HC Deb 08 July 1971 vol 820 cc1493-9
2. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she is now in a position to state the reduction in the numbers of school dinners being taken consequent on the recent introduction of increased prices.

3. Mr. Carter

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she now has available the numbers of children eating school meals since the increased charges.

7. Mr. Skinner

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she has now any information on the number of schoolchildren taking school meals in the county of Derbyshire, both immediately before and after the cost of the school meal was last increased.

20. Mr. Hardy

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is the percentage decline in the number of school meals consumed in the West Riding of Yorkshire and the Rother Valley Division Executive Area since the increase in the price of school meals.

21. Mr. Clinton Davis

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is the number and proportion of schoolchildren in the Inner and Outer London areas, respectively, who have ceased to take school meals following the price increase therefor.

30. Mr. Ashley

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is her estimate of the reduction in the number of children taking school meals following recent price increases.

32. Mr. Meacher

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science, what are the latest figures for the take-up of school meals on a national, regional and local basis; and how these compare with corresponding figures for March this year.

54. Mr. Whitehead

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what was the total of school meals taken in all schools of the Derby Borough Education Authority in the week beginning Monday, 14th June, 1971, as compared to the week beginning 11th January, 1971.

56. Mr. Concannon

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is the percentage drop in bought school meals for Nottinghamshire over the past year.

Mrs. Thatcher

I would refer hon. Members to my reply of 5th July to the Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude). This gave full details of the take-up of school dinners in September, 1970, and May, 1971, by reference both to the overall position in England and Wales and to the areas of the individual local education authorities. The Department has not collected information for other dates in 1970 or 1971, for parts of the areas of local education authorities, or for individual schools.—[Vol. 820. c. 299–310.]

Mr. Hamilton

Is the right hon. Lady aware that I consider that Question and Answer to have been inspired—those given last Monday, I think it was? Does she recognise that the White Paper on New Policies in Public Spending which was issued by the Government said that there would be a net saving on school dinners of £20 million this year and £38 million in 1974–75, and that that £38 million is the exact amount of the tax concession given to people with incomes of more than £4,005? Can she say how many primary schools she intends to build with the savings she is going to make because of this disgusting exercise? Or is she engaged in another intellectually dishonest exercise such as she admitted in Eastbourne last week?

Mrs. Thatcher

As to the first point, the school meals subsidy will in fact increase. As to the second point, most people were delighted with the new primary school building programme of £132 million over three years.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that the catastrophic fall which has occurred in Derbyshire, with the resultant sacking of scores of people engaged in the preparation and supervision of school meals, exemplifies accurately the class bias of her Department? To ensure that she is not left with support only from within the narrow confines of her own party, will she affirm to the House that there will be no further increase in the price of school meals during the life of this Parliament?

Mrs. Thatcher

If the hon. Gentleman reads the White Paper, he will see that the latter part of his supplementary question is not correct.

Mr. Lane

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that on each of the two occasions when the last Labour Government increased the price of school meals the numbers taking school meals first fell away and then rose again, and is not this likely to repeat itself on this occasion?

Mrs. Thatcher

We expect the numbers taking school meals to rise again in the autumn, in common with the usual pattern after there has been an increase in price. There will also be a further increase in the numbers eligible for free school meals when the supplementary benefit scale rises again.

Mr. Barry Jones

Is the right hon. Lady not aware that because of the increase in the price of school meals many thousands of school children eat sandwich lunches in draughty corridors and damp cloakrooms? What will she do about this?

Mrs. Thatcher

We recently put out a circular to local education authorities about arrangements for those who took sandwiches to school, setting out the Department's views on the arrangements that should be made. As the hon. Gentleman knows, increases in the price of school meals have been made before and there was nothing unusual about their being made under his Government.

Sir G. Nabarro

Is it not the fact that the price of school meals after adjustment in relation to the average earnings of parents is now more favourable to parents than it was before the price was raised, and is it not desirable as a general principle that, as earnings rise, the price of school meals should rise?

Mrs. Thatcher

From my information, and taking a very modest estimate of this year's average earnings, the price of school meals in relation to average earnings this year is approximately the same as it was 16 years ago.

Mr. Edward Short

Will the right hon. Lady confirm or deny the revelation this week in her reply to Mr. Tudor David when he questioned her about the hypothecation of revenue and when she is alleged to have said, with a shimmering smile, that this is merely an intellectual exercise indulged in when one has nothing else to say.

Mrs. Thatcher

Indeed, my comment was about my questioner's comments.

26. Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she will increase the income limit for entitlement to free school meals, particularly in respect of larger families.

Mrs. Thatcher

I increased the net income limits in April, and I shall be doing so again in September. These increases have the effect of bringing more families of all sizes into initial entitlement for some or all of their children, and in the case of larger families with existing entitlement for some of their children, of extending that entitlement to cover others.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been some disappointment over the refusal of applications, in some degree, perhaps, stimulated by her Department's own very attractive advertisements? Will she, when both wages and prices are rising, take a generous view of these limits?

Mrs. Thatcher

The limits will be increased again when the supplementary limits go up in September, and we expect quite a lot more children to become eligible for free school meals when that occurs.

Mr. Blenkinsop

Would the right hon. Lady agree to disregard the cost of travel for school children in determining the income limits now that the transport charges are so terribly high?

Mrs. Thatcher

The local education authority has discretion about paying fares for travelling to school within the statutory limits.

Mr. Heffer

Would the right hon. Lady consider the situation in Liverpool, where a report from the school meals organiser shows that one million fewer school meals this year will be issued to school children because of the higher price and also because of the growing unemployment in Liverpool, which has seriously affected the situation?

Mrs. Thatcher

I will, of course, look at any situation. My impression was that in Liverpool there was an especially good school meals service.

29. Mr. Simon Mahon

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what communication she has received from the Association of Municipal Corporations' Education Committee relating to the provision of free milk in schools for all children up to 12 years of age; and what reply she has sent.

Mr. van Straubenzee

The Association wrote to the Department early in June suggesting that authorities should be given discretionary powers in the Education (Milk) Bill to continue to provide free milk for primary school pupils up to 12. This matter has been thoroughly debated in Committee.

Mr. Mahon

That is a most unsatisfactory reply. Is the right hon. Lady aware that most of us are asking how the Government can possibly justify this arrogant policy in the face of universal condemnation from the A.M.C. and other social works organisations? Is it not a sign of greatness in a nation to cherish its children? Is this not a miserable policy, and are the Government not ashamed of themselves?

Mr. van Straubenzee

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is not aware that the Standing Committee which has been going into this in great detail has now reported. He will find it helpful to read the arguments both ways. I would only say, in all modesty, that I do not remember serving on a Committee on which the Government's arguments have so thoroughly prevailed.

Sir G. Nabarro

Will my hon. Friend apply himself to the question of milk supply? Is there any evidence available that a diminution of milk demand has actually occurred in the schools as a result of these measures? Is it not a fact that demand for milk is now the same as, if not larger than, it was before the changes?

Mr. van Straubenzee

I think that the changes so far have been quite minimal. In any case, as my hon. Friend knows so well, one of the provisions of the Bill allows milk to be provided at secondary school level on payment, a right which was not previously available and which might well result in increased take-up.

34. Mr. Frank Allaun

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she is aware that, although school meals are supplied at the reduced rate of 25p in special schools, mainly because the children cannot get home for dinner, there are three units in Salford for handicapped children in a similar difficulty, but who have to pay the full amount of 60p per week and that this anomaly also exists in other towns; and if she will take steps to reduce charges for these children.

Mrs. Thatcher

Local education authorities have discretion under the regulations to decide the level of the charge made for the school dinner for pupils in special schools. Special units, unlike special schools, receive no formal individual approval or recognition by the Department and the discretion does not, therefore, extend to them. Ordinary arrangements for remission of charges apply and authorities also have powers to provide benefits such as breakfast and mid-morning refreshments free or at a nominal charge for any pupil who has a long journey to school.

Mr. Allaun

Does the Minister admit that this is an anomaly which is quite meaningless to the parents of handicapped children? Why did she take four months to reply to my letter? Why did she fail to give me the answer then that she has given now? She did not then indicate that there was a local responsibility. Indeed, she accepted the State's responsibility in this matter.

Mrs. Thatcher

It is an anomaly. If the hon. Gentleman had to wait that length of time for an answer, I can only apologise to him. It seems that he now has the right answer.

35. Mr. Whitehead

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many letters she has received on the subject of increases in school meal charges and the proposed cessation of free school milk to primary schoolchildren of the age of seven years.

Mrs. Thatcher

I have to date received about 400 letters, including 13 petitions, concerning the changes in the school meals and milk arrangements.

Mr. Whitehead

Is the right hon. Lady aware that that is absolutely nothing compared with what she will get as the autumn and winter progress and when the full nutritional harm of these measures comes to be felt as a result of one million fewer children taking school meals? If she finds the present trend continuing by, say, the end of the winter term, will she revise the prices downwards?

Mrs. Thatcher

I have no medical evidence of nutritional harm; nor, I believe, has anyone else.

Mr. Longden

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this blanket pauperisation of all parents is most extraordinary—this assumption on the part of hon. Gentlemen opposite that there are no parents in England who can afford to give meals and milk to their children?

Mrs. Thatcher

I can only repeat what I said, that I have no medical evidence of nutritional harm, and none has been sent to me.

Mr. Spearing

Among the letters which the right hon. Lady has received, is there one from the Association of Education Committees asking her to review the Measure so as to give L.E.A.s optional power to provide free milk in primary schools for the seven to 11 age group? If so, will she say what reply she has sent?

Mrs. Thatcher

There is another Question on that precise point.