HC Deb 14 December 1926 vol 200 cc2773-7

I beg to move, That leave be given to introduce a Bill to amend Section 84 of the Education Act, 1921. The Bill I am bringing forward is a very simple and a very short Measure. The law regarding School feeding is found in the Provision of Meals Act, 1906, now incorporated in the Education Act, 1921, Sections 81 to 85. According to Section 84, an education authority, if it finds that any children attending School are incapable, owing to lack of food, of profiting by the education provided for them, and if, further, it finds there are no funds other than public funds from which to defray this expense, may then provide meals out of the rates. Further, Section 84 compels local authorities to recover the cost of meals in such cases from parents. There might be a good deal to be said about conditions such as these, lint this Bill does not touch them. It does not interfere with Section 84, which provides for compulsory recovery of the cost. What it does do is very simple. It provides, first of all, that it shall he the duty of every education authority to inquire whether any children attending School are, in fact, unable through lack of food to profit by the education provided, and if so, and if there are no private funds available, then it shall make provision out of the rates for meals. I do not think anybody can say that it is not the duty of an education authority to inquire whether such a lamentable state of affairs exists, and I do not think anybody will say, if that is proved to he the case, that it is not our duty to relieve the situation, and the Bill stops there.

In bringing this Measure forward I am following a very well-worn precedent in education affairs. It is usual when Parliament desires to place new duties on education authorities to make those duties, in the first place, optional and grant-earning, and, later on, after a sufficient time has elapsed, to make them compulsory. We have had 20 years' experience and plenty of material on which to form our judgment. People may say, "Leave this to the unfettered judgment of the local authorities." There would be a great deal of force in that argument if, in fact, it had been left to the unfettered discretion of the local authorities, but it has not been so. Let us look at the figures as to the number of authorities which feed. In 1920 there were 118, 1921 137, the next year 190— that was an exceptional year—the next year 156, the next year 138, then 132, and then a rise to 134. What is the reason why the numbers dropped from 150 to 132, and are now only 134? The explanation is that in 1922 the Board of Education decided that the total expenditure of local authorities on this matter during 1922–23 should be restricted, that is to say, that grants should only he paid on a sum of £300,000. In consequence of that decision, the authorities had their grants cut down. and it is perfectly clear that if we ration the authorities irrespective of the conditions prevailing in their areas, limiting the total amount of the grant to what they were earning at some earlier date, we leave no room whatever for further expansion. No additional authority had any chance of getting any grant at all. At present, among the 134 authorities, there are only nine counties of England which feed, and I say quite frankly that the object of bringing in this Bill is not so much to compel the local authorities, who are very willing to feed, as to compel the Board of Education, which is not willing to give the grant.

There is a concensus of opinion in the reports of education officials as to the benefits School children receive from School feeding. I could read extracts from their reports for three-quarters of an hour, but I will give the House only one or two. In 1923 the chief medical officer describes the extraordinary transformation effected by School feeding in the schools in Pembroke. He goes on to speak of the vast benefit which would inure to the children of our countryside from the adoption of similar arrangements in the country as a whole. I entertain no doubt as to the physical benefit and educational advantage to the children. In 1923 the medical officer for Devon gave a very painful picture of the conditions of the School children in Devonshire. He said: The children start with a two or three mile walk to School. They arrive at School drenched with rain, cold, often pale-faced and tired. Many, it is true, bring pieces of cake of a very unappetising description. In his view their dinner is generally insufficient, and he goes on to say that proper, hot, School meals would do an enormous amount for the health and the well-being of those children. From Anglesey comes a report stating that the well-fed child is the baby, that as soon as a child becomes what one might call the old baby, that is to say, when there is a younger child, it begins to fall off—when it has reached the age of six to seven years, and when the younger baby comes along to take part of the milk. I cannot go on with this list, but these things are perfectly well known to the Minister of Education, though he has turned a deaf ear. Perhaps he will listen to his colleagues in the Cabinet, because the Minister of Public Health is an enthusiast for School feeding. He goes further than we do. He told the -House that children were better off when they were School-fed than when their fathers were earning good wages. He asserted that in the House. Actually the Minister of Health thinks it better for children to be fed at School than for their parents to have good wages. Such an enthusiast ought to do something in the Cabinet to save School feeding.

In conclusion I would say that this School feeding has continued for 20 years, and there are unanimous reports to the Ministry of Health that it has done children great good at small expense, and I think we ought to use those 20 years' experience and extend School feeding in the sense I have described to all areas. We ought to do this if we really desire the physical efficiency of our people, and if we have any compassion for the children who, without it, cannot profit by education at School, and those are the only ones to whom my Bill refers. Frankly, I have not any hope that the Government will do this, but I have brought forward the Bill and would ask the House to get it printed in order that we may express our opinion on the matter. I doubt very much whether even the proved necessity, the small expense and the great benefit which will be conferred on the children will move the Government in this matter, but I bring forward the Bill in order that we may put upon record what is our most immediate duty to the children of the country.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Miss Lawrence, Mr. March, Mr. Morgan Jones, Mr. Lansbury, and Mr. Richardson.