HL Deb 19 July 1989 vol 510 cc774-6

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether there has been any change in the take-up of school meals resulting from the Social Security Act 1986.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the overall trend in numbers taking school meals has been downwards for many years. Figures from the latest school meals census show that 2.8 per cent. fewer school meals were provided on the day of the 1988 count than on the corresponding day for 1987. It is not possible to say how far that reduction is attributable to the 1986 Social Security Act, which provides for a cash sum instead of a free school meal for schoolchildren whose parents receive family credit.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that general Answer. Is he aware that the most recent census on school meals, carried out in October 1988, showed a most alarming decrease in the number of children having free school meals? The decrease was 31 per cent., which represented 337,000 children, out of which 7,000 were reported from Manchester alone. Does the Minister agree that the reasons for the decrease is the low take-up of family credit? Therefore, will he say whether the Government will extend eligibility for free school meals to those children whose parents receive family credit? Will he also say whether the Government will set up a review, as they did in 1983, of the prices charged, whether they are deterring parents and whether the children are substituting for school meals junk food and sandwiches from home, which are not good for growing children?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I agree that the number of pupils having free meals has declined. Until April 1988, children whose parents received supplementary benefit for family income supplement received a free school meal. Since then children from families in receipt of income support—which replaced supplementary benefit—and those pupils who themselves receive the benefit are still entitled to receive free school meals.

Family income supplement has been replaced by family credit, which includes a cash addition for each child in place of free school meals. It is payable throughout the year, not only in term time. The amount is reviewed annually and it amounts to rather more than the average cost of a school meal.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, what evidence is there to show that the take-up of family credit has anything to do with the number of children receiving free school meals? What is the evidence to show that that is an indication of anything?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, there is no evidence.

Lord Peston

My Lords, surely one possible piece of evidence is that the two occur at the same time, so they go hand in hand. Bearing in mind the figures which the noble Viscount has given about the general decline in the number of young people receiving school meals, and which seems deplorable, do the Government agree with the old-fashioned view that if all children took school dinners the communal spirit of the school would be improved and it would be good for education?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, that is a point of view. It is the Government's policy as far as possible to replace benefits in kind with benefits in cash, so that parents can have a choice as to how they use their money.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, is the health of the children being monitored, bearing in mind the number of those not receiving school meals but having inadequate types of food?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the question of diet is best left to local education authorities as providers of meals. But the prime responsibility for what children eat lies with their parents. A survey of diets was carried out six years ago, but much has changed since then. Over 70 LEAs banded together in the FEAST —Fun Eating At School Today —campaign. That is a national advertising campaign to promote changes in the services provided. Those include encouraging moves towards healthier eating, greater choice and value for money. The campaign began in January of this year and is off to an excellent start. I am happy to pay tribute to that exciting initiative. In addition, all children are made aware of the importance of healthy eating through the curriculum in schools.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the sum of £2.55 per week given to people on family credit does not leave much scope for choice? Will he also accept, as the noble Baroness said, that that has meant a great increase in the consumption of junk food by children who cannot afford anything else? Is it not time that the Government began to think of imposing a national standard of nutrition for school meals?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the sum of £2.55 per week is over the year as a whole. That is roughly equivalent to £3.30 per school week.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, am I to understand the Minister to say that the survey on which he bases his comments is six years old? He said that a lot has changed since then. What does he mean by that? If a lot has changed, why is there not another survey to bring the information up to date?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, your Lordships can see how much our diet has changed over the past six years.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, will the Minister say what is the take-up for family credit, which contains, as it does, an allowance for school meals?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I cannot tell the noble Baroness that, but I can say that difficulties such as those mentioned by the noble Baroness are not limited to families on benefit. It is not right that the budgeting difficulties of the minority should deprive the majority of families of the benefit of having the help in cash rather than in kind. Providing much more generous family credit will make it easier for more families fully to meet their parental responsibilities. However, there is a limit to the extent to which the Government can, or should, dictate how working families spend their money.