HC Deb 15 February 1977 vol 926 cc243-4
19. Mr. Gow

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is her latest estimate of the cost of subsidising school meals during the years ending 5th April 1977 and 5th April 1978.

Miss Margaret Jackson

The latest estimate, at estimated outturn prices, for the current financial year is £427 million. The estimate for 1977–78 will be published shortly in the public expenditure White Paper.

Mr. Gow

Is the Under-Secretary of State aware that, in deciding priorities for public expenditure, school meals at present receive a disproportionate amount of Government subsidy? Is she further aware that many parents would think it appropriate that they should increase the amount that they pay each day for their children if that meant safeguarding standards in our schools?

Miss Jackson

I am aware that there are those who feel that too much of our public expenditure goes on subsidising school meals. There is room for disagreement about where in the education service we should seek to help people who have financial problems. There are many other areas where we can see the need for help to be given. Although we hope to reduce the level of subsidy, it does not seem right or sensible at this time to make the kind of sweeping cuts in the subsidy on school meals suggested by the hon. Gentleman. I recognise that parents are concerned about education standards but, as one of my hon. Friends said, it is hard to teach a child who is too hungry to concentrate.

Mr. Flannery

Does the Minister agree that school meals form a very important social service and that any subsidy to school meals helps that part of the community which is in dire need? Will she seriously consider taking the school meals subsidy completely out of education costs? This is not directly educational; it is a social service, which is separate from education.

Miss Jackson

There are a great number of measures of this kind that have attractions for Ministers in my Department, but simply to put the burden of the school meal subsidy on to a different Department would not solve the overall problem of public expenditure.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Is the Minister aware that it is an insult to the parents of this country to suggest that none of us feed our children properly? Would it not be better, on educational grounds, to spend the money that goes to the subsidy on extra teachers? If the subsidy for school meals is regarded as help given to families, would it not be better to give an increased child benefit rather than increase the subsidy?

Miss Jackson

We are not increasing the subsidy; we propose to reduce it. However, we do not believe that we can reduce it more than we propose at present. I am at a loss to understand the hon. Members' comments about the subsidy being an insult to parents and a suggestion that they cannot feed their children. We are not trading in insults or compliments. The fact remains that many people in this country have levels of income that are such that they find it difficult to feed their children adequately. These people are assisted by the provision of good school meals, and we do not wish to see that situation changed.