HC Deb 10 March 1981 vol 1000 cc744-5
8. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many children were in receipt of free school meals in England for the last date for which figures are available.

Mr. Macfarlane

In October 1980, 724,257 pupils in England were receiving a free school meal, which represents a slightly higher proportion of pupils present than was the case in October 1976.

Mr. Bennett

Does not the Minister agree that it is hardly surprising that that represents an increase, although a small one, in view of the large number of people who are unemployed and are now on social security? Does the Minister also accept that many local authorities have made it harder for people to qualify for free school meals by failing to increase the criteria in line with inflation?

Mr. Macfarlane

We have discussed that problem before at Question Time. I tell the House once again that each local education authority is responsible for determining its own policy for entitlement to free school meals. I am happy to repeat that two-thirds of the authorities in England have adopted criteria of entitlement which are more generous than the statutory minimum.

Mr. Mellor

Does my hon. Friend agree that the large number of children currently receiving free school meals makes it clear that that service is as widely available as it needs to be? Does he not agree that, given the costs to the community of providing that concession, it makes nonsense of the proposals of some Labour local authorities, such as the Inner London Education Authority, arbitrarily to reduce the price of school meals, at enormous cost to the ratepayers?

Mr. Macfarlane

I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend. Anything which increases the costs to the ratepayers, as well as proposals such as those by the ILEA to reduce the price of school meals to 25p, is unreasonable and unrealistic in this day and age.

Mr. Field

Is the Minister being straight with the House when he says that that is a local authority matter? Is he not aware that his Department issued guidelines for local authorities on eligibility for free school meals and that, now those have been implemented, there has been a fall of nearly 200,000 in the number of children who previously claimed free school dinners and who are not doing so now?

Mr. Macfarlane

That figure has fluctuated over the past 10 or 11 years. The hon. Gentleman knows from the reply which I gave him on 20 February and from the reply which my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) gave him on 23 January, that the figures have fluctuated. However, the guidelines have been an integral part of the Department of Education and Science, following the passage of the Education (No. 2) Act 1980, which transferred to local authorities the responsibility for determining their policy.