HC Deb 23 May 1980 vol 985 cc1004-16 2.23 pm
Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

There is a cruel irony in the fact that the Under-Secretary and I should be the last Members in the Chamber before the Whitsun Recess. Just over a year ago we were campaigning for a "Yes" vote in the referendum, which would have ensured that this kind of business would be dealt with in Edinburgh, which would have saved us an awful lot of trouble.

The Education Act 1980, in my opinion and that of many other people, is one of the nastiest pieces of legislation so far enacted by a particulary bitchy Government. I refer in particular to section 23, which does two things. First, it removes the obligation on education authorities to provide milk and meals in schools except for children of families receiving supplementary benefit or family income supplement. Secondly, it empowers councils to make such charges as they think fit for whatever food they provide in schools. The minimum charge, by a separate direction from the Government, must now be 35p per meal, whatever the standard of the meal.

That section of the Act is, superficially, fair enough. It states that councils may still provide proper cheap meals for children in schools in Scotland. It implies that they can still provide proper cheap meals in schools. But the Government have also imposed a "catch 22" constraint by assessing the cost of the subsidy on school milk and meals. The figure, according to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, has been assessed as about £18.2 million for the whole of Scotland.

The Government have gone on to deduct that sum of money from the rate support grant that they give to education authorities in Scotland. In other words, in Strathclyde £9 million has been deducted from its education budget, in the Lothian region the figure is £2.8 million, and £500,000 has been deducted from the rate support grant for the Borders region. Those are deductions from the grants paid by the Government to help defray the cost of providing education and, in particular, school meals.

At this stage I should perhaps mention that at the same time another £5.8 million has been filched from local education authorities by the Secretary of State. That was done in anticipation of school bus fares being imposed. As the House knows, Parliament did not permit the Government to allow education authorities to charge school bus fares, yet the £5.8 million is still missing. The Government took that money away in anticipation of charges being imposed and we do not know what has happened to it. Perhaps the Minister will tell us today.

I think that the Minister owes it to the House, to Scottish education authorities and to the people of Scotland to pay that money back, so that authorities can continue to provide some kind of proper service. Perhaps the money has already gone as part of the 23p in the pound tax handout to the very rich of the nation.

To sum up the effect of the cuts in rate support grant on school meals, I think that it is fair to say that the Government have cooked the books in order to prevent local education authorities from cooking proper school meals for their children. It is interesting to read the Official Report of the debates in Standing Committee on the Education (No. 2) Bill. The Government were given fair warning of the likely effects of what they were doing. They were given fair warning by the Educational Institute of Scotland, by the National Union of Public Employees, and even by the National Farmers Union in Scotland that what they proposed to do would have a serious detrimental effect on the provision of school meals.

The Government were given an excellent warning by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing), who said in Committee: The school meals service as we have known it not only since 1944, when the obligation was laid on local authorities in Scotland, but much further back will become a thing of the past. The groups of dedicated people who service school meals in the kitchens and dining rooms and are so much a part of education will disappear from the education scene. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland would have none of that. He said: I did not realise that there was anything in the Bill saying that the education service in the schools should dispense with a catering service. He further said: I do not believe for a minute that the passing of the Bill will cause malnutrition to stalk the land of Scotland. The Under-Secretary of State was in an incredulous mood that day, because he continued: I do not believe that the Bill will cause hardship. Nor do I accept the idea that there will be starvation and lack of nutrition because people cannot pay in a country where, for generations now, both parties have made sure that those in real need do not suffer. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science was more forthcoming. He said: There is a risk that a small number of children may be less well nourished as a result ".—[Official Report, Standing Committee D. 30 January 1980; c. 1749–1833.] It being half-past Two o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Home Robertson

Our procedures confuse me, but I am relieved that I still have the Floor.

When those debates were taking place only four months ago, none of us realised that by now there would be a mass desertion from school dining halls and a threatened collapse of an entire catering service, which provides school meals and meals-on-wheels in one region in Scotland. I refer to the Borders region.

The Government gave education authorities a type of freedom. They gave the freedom to clobber either the children or the ratepayers. Councils have —certainly the Labour councils in Scotland—have chosen to protect the children taken different actions. Most councils and have refused to cut the standards of school meals. They can do that only by raising more money from the rates. The Lothian region imposed a 42 per cent, increase on ratepayers. It serves the Under-Secretary of State right that he is a ratepayer in that region, because he and his colleagues are directly responsible.

Other authorities have sought to find other ways round the problem. Instead of cutting the standard of meals they have increased the charge. Tayside charges 40p and Grampian 45p. My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) is so concerned about the decrease in uptake of school meals in Tayside that he has asked the Secretary of State for Scotland to refer the problems to the sub-committee on nutritional surveillance of the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food Policy. I understand that the sub-committee will examine the issue. I shall be interested in its conclusions.

If the Conservative Party on the Lothian regional council had had its way they would have made a 50p a meal charge for children in school. That would have cost £2.50 a week for each child and caused considerable hardship to families.

I return to the question of the poor old Borders regional council. It labours under a number of handicaps. It is the smallest mainland region in Scotland and therefore has to struggle under a heavy burden when supporting two tiers of local government. Another difficult burden is that Conservatives control both tiers. The Borders region has imposed a rate increase similar to that imposed by the Lothian region. It charges 35p—the statutory minimum—not for meals but for snacks. It has taken "advantage" of the section 23 provisions.

The authority has withdrawn free school meals for all except families in receipt of supplementary benefit or family income supplement. That means that the poverty trap is working with a vengeance in the region. Many widows, single parent families and genuinely poor people have to pay up to £2 a week so that their children can receive light snacks at lunch time.

The number of free meals provided in the region has been halved since the Act was implemented. The first that I heard of the cut in standards was when I received a letter on 18 April from a constituent—a lady who lives in a farm cottage near the village of Swinton in Berwickshire. She said: I feel, along with other mothers in the village and surrounding areas, that a bowl of soup and a scone is insufficient for growing children in the middle of the day especially as they no longer get milk. Because of the number of children picked up at farms etc. each day most of the children have a 7½ to 8 hour day away from home. The House will understand that neither parents nor children consider it worth while to pay 35p for a snack that leaves growing children hungry. Large numbers of children and buying chips, or taking sandwiches to school, instead of taking advantage of the school meals service. The right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel), who lives in the region, told me that some of his children take sandwiches to school. It is not surprising that there has been a dramatic reduction in the uptake of school meals, which is leading to the collapse of the service.

At Hawick high school 700 meals a day used to be served, but now only 300 are being served. As a result, there are redundancies in the schools meals service and the introduction of short-time working in the catering service. Out of a total staff of 203 in the Borders region, only 23 have not been affected, because 150 have been put on short-time working and 30 are being made redundant—and that is only in the primary school sector.

It would be interesting to consider the reasons for the redundancies given by the Borders regional council to the National Union of Public Employees. The first reason is the restriction in local government finance—for which the Government are responsible. Secondly, there are the effects of the amended statutory requirements of the Education Act 1980 for school meals. Again, the Government are responsible. Thirdly, there is the council's policy decision to provide a one-course meal at 35p rather than a two-course meal at 50. As I have said already, the council was left with little choice but to do one or other of those. Fourthly, there is a decrease in the uptake of meals. A spectacular decrease is hardly surprising given all the circumstances.

I contend that the Government are directly responsible for the loss of jobs and for the hardship that will be created, not only for those who will be made redundant but for the children who no longer receive proper meals in the middle of the day. By the winter, the service in the Borders region could become unworkable, because of the slimming down of the service and the demoralisation of those who work in the service, caused by the redundancies. It will no longer be possible even to provide a skeleton meals service in schools, although it is a statutory obligation in the region's 100 schools. If that service collapses, many of the elderly who rely on meals-on-wheels will also face difficulty, because they are provided from the same school kitchens.

I think that I have shown clear evidence that the full implementation of the so-called freedom provided by section 23 of the Education Act 1980 is already wrecking school catering services in one part of Scotland. I appeal to the Minister, when he replies, to give an undertaking that the Government will at least study the effects of the implementation of the legislation.

Secondly, if the Government discover, while studying the effects of that legislation—as I believe they must—that it poses a serious threat to the standard of nutrition and health of schoolchildren, will the Government be prepared to give back some of the money that they have taken away from local authorities through the rate support grant mechanism, in order to enable them to provide this essential service to a proper standard?

2.40 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) has shown his sincere interest in the subject by being prepared to raise it as the last matter that the House will consider before rising for the Whitsun Recess.

I begin by dealing with the point that he raised in the earlier part of his speech, when he asked whether the Government would compensate, as he put it, local authorities as a result of the decision not to impose charges for school transport.

I think he will be aware that in Scotland not one local authority budgeted to receive any revenue from school transport, as it was to be a matter entirely within the authorities' discretion. As the authorities have not, therefore, lost any revenue, it would be somewhat unusual for the Government to feel obliged to compensate them for that.

Mr. John Home Robertson

Is the Minister telling the House that no deduction was made in the rate support grant in respect of this right, which the Government thought they would be able to deliver to local authorities to charge for school buses?

Mr. Rifkind

I am saying that local authorities were originally to have the discretion to decide for themselves whether to raise revenue from rural school transport. Local authorities in Scotland had already budgeted not to receive any, and in those circumstances it is not possible for them to argue that they are entitled to compensation for revenue that they had not intended to raise.

I now turn to the specific subject of the debate—the school meals position as the result of the Education Act 1980. I have to emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that the position in the Borders region—or, indeed, in any regional authority in Scotland—is entirely at the discretion of the regional authority. No instructions or directions have been given by the Government to local authorities. The whole point of the provision to which the hon. Gentleman referred has been to remove controls imposed by the Government and to leave it to the local authorities to determine what is the most appropriate for their own local position.

There is a strong argument that that should have been done many years ago, because there is something anomalous in the fact that local authorities, with complete freeedom to make any increases or reductions in the standard of education or quality of education in their area, nevertheless had no discretion whatever either as to the kinds of meals they should provide or as to the price of the meals, or which categories of person should get them free and which should pay. Each of these factors was controlled by the Government, and this created some extremely foolish anomalies.

It meant, for example, that if, under any Government—it happened under the previous Government as well-it was necessary to make reductions in spending, an education authority had no choice but to make reductions in the quality of the education that it provided, or in teaching, staffing, and so on, and could not find any contribution from a matter such as school meals, which, however desirable or preferable, is peripheral to the basic question of education, which is the primary responsibility of the education authority.

I should like at this stage to correct one point that the hon. Gentleman made. The Government have imposed no statutory minimum charge for school meals. Local authorities have complete discretion over the level of charge that they wish to make.

The hon. Gentleman made some rather scaremongering remarks about the effects, as he sees them, of the provisions since they came into force. The response of the local authorities to the Government since the passing of the legislation suggests that they are by no means unhappy about having discretion of this kind. The only part of Scotland in which there were any complaints to the Scottish Education Department from local authorities was Tayside region, and that was on a point of detail rather than overall substance.

In those local authorities that have introduced cafeteria facilities instead of a full, rigid school meals service, the response of the consumers, the youngsters themselves, has been to welcome them warmly. I notice that the hon. Gentleman is nodding in agreement on that point. Wherever that has been done, it has been found to be far preferable to the old school meals system, which youngsters often did not want and did not use. The response to the Scottish Education Department on the subject of cafeteria services has been described—I use the phrase given to the Scottish Office—as "very popular ". They have been warmly welcomed, and that applies to virtually every part of Scotland. The hon. Gentleman might have said that himself. He appears to indicate that he agrees with it. It is a justifiable argument that the provision being offered to youngsters in many schools is now more in tune with what they actually want than was formerly the case.

When the free school meal provision was first introduced many years ago I am prepared to accept that there was justification for it. At that time there was a high proportion of deprivation in our community. There was rationing throughout the country. Therefore, a universal school meal service made a great deal of sense. We are now living in a different climate. Fortunately, deprivation is only a minority problem. I accept that where it exists it is a serious matter. For that reason all children from families that are in receipt of supplementary benefit or family income supplement continue to receive free school meals. There is no question of any change in that policy. Local authorities have complete discretion to give free meals to additional categories of child where they think it appropriate, even if the families of such children are not in receipt of family income supplement or supplementary benefit.

The hon. Gentleman referred to malnutrition. Instead of making accusations he should produce evidence. If he believes that malnutrition is being seen to be the result of the proposals and policies that we are discussing, he should produce the evidence. I think that he must concede that not one iota of evidence is yet forthcoming to suggest that anyone is suffering from malnutrition as a result of the changes. Wild accusations of that sort were made by the hon. Gentleman and by some of his hon. Friends during the passage of the Bill. The evidence so far suggests that they were totally groundless. We shall continue to monitor the changes to see whether any such evidence emerges. At this stage there is no such evidence. If the hon. Gentleman disagrees with that, he is obliged to produce some hard factual statistics to support his contention.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of the claims that were made during the passage of the Bill that as a result of the discretion that would be given to local authorities on charges, school meals would cost 60p or 70p per meal in many parts of Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Such was the claim. We know that no local authority in Scotland is charging more than 42p and that the majority continue to charge 35p. Even on that basis the claims made by the hon. Gentleman and by some of his hon. Friends were completely groundless.

If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the level of costs for school meals it is relevant to remind him that the highest-ever increase in Scotland of which I am aware was the increase in 1977 under the previous Labour Government, when school meal prices were increased by 67 per cent. There is an element of humbug when he and his hon. Friends seek to suggest that they are the guardians of the smallest price possible for school meals. They do not behave like that in practice.

Much of the hon. Gentleman's argument rested on the level of uptake of school meals since the passing of the Bill. When the Bill was enacted, fewer than 50 per cent, of children in Scotland took school meals. That indicated that there was something not entirely satisfactory with the service being provided. Even at that time it did not appeal to half the school children in Scotland. That applies to the school population elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman made selective use of quotations to support his argument about the effect of the changes in certain schools in the Borders region. It is right that in some schools in some areas there has been a significant fall in the level of take-up. That applies especially to primary schools that have not yet introduced the cafeteria service. That is of great significance. Although the main fall so far has been at primary level, these are the schools which for the most part have not yet given die option of a cafeteria service to youngsters. If one compares the figures with those for secondary schools——

Mr. Home Robertson

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is possible to provide a cafeteria service in small rural primary schools where there may be a roll of only 15 or 20? He is accusing my hon. Friends and me of humbug. It seems that the real humbug is the illusory discretion to which he keeps referring. He suggests that local authorities have discretion. The Government have taken the money away from them, which has removed their discretion.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman cannot conceal the fact that it is entirely within the power of the regional council to provide such meals, snacks and cafeteria facilities that it thinks appropriate to the size of school. It may be that certain schools will not be able to make such provision. I am saying that where-ever a full meal has been replaced by a cafeteria service the numbers have not dramatically changed.

For example, at secondary level in the Borders region, the number of school meals has virtually remained unchanged for the past 12 months. Twelve months ago the number was 1,895. The latest figure is 1,775. In some schools the figure has risen. In Kelso high school the number of school meals increased from 246 to 300. In Peebles high school the number has increased from 192 to 350.

The hon. Gentleman was very selective in his quotations. I am giving an overall picture to balance those quotations. Those schools that have replaced the old meal system, which many youngsters did not want, with a cafeteria service—which they want and which their parents are happy for them to use—have witnessed an increase in the meal uptake. Several schools, including those outside the Borders region, have seen an increase in the number of meals taken, particularly where cafeteria services have been provided. Those schools are at last providing what the consumer wants, not what they think he should have. We are satisfied with that approach.

The hon. Gentleman referred to redundancies. It is always a matter of great concern if a person loses his employment as a result of a policy change. Employment in the school meals service is largely part time. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that he had no figures for the secondary schools in the Borders region. I am informed that the regional council believes it is unlikely that there will be redundancies at the secondary level. Redundancies will mainly affect primary schools. However, it is important to remember that the school catering system—like that of the House of Commons—is inevitably highly uneconomic. The service is required for one hour a day, and for 200 days of the year. If there are changes in the level of provision, or if different types of meal are provided, some reduction in the number of personnel will be inevitable. I understand that discussions are continuing with the trade unions involved on the details of this issue. I hope that any problems will be resolved.

For the most part, substantial redundancies are not expected. The vast majority of reductions in the numbers of staff will be met by natural wastage. In that way, much of the problem will be resolved.

Mr. Home Robertson

Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State will consider the point that I made about the poverty trap. In the Borders region the number of free school meals has been almost halved. Is he not worried that a large number of poor families—including the children of widows, of single parents and those families that are just above the poverty line—do not quite qualify for family income supplement or supplementary benefit? Such people now have to pay a charge for the meals that they previously received freely. Is the hon. Gentleman not concerned about that?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that local authorities respond in different ways. Central Government impose no obligation on them. The hon. Gentleman is laughing. However, if there were an obligation on local authorities, they would have to behave in the same way. The wide variation in the school meals service emphasises the fact that the hon. Gentleman should raise this question with his local education authority. This is not a party political issue. Authorities of different political complexions provide for certain groups of children whose parents are not on supplementary benefit or family income supplement. However, the Government have not given any direction to local authorities on that issue.

If the hon. Gentleman feels that the decision taken by his local authority is inappropriate he should address his remarks to that authority. However, the decision is theirs.

Mr. Home Robertson

Too right.

Mr. Rifkind

Similar expenditure reductions have been imposed on all local authorities in Scotland. Authorities have reacted in different ways, because they have assessed their priorities differently. That is only right. This policy has not had the alarmist results that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends predicted. There has not been a significant increase in the cost of school meals. Indeed, there has not been any increase comparable to that imposed three years ago by the Labour Administration.

There is no evidence of malnutrition. The response of the youngsters themselves has been overwhelmingly in favour of the greater variety that is offered to them—particularly the cafeteria service, rather than the sit-down, predetermined meal that was imposed upon them. In some schools there has been a reduction in the take-up, in others there has been an increase, depending largely on local factors.

If the hon. Member is fair about this matter he will appreciate that at this stage he is not entitled to make the wide-ranging criticisms and condemnations that were implicit in his speech. His conclusion on the matter should be that the consumer interest—that of the youngsters themselves—has been well served by the changes, and the local authorities, for the most part, now not only appreciate but respond to what the parents and children want. As a consequence, the school meals service has improved rather than deteriorated because of the variety that is now available.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Three o'clock till Monday 2 June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 14 May.