HC Deb 10 February 1981 vol 998 cc834-42

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

10.54 pm
Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

In opening this Adjournment debate, for which I am indebted to Mr. Speaker, I wish to make it clear that I shall give my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson) the opportunity to say a few words.

The recent press publicity in Lancashire given to this problem has highlighted the difficulties which face the school meals service. Some may consider that some of the observations are extravagant, but we shall examine that in the course of the debate.

The Lancashire county council, for example, has said that school meals now are worse than the meals served in our prisons. Others have shown that the numbers taking school meals have fallen by one-half during the past year. It has been reported that meals staff are doing the best they can within the financial resources available to them. Teachers are said to have observed that the meals presently being provided are disgusting. The nutritional value is not good, and the 40p charge is considered by teachers to be exorbitant in view of the food provided. Clearly, this necessitates a serious examination on our part.

I have obtained from the Lancashire education committee a sample two-course menu that is available in the schools for the five days from Monday to Friday. On one day, for example, the meal provided was vegetable and beef soup with added beef, bread rolls and sultana sponge. On another day it was a beefburger in barncake with onions—a sort of hot dog—and apple flan and mock cream. It is not surprising that Oliver Twists abound in Lancashire in consequence of that sort of menu.

If we are to examine the service in some depth we need to consider what happened from October 1979 to October 1980. There has been a reduction of 40.3 per cent. in the number of children in primary schools taking school meals. In secondary schools the reduction has been 15.6 per cent. Those are the reductions for the whole county. During the same period, the nature of the meals has changed and there have been two price increases, from 30p to 35p and, in the autumn term 1980, from 35p to 40p. One outcome is a large increase in the numbers of children bringing packed lunches. The figures are interesting. The most marked increase is in primary schools. In October 1979,.98 per cent. of children brought sandwiches, whereas in October 1980 there had been an increase to 40.2 per cent. That is a highly significant increase.

There are severe employment implications. It has been reported that the equivalent of 1,000 full-time staff have been lost in the school meals service. In district 6, which embraces my constituency of Preston, the percentage of children in primary schools taking meals has been reduced from 78.9 per cent. to 47.5 per cent.

The figures show that within the county in October 1980,10.6 per cent. of the children present in school on a specific day took a free school meal. In Preston the figure was 16.7 per cent. Put another way, within the county as a whole 22 per cent. of the children normally taking meals obtained a free meal, and in Preston, the figure was 31.3 per cent. The 10.6 per cent. figure of children present during a specific day taking a free meal compares reasonably with the national average of 9.9 per cent., but the 16.7 per cent. figure for Preston gives cause for serious concern because it may be a form of barometer indicating rising severe poverty caused by increasing local unemployment.

Unemployment during that same period has virtually doubled. Poverty and free school meals are inextricably linked. A sliding scale for eligibility for free school meals ranges from a net income of £46.80 for a family of three—a family with one child—to £107.80 for a family of eight—a family with six children. Those figures give no real clue as to how many people within those categories failed to apply. Are the regulations generally known, and are the allowances that families receive and that can be disregarded for purposes of net income fully understood by the people in the area? I think that many more children would be seen to be entitled to free school meals in Preston and other parts of Lancashire if the county council's regulations covering entitlement were more widely known.

No doubt the Minister will have seen early-day motion 149, which is a reflection on school meals standards. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has been very much involved with the issue in his area, where considerable concern has been expressed, particularly about nutritional aspects of school meals.

I should like to emphasise, in regard both to what I have said previously and to the early-day motion, that this is in no way a reflection on school meals catering and other staff, who are anxious to restore confidence in the service under extreme difficulties, which stem mainly from higher prices and falling demand, and particularly the failure of the county council to provide the means by which the standard of nutrition could be improved.

The future of the school meals service in Lancashire is in jeopardy, and no commitment has been given by the Conservative-controlled Lancashire county council to continue the service. A tremendous campaign was waged at the turn of the nineteenth century for free school meals for necessitous children. Subsequently, a phrase was introduced that meant "detectable malnutrition". Now, as a consequence of Government policy, the concept of nutritional content of school meals no longer appears appropriate.

If Lancashire county council finishes up by providing meals only for those who are entitled to free meals, the social consequences should be obvious. The county council may find itself in a position in which it needs to recruit, at considerable expense, more child psychologists to cope with the reactions in that sort of situation among the schoolchildren who will feel branded in some way because they are the only ones receiving school meals.

Poorer quality meals and price rises during 1980 are said to have cost the county council about £1 million extra. The council refers to its having three choices—the raising of prices, the cutting of staff and an increase in demand. It has obviously already expended two of those choices, on pricing and staffing, but it seems quite incapable of recognising that increasing demand is a factor of both.

I should like to think that the Minister could advise the county council how to overcome its problems, but, of course, I recognise that although the county council is dominated by the same political philosophy as the Minister and his Government, the policy that it is pursuing has been created by the Government. Since it is the Government's policy which diminishes standards and causes mothers to describe the service and the meals as disgraceful, I consider that it is incumbent upon the Minister to set up an inquiry into Lancashire's school meals service without delay. I commend that course to him.

11.6 pm

Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) on initiating this short debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) on what he has done to draw attention to the appalling state of the school meals service in Lancashire.

The attack on the school meals service is a particularly mean and nasty attack, because it affects badly and savagely the weakest members of the community. In my constituency, as in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South, there is a high proportion of low-income families and, sadly, a growing proportion of families in which there is an unemployed member, either man or woman.

The effects have meant that in some families there is discrimination among the children. As a result of the lowering of the threshold, one family has been able to send only one of its children for school meals, and two of its children now have to go to school with low-cost sandwiches. That is not a healthy situation within a family.

It is attacks such as this which have led to the formation of the Accrington-based school meals campaign. I should like to quote from what one lady who helps to serve meals has said in the report which that campaign is compiling, because the attack has been not merely on nutritional standards for children and, therefore, upon their parents; it has been an attack upon wage earners—admittedly very low wage earners—in the family. The lady said: Last week my husband was made redundant and my daughter goes to school. I am the only person bringing in a wage. So how can it be pin money? Lancashire county council said that many such people worked only for pin money. The Minister knows that many working-class families, particularly in North-East Lancashire, survive only if the woman works.

It is reported that Lancashire county council said that the new snack lunch would mean less waste. Less waste for whom? Again I shall quote from the report. A member of the school meals staff said: Forty children come with sandwiches and we now have a bucketful of waste left after each day from the sandwiches. My hon. Friend told the House about the percentage of those who use the school meals service. The situation is deplorable. As a society, we should be ashamed. As the Minister knows, the Secretary of State intends to visit Blackburn on Friday. I shall cut short the remarks that I intended to make, but I should inform the Minister that members of the Accrington school meals campaign have requested me to ask the Secretary of State to see them. It would be unfair to ask the Minister to give that assurance tonight. They hope that they will be able to speak to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and to bring home to him the savage way in which the cuts have hit them and their children.

11.11 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson) and to the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) for having given me an opportunity to participate in this important debate. I listened with great interest to what they said about the school meals service in Lancashire. In the media in recent weeks, and in this debate much attention has been focused the comparison drawn by the hon. Member for Preston, South and by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) between one of the meals served in Lancashire primary schools and, according to the media, a meal that was provided by the Blackburn workhouse in 1933.

It comes as something of a surprise that the hon. Member for Blackburn is not here. I accept that there may be other constraints on his time that prevent his being here. However, in recent weeks much comment has been initiated by the hon. Gentleman. This subject is important enough for the hon. Gentleman to join his hon. Friends on the Opposition Benches.

Whilst such comparisons make good headlines, they are very misleading and do great damage to the school meals service. They also denigrate the efforts of school meals staff, who work hard and imaginatively to provide meals for pupils. The unfair and destructive criticism that has been heard not only in recent weeks but over a series of months is one factor that has contributed to the fall in take-up since 1979. Therefore, we must establish the facts and put them into perspective.

The hon. Member for Preston, South made certain assertions that I wish to put right. It has never been the intention that a school meal should provide for the full daily nutritional needs of schoolchildren. Even before the Education (No. 2) Act 1980, the Department's nutritional guidelines were that the meal should meet one-third of the child's daily energy requirements and about 40 per cent. of the protein requirements. It follows, therefore, that the majority of a child's needs was assumed to be met by the meals provided at home by the parents. If hon. Members say that children do not have the balance made up at home, I suggest that this is the responsibility of the parents, not of the State or the education service. We must also bear in mind that pupils spend nearly half the year outside school, when provision of their meals is entirely a matter for the parents.

One conclusion to be drawn from this, in passing, is that the critical comparison made by the hon. Member for Blackburn between the school meal and what was provided in the workhouse in 1933 would apply with equal force to the school meals that were being provided prior to 1980.

Let us now consider Lancashire. Again, what are the facts? Under the Education (No. 2) Act 1980 it is a matter for each local education authority to decide what to provide at midday, and there is no Government control over this. Nevertheless, I asked my officials to obtain from Lancashire details of what it provides. We have heard the interpretation by the hon. Member for Preston, South of what the Lancashire school meals service provides.

I understand that all primary school meals are planned on the basis of a 20-day menu cycle, which has been carefully constructed in consultation with the Health Service dieticians to provide overall the same proportion of the recommended daily amounts of protein and energy as was provided in previous years. That is to say, over a four-week period a pupil will receive in total one-third or more of the daily amounts of energy and protein recommended by the DHSS advisory committee on medical aspects of food policy. Clearly, if there is to be variety in what is provided, there will be some days during the four-week period when some aspects of the nutritional content of the meal will be below the average. Equally, there will be days when it is above the average.

The school meal referred to by the hon. Member for Blackburn in his comments on the north-west of England happened to be below the daily average for protein content but above the average for energy content. As examples from the authority's menu cycle which have a higher protein content, I can quote Lancashire hot pot, potato and meat pie and beefburger and chips. For these meals parents pay 40p, which is substantially less than the cost of providing the meal. By any standards, it represents good value for provision by the authority, which, as an outside caterer, has to meet substantial staffing costs and overheads.

What the authority is not claiming to do is to provide a meal that is suitable as the main meal of the day. For this reason, meals such as the one described have less bulk than would be appropriate to a main meal. Again, in passing, it is doubtful whether many children today would think much of being given half a pound of dry bread with their meal, as was apparently included in the workhouse dinner.

Because the hon. Gentleman referred to nutrition, I should like to quote from a newspaper from the North-West an article by Jill Sutton, the education correspondent, in which she said: Professor Arnold Bender, head of the nutrition department at Queen Elizabeth College, London, said that the children would be eating at least 760 calories—very near the 800 calorie target set by the Department of Education. That article goes on to describe the meal that was consumed that day. It is important to put on record that the nutritional content of meals is well understood and acknowledged by the Lancashire county authority.

Mr. John Lee (Nelson and Colne)

I am not in a position to comment on the situation in Preston, Accrington or Blackburn, but I should like to place on record that, from my recollection, none of my constituents has written to me or come to see me in my surgery about their unhappiness at the school meals in the Pendle area.

Mr. Macfarlane

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that observation, because it helps to put this discussion into perspective.

In 1979–80 the subsidy on the school meals service in Lancashire amounted to £13½ million. That represented a substantial subsidy on every meal provided, taking the average over paid and free meals, for pupils and adults of 43p. Lancashire therefore decided, in line with Government policy, to seek a substantial reduction in its net expenditure on school meals. It is aiming to do that, as I have already made clear, without reducing the nutritional standard of the provision in primary schools. It is seeking cheaper and more efficient ways of providing meals. It has kept its price increases to a level that is below the national average. The House must understand that. In secondary schools it has introduced the cash cafeteria system, which, experience shows, is likely to encourage pupils to continue taking a meal at school.

Hon. Members who were present at Question Time today will acknowledge the force that I attach to urging local authorities to become more conscious of what our young people expect to see in schools. The hon. and learned Member for Accrington spoke about a bucketful of waste caused by sandwiches being consumed on the premises, but the bucketsful of waste have also resulted from the traditional two-course meals, which, to the delight of many young people, are progressively being eliminated.

I am confident that Lancashire county council is seeking cheaper and more efficient ways of providing meals. The proportion of Lancashire secondary pupils taking a meal in October 1980 was higher than in the country as a whole. That is a commendation for the way in which the county authority has shown flexibility and open-mindedness. The figure was also nearly as high as that for the country as a whole in 1979. Lancashire is an authority to be wholly commended. I am strongly critical of some of the cheap electioneering which has, alas, taken place in recent weeks and which could undermine the stability of the school meals service in Lancashire.

Hon. Members refer to the increase in the number of packed lunches in Lancashire, and I wish to quote some statistics. In 1975, a total of 163,000 pupils took packed meals to primary schools. In 1977, as a result of price increases by the previous Government, 408,000 were taking packed meals. In secondary education, nationally, in 1975 a total of 316,000 pupils were taking packed lunches to school. In 1977, the figure was 616,799. That gives some indication of the tremendous growth that occurred in that two-year period. It is a common trend over the past 10 years or more that there is a steady increase in the numbers who take packed meals to both primary and secondary schools.

Hon. Members do not always appreciate the damage that they do to the service that they claim to be supporting when they make the sort of generalised, unfair, inaccurate and destructive comments that we have been hearing not only in recent weeks from the media in the North-West but, to a certain extent, tonight. School meals have come in for criticism since the year dot, but they have been progressively improving over recent years.

Criticism is often unjustified and it is particularly damaging at this time, when the staff in many authorities are doing their professional best to provide attractive nutritious meals at prices that represent good value for money. They are not helped by loose talk about poor meals, low nutritional standards or a collapsing school meals service. I wonder how many parents in Lancashire, reading press reports of the comments by the hon. Member for Blackburn or the speech of the hon. Member for Preston, South, will decide that they no longer wish their children to have a school meal.

I urge the hon. Members who have spoken, as I would have urged their colleagues who would have been present if they believed the subject to be of true importance, to find out precisely what is happening in the schools in their constituencies.

The fact is that the meals planned for Lancashire primary schools are up to the standards of nutrition that were recommended prior to 1980. At 40p, that represents a considerable achievement, and the authority and its catering staff, who work long hours from long before schools open, deserve to be congratulated. The increase in the price reflects no more than the increase in wage rates and food costs over 12 months.

By its good housekeeping, Lancashire has reduced its net expenditure on the school meals service by about £4 million. with increased take-up of paid meals, it would be able to increase the number of kitchen and canteen staff hours worked and increase its expenditure savings. That is what the service in Lancashire is trying to do—to attract back to the school meal those pupils who at present are taking their own food.

If the paid school meals service in Lancashire primary schools were to collapse, the country will know after tonight's debate that the destructive and carping criticism of Labour Members, not least the hon. Member for Blackburn, who has not attended the debate, is totally destructive.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-four minutes past Eleven o'clock.