HC Deb 22 July 1986 vol 102 cc304-13

'It shall be the duty of local education authorities:

  1. (a) to provide, on every school day, for every pupil in county, controlled or maintained schools who want it, a mid-day meal, suitable in all respects as the main meal of the day;
  2. (b) to provide facilities, including drinks, for pupils who choose to bring their own food.'.— [Mr. Fatchett.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Fatchett

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

With this it will be appropriate also to discuss new clause 5 — School Library Service'(1) It shall be the duty of local education authorities to make adequate arrangements for a schools library service which should include:

  1. (i) a school library in every secondary school, with adequate staffing including the appointment where appropriate of duly qualified staff and chartered librarians.
  2. (ii) professional advice and expertise available to every school in the local education authority.
  3. (iii) supplementary materials and central services to support school libraries.
  4. (iv) the provision of any information as the Secretary of State may require to carry out his duties under this section (below).
(2) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to:
  1. (i) publish guidelines for school library provision, including stands for accommodation, staffing, stock provision and maintenance, after consultation with local education authorities, the relevant teachers' unions and the Library Association;
  2. (ii) appoint sufficient professional librarians to Her Majesty's Inspectorate to ensure adequate inspection of school libraries.
  3. (iii) the provision of adequate finance to local authorities for the production of development plans for school libraries and school library services; and
  4. (iv) the collection and publication of statistics of primary and secondary school libraries and school library services.'.

Mr. Fatchett

I bring some novelty to the proceedings for those who served on the Committee in that I raise a new subject. New clause 4 would extend the remit and scope of the Bill by providing a statutory framework for the provision of school meals.

There is no doubt that the school meals service has been under constant and pernicious attack from the Government. The record since 1979 is clear. The Education Act 1980 removed the compulsory requirement for local authorities to provide nutritional standards in terms of school meals. Subsequently—and, many would argue, much more damaging—there have been regular cuts in the amount of money available for the school meals service. In 1978–79, the last year of the Labour Government, £693.7 million was spent on the school meals service in real terms. By 1983–84, that had been reduced to £445 million, a reduction of about 30 per cent. The impact of these Government changes are evident in the school meals service.

Children and parents are paying more for the provision of school meals. The service is changing, and many would argue that it has changed for the worse in many respects. The number of children taking school meals has declined constantly since the Government came into office. In 1974, 64.1 per cent. of children were taking school meals. By 1984, that percentage had fallen to 51.3 per cent. There was a slight increase in 1983–84, but under this Government the general pattern has been a decline in the number of children taking school meals.

There is firm evidence about the value of school meals for all children, particularly for those who come from poorer and less well-off families. A Department of Health and Social Security report of April 1986 on the diet of British schoolchildren says: The free school meal is an important factor in the welfare of children from families receiving state benefits. It appeared to be at least responsible for keeping the energy intakes, particularly of older children from these families, up to the levels of the rest of the schoolchild population. 12 midnight

Further support for that view comes from the British Dietetic Association in a report called "Can I afford the diet?" It makes the point that the provision of school meals is of crucial importance for individual children.

Further support for that contention came from Sir Douglas Black. He will be remembered for his report on inequalities in health. On 14 July he wrote to The Guardian. He quoted from his report and then said: In our view any reduction in the provision of school meals or in eligibility for free school meals would mean putting further at risk the development of significant numbers of children ….Nothing has changed except the accumulation of medical evidence showing that children need to be adequately nourished to achieve their potential for healthy growth and development. In view of this and the increase in public awareness and concern about the nation's health, this move"— I shall refer to that later in relation to the Social Security Billby the Government seems the height of folly. That is clear evidence that school meals provide a valuable service to children and to parents.

The alternative to the school meals service can be seen in very many towns and schools. Children are eating junk food or convenience food. Their diet is unbalanced. Because of the price of school meals, children are forced to eat cheaper, convenience food that has less nutritional value. This Government are responsible for the health of the children of this country. Their school meals policy will lead to a further deterioration in the health of our children, particularly those from poorer families. The Minister appears to object to that point, but had he read the Black report he would recognise that inequalities in health are related to the factors to which I have referred. I should be delighted to hear of any evidence to the contrary that he is able to produce.

There is clear objective evidence that the school meals service is valued. There is also clear evidence that, determinedly over seven years, this Government have tried to run down the school meals service.

That is not the whole picture, however. Worse is to come. Either directly or indirectly, this Government are likely further to threaten the school meals service. It is indirect, in the sense that those local authorities that have been squeezed by the public expenditure cuts are likely to follow Hereford, Worcestershire, Lincolnshire and Dorset in reducing the school meals service.

When the Minister replies to the debate, I should like him to say whether he supports the decision that will probably be taken by Buckinghamshire county council on Thursday of this week to abolish the school meals service for those who are provided with free school meals and to substitute only a sandwich service. Are this Government, who claim to be the Government of the family, prepared to support Buckinghamshire county council's decision? It would help the deliberations of the county councillors there if the Minister made clear his views, because advice from the Minister might be heeded by his Conservative colleagues in Buckinghamshire.

There is that threat, but there is also a threat from the Social Security Bill which aims to restrict the scope of free school meals. It is estimated that those provisions will affect 470,000 children. That figure was used by the Government in the debate in the other place a few days ago. That Bill shows the lack of concern that the Government have for the school meals service. It is a valued service and it has been regularly attacked for seven years by the Government. It was attacked first by reducing the element of compulsory nutritional standards, secondly by reducing the amount of money spent on the service, and now by changes in the social security provisions which will further reduce the scope of the school meals service. I hope that the Government will give greater priority to the service, that is why we have tabled new clause 4 which would impose a statutory duty on each local authority.

At least 250,000 jobs are directly related to the school meals service and many of them are in areas where alternative employment is difficult to find. Many of the jobs provide not a second income for a family, but the first and only income. The Government seem to have no regard for those jobs, for the people who provide this important service, or for their conditions of employment, because they are keen to privatise the service. I hope that the House will support the clause and impose upon local authorities the duty to provide an adequate school meals service.

New clause 5 is somewhat different. New clause 4 deals with the body in a physical sense, while new clause 5 deals with the mind, the provision of a library service. The clause seeks to place a responsibility on local authorities and on the Department of Education and Science to provide an adequate library service in our secondary schools. The Government have cut the provision of money for the purchase of books. As a result, many school libraries have suffered and many teachers find it difficult to make the necessary provision. A library is an essential part of a secondary school and plays an essential part in a child's education. We want to encourage children to read books and to use libraries to broaden their minds. I hope that we can get support for the clause. Both clauses will help the health of children, one intellectually and one physically. I am sure that a Government who talk so much about the family will have no difficulty in accepting the clauses.

Mr. Cash

I hope that it is in order to speak to new clause 5. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) completely failed to examine the importance of having adequate and properly qualified people —chartered librarians — to run libraries, especially in schools. That must be done under the auspices of the Library Association. I mention schools, but of course the matter goes further and includes public libraries under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.

For well over 10 years I have been legal adviser to the Library Association and have been much involved in many such questions as and when they have arisen. With the new technologies that are around today, and the new opportunities that are open to people, it must be understood how important it is to have properly qualified librarians who are in a position to make an assessment, in this case on behalf of children, that will enable readers to be in receipt of well-ordered documentation, books and information.

It is often thought that libraries are about ordinary fiction, such as romantic novels, but that is far from being the case. Libraries provide the essential tools for learning and provide people, particularly children, with the means of acquiring knowledge. Therefore, it is essential to have properly qualified chartered librarians to run that service.

To believe that because they are chartered librarians there is a monopoly of work would be to misunderstand the aims and objects of the Library Association, of which Her Majesty The Queen is the patron. The association, with its code of ethics and its high professional standards, is in a position to ensure that children have at their disposal, as part of the clause says sufficient professional librarians in Her Majesty's Inspectorate to ensure that children receive the kind of education that they should have.

One of the main objects of chartered bodies, which is frequently forgotten by some of them — I shall not mention them by name, but it is a matter of first importance to record the fact — is to put the public interest first, and not remuneration. I shall not go into the merits of the clause, with which I have not been associated. In the interests of children and their education, it is important to stress the role of the chartered librarian, who conducts his affairs in a proper, professional and impartial manner on behalf of the children in the school in which he serves.

12.15 am
Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

I shall be brief, not just because my friendly Whip has asked me to be so, but because my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) has done such a first-class job from the Front Bench. If there is a third reason, it is that those on the Conservative Benches are becoming a little restless.

I begin by declaring my interests in this important debate—not only in the interest shared by my right hon. and hon. Friends of caring that our children have a square meal at school, but also my interest as chairman of the group of hon. Members sponsored by the National Union of Public Employees. The group has been active in ensuring that the Government recognise the need for a good schools meal service. We have been active in attempting to resist the cuts that some authorities have been proposing.

We know that soon the House will be asked to pass, in another Bill, provisions that will ensure that only children whose parents are on income support will receive free school meals, while families on family credit will receive a woefully inadequate sum for school meals per week per child. Discretionary grants will not be permitted if clause 73 of the Social Security Bill is passed into law.

Against that background, we are arguing for new clause 4. It is vital that we insert some sanity into the sorry business of the decline of our school meals service. We wish to ensure that all schoolchildren eat a nutritionally balanced meal in the middle of the day. For those who choose not to do so, our new clause states that appropriate facilities should be afforded to them to enjoy another type of meal with a drink.

I should like to believe that this is not a party political issue, but that would be naive in the extreme. However, it certainly should not be party political. Conservative Members should share our concern that the children of the parents whom they represent are fed properly. Three weeks ago the London Food Commission reported that people on low incomes were being forced to cut back on food to make ends meet. Food poverty is a growing problem as it is, without inflicting that on our very young. In 1985, despite cut-backs by certain local authorities, aided and abetted by central Government, more than 1.4 million free school meals were served each day in this country. Moreover, 680,000 such meals were served to children whose parents were on supplementary benefit, 170,000 to the children of those in receipt of family Income supplement and 300,000 to those benefiting from discretionary schemes. Although pupil rolls will undouibtedly fall during the next few years, even the Department of Education and Science has estimated an overall increase in free school meals of over 100,000 between 1984–85 and 1987–88. But that will not come about if the Social Security Bill is enacted.

Those of us who support new clause 4 do so because we are aware that in our schools the junk food generation of children are already suffering nutritionally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central has said, there is plenty of evidence to prove that. Indeed, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), who is also a member of the NUPE group, would like to highlight the problems. We know that the Elephant and Castle is not a million miles away from Walworth road but it is not as yet under the control of the national executive committee of the Labour party. Yet the report of the DHSS shows that many of our children are putting themselves at real risk of heart disease and some cancers later in life by frequenting cafes and chip shops at lunch time.

However, the DHSS report got things wrong in one important respect. It is not the children who want to eat badly, but they are being forced to do so by certain Government and local authority actions. Those bodies are creating that risk for our youngsters. On 2 May, I asked the Under-Secretary of State to list 30 local authorities in England that are restricting the provision of free school meals to those whose parents are in receipt of supplementary benefit. He listed them, and all but one o them was Conservative controlled.

Conservative Members have been given fair warning that, if they vote to ensure that the junk food era continues, the Labour party, NUPE, and many other organisations—many of which are not used to political action—will join battle with the Government and with the Tory-controlled authorities and will closely monitor how Conservative Members stand on this issue.

Buckinghamshire county council is to make its decision on Thursday. I echo what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central, in that we expect the Minister to come clean when he replies to the debate. The council would be extremely foolhardy to abolish the school meals service. If the council goes ahead, 1,700 hardworking school meal ladies in that county will be sacked on Thursday. They have given loyal service to the county, and have offered to talk with the authority on how best to improve the service. However, no one has listened to them. It was noticeable that the private contractors who were called in could not improve on the service given by them. Before I came to the House, I had the pleasure to represent many of those ladies. I can honestly say that they are the hardest working people. During the short time that they provide those meals, they work in a clammy climate at a tremendous pace, and all for little pay. They deserve more than they will get on Thursday if Buckinghamshire county council goes ahead.

On top of that, the council is going ahead after Milton Keynes health authority stated that 60 per cent. of the 8,000 poorest children who reside in the county area are entitled to free school meals. The authority is opposed to Buckinghamshire county council's plan. Some 70 per cent. of the people in the county who responded to the consultative document have said that they are in favour of a school meal provision. I wonder whether the Tory party really believes that it will win Milton Keynes at the next election or any of the authorities that will be hit in that way. Tory Members are living in cloud cuckoo land if they believe that.

I hope that we can get the response that we want from the Government on new clause 4 so that we can stop the Buckinghamshires of this world from going down that road, because the children's health is at risk, and we have a duty in the House to ensure that they get a fair, square meal every day. That is incumbent on the Government, too. I shall listen attentively to the Minister's response.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry), I declare an interest in the debate, as a sponsored Member from the National Union of Public Employees and a former full-time official of that union dealing to a large extent with the school meals service. As a former member of an education authority, I am well aware of the problems that education authorities have in dealing with the school meals system and trying to provide a decent school meal for all their children. I do not pretend that the clause does anything more than take us back in legal terms to the 1979 position. That would be an enormous improvement on what we now have because the past seven years have been ones of unremitting war, declared by central Government, against the principle of a school meals service, while at every opportunity, like Pontius Pilate, they wring their hands and say, "It is up to the local education authority to provide the service," and deliberately create the conditions in which it is almost impossible to provide a decent school meals service.

In putting forward the new clause, we have to say that the school meals service was created because many children from working class homes were not getting proper meals during the day—

Mr. Douglas Hogg

The hon. Gentleman has never been in a working class home.

Mr. Corbyn

They were therefore given —[Interruption.] It is easy for the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), who has two jobs —[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Grantham, who seems anxious to prevent hon. Members from being heard in the debate, has two jobs and therefore has an adequate income on which he can come here and abuse his position as a Member of Parliament and try to destroy the school meals service. [Interruption.] If he has anything to say, he could stand up and say it, but he will not prevent me from speaking. [Interruption.] As much as he drones on from a sedentary position—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) must restrain himself.

Mr. Corbyn

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As I was saying, the hon. Member for Grantham has an adequate income from his two jobs, and perhaps he could spend his time doing some of his job as the hon. Member for Grantham rather than his lucrative legal practice elsewhere. [Interruption.] I wish that some of the children who tomorrow will lose their free school meal could get hold of the hon. Gentleman and knock some sense and manners into his head. Tomorrow, those children, presumably on the vote of the hon. Member for Grantham, will lose their free school meal entitlement under the Social Security Bill. The hon. Member ought to think about what his Government and his vote will do to the school meal services.

In the past seven years, there has been, as I said before the hon. Member for Grantham started his interruptions, a process of unremitting war against the school meal service. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) pointed out, there was the removal of nutritional standards. Then there was the removal of the requirement to provide a free school meal service. Following the introduction of the grant-related expenditure assessment formulae, there was the process of rate capping. In every sense the pressure was on local authorities to increase the costs of the meal to the children, to reduce the number of staff providing that meal and thus contribute to a cycle of undernourished children and unemployed school meal workers. This clause is trying to halt that process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and myself have been involved with the school meal service and we are aware that the school meal workers, a large majority of whom are women, work extremely hard, in difficult circumstances and for low wages. When authorities, at the request of the women, asked that a bonus scheme should be considered, they discovered that many of those women were already working at bonus levels of performance. Such women have been eligible for a bonus scheme for many years because of the rate at which they were forced to work in some kitchens.

In the midst of all these attacks on the school meal services—the removal of nutritional standards and the removal of the legal requirement to provide a school meal service — those who work in the school meals service have sought to seek imaginative changes to the service.

In certain places, there has been a great improvement in the school meal service. Ethnic catering has been introduced and thus children of different religious backgrounds have been adequately catered for by the service. Breakfast, more salad dishes and a high fibre diet have also been introduced. Where it has been possible—with the agreement of the authority—there have been great improvements.

Reports on the Haringey school meal service and the service offered by the ILEA should be compared with those authorities which have destroyed the school meal service and which have substituted for it just a sandwich. A disgraceful thing to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde mentioned the decisions which will be taken tomorrow when the Social Security Bill comes back to the Floor of the House. The Committee on the Bill was lobbied by a group of school meal workers. They were patient and explained to those Committee members to whom it was possible to speak, what their job entailed, how important that service was and how they feared the loss of the principle of free school meals provided by the local education authorities.

Tomorrow, the House will have the opportunity to ensure that halt a million children from the poorest households in Britain have the opportunity to have free school meal—it is important part of their diet. Tonight, we have the opportunity to reinstate the principle of the legal requirement on every local education authority to provide a school meal service. That would prevent Buckinghamshire county council voting, on Thursday morning, to abolish the free school meal service.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde mentioned that there would be 1,700 jobs lost. It would also mean a large number of school children going without a meal—they would be forced to get chips and eat junk food. That would cause a cycle of nutritional deprivation which is prevalent among British children but which is not necessarily obvious among children of equivalent industrialised countries.

We are deliberately undernourishing a whole generation and we are deliberately destroying a valuable school meals service. I hope that we can agree that this clause would prevent Buckinghamshire county council from doing the unthinkable on Thursday. It would also call a halt to the completely vicious and illogical cycle under which we destroy a school meals service in order to dismiss the cooks and the catering workers and thus prevent the children from getting a school meal in the middle of the day.

We are in the middle of a ludicrous process. I hope that the House will recognise the importance and value of the service, and of the work that predominantly women school meal workers do. Hon. Members should contrast the comforts of their lives with the hardships of working-class women and children that will result from the destruction of the service. The service is a measure of society's concern for the health of children and for women workers, and it should be preserved.

12.30 am
Mr. Dunn

I must congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett), who has turned into some sort of butterfly — perhaps a Red Admiral — since Standing Committee, when he was a caterpillar. I thought that his speech was rather good.

I shall deal with new clause 5 first. Such a clause is unacceptable because it would seek to pre-empt local decisions about spending and other priorities, by legislating for the school library service in a way which means that it is bound to take a larger proportion of resources. Local freedom to decide priorities for expenditure should not be fettered in that way.

As to new clause 4, I thought that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) displayed all the innocence, naivety and ignorance of a person who obviously came down with the last shower of rain. He was totally unrealistic, totally unfair and totally obtuse in his approach to the debate. I am glad that he declared his interest in the matter.

Mr. Corbyn

Have you ever been to a school kitchen?

Mr. Dunn

I have been to many school kitchens, and I dare say that I can swap blow for blow an account of deprivation, whether the urban or the rural variety, with the hon. Gentleman. I suspect that I know a lot more about deprivation than the hon. Member ever will should he live a thousand years.

The main effect of new clause 4 would be to place on local education authorities a duty to provide a meal as specified in the new clause, which no, or only a few, pupils might want on any given day. It would be unreasonable to compel local education authorities to set up and maintain the elaborate arrangements that would be needed in such circumstances. It would not be an efficient way in which to run a local authority or any other type of service: It is surely right for the local authority, which is responsible to its own local electorate, to decide, in the light of local circumstances, the right way in which to go about the lunchtime arrangements of pupils in its schools.

There are two other aspects of the new clause on which I ought to comment — first, the stipulation that provision should he made for a meal suitable in all respects as the main meal of the day. That is putting the clock back. The Government removed that requirement in 1980 under pressure from local education authorities, which told us that it was too restrictive and too centralist. As the law now stands, it is for local education authorities to decide what it is appropriate to provide. They can and do take the advice of community dieticians, health education arid home economics advisers and catering managers arid organisers.

Secondly, there is the curious paragraph (b), which would impose the duty to provide drinks for those who bring their own food. Local education authorities already have a duty to provide such facilities as they consider appropriate. I do not believe that it can be necessary to legislate to the effect that pupils can have a drink of water at lunchtime. I am afraid that the new clause is misconceived, and I ask the House to reject it, and new clause 5.

Mr. Fatchett

I was fascinated by the Minister's opening imagery, because while I had difficulty in understanding it in relation to myself, I had even greater difficulty in understanding it in relation to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn).

I shall not delay the House by dealing at length with the remarks of the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash), who is no longer in his place. I agreed broadly with the valuable points that he made about new clause 5.

Those who read the Official Report of the debate will be disappointed to note that the Minister did not acknowledge the situation that is likely to develop in Buckinghamshire, that he did not show any concern for the 1,700 jobs that will be affected and that the did not refer to the effect of a decision on the children of Buckinghamshire. I assume that the Minister's silence on those issues meant that he would support any cuts in the school meals service.

There will also be disappointment at the fact that the Minister did not comment on some of the arguments that were adduced on convenience and junk foods, on the bearing of that on the 1980 Act and on the ending of the obligations that were placed on local authorities. I had hoped that the Minister would say whether he thought the provision of sandwiches was sufficient for youngsters, or whether more should be provided. If he believes that more should be provided, the new clause is the answer.

As the hour is late, as we have had an opportunity to raise some issues that are important to us, and as we have demonstrated that a division exists between the two sides of the House on the important issue of the school meals service, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Further consideration of the Bill adjourned. —[Mr. Peter Lloyd.]

Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee) to be further considered this day.