HC Deb 14 May 1954 vol 527 cc1660-8

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

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Moyle (Oldbury and Hales owen)

The subject that I am raising on the Adjournment is the school meals service, and I want to ascertain from the Parliamentary Secretary what in his view and that of the Minister are the main factors that have caused the recent contraction in the numbers of children using the school meals service. I do not want to weary the House with figures, but I should like to point out that in October last there was a sharp decline in the number of children using the service to about 46 per cent, of the total of the school population. That is somewhat disturbing to me, and not only to me but to those who are deeply concerned about the welfare of this excellent social institution, which has now become a permanent part of the British way of life.

When the first Bill was introduced in Parliament to deal with the feeding of necessitous schoolchildren, I read the report of the debates in another place. One noble Lord said that he would have nothing to do with such a scheme because it was lit up with the fantastic fireworks of Socialism. I am perfectly certain that neither the Parliamentary Secretary nor the right hon. Lady the Minister of Education are possessed of any such hallucinations about this service.

One of the main debates of the conference of the National Association of Executives in Education at Weston-super-Mare last September was on the school meals service. It arose on a motion asking the Minister to review the financial charges to parents which had been increased from 7d. to 9d. in March of last year for the mid-day meal. The second part of the motion deplored the increased cost because it had the effect of removing children from the scheme, and they were the children of families for whom the school meals service was primarily intended to serve.

In my own constituency I recently saw the report of the medical officer of health for Oldbury, and I find that there has been a sharp decline in the number of children using the service—a decline of 10 per cent. Taking that together with the debate to which I have referred, it would appear that the reduction in some districts during 1953 has been as high as 16 per cent. I shall be glad to know from the Parliamentary Secretary whether the decline has been arrested, and what are the latest figures at his disposal as to the number of children using the school meals service.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that it was the intention of the Government, when the Education Act was passed, to provide a free school meals service and that this should be put into operation at the same time as the free milk service came into operation. We have had the latter since August, 1946. but neither the Coalition Government nor the Labour Government were able to realise the intention of the Education Act to provide a free school meals service.

For my part I stand wholeheartedly for its provision, for two reasons. The first is that it is essential for children to be properly fed in order that they may benefit to the fullest extent from an education provided for them in accordance with their age and ability and aptitude, as the Education Act puts it. Secondly, I consider that it is a sound investment, wise and productive, and that it is reaping and will reap even greater dividends to the nation in the form of happier and healthier children than we have known before in this country.

The climate in which this matter is now discussed is much more congenial to the subject than it was even 20 years ago, because the country has never forgotten the description of this nation as a C3 nation in connection with the First World War and the resulting large number of rejects from military service on physical grounds. The nation wishes to forget that and has no desire to see it repeated in our history. Therefore, this service is vital to the nation.

With regard to the effect of the increased charges last year from 7d. to 9d., I know that the Parliamentary Secretary will say that there is the provision of free meals for children whose parents are unable to afford the present charges. May I say to the hon. Gentleman and, through him to his right hon. Friend, that working-class pride is of such a nature that people will not stand for their children being hived off from the rest as those who, on the one hand, are enjoying free meals because their parents cannot afford to pay and, on the other, the children who are able to pay for their meals because their parents are in better circumstances.

I do not want to lay the responsibility for the decline in the use of the school meals service on the basis of the increased charge of last year or the cumulative effect of increased charges during the last two years. I suggest that there is another factor which is much more insidious and, I fear, much more effective in militating against the welfare of the school meals service. It is the recent policy of the Minister in forcing economy cuts on the staffing arrangements, particularly of the kitchen staff, in relation to the total number of meals served. I speak after testing information that has been supplied to me by the National Union of Public Employees, of which I am an officer and which has a very large membership employed in the school meals service.

A circular issued to local authorities, for which I give the Minister every credit, sets out provisions to ensure the highest possible standard of hygiene and the taking of all necessary steps to avoid food poisoning. The Minister, in that circular, advises local authorities that the food given to children should be prepared, cooked and served on the same day but, as a result of the Minister's policy in enforcing these continuous reductions in the number of hours permitted to the staffs, increasing difficulty has been experienced in carrying out arrangements which, according to the circular, are considered essential to the service.

I have nothing but the greatest admiration for the teaching staffs and those employed in the service, either whole or part-time. They are doing grand work. Seized as they are by a sense of vocation, they realise how invaluable this work is to the welfare of the children for whom they are responsible. It is because of that conviction of their high sense of duty that I raise the point that I am now making. I am advised that in many parts of the country, food is prepared and cooked the day before and warmed-up again before it is served. That is entirely contrary to the Minister's advice. I make that statement with particular reference to the cooking of carcase meat and meat products.

I am advised that in some cases children have to wait until 12.30 p.m. and sometimes 12.45 p.m. before they are served with their mid-day meal because the staff is unable to make the arrangements that are so essential for the proper preparation and cooking of the food and its serving. That is the result of the model staffing scheme which the Minister issued to the local authorities. If the Parliamentary Secretary tells me that that circular relating to staffing is only sent to the local authorities for guidance, I say at once that that is certainly not the case, because the Minister is responsible for the service. It is financed wholly by the Exchequer, directly in respect of capital equipment and in the form of expenditure approved by the Minister in relation to the cost of preparing and cooking the meals.

In those cases where the county authority is unable to make good the cost within the range set by the staffing scheme of the Ministry it is at once informed that unless it puts its house in order the Minister will not sanction the increased cost by way of reimbursement. The Minister is the boss; the Minister has the economic power. I sincerely hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not hide behind that skirt by saying that it is purely a matter of guidance for local authorities and not to be regarded in any way as an instruction.

Through the Parliamentary Secretary, may I ask the Minister of Education to encourage consultation between the trade unions and herself. Why does not the Minister invite not only my union but the whole of the unions concerned in the organisation of the staff and ask for their views as to what should be done in relation to the proper staffing of the school meals service and what is essential to provide for the highest standard of hygiene, not only in relation to the centre but also in the localities? Speaking as a trade union officer over many years, I can see nothing but real productive good coming from the closest possible consultation between the unions' officers concerned, the directors of education and, if necessary, their appropriate county committees and, most certainly, the Minister and her appropriate officers at the centre.

I am not asking for any managerial interference in this matter. I appreciate and fully respect the managerial rights of those responsible for the conduct of the service, but I do say to the Parliamentary Secretary that he should urge on the Minister the good sense and wisdom in this 20th century of securing the experience and knowledge of the unions concerned whenever she is disposed to issue a circular to local authorities, particularly about staffing arrangements.

This is a permanent service. It is part of our British way of life. I hope and feel certain that it will not disappear from the fabric of our social institutions. It is my responsibility, in common with hon. Members on both sides of the House, to see that this scheme, to which the nation devotes a part of its income, shall realise the purposes for which it was originally intended and that notions of economy which, in fact, are nothing but parsimony shall not be allowed to injure the institutions which in its operation the Minister seeks to improve and nurture.

4.19 p.m.

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

I do not think it would be proper, in a short debate on the Adjournment, to go into the general questions the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle) raised, one of which was that there ought to be a universal free school meals service, which might be a matter requiring minor legislation, and, therefore, inappropriate for discussion now, and the other to consider the general question of what is economy and what is parsimony. Of course, everyone entirely agrees with him that the scheme ought to be properly managed and ought not, in the interests of economy, to be so twisted and bent as to destroy its virtues, or any part of them.

I think we are all agreed upon that, and for the purpose of this sort of debate I should have thought that that was enough to start from, and that other greater matters of principle, and the fantastic fireworks of Socialism, which is what it was called before there was Socialism—now it would be called rather the dreary, damp drip of Socialism—all that, I think, we can very well leave out.

I am sorry to have to confess to the hon. Gentleman that I do not know the answer about the resolution from the Association of Divisional Executives at Weston-super-Mare. I have had no notice of that; perhaps it is one of the things that I ought to have come across in preparing for the debate, but I did not, and I shall, if the hon. Member will allow me, have to write to him about it later.

I understand people having pride in regard to seeking or not seeking an eleemosynary advantage, but I did not quite understand what the hon. Member said about children being hived off: I do not think it is a fact that children whose parents claim that they ought not to be compelled to pay are in any way marked off or separately dealt with. If anything of that sort does happen and it is brought to our attention we shall, of course, look into it with the greatest care.

We are conscious of the importance of all this. The hon. Member spoke very kindly and fairly, and I do not want to turn this debate into a party wrangle at all, but may I remind him that the price increase in March, 1953, was not the first? There was an addition from 5d. to 6d. in 1950 and from 6d. to 7d. in April, 1951. I mention that not to make a party point upon it but because it is a necessary part of the argument, as will be seen presently. Even at 9d. I do not think that anybody doubts the school meal is very good value for money; the charge represents generally rather less than half of what the meal actually costs.

My right hon. Friend has taken pains to make clear that she was willing to consider proposals from local education authorities for shifting the scales upon which parents' incomes are scrutinised so that hardship shall be avoided. We all know the value of money; we all, unfortunately, know what our fathers and grandfathers had forgotten, and could hardly understand, that the value of money shifts. In fact, 101 of the 146 authorities, in particular Worcestershire, have put up new scales which have been approved.

The hon. Member kindly avoided worrying me with figures, and I do not know how much I can worry him in seven minutes with figures. I will do my best to answer his points. The latest returns show that there were 51.3 per cent, of children taking meals in October, 1952, and 45.1 per cent, in October, 1953, so there was a fall of 6.2 per cent. In Worcestershire, the fall in the percentage taking school dinners after the price increase was slightly less than the general fall in England and Wales; though again, inside Worcestershire, in Oldbury the fall was not only greater than in Worcestershire but greater than in the country at large.

It is worth remembering, if only to show the complications of the subject, that although the extra 2d. went on everywhere the effects have been different in Worcestershire from those in England generally, and different in Oldbury from the effects in Worcestershire generally. So any simple presumption about causes and effects in this matter is almost bound to be mistaken, and, if right, is right rather by chance than by logic.

No one knows how closely or directly the extra 2d. is really connected with the fall in the percentage of children taking meals. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the fall in the percentage of children taking meals when the price was raised to 6d. in 1950 was considerable—from 53 per cent, to 50.2 per cent. One would have thought that the raising of the price to 7d., in 1951, would have the same effect, or more so. On the contrary it had much less effect, almost no effect at all. Moreover, the general effect of those two 1d. increases dwindled away again quite a good deal soon afterwards. So the effect of the latest increase, which the hon. Gentleman so properly and moderately deplores, we may hope may prove too to pass fairly quickly. We shall have more figures which, if the hon. Member will remind me, I will show to him before very long, but we have not them now.

With every respect—I use those words not in any conventional sense—for medical officers, and particularly for the Oldbury medical officer—who, for all I know, may be the best of medical officers—to use words like, "It must be presumed" or, "We are driven to conclude" that the whole of this effect is directly the result of the extra 1d. or 2d., will not quite do. The clearest indication of that is that the number of free meals also fell between October, 1952 and 1953, and it cannot have been the additional cost which was causing that result.

The variations in the extent of the decline in meals taken in general are very wide. I think that the hon. Gentleman used the figure of 10 per cent, in Oldbury, but actually it is more: it is 11 per cent, or 12 per cent., whereas in Worcestershire generally it is 6 per cent. I am not familiar, as he, of course, is, with the exact conditions in that part of the world. But I cannot believe that a penny matters so much more in Oldbury than in the rest of Worcestershire—as the results would lead one to suppose, if. in fact, a penny was the only cause of the results.

As I have said, in so far as matters of hardship are concerned, there has been a loosening, and easing of the scale for free meals. Since the new scale for Worcestershire was not approved until July, 1953, it may be that it had not got through to the consciousness of parents fully before the beginning of the new school year when our last return was made. It may be that we shall now find that there are more meals being taken, and particularly more free meals

I entirely agree, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend and her advisers agree, with the medical officer, that if parents do feel honestly persuaded that they cannot afford the cost of school meals they ought not to have any false shame about it: they should not hesitate to apply for free meals. I hoped to have something else to say about that, but as I have only a minute of time left I should say something about the reduction in the serving staff. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me I will therefore pass on to that.

It is the duty of my right hon. Friend to see that the total cost is reasonable, in the light of local circumstances and so on, and therefore to exercise a certain responsibility about the amount of money spent in staffing and to exercise some control over the number of persons employed. That is done, but it is done with indirectness. The sanction is simply that if the head office, if Curzon Street, is persuaded that in a particular area too much is being spent on the meals service then there would be financial loss to the authority, since they would not get a grant.

If there is reason to suppose that there is under-staffing in Worcestershire, then the first approach ought to be to the Worcestershire authority. So far as any information I have goes, there is not any reason to make that supposition.

If I have time to get in one last figure, so far as the poisoning point goes, so long as children are poisoned in this way—

The Question having been proposed at Four o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Four o'clock.