HL Deb 04 August 1971 vol 323 cc1165-74

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Belstead.)

On Question, Bill read 3a.

Clause 1 [School milk for pupils in England and Wales]:

LORD GARNSWORTHY moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 8, leave out (" attains the age of seven ") and insert (" transfers to a secondary school ").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Amendment which stands in the names of my noble friends and myself. In speaking to it I shall in fact be covering the other three Amendments as well. In so far as I am able, I shall try to avoid a repetition of the arguments advanced when the Bill was in Committee. If I should stray a little from that intention I hope that your Lordships' House will be indulgent, because I shall only do so in order to make essential points. The Amendment itself is different from any which was moved in Committee, being in fact rather more comprehensive. I have drafted it with a view to remedying some of the defects to which the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, drew attention in regard to the fifth Amendment considered by the Committee.

It seems to me that I have an obligation to give your Lordships an opportunity to look once again at what this Bill sets out to do. It cuts off the free supply of one-third of a pint of milk each day of school for children aged between seven and eleven. There are exceptions: children at special schools are exempt, as are children certified by school medical officers as being in need of milk; and it confers upon education authorities the power to sell milk to children deprived of free milk—a privilege that local education authorities, so far as I know, have never asked for. Whatever drafting defects the Amendment may have, perhaps I may say, to its credit, that its purpose is crystal clear.

I should like to explain briefly why I wish to move this Amendment: first, the first Division on Committee showed that your Lordships were fairly evenly divided; secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, made a number of comments such as—quoting first from the OFFICIAL REPORT, of August 2 (c. 863): … my heart warms to the Amendments. Then I meant it sincerely when I said to the noble Baroness I had every sympathy with these Amendments. The noble Lord also drew attention to drafting weaknesses in the Amendment. At columns 848 and 849 he drew attention to the consequences of an Amendment I moved, which would have held the age for the supply of free milk at the age of eleven instead of reducing it to seven as the Bill does, and pointed out that it would create anomalies.

The purpose of this Amendment is to give the House the opportunity to place on record the view that all children should have free one-third of a pint of school milk each day up to the time they transfer to secondary school. In that way the poor child, the child whose parents have an inadequate income, the handicapped child, the medically unfit child—in fact all growing children—will have during this most important time of their lives a daily intake of nature's most balanced food, supplying, as it does, the essential ingredients for health: and health is absolutely necessary in order that children may take full advantage of the educational opportunities offered to them. I referred to the decision to end free milk for children of secondary school age; but at least when that was done advice had been given that it was a safe thing to do. I still think it was undesirable, but there I express an individual point of view. No one throughout the discussion of this Bill to date has claimed that similar advice has been available. If the Government were sure that their action was safe and that there was no risk involved, we should not have had a proposal for monitoring, and we should not have heard as much as we have about the part that the school medical officer can play.

That brings me to the question of cost. The estimated savings under this Bill are £5.9 million for the current year—£9 million in a full year—less the cost of monitoring, less the cost of the extra work thrown on the school medical officers and their staffs, less the cost of the medical milk—all of them unknown figures. I wonder what thought has been given to the position that will arise in the small country school of 30 or 40 pupils with an age range from five to eleven, where infants and juniors share the same building and the same playground. At the mid-morning break the children aged from five to seven will have free milk. The children who are eligible will have medical milk, and the others may or may not get milk, depending on whether mother will or can afford it, or will not or cannot afford it. What a task for the teacher to differentiate between such a small number of children! None of us would envy any such teacher her task. How could the teacher possibly leave a small number of children without milk? What would she say to the child aged between seven and eleven, who had no money but who said,"Please teacher, may I have some milk?"Under the Bill the teacher has to say,"No ", or reply, You can only have the milk if the school medical officer certifies that you have need of it."

I return to the question that I have asked before because, so far as I have been able to gather, there has been no satisfying answer. What happens in cases where the supplier considers the order too small to justify the daily call? In Committee I drew attention to the fact that this point had been raised in at least two instances. There is discontent among local education authorities that they cannot—as the non-education authorities can—use the product of a penny rate in England and Wales and a twopenny rate in Scotland as a local option to supply milk if they consider that the ratepayers they represent and serve approve of it. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, was a little too subtle when he spoke on this anomalous position. He conceded the right of the non-education authorities to spend the penny or the twopenny rate. Good stuff for local autonomy and greater local freedom! He warned them, at the same time that he recognised their right, that an authority which is not an education authority would need to consider to what extent it would be necessary to ensure that the milk which the authority was financing went down the throats of the pupils within its area. He continued that when you think of children going across the boundaries of different areas of local authorities, that would not be hair-splitting but would be an important and relevant point. He warned of the possibility that such milk wrongfully going down the throats of little children—one third of a pint a day—might be ultra vires.

He then proceeded to try to put the fear—I was going to say,"the fear of the very devil himself ", into those authorities, but he did not go quite so far as that. He certainly set out to give them what I am sure they will interpret as a warning to this effect. He said that it went without saying that the district auditor would have to be satisfied that such expenditure had been lawfully incurred. The noble Lord added that all that was said, as he put it,"in a helpful spirit ". The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, throughout our consideration of this Bill has had my sympathy, because I have found it difficult to understand how he could defend it. The point I have been trying to make only goes to show what a mess this Bill, unless it is amended, can get us into. My Amendment provides an opportunity to avoid all the heart-searching, all the bother of monitoring, all the dissatisfaction on the part of the Association of Education Committees and the Association of Municipal Corporations, as well as a great many individual authorities. In fact it provides an opportunity to avoid all the risks.

I have been impressed with the fact that concern about the effects of this Bill, unless it is amended, exists in all parts of this House. It is greatly to the credit of the noble Lords on all sides that they have voiced that concern. I believe that this House is at its best when it reflects, as I believe it has on this measure, the conscience of the nation, when people of all Parties and of none join together to say to a Government,"You ought not to take this action without further thought. We will not prevent your doing it, but we want you to think again ". I have been impressed with the expressions of sympathy from the Government Front Bench on many proposals put forward from all parts of the House. I have been impressed at the number of Members of your Lordships' House who have made constructive suggestions. I am, at the same time, deeply impressed by the adamant, inflexible determination of the Government to get the Bill through this House unamended. I am impressed by the utterly unresponsive attitude of the Government to so many appeals that have been made to it, even from Members sitting on the Government side. Sympathy is not enough. If children between the ages of seven and eleven are to have a firm guarantee of a third of a pint of milk a day, then your Lordships would do well to support the Amendment that I have submitted.

My Lords, this Bill may be a small one; the amount of money involved in terms of national expenditure is not large; but as surely as it is a small Bill it is one which can have serious effects. It is a Bill which, in its present form, is not wanted. If the Government continue to be unresponsive it is the kind of Bill that helps to bring Governments down. This Amendment is submitted in the belief that it will benefit children. It might, in the long run, even benefit the Government, if they accept it. I beg to move.

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, we have had nearly two full debates on this point. As the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, said, this is not the time to repeat the arguments in full. I pointed out from these Benches on Second Reading that we are in this muddle through the peculiar and appalling arithmetic whereby we try to balance school milk for children against the building of primary schools. School milk for children, if it is to be weighed in the balance, should be weighed against other family provision; school buildings should be weighed against other educational provision; and if it comes to the moment when you must weigh one against the other, then you weigh the whole global sum for family provision against the whole global sum for education. But this kind of weighing of two disparate effects makes no sense logically, in accountancy, in education or in social service.

However, I want to take this opportunity to pick up an echo of the end of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, to utter a warning to this Government. The great design of their economic plans is still in the balance. Everyone in this Chamber hopes that in so far as those plans mean prosperity for this country, they are successful. But the Government should rid themselves of the belief that this success depends on charging children for entrance to museums; on dismantling the Consumer Council; on failing to finance the National Film Finance Corporation; on taking away school milk from small children. These are not genuine economies, and, what is more, I am afraid I do not think that they are meant to be. They are meant to be psychological signs that we should stiffen our shoulders, pull in our belts and put our shoulders to the wheel. They are having a psychological effect, but I think they are having a far different psychological effect from that which the Government themselves hoped, and one with which they themselves cannot be pleased.

Noble Lords opposite have at various stages shown their very real distress and concern with what is being done in this Bill. I hope that they will help us to-day to stop this unnecessary and quite tragic Bill. As for me, I shall have no hesitation whatsoever in advising my noble friends to go into the Lobby to support this Amendment.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, this Bill is concerned with priorities. The noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, in moving the Amendment showed no sign of recognition of this fact, although it had been repeated on several occasions during the previous stages of the Bill. It does the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, credit that he fully recognised that, although he said that these priorities belonged, as it were, to different categories and could not be matched one against the other. However, in all questions of expenditure there is a single common factor and that is the money involved. Although I respect the view he expressed, he must also respect what I have just said.

The question is whether it is better to spend £9 million a year on continuing the supply of one-third of a pint of milk free to all children in primary schools between the ages of seven and eleven or very considerably to speed up the replacement of out-of-date Victorian schools. The Government take the latter view. My noble friend Lord Belstead on the Committee stage pointed out that the effect of this Bill would be that these old, out of-date Victorian schools, instead of taking twenty years to replace as would have been the case under the programme of the former Government, will now all be replaced within six or seven years. That unquestionably is a substantial gain to primary education—a substantial gain which we should all support. I am not sure whether it was the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, or some of his noble friends who asked at earlier stages of the Bill:"Why cannot we have both?" Socialism was said, I think by Mr. Aneurin Bevan, to be a matter of priorities. It is either a matter of priorities or it is a matter of assuming that there is a bottomless purse; and I think that Lord Garnsworthy, with his local government experience, would not accept the latter view.

The fact is that if we want things we must find the money for them. The Government which the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, supported were not prepared, or felt themselves not able, to find money to replace the Victorian schools in a period of less than twenty years. This Government believe that it is urgent to replace those schools, more urgent than to continue the supply of free milk to school children. If this was going to worsen the poverty of any family I should be opposed to it. In fact, the third of a pint of milk five times a week for a child will cost, I think I am right in saying, 8½p a week. Under the present Government's legislation, all those families with low incomes will be entitled to family income supplement, which will grant them as of right up to £4 extra per week. Moreover, from September onwards those families where the breadwinner has the deep misfortune to be unemployed will all be receiving, if they have children, something like £2 a week more in unemployment benefit. So there is no possibility of the passing of this Bill worsening the poverty of any family.

The only people it could harm, so far as I can see, are those families where the parents, although they could afford to feed their children properly, are not doing so. That is a tragic situation—I repeat, a tragic situation—but I very much doubt whether that is a situation, whether in the case of food, clothing, or anything else, in which it is right for Parliament to try to remedy it by handing out free supplies to everybody. There must be a better way of doing it than that. My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, has made out any better case for this Amendment than he made for the comparable Amendment on the Committee stage. I respect what he is trying to do, and we all are determined to see that children whose parents are in financial difficulties shall not suffer, but they certainly will not suffer as a result of this Bill.

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, I venture to intervene for just one moment, although I spoke on the Committee stage, in support of this Amendment. With all respect, I cannot quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, when he says that this is a question of priorities. I do not see why the supply of milk to children under the age of eleven in schools should be pitted against the rebuilding, reconstruction and renewal of primary schools in this country. I do not see that they have anything to do with each other. When the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, says:"Do we want both?" my answer is:"Yes, we do ", and we should make sacrifices in some other direction in order to obtain both the school rebuilding programme and the free milk in schools.

I happen to believe that the extraordinarily good health of the children of this country to-day is to a large extent based upon the milk schemes we have had. The nutritional standard is extraordinarily high. We cannot judge how much lower it is going to fall, but at least it is essential in the opinion of every well-informed doctor or medical officer in this country that children should have an adequate supply of milk in the critical period between the ages of seven and eleven. I reminded your Lordships the other day that I had the privilege of introducing in the other place, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, in the year 1940—in the summer of 1940 when we were facing invasion—the original National Milk Scheme under the direction of the late Lord Woolton. It has been the basis of the whole of our milk arrangements since then and has stood the test magnificently. That was the foundation of the scheme of milk in schools. It was originally arranged for all children and nursing mothers to get milk at the price of 2d. a pint—this was in 1940—and, where poverty could be established, free. That was the basis and we have built steadily on this basis, and I believe that the health of the children of this country to-day largely depends on the milk scheme.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, raised a very important point when he said:"Can we depend in all cases upon the parents?"I suggest that in a very large number of cases we cannot. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said that he did not think the remedy was for the State to step in and supply the necessary milk. There I differ from him: I think it is. We can have no guarantee that a very large number of parents, even if they are better off under the new unemployment regulations or what-have-you, will give to their children the milk that they require at this critical age. It is the duty and the business of the State—and it has been proved by our experience over the last twenty years—to supply the milk.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord but he has been criticising the views that I expressed. I would ask him whether he does not perceive that there is an immeasurable difference between the general health of school children to-day and the general health of school children when Lord Woolton became Minister of Food in 1940.


My Lords, of course I do, and the reason lies in the measures which Lord Woolton laid down. That is the reason why there has been this enormous improvement in the health of the children. The noble Lord has given the very reason: that Lord Woolton laid down the foundations of a national milk scheme for this country upon which we have built faithfully and well, and I must confess that I do not like to see those foundations dismantled. I believe that the health of the children of this country is largely dependent upon the arrangements we made in 1940 under very different conditions, and the satisfactory results we have achieved are because of those measures. I am very sad to see those measures being encroached upon, if not dismantled. I beg the Government, before they go on with what I cannot help feeling is a paltry and a petty Bill which will not redound to their credit in the country and will not go down well anywhere, to reconsider this particular point before it is too late.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, has his priorities wrong. Surely the priority is school milk and the health of children from the ages of seven to eleven; and the rebuilding of the schools does not matter. Give the children milk. I know that most likely the Government's reply will be that the school mistresses, seeing a child that they think is insufficiently fed, should give notice to the medical officer. I believe that in the Committee stage it was said that the medical officer had time to see each child only once a year. Is it right that the medical officer's work should he done by the teachers? I know the teachers are there and they see the child every day, but give the children the milk and it will not mean any extra work for the teachers. I support the Amendment wholeheartedly.