondary schools-
Lord McKenzie of Luton: Indeed, I was going to come on to the noble Baroness's points. However, I gather that my noble friend will wish to speak and perhaps I will deal with that and other points when I wind up.
As I said, we do not believe that "nutrition" adds anything to the Bill. We have given consideration to secondary school children but, as there is a potentially significant cost attached to that, we believe that it is right to focus the investment on primary school children. I commend the government amendment.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend on government Amendment 80 on primary school children, which I think is great and terrific. I accept every argument that he has made. Everything else that I want to go on to say in no way seeks to prioritise a different group of children over primary school children. The second thing that I am delighted about is that my noble friend has made it very clear today that, as resources permit and with political will, we can extend this in due course to that same cohort of children, possibly, as they go on into secondary school, where they can take this with them. That is admirable.
Let me just challenge some of the assumptions behind the arguments in favour of primary school children but ignoring secondary school children altogether. Arguments in favour of secondary children have perhaps been neglected. Let me suggest some. My noble friend said, absolutely rightly, that this is part of trying to ensure that people, especially lone parents, but also couple families, can make the transition into work without having a double hit, not only of work costs but of school dinners. That happens when they move from being on benefits with child tax credit to being on working tax credit and child tax credits, when they get cut out irrespective of their income levels simply because they are claiming WTC.
What my noble friend will also know-it was his legislation, after all-is that we are bringing lone parents who until a year or so ago did not have to
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What that means, however, is that we have a cohort of lone parents who have children under 16 but above 10 or 11-it first came down to 12-who will be coming into the labour market over this year and next year and so on, and who will face the same barriers to making work pay as other people. This is a cohort of lone parents for whom, in the space of two years or thereabouts, the threshold will change from their youngest child being 16 to the youngest child being seven. Therefore, if the argument about trying to overcome barriers to work applies to lone parents with children of five, six or seven, it would equally apply to that cohort of lone parents coming on to jobseeker's allowance for the first time.
My second argument is a different one. It comes from the IFS research and from the department's own research, which shows that it is older children who are more costly and who keep families below the poverty line. That is also associated with a number of those who have a child over 10, and especially over 14, which is likely to add considerably to the equivalence scale costs of those parents. If you look across the poverty line, for example, you see that a lone parent with two children under 14 is likely, thanks to the improvements that the Government have made in benefit levels, to be at or even above the poverty line on benefits, which is terrific. However, if she has two children and one of them is over 14, she may not be. The same is true if there are three children: if one of them is over 14, the lone parent is not necessarily likely to reach the poverty line, which she would do if the children were younger. I fully accept that this is a point about the equivalence scales. The same is even more dramatically true for couple families: the deficit on benefits between having children under 14 and over 14 virtually doubles in terms of the poverty line.
Why is that the case? There may be a point about equivalence scales-I think that the noble Lord, Lord Freud, was quite right on this. However, it is also the fact that in this country, unlike the rest of Europe, our support for children is based on front-end loading it for the earlier children, rather than back-end loading it. This includes child benefit, although obviously the tax credit is the same for all children. In most of Europe, partly because of natalist policies wanting to encourage larger families, tax credits support later children more generously and, on the equivalent, older children. We do not. Almost everyone agrees that we should at some point rebalance tax credits, because half of all poor children live in larger families, and larger families are more likely to have children who are over the ages of 10 or 15 and therefore come below the poverty line. It is a circle that reinforces itself.
The free school dinners scheme for those children is a very good proxy for failing to rebalance the tax credit line, which we should do if we are to ensure that, irrespective of family size and ages, families on benefit have equal relationships as of right to the poverty line, at 60 per cent. At present they do not.
I absolutely accept the financial arguments of my noble friend. It is a big-ticket item, which is why I am delighted to hear that we can do it without requiring primary legislation in future; it gives us all a lot of head space. However, before he comes back on Report with whatever he may seek to do on any of this discussion, will he take on board the fact that the financial need is greatest for older children? This is reflected in all the stats that we have on poverty lines. The need is also greatest where there are larger families-again, that tends to be families with older children. These are the children who are not going to be getting the benefit of free school dinners at the very point in time when we are requiring the lone parent in particular to enter the labour market and suffer all the disadvantages of entering into work. Will my noble friend reflect on these issues and see whether he can help us any further on Report?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, my noble friend, as ever, is challenging. I will certainly reflect on that and come back on Report. Perhaps before then we should have a discussion. I see the point that she is making, particularly about the change in the lone parent obligations that has progressively come into being. Part of my answer will be that the issue is not only barriers to work but the importance of early engagement with young people, such as helping to get them into healthy eating habits and the benefits that can flow from that-
The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, referred to the take-up of free school meals. This is a hugely important issue. School lunch take-up is one of the indicators in the child health PSA and the national indicator set. Increasing take-up of school lunches is vital to increasing healthy eating in schools and to the financial viability of school lunch services. It is also a priority for the School Food Trust, which is supporting schools through its Million Meals and teenage campaigns. The results of its fourth annual survey of take-up of school meals for 2008-09 were announced in July last year. Overall figures for 2008-09 should not be compared directly with published national take-up figures for previous years for a number of reasons. However, comparisons can be made for a subset of local authorities. These show that the change in take-up was 0.1 per cent in primary schools and 0.5 per cent in secondary schools-not huge, but at least heading in the right direction.
Now, for the first time, we have a truly comprehensive picture of school lunch take-up across the country. The trust did a tremendous job in collecting usable data from 145 local authorities at primary level and 139 local authorities at secondary level. We are pleased to see that in those local authorities where it has been possible to make a comparison there have been increases in take-up at both primary and secondary levels.
The noble Baroness referred to removing the stigma of free school meals, which is a hugely important issue. Some children and families may feel precluded from taking advantage of their entitlement because of the way in which the scheme is administered and the stigma that is attached to it. Following a Cabinet Office study and report that called for a minimisation of the involvement of school staff in free school meal issues, the DCSF has worked closely with other government departments to develop a free school meals eligibility checking system, known as the Hub. The Hub enables local authorities to simultaneously check data from the DWP, Home Office and HMRC in order to ascertain whether a parent qualifies for free school meals. It represents a significant achievement in reducing bureaucracy and costs for local authorities and is a vital plank in our drive to improve school food by encouraging more parents to sign up their children for free school lunches. The Hub is currently being extended to allow parents to check their own eligibility and apply online for free school meals. A number of schools and local authorities have also put in place swipe cards and other systems that, as well as reducing queues in the canteen, help to ensure that children who receive free school meals are not identified. There is progress on that.
The noble Baroness raised the possibility of enhanced opportunities for free school meals under the Future Jobs Fund. That is absolutely right and it gives me the opportunity to remind noble Lords that this is a £1 billion project. I do not have the up-to-date numbers of the take-up to hand, but it has been a significant issue in helping to keep down unemployment rates among young people.
The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said that this is a UK Bill that focuses only on England and in part on Wales. It is not entirely fair to describe this as a UK Bill, because certain sections involving targets and strategy are UK-wide. However, Part 2 is England only. For the record, as the noble Lord will be aware, eligibility for free school meals in Scotland is similar to that in England, except that, in addition, families can claim free school lunches for their children if they receive both maximum child tax credit and maximum working tax credit and if their income is under £6,420 in 2009-10, as assessed by HMRC. Discussions are taking place in Scotland with a view to agreeing an extension to free school meals eligibility for pupils in the early years of primary school. This is part of moving Scotland towards a universal policy of healthy, balanced and nutritious free school lunches for all pupils in the first three years of primary school. Once the details of an extension have been agreed, it is expected that this will be implemented from August 2010.
I hope that I have dealt with the points that noble Lords raised. I am conscious that I owe my noble friend a more detailed and considered response to the important point that she raised. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will not press the amendments on behalf of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and that noble Lords will feel able to support the Government's amendments.
Baroness Thomas of Winchester: My Lords, I thank both the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for their support for this amendment. I also thank the Minister for his reply. It is the right way round to make sure that primary school children have any extra free school meals that are going, so that good health and eating habits are laid down when they are young. However, what is significant is the research that has been done-the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, mentioned it-that showed a statistically significant improvement in the exam results of children who had had a nutritious meal in the middle of the day. That is extremely important. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for her new take on the problem and for her points about lone parents and the fact that families with older children are those most in poverty. That is an important point.
Will the Minister make sure that the DWP reminds local authorities that there is a possibility of using the Future Jobs Fund to train staff for important, flexible part-time local jobs? Eventually, we could kill a lot of birds with one stone. I was glad to hear that rolling this out for secondary school children would not need more primary legislation. That is important.
I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, will read the debate before Report and we will study it to see whether we should bring the matter back. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"( ) the promotion of increased engagement of parents and families to help eradicate child poverty and socio-economic disadvantage;
( ) the promotion of children's wellbeing and equality of opportunity through long-term parental commitment and strong and supportive family relationships;
( ) the facilitation of a reduction in the number of under-age and unwanted pregnancies;
( ) the provision of education in schools on parenting and parent-child relationships;
( ) the provision in pre- and post-natal services of guidance on parenting;
( ) guidance on the role and responsibilities of parents under the Children Act 1989 and subsequent case law relating to parental responsibility"
Lord Northbourne: My Lords, one of the deepest forms of poverty that a person can experience is isolation and not being loved. What I have already said will have made it clear why I believe that the engagement of parents-and, when appropriate, of other members of the family-must be an essential ingredient in any serious attempt to address child poverty. I shall quote from the Minister's colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Layard. In A Good Childhood, written recently for the Children's Society, he states:
Research shows, too, that stable, loving relationships and a strong, supportive family life are key factors in the well-being of children, and strong weapons in the fight against child poverty. This fact is so important that it should be acknowledged in the Bill.
I turn to the proposed new subsections in my probing amendments, which attempt to determine how this could be done. I hope that the noble Lord caught my last point; that the importance of loving relationships is an issue that should be acknowledged in the Bill. The first proposed new subsection in Amendment 35 would be one way to do this. The second emphasises the importance of long-term parental commitment and strong, supportive family relationships. The fourth and fifth emphasise the case for education and guidance on the subject of relationships and parenting, both in schools and to prospective parents around the time of the birth of their first child. They should be delivered alongside education and information about parenting.
My third proposed new subsection draws attention to the need for effective measures to reduce unwanted teenage pregnancies. This is no new theme, and has been the policy of the Government for some time. Sadly, outcomes so far have been disappointing. There may be a case for bringing new thinking to bear on the subject.
Finally, my last suggested subsection would define more clearly, for the benefit of parents and professionals, what our society expects of parents in bringing up their children. On this point, Scottish law is quite clear, simple and reasonable. The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 says:
"Subject to section 3(1)(b) and (3) of this Act, a parent has in relation to his child the responsibility ... to safeguard and promote the child's health, development and welfare ... to provide, in a manner appropriate to the stage of development of the child ... direction ... guidance ... to the child ... if the child is not living with the parent, to maintain personal relations and direct contact with the child on a regular basis; and ... to act as the child's legal representative, but-
The Minister is not responsible for this, but in 2008 and 2009 the Government resisted all my attempts to get this form of words into English law. At present, we have to make do with Section 1 of the Children Act 1989, which is strong on rights but vague on parental responsibilities. Its interpretation is very dependent on case law. We need some guidance that clarifies the Government's intentions on this issue. If we want parents to play their part in reducing child poverty and socio-economic disadvantage, surely our starting point must be to tell them clearly what is expected of them. Many fathers are not at all clear about their responsibilities today. If we cannot have the definition in law that the Scots have, let us at least have clearly articulated guidance on the Bill from the Government. I beg to move.
Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I suspect that the Minister will tell the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that his amendment is not necessary; these things are in this Bill, in another Bill, in a strategy or in a government initiative, and are all being dealt with. I might even put a Lady Butler-Sloss bet on it. However, it would be nice to see a reference to parents somewhere in the Bill, because there is no question that there is nothing more important to how happily, comfortably and healthily a child grows up than its parents. It is not for the Government to substitute for parents, except in extremis and to protect the child. No Government can give a child the love and care that caring parents can, and nor should they try.
However, there is an enormous difference between the abilities of one set of parents and another to bring a child up healthily and happily. In the case of two families with exactly the same income-let us say, £15,000 a year-the outcome of family A may be totally different from the outcome of family B, and the factors that affect that are many and complex. Family A may live in a very high-cost housing area and have less money to spend on the child, and family B might live in a very remote area of the country and have to spend a lot of money on transport, but the factor that probably has the most effect is the knowledge, understanding and skills of the parent as to how best to bring up the child: knowledge and understanding of child development, child nutrition, the need for a child to learn by playing, the communication skills to help them to interact well with the school-lots of things of that nature. Here, Governments can help. They can help and support parents and ensure that, in schools, teenagers, before they ever become parents, get to know a good deal about the responsibilities and the skills that are needed to become a good parent. It happens in many of the best schools, although not all.
There is a role for the Government, particularly when looking at the specific issue of the poverty in which too many children are growing up. I would like to hear from the Minister how he is going to make sure that the Bill recognises the importance of the role of parents in ensuring that children grow up happy, healthy and able to fulfil their potential.
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