HC Deb 25 November 1980 vol 994 cc310-1
7. Mr. Flannery

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what evidence he has as to the number of local education authorities which have decided to change from the accepted school meal to snacks of various kinds; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Macfarlane

Informal inquiries suggest that a majority of local education authorities now offer "cash cafeteria" school meals for secondary pupils in addition to or instead of the traditional school meal.

Mr. Flannery

Has the Minister seen the early-day motion that has been signed by 64 of my hon. Friends? I hope that the list of signatories will double shortly, and that some of the Minister's hon. Friends will also sign it. Does the Minister want to create a tiny niche for himself in the history of modern education as the person who presided over the liquidation of the school meals service? That is now on the agenda. Is he aware that throughout the country, education authorities, particularly in Labour-controlled constituencies, fear that the death of the school meals service was planned by a reactionary and anti-education Government?

Mr. Macfarlane

Exaggeration is one of the hon. Gentleman's more endearing qualities. I shall reply to his questions in strict rotation. I have not seen the early-day motion, although I am aware that one has been prepared. The hon. Gentleman should not exaggerate. What he told the House was completely inaccurate. If he wishes to criticise the role of the cash cafeteria system he should bear in mind chat we have had such a system for many years and that it has worked extremely effectively. The city of Sheffield began its pilot scheme as long ago as 1971. The scheme has been most effective. The hon. Gentleman exaggerated greatly when he said that the school meals service was failing. He will mislead and undermine those of his constituents, and others, who have the misfortune to read his words. His remarks are far from the truth. Some £400 million has been provided in the form of subsidies over the past few years. If Labour Members are concerned about the educational content in our schools they should ensure that that £400 million is diverted into education.

Mr. Gummer

Will my hon. Friend provide time and facilities so that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) can go to those countries in which Socialist Governments have long supported a system in which much less money is spent on school meals and much more money is spent on the content of education`' If the hon. Gentleman were to take a leaf out of the continental book, he would learn that Socialism does not necessarily mean that one has to have the same meat and two veg meals that we now have.

Mr. Macfarlane

My hon. Friend is right. It is perfectly possible to provide a balanced, nutritious and cheap meal in a cash cafeteria. The meal does not need to be hot to be nutritious. One benefit of a section contained in the Education Act enacted during the last Session is that it will ensure that local education authorities will become more resourceful about providing meals for the young.

Mr. Armstrong

Can the Minister give the House any idea of the size of the catastrophic drop in the number of children receiving adequate meals at lunch time through the school meals service? Secondly, is he aware that one of the worst consequences of his policy is that now children entitled to free meals are being openly identified and labelled, with all the consequent social implications?

Mr. Macfarlane

The figures, which are the subject of a question later on the Order Paper, certainly do not bear out that analysis at present. Those figures will be available some time in the early part of January, but at present there is nothing to indicate that there has been any dramatic shift in the figures over the past few years.

Mr. McQuarrie

Do not the statistics provided show that in many schools, particularly secondary schools, the pupils prefer a snack standard of meal rather than the cooked meal that is provided by the kitchen, which is totally unsatisfactory in many instances?

Mr. Macfarlane

That certainly seems to be the pattern that we have found. Local authorities in England and Wales are maintaining the traditional two-course meal for children of primary age. So far as secondary school children are concerned, Opposition Members need not protest, because if they went to the schools in their constituencies they would know that the cash cafeteria operation has been in being for many years—including Bedwellty.

Mr. Kinnock

The Minister has made an extraordinary underestimate for one who is supposed to be knowledgeable and in charge of these matters. In the absence of the conventional survey conducted by the DES, which the Department has now stopped, is he aware that the National Union of Public Employees' survey indicates that in LEAs throughout the country there have been drops in take-up of school meals of any kind of between 17 per cent. and 63 per cent. over the seven months of operation of the Education Act 1980, that in Lincolnshire and Dorset parts of the school meals service have been exterminated, and that in other areas the service is under severe threat? What is his response to that?

Mr. Macfarlane

The service has not been exterminated. So far as my right hon. and learned Friend is concerned, the survey has not been terminated, and therefore the rest of the hon. Gentleman's remarks do not apply.