HL Deb 03 March 1992 vol 536 cc752-5

2.58 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the provision and take-up of school meals.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Government are satisfied that local education authorities have the freedom to decide what type of school meals service to provide and the content of any meals provided. It is for parents and pupils to decide the level of take-up.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for answering my Question. Does she not agree that a serious situation is arising in the school meals service in that only four children out of 10 now take school meals? Is she aware that under the Social Security Act 400,000 children from poorer families lost their free entitlement to school meals? In contrast, is the Minister aware that a recent survey shows that as many as 80 per cent. of mothers questioned thought that the provision of school meals was of great importance? Will the Minister undertake to monitor the uptake of school meals in the face of the fear that it will decline even further? Will she also undertake to draw up a set of national nutritional guidelines for school meals in order to ensure that there is a similar standard in different areas?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, as regards the statistics, the take-up is lower than it was in the 1970s. That is not surprising because the eating habits of children have changed quite dramatically since that time. It is interesting to note that 42 per cent. of all pupils took a school meal in January 1991. That compares with 49 per cent. —which is only a 7 per cent. difference—at the beginning of the decade. It would be helpful if the 80 per cent. of parents who responded to a questionnaire in the way that the noble Baroness has set out would follow that up with action and take up the offer of school meals. The truth is that school meals are not as popular in some parts of the country as in others.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, has any research been carried out through health visitors into the health of children whose parents are on income support and those children whose parents neither give them sandwiches nor pay for their school meals? The latter have a pizza from a van at the school gate.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may make two points in response to my noble friend's important question. First, school children are out of school for 175 days of the year. Therefore we cannot simply leave it to schools to be the sole nutritional provider for our young children. Secondly, and on a more helpful point to my noble friend, the Government are in the process of preparing a health of the nation paper which follows up a very useful Green Paper to which there was a considerably healthy response. As part of that, school meals and their impact on young people will be addressed. It is always possible that if it is felt necessary, a task force could be set up to review the very area that my noble friend has pointed out.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the Government know why there has been this reduction in take up? Is it because of the rising prices of school meals which therefore put them beyond the bounds of poor families?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the poorest families are helped by having free school meals provided. All local education authorities are bound to provide school meals for poor children. In other cases, local education authorities have to make a very real choice about whether they subsidise school meals to a greater level or whether that money is spent on education. Those are not easy choices for education authorities.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, in forming the Government's advice to local education authorities on this important matter, will my noble friend enhance the prospects for the humble, but delicious and nutritious herring? Many herring are being caught in the North Sea and are, sadly, being processed into fish meal. Herring are extremely good fish. Will she try and encourage more use to be made of them in school meals?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I agree with what has been said about herring. However, I think that providing herrings for small children might produce some practical difficulties. The important point my noble friend makes is that one of the issues that is to be considered regarding the health of the nation document is the possibility of issuing nutrition guidelines to schools so that when our children are fed, they are fed in the most healthy way possible.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, if the noble Baroness is considering issuing guidelines on the nutrition of school meals, will she consider consulting Caroline Waldegrave? The meals that she has organised for Guy's hospital are apparently so delicious that no one can resist them. The take up might then be greater.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I note the point that the noble Baroness is making. I also link with that a tribute to the many schools now which are not just simply providing nutritional food for young people but build it in as a core part of the educational system. Schools are linking-in education about nutrition with what they find available to them in the dining room.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, on the subject of nutrition, will the Government consider taking up the idea of re-introducing compulsory milk at schools? The "pinta-a-day" might go some way towards assisting the dairy industry; but I am certain it would go a long way towards encouraging the health of children.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is confession time for me. I have to say that I was one of those people who was subjected to one-third of a pint of milk a day at school. It was kept on the radiators to be warmed. The memories of it are still as painful now as they were then. However, I believe that the medical advice was that many of our children were suffering from obesity, and that feeding them another pint of milk a day would not be a resolution to their nutritional problems.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the recommendation about milk indicates the end of Thatcherism?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I do not agree with that. The system is flexible. Where schools believe that young people would benefit nutritionally from milk it is still possible to make that provision.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, bearing in mind the Minister's earlier reply when she said that local authorities had to make a difficult choice between providing free or cheap school meals, and the education of the children, will the Government give some consideration to relieving local authorities of that horrible task by providing sufficient funds where both needs can be met?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord uses an artificial distinction. The money that is spent locally and the money that is spent nationally is taxpayers' money at the end of the day; so one simply switches the burden from local to national taxation. It is all money, and it all has to be paid for.

Baroness David

My Lords, is the Minister happy that the DES does not have responsibility for this any more? Does she agree that there was a social benefit to be gained in children sitting down for a meal, and having a quiet time in the middle of the day, particularly the small children—

Noble Lords


Baroness David

My Lords, I am sorry that that raises such a laugh; but I think there was a benefit and that it was a good thing for children to sit down and have a quiet time for a short while, instead of dashing around and probably not digesting their food very well. I hope that a little more information will be collected about the social effects of what has been going on, with the DES responsibility going altogether.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I did not say that the responsibility has gone altogether. For practical purposes, LEAs and schools themselves have the responsibility. But there are two points to be made about that. Of course it is very good for children to have a quiet time in the day. But we live in a free country, and if parents on behalf of their children do not take up the offer of meals, that is one thing; but it is worth noting that schools have a responsibility to make a place available at the table for any child in the school, whether or not they take school meals. That may be simply to have a quiet time or to eat the sandwiches or provisions that they have brought themselves.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, in view of the Answer that the Minister gave that she agrees that there are varying standards of meals throughout the country, will she be more specific in her answer about the Government setting up national nutritional standards, and also monitoring whether the uptake of school meals goes on decreasing?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there is a continual monitoring of the take up of school meals. I have already mentioned the statistics over the past decade; that will continue. There are annual returns about the take up. I also mentioned the health of the nation paper; I mentioned, too, the possibility that if it is deemed necessary, as a result a task force could be set up to investigate the particular anxieties of the noble Baronesses and of the other noble Lords.

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