HC Deb 21 February 1968 vol 759 cc606-16

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

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

Selectivity is the new vogue word of British politics. Inside and outside Parliament, and on both sides of the political fence, more and more people are urging a change towards increasing selectivity in the social services. By this they mean that help from public funds should be given only to those whose need can be proved. And they strongly condemn the award of social benefits to anyone else.

Right hon. and hon. Members opposite have been especially strident in their condemnation of the universal principle of social security for all, irrespective of means. They argue that universality is out-dated and that help must be concentrated on those whose needs are greatest. The right hon. Members for Enfield, West (Mr. lain Macleod) and Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) have emerged as two of the leading Parliamentary advocates of selectivity. Indeed, they appear to hate the universal principle. For them, selectivity is a bright new concept and they see themselves as modernisers who could save a great deal of public money by restricting help to cases of proven need.

But, of course, selectivity is anything but a new idea and the two right hon. Members cannot be allowed to masquerade as modernisers. We already have selectivity in many different fields, and it is the present working of selectivity in the school meals service that I wish to consider tonight. We have had selectivity in the school meals service for many years. The parents who can afford to do so are required to pay for their children's meals, while the children of widows and of parents who are sick, disabled or who, for other reasons, are living on very low incomes are entitled to free school meals.

It is estimated that last year 660,000 children were thus entitled to free school meals. But well over 300,000 of these children refused to take free meals. They refused, according to press reports of inquiries undertaken by chief education welfare officers, because their parents were sensitive about "taking charity". I understand that one chief education welfare officer even encountered parents who said that, because they were already receiving free clothing, they felt that they had to "draw the line" at free meals. Words such as "stigma" are said to have been used by parents, and one eminent journalist, commenting on these enquiries inThe Times of 25th July, 1967, reported my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science as being strongly opposed to any system that enables the paying children to poke a finger of scorn at the others". My right hon. Friend does well to see that it is not only the parents who feel sensitive about existing arrangements for free school meals. I am glad he recognises that some of the children who can pay their way in schools sometimes take pride in comparing themselves with the children from poorer families who cannot do so. My right hon. Friend is much more in touch with the real world than the municipal official who said recently: Those who pay, pay, and that is all there is to it. I think adults pay far more attention to this sort of discrimination than the children. In our experience, the children take little or no notice of it. Against this assessment, I quote from the published account of how an adolescent girl, Janice, who is now in receipt of free school meals, sees the present system: We had this teacher once, and always on a Monday she would say ' And where's your dinner money? ' and they'd all laugh and she knew I had free dinners. She knew. They think if you're poor, you don't care. What do they think you are? You're human. You've got feelings, same as they have, haven't you? All you're thinking is that you mustn't cry, else they'll laugh and all you want to do is run and run and run and never come back. One day, I'll laugh at them. I'll work in Woolworths and never have kids. It's no fun being a kid". Janice is 14. With the torments which at least some of the children like her have to face, is it any wonder that there are other families on the poverty line who will gladly go without anything rather than send their children for free school meals. Or that the writer who published Janice's comment should have considered that the advantages which our philanthropic, enlightened Welfare State have given here are destroying her. They have left marks on her which will be with her for the rest of her life. This is a subject of the highest social and human importance. The family circumstances of the adolescent girl to whom I have referred entitle her to free school meals. But she is humiliated by selectivity. And there are hundreds of thousands of very poor children who prefer to go without, or whose parents prefer them to go without, rather than have their names on a different page of the school meals register.

In a document which is to be presented by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party for discussion at the 7th annual conference of the Young Socialists, to be held on 13th-15th April, 1968, it is stated: Where tests of means are involved, those in greatest need often fail to apply, either through ignorance of their rights. dislike of the means-testing procedure, or the difficulty found by the less educated and articulate in coming forward to establish their entitlement. The effect of these factors has been clearly shown by Hilary Land in her study of families with five or more children in London, which stated that only 4 per cent. of those children under five who were entitled to free welfare foods actually received them. Slick proposals for additional selective benefits forget that many of our social services protect the unprotected, look after and rehabilitate the mentally sick, and compensate for what Professor R. M. Titmuss has described as society's "disservices" to the individual. These include the war disabled, those with infectious diseases, the chronic bronchitis sufferer from the mines and other industries, the industrially injured, the unemployed and the victims of road accidents.

And it is with the children of those who have suffered some of society's worst "disservices" that we are concerned in this debate. We are concerned also with tens of thousands of children whose fathers are not lay-abouts or even out of work. Many of the children who do not take the free school meals to which they are entitled have fathers who are in full-time employment. They are in the wage-stop families, who fight a hopeless battle to make ends meet on a very low wage.

Of the three reasons advanced by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party for the failure of those in greatest need to apply for selective benefits, it may be thought that ignorance of rights is the most important. Indeed, I understand that the Department of Education and Science has recently spent about £20,000 on sending out a circular which is meant to reduce the risks that parents qualified to get free school meals for their children ill fail to apply for them through ignorance". As I have tried to show, there are factors very much more important than parental ignorance with which we shall have to deal if we are to humanise the school meals service from the standpoint of the deprived family. Indeed there are some well-informed people who doubt whether parental ignorance is really an important factor at all. A spokeswoman for the Manchester school meals service was quoted in theWythenshawe Express on 1st February as saying that she did not think that there is any likelihood of people not knowing that free dinners were available". And it is estimated that about 16,000 children and their families in Manchester today are living in poverty. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Gregory) and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Charles R. Morris), both of whom have taken a close personal interest in this debate, will confirm that this is a very serious problem in the great urban area which we represent.

The situation nationally was well described in a letter which I received on 31st January from Professor John Yudkin of the Department of Nutrition, Queen Elizabeth College, University of London. He powerfully criticised the complacent attitude of those who assume that malnutrition cannot exist in our present affluent society and he told me of a study which he was making into the health prospects of the children of families whose income was inadequate to ensure that they were properly nourished. He was concerned, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary knows, not only with schools meals but also with school milk.

One of the preliminary findings of his study is that even children in an area which is by no means poor often go for as long as 16 or 18 hours without nutritious food. Another finding, of particular interest at this time, is that secondary school children taking school milk had better teeth, and were less frequently absent from school, than children who did not.

There will be those who will dismiss as unimportant not only parental ignorance but also other factors which I have mentioned for refusing school meals. They will regard what is said by low-income parents and their children alike as expressions of false pride. But the fact is that hundreds of thousands of children whom everyone agreed should be given free school meals preferred to go without. This is happening now and it is for the advocates of selectivity to show how their system can work without humiliating those, including children, whom selectivity is said to be intended to help. The selectivists must also explain why we should now be asked to extend a system which has been found so badly wanting in a service as vitally important as the school meals service.

I hope that my hon. Friend will address himself to the social and human problems which arise from the failure of selectivity in this service. At the very least I hope he will announce his intention to try to devise a system by which the child receiving free school meals cannot be distinguished from the child who pays. This may well prove impossible, but I know that my hon. Friend is as well equipped as anyone can be to address himself to this task. His background is similar to mine. We both know from our upbringing the realities of life in a working-class neighbourhood and we are both case-hardened to the real meaning of the bright new concepts of right hon. Gentlemen opposite. I know that he will want to reply as positively and as sympathetically as possible to this debate.

12.30 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Denis Howell)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) for the compassionate manner, in keeping with his normal practice, in which he has introduced this debate on the working of selectivity and trying to ensure that selectivity in school meals attains its proper objectives. I personally appreciate his kind references to me and to the similarities of our upbringing. Both he and I had free school meals when at school because of family circumstances and the difficulties of those days, and I was able personally to appreciate the main burden of his speech.

Before I deal with the sensitivity questions, to which I can assure my hon. Friend the Government attach the greatest importance, I will relate what has been happening in the last year. School meals have been priced at ls. since 1957 and will be going up to ls. 6d. this spring. Even at that figure they still represent a subsidy to the parent of 1s. 1d. per meal. When the Government decided to raise the price because the taxpayer's bill was increasing phenomenally, they associated that increase, properly in my view, with the desire to do something about the wide area of family and hidden poverty, particularly in large families. In short, they tried to discover how many children were entitled to free meals, how many were actually having them and then to set about putting the situation right realistically.

We were all shattered by a survey of the Ministry of Social Security published in the summer of last year entitled "Circumstances of Families". This showed that there were 500,000 children belonging to families whose incomes were below the normal initial requirements. Of that number, only 250,000 were taking the free school meals to which they were entitled. It was from that point that the Government began their operations. Children of parents who are unemployed or sick almost invariably get free meals, because there is a good link between the Ministry of Social Security and the local education authorities.

We judge that this is almost wholly a problem of the low wage-earners and their children. The very fact of the announcement by the Ministry, coupled with debates in the Press—and I pay tribute to what the Press has done in focussing attention on this—had a profound effect. In the autumn term, 1966. on a given day there were 330,000 children having free school meals. One year later, in Autumn, 1967, the figure had risen to 404,000, an increase of 80,000, something near 20 per cent.

The discussion in the House and outside had focussed attention on the problem and brought nearly a 20 per cent. increase in the take-up of free school meals. The House will agree that this is a not insignificant figure. However, the Secretary of State and the Department were not satisfied and did not rest on their laurels. We felt that we had to get through directly to every parent to let them know of their entitlement. We thought about this and decided not to do it in a manner in which Governments normally approach the problem. by advertising on television, or in the Press. We thought that the proper way was to send a letter from the Secretary of State. bearing his signature, to every parent. That mammoth task, with the co-operation of local education authorities, schools and teachers was embarked upon at the end of last year. and I am glad to say has now been completed. It was a simple letter, its language designed to be clearly understood by every parent who received it. It set out clearly how they could judge their entitlement to free school meals if they thought their children should have them. It was sent on a prepaid basis, so that all the parent had to do was to sign his or her name to say whether he or she wanted the school welfare officer to call or wanted an appointment at the office of the school welfare officer, fold it over and pop it into a pillar box.

I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend and the House that there has been a tremendous response to that approach, which the Government thought extremely satisfactory. I have had specially obtained for this Adjournment debate the first few early returns from four county councils, 24 county boroughs and two London boroughs. These show a percentage increase in the take-up of free school meals. directly following upon the campaign of the Government. In the case of nine authorities there was an increase of between 10 per cent. and 20 per cent., in nine, between 20 per cent. and 30 per cent., in seven between 30 per cent. and 40 per cent., in two between 40 per cent. and 50 per cent., and in three between 50 per cent. and 60 per cent.—very striking figures.

We estimate, therefore, that if the rest of the country—and there are 162 education authorities altogether—follow this pattern, as one would think, it will show an average increase of about 30 per cent. in the take-up. which would give us an additional 80,000 cases. If we add the 80,000 to the 80,000 already uncovered in recent years as a result of publicity alone, it means that we shall have found, by this campaign and these methods, at least 160,000 children who are now having free school meals which they would not have been having otherwise, which is a considerable measure of progress towards the 250,000 which the Ministry of Social Security survey uncovered for us. I know that my hon. Friend wit think that this operation has been worth every penny of the £20,000 which this has cost the Government.

The figures for two authorities, Nottingham and Liverpool, surprised us, because they showed an increase of only 5 per cent. Both these education authorities told us before we started our campaign that they were confident that in their areas they had already taken this matter so seriously that almost every case which was entitled to free school meals was getting them. It is a great tribute to both Nottingham and Liverpool that their contention was borne out by the fact that, although the average increase was 30 per cent., in their case a 5 per cent. increase was all that was necessary to meet the circumstances.

We have had one or two critics of the leaflet. I do not want to spend much time on them, except to say that people who criticise us, on political or psychological grounds, for sending out this leaflet, are saying that it should be no concern of the country if children of families living in poverty are not receiving free meals. I can only hope that on reflection and in the light of the figures I have given they will take a rather more charitable view of the true purpose of such surveys as this.

I now turn to the other extremely important question to which my hon. Friend addressed himself, namely, why do a large number of children who are entitled to free school meals not take them up? First, we do not know the answers to all these questions, but we have commissioned a piece of research in which the London School of Economics, under the leadership of Professor Titmuss—the eminent sociologist who was mentioned by my hon. Friend—is looking at great depth at a number of sample areas, to advise us why people do not take up their entitlement.

We shall pay particular attention to what the research shows, but we wanted to act before the results were known, since it will take a year or two. Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science sent out a circular in November last year—No. 12/67—in which he asked all local authorities to review their arrangements for the collection of school meals money. This was to deal with the selectivity problem particularly, to which we pay attention—what my hon. Friend, in the graphic case he outlined, described as the humiliation of selectivity.

We asked authorities, first, to review their arrangements, and secondly, to let us know of any good schemes they have by which it is impossible for any child in a school to know which other children are getting school meals free. We have now, therefore, a large number of good schemes available for local authorities, if they want them, and which we know work. As a result of this exercise, I can quite categorically say that there is no excuse at all for any school or local education authority in this country to operate a school meals system in which it is possible to distinguish who are the children getting school meals free from those who pay for their meals. It is a prime aim of the Government's policy to eliminate this sort of distinction, and we shall certainly keep it under very close watch indeed.

I am happy to assure the House that the sending out of the leaflet in November has already proved to be extremely worth while. There is a good deal of evidence that local authorities have had another look at their systems. In most cases the way to do this, we find, is to take the collection of school meals money right out of the classroom and give to the clerical staff in the school the responsibility for this operation, but, as I say, it is only one of many methods by which the objective can be achieved.

We are extremely happy at the response we have had. It is right that I should pay tribute to the local authorities who have co-operated extremely well with us, and particularly to the teachers and the teachers' organisations I personally consulted at an early stage of this operation.

The Government are determined to attack family poverty. The largest area of poverty is in large families. One other thing I ought to tell the House. From April of this year we are making available free school meals for the fourth and every subsequent child in every large family without any means test whatever, since we are clear that this is the largest area of poverty still remaining in this country.

I hope the House will be satisfied that these measures, taken together, are a very vigorous and energetic campaign indeed, and are beginning to pay off in achieving the objectives which are not only those of this House but which are desirable and also necessary in any civilised community.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned acordingly at seventeen minutes to One o'clock

Back to