HC Deb 04 November 1968 vol 772 cc485-90
The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Edward Short)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about free school meals.

The Government have decided to bring to an end next April the scheme under which free school meals were provided to the fourth and subsequent children of large families, irrespective of parental income. Meals will, of course, continue to be provided free of charge for children whose parents cannot pay the charge without financial help.

Sir E. Boyle

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, first, what saving this decision will bring about and, secondly, while recognising the arguments in favour of this decision, may I ask him to assure the House that he will consult the local authorities, so as to safeguard the position of those large families with the lowest incomes? Finally, could he tell the House whether there are any further post-Bassetlaw announcements that we can expect during the week?

Mr. Short

Working backwards, there are no further announcements as far as I am concerned. Secondly, we have gone to great trouble, as the right hon. Gentle-man knows, during last year to inform parents about their rights in this matter. We have asked local authorities to do all in their power to avoid embarrassment to children.

The saving from this is £4 million a year, the greater part of which has been going to people who do not need it. I believe that this £4 million, from the point of view of doing greatest good to the greatest number, can be more wisely applied.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Can the Minister say whether this also applies to Scotland? Is he aware that when free milk for secondary school children was cut, special stress was laid on this free meal aspect?

Mr. Short

This also applies to Scotland. I hope that my hon. Friend will also have noticed that last month family allowances were increased. We have also, twice this year, increased the parental income scale, which relieves certain people from paying for school meals.

Mr. Thorpe

Are we to take it that this is a further extension of the public cuts following devaluation? Has it not been the policy of successive Governments, at least in taxation matters, that parents of larger families are those who should be assisted rather than hit? Is he aware that many people do not accept the need for a means test among individual parents in the same schools?

Mr. Short

This is not a cut. It is simply using resources much more wisely. All the children who need free meals can get free meals. There is no need to give the money to quite wealthy people with large incomes.

Mr. Murray

Is the Secretary of State aware that this will cause a great deal of hardship for those families near the poverty line? If he intends to proceed with this, will he consider calling local education authorities together so as to get a simplified scheme for those who need school meals, obviating the need for them to fill in very long double-sided forms which ask lots of complicated questions, such as that, which he can see, issued by the Kent Education Committee?

Mr. Short

I should be very glad to take up any case of long, complicated forms. We have asked the local authorities to do everything in their power to avoid any kind of embarrassment to children and parents in this matter.

Mr. Costain

The Minister said that this was not a cut in the policy of free meals. Will he tell us what a cut would be?

Mr. Short

We are applying this £4 million more sensibly to help many more children.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the shortness of his original statement shocked and surprised many hon. Members on this side of the House and that no substantive reason for this action has been advanced? Is he aware that giving the free meal concession for the fourth child was an easy, sensible and socially acceptable way of identifying children who are in need of these meals?

What research has the Department done to distinguish between those from large families who are wealthy and take advantage of this concession and the great number in my constituency who have taken advantage of it for the first time? Should not this be considered instead of separating the sheep from the goats?

Mr. Short

I do not think that we want to separate them into sheep and goats. If children need the free meal they will get it. We are simplifying this process and trying to avoid embarrassment to children. I thought that the political philosophy of this side of the House was to do the greatest good to the greatest number. Here is a sum of money which could be more wisely applied to benefit a greater number of people.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

May I ask a simple question. Did the right hon. Gentleman consult the Minister of Transport before reaching this decision?

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us are getting a little fed up with hearing of cuts applied to those on the lowest incomes while, at the same time, we read that the Government are talking about paying £2,000 a year to members of another place, many of whom already have vast incomes? Are they to be treated on a means test basis?

Mr. Short

I do not know anything about another place, but I know that there are no cuts for people on low incomes. People with low incomes will benefit by getting free meals.

Mr. Frederic Harris

The right hon. Gentlement suggested applying the cut, which is not supposed to a cut, in a better way. Will he tell us in what way he intends to apply it?

Mr. Short

We had better wait to see how education services develop over the next few months.

Mr. Shinwell

Because of the importance of this matter, will my right hon. Friend hold it up until the opinion of the House has been sought? Is it to be the practice of the Government that, without any kind of consultation either with the House or Government supporters, they expect us to accept proposals without a protest? May I have an answer?

Mr. Short

My right hon. Friend knows as well as I what to do if he wants to test the opinion of the House on this matter.

Mr. Ridsdale

May I press the Minister again to say whether this is a cut or not? Where is this £4 million to be spent?

Mr. Short

The hon. Member had better wait until he sees the Education Estimates for next year and how the money is to be spent.

Mr. Christopher Price

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the response to the previous circular showed that the take-up of free meals in the past had been very poor indeed and that even now there is a great deal of evidence to show that it could go a great deal further? From where did he get the figure of £4 million, and how is it divided between those who have a fourth child and do not need the free meal and those who do need it?

Mr. Short

Of course, £4 million is an estimate, but it is a very carefully worked out estimate and I believe that it is reliable.

With reference to the number, my hon. Friend has a point. The number not taking up free meals is very considerable. That is why my predecessor sent out the circular last winter. As a result the take-up increased by 100,000.

Sir R. Cary

In view of the reception given to the Minister's announcement, would it not be much wiser to withdraw the proposal and to reconsider it with the local education committees?

Mr. Short

I think that we had better wait to see what reception there is throughout the country among local authority associations and parents who have fewer than four children.

Mr. Molloy

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this short and sad statement was hardly in keeping with the Prime Minister's statement about participation in all affairs. Therefore, can my right hon. Friend paradoxically add to it and, in a shorter statement, withdraw the first one? Does he believe that we in this House accept that the economy of Britain has to be assisted by filching £4 million from the eating habits of school children?

Mr. Short

I do not think that it makes sense to give £4 million, or a large proportion of it, to people who do not need it.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that education is carrying more than its share of cuts, bearing in mind the cuts in university building? What does he consider a low income for a family with four children? What does he think is a low income for a family with six or seven children?

Mr. Short

I will not comment on the last question. The income limit has recently been raised. In the case of a family with four children it is £16 10s.

Mr. Richard

Can my right hon. Friend give one assurance, however—that the object of the statement he has made is not merely to save money on the educational budget, generally, but that it is his intention specifically to apply the moneys he may save by this particular saving to other matters which at the moment are being under-financed, if he thinks that that is necessary?

Mr. Short

I have said over and over again that the purpose is to apply these resources more wisely.

Mr. Howie

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I am the father of four children? I do not mind buying their dinners at school or anywhere else and I am sure that would be strongly supported by many on this side of the House. But can he assure us that this saving of £4 million will be reapplied within the educational budget?

Mr. Short

I keep saying that the object is to use the £4 million much more wisely than it is being used.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House.

Mr. Frank Allaun

On a point of order. May I ask whether this proposal will require legislation to be passed through this House, because, if so, my right hon. Friend will not get it?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a question for Mr. Speaker. I gather that the Minister heard what the hon. Member said.

Back to