HC Deb 31 January 1952 vol 495 cc497-506

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Vosper.]

10.27 p.m.

Mr. William Irving (Wood Green)

On a night 18 months ago, when I had the good fortune to have the Adjournment, the Government was defeated. I had two disappointments then, in that the Government I supported was defeated and I lost the chance of my Adjournment debate. I could have had only one dis- appointment if the present Government had been defeated tonight.

We have been discussing great financial and economic problems in the last two days and the subject which I now raise, that of school milk for children, may seem insignificant. However, the wealth or poverty of a nation may not depend on economic conditions. As Erskine said, it may be a matter of the wealth of a nation consisting of the number of contented, happy and healthy people within the nation. It is, therefore, a very serious thing that two Government Departments cannot agree about supplying milk to school children.

I first took up the matter in July last year with the Ministry of Food. The Ministry of Food is responsible for the welfare food scheme up to the age of five. However, my correspondent at the Ministry of Food denies any further responsibility when children reach the age of five and can no longer get cheap milk. The education authorities become responsible for the education of children when they reach the age of five, but if the education authorities have no places in the schools for the children, those children cannot get free milk. It is very important that they should have milk.

About 15 million gallons of milk are consumed by our school children each year, about twice what it was before the war and, having regard to the healthy condition of our children and the improvement in their height and weight, it is a good investment. It is a retrograde step that, at the age of five, children whose parents have been educated on the value of milk as a food for them—and that has taken a long time—should not have a supply of milk which is available to other children.

The Ministry of Food say that when the child reaches five the cheap milk supply comes to an end. It therefore becomes a question for the education authorities. I took the matter up with the Minister of Education and put down a Question on 6th December. I simply asked how many children had been deprived of free milk at the age of five during the past year. The Ministry did not know because no figures are kept, but at least half a dozen mothers in my constituency have been to see me about this problem. Children on reaching the age of five are not only denied education, but also free or cheap milk.

This is purely a question of red tape. Surely one Department or the other could undertake to continue giving milk to the children who on reaching the age of five come out of the welfare food scheme and come on to the education roll. This Government is a Government of coordinators, and this ought to be a simple problem for them to handle. One of the coordinators in another place ought to say, "Cut out the red tape and see that the children get the milk."

I would suggest that even if on reaching the age of five children cannot be provided with education, they should at least be provided with free milk, and that this could be done in the same way as children are provided with free milk during the school holidays. I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary comes to reply he will be more forthright and more forthcoming than his opposite number in the Ministry of Food, and will say that there is some way of continuing giving this milk to children who on reaching the age of five are debarred from receiving it from one source and who, because they cannot be taken into schools, are not catered for by the education authorities.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)

I only wish to intervene for a very short time in support of the point raised by the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Irving). I also in my constituency have had instances where children are unable to get cheap milk to which they would be entitled were school places available to them. Naturally they regret that that privilege and opportunity are denied to them merely because of the lack of school places.

The correspondence I have received bears out to some extent the point made by the hon. Member. There is the difficulty that the quantity of milk normally provided for children at school is one-third of a pint, and milkmen delivering milk to householders do not normally have bottles of that type. I presume that it would make for added difficulty were that quantity of milk to be supplied otherwise than through the school system. However, I hope it may be possible to find a way round this problem, and in the meantime I support the point raised by the hon. Gentleman opposite.

10.33 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Pickthorn)

The hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Irving) began with some words of apology for what he said might seem a comparatively insignificant matter. I sympathise with him in that feeling. After the kind of debate through which we have been living for the last two days, one has rather the feeling that one experiences after being at sea for several days, and for some time after one is ashore again one's feet and the pace at which one thinks and speaks remains what it was at sea. But, nevertheless, I can agree with him that this is not an insignificant matter, but one which deserves attention.

With respect and with no intention at all to accuse him of bad faith or inattention in the matter, I do not think it quite a fair phrase to speak of two Government Departments failing to agree, or to speak of red tape in this matter. I do not think that either of those is really the explanation of the difficulty.

If I may begin by criticising—I do not mean attacking but criticising in the strict sense—some remarks he made, it is not quite true that the Ministry which I represent on these minor occasions becomes automatically responsible for the children upon their reaching the age of five. Nor is it true that there is any retrograde step in what is at present being done or not done. It is in fact what it has always been.

Mr. Irving

According to the Education Act, the Department is responsible for the children's education from the age of five, and therefore responsible for free milk.

Mr. Pickthorn

No, that is not a fact, as I was about to explain. The fact is that it becomes the responsibility of the Department to promote education for the child in the term after it reaches its fifth birthday. Since the whole matter which we are discussing is one of a gap of at most not many months, and usually a few weeks, that distinction is therefore not merely a pedantic distinction.

The last thing the hon. Gentleman said, which I wish to begin by criticising, was that he had seen half a dozen mothers in his constituency who raised this question, and that he was satisfied from that that there was a very considerable number of persons so concerned throughout the country. I really think that that guess—if that is not an unfair word—is not quite a fair one. There must be a considerable proportion of guesswork in this matter. There are no exact statistics. I do not quite see how there could be, certainly not without a very great elaboration of officialdom and of the red tape which from another point of view the hon. Gentleman deprecates.

Incidentally, on that point, I had understood—and I apologise to him in advance if I am mistaken—that he had been informed that in his own county area there were very few people affected in the belief of the authority—of those who have the best means of meeting the mothers of all the constituencies in the county. I understood that the hon. Gentleman had been informed that in their belief the numbers concerned were very small.

Mr. Irving

I got exactly the same reply from the Middlesex County Council as I did from the Ministry of Education, which was that they had no figures available and, therefore, did not know.

Mr. Pickthorn

It is quite true that they did not know, in the sense of having a figure which they could stand to in a court of law, but my information is that they have said that they believe the numbers to be very small.

One last comment in reference to what the hon. Gentleman said. He talked of provision of the sort he desires being made in holiday time and therefore being proved to be possible. There are two things to be said on that. One is that such provision is made in only a comparatively small number of localities. Secondly, how much waste is involved in it is one of the things upon which we have no statistical information.

In the 10 minutes left to me I will try, if I may, to put the plain case quite apart from what anybody may have thought beforehand. I hope that I have got what facts can be got right. If a child does not go to school the child gets the milk from the Ministry of Food at the reduced rate of 1½d. until he is five. If he does not go to school when he is five years and one month then, having ceased to get that Ministry of Food cheap supply, he is missing his free supply.

The question is not the supply of milk, because milk is no longer rationed. The question is financial. The child may be getting the same amount of milk as before, but if so the parents are having to spend 10d. a week more than they used to. That is the question before us. Parents may have, in the case of such necessity, some sense of grievance.

There are two groups of children—there may be others, but I have not heard of them—to whom this may happen. First, there are the children of five years and one month who are not yet pupils in attendance at school: if they were at school, then it would be the duty of the local education authorities to give them a third of a pint of milk a day. And at any given moment there are some children who are out of school because the next term has not begun. The last statistics on this matter are a year old, and the number in this category was then extremely small. That is to say, most children, in fact, are in attendance at school before they are five years and one month old, and therefore the gap does not occur.

Then there is a second category of children: they wait longer to get into school, because there is not a school place ready for them. I imagine that these, really, are the ones the hon. Gentleman is inquiring about. There have been only two sorts of suggestions for supplying these children with the equivalent of school milk. The first is that free milk should be given to them under the milk in schools scheme with which the Ministry of Education is concerned. The weekly cost of milk given to children under that scheme is 10d.

But under Section 49 of the Education Act a duty was placed upon the Minister. If it is wrong, it is not a wrong that arises from two Ministries failing to agree; it is a fault that arises from this House in its legislative capacity. The Statute of 1944, and the two statutes passed since that might have amended it, have left the law that the Minister is directed to make Regulations imposing on local education authorities the duty of providing milk for pupils in attendance at schools. That is the duty on my Minister, and I think that I should have wholly discharged my duty as spokesman for the Minister of Education if I stopped there. But I do not wish to leave the impression that, having got a short answer from the Ministry of Education, I am thereby avoiding the practical difficulties of the matter.

It would not have been right for the Ministry to encourage or arrange for the thing to be done by subterfuge. That would, first, be against the statute on any strict or even fair interpretation; secondly, it would mean causing the Ministry of Food, which acts as our agent in this matter, to spend on milk for children more than Parliament had authorised them to spend; and, thirdly, it would mean causing the Ministry of Education to spend on grants to local education authorities more than was authorised for that purpose, because one of the factors upon which the grant claimable by the local education authority depends is the number of children registered as in attendance at school.

Therefore, if the Ministry of Education had lent itself to any subterfuge of putting nominally on the register—in order to provide with milk—children who are not either legally or practically in attendance at school, it would have been not only a breach of the Statute but plainly a kind of self-fraud by the Ministry of Education itself, and also a fraud upon the Ministry of Food. That solution plainly is out, as I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree.

The second type of suggestion for dealing with the matter is that milk should be supplied free or at reduced rates under the welfare food services. That is the concern of the Ministry of Food, so here again at this point I might reasonably sit down—and perhaps relieve any apprehensions that my hon. Friend has—but I will do my best, prefacing each sentence with the letters "e. and o.e.," to show what are the difficulties against the suggestion that the Ministry of Food should be able to do it even if we are statute barred.

One of the proposals is that the children's ration book should be continued, and that the child should go on, until he is absorbed into the school machine, receiving cheap milk, orange juice and the rest. That would mean taking benefits worth 3s. 4d. a week instead of 10d. worth of milk, and that change plainly could not be made by administrative fiat. So that one is out too.

Mr. Irving

I do not follow the difference between the 10d. and the 3s. 4d.

Mr. Pickthorn

The difference is 2s. 6d. But I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no shilly-shally about that part of the argument. A variant of this suggestion is that the child should stop getting the vitamin products, but should go on getting a pint a day for 1½d. That would obviously be simpler for the milkman, but the drawback to it is that it would be costing 2s. 7d. instead of 10d. I think it is plain that that change could not be made by administrative decision in a Government Department.

A third variant is that the child should be allowed 1½ pints of milk a week without charge—1½ pints because, as my hon. Friend behind pointed out, the one-third pint is a rare bird, and only nests with retailers wedded to school supply, and the nearest thing you can get in terms of pint bottles to five times one-third is 1½. Again, it is obvious when you state it that that will not do; only comparatively few retailers can deal with it, and so on.

All these three variants have a generic objection of administrative difficulty which I hope I have sufficiently indicated, and each one has a special objection which I have, although cursorily, sufficiently indicated. I could go into details about the complications and the papers the retailers and the school people would have to fill up, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that all that is really rather daunting.

If the retailers and the food office did agree to such a scheme, and if the cost were thought justifiable, and if for example the last scheme I mentioned were introduced, what is the maximum benefit to anybody that we should be aiming at? It would be that some parents for a few weeks, never even in the rarest cases for more than 20, should be saved 10d. a week. I have lived in a home where 10d. a week was a lot of money, so I should be the last to think that 10d. was unimportant; but at present values and prices I do not think it could be argued that the attempt to relieve what are believed to be a very few parents of perhaps 10s. spread over six months, and the most extreme case not more than £1 or a guinea, could be done without considerable financial expenditure and risk of waste of milk.

There may be some mothers—and I would not wish to appear, as indeed I am not, unsympathetic with them—who feel it hard and who believe it is a serious consideration to have to pay 10d. a week to be sure their child is getting as much milk as the child next door who, quite by chance, happened to start school life a little earlier.

The simple truth is that neither the Ministry of Food, of whom I have talked mainly tonight—because the whole of my case could have been put as a strictly educational case in half-a-minute—nor the Ministry of Education, nor anybody else, have yet been able to find a means by which the thing could be done. If it could be done, the benefits secured would almost certainly be out of all proportion to the effort and the expense.

I quite agree with the hon. Member that the numbers involved can only be guessed. The "information"—if I may put the word in inverted commas—which the Ministry of Education has is that there are no appreciable numbers of children of compulsory school age excluded from school because of lack of accommodation, and if there were any appreciable numbers I cannot doubt we should have heard about it. A year ago it certainly was entirely exceptional for children not to be admitted for the term in which their fifth birthday occurred. That is the last time for which we have anything one could call information in a law court sense.

As I indicated before, the chief education officer for Middlesex has thought this was true of that county, and we think it is true of counties and county boroughs in general. It is obviously difficult to make dead sure that in every new housing estate and New Town every new school comes into existence at exactly the right time to pick up all the five-year-olds the day before their fifth birthday. In such places there are probably times when small numbers of children are temporarily out of school and therefore a comparatively few weeks out of this 10d. of milk per week, but we are doing all we can to avoid that situation. We hope that there is nothing which can fairly be called hardship to parents nor anything which could be expected to be more than temporary.

Adjourned accordingly at Seven Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.