HC Deb 22 June 2000 vol 352 cc113-54WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

It gives me great pleasure to open this debate on the Education and Employment Committee's first report on school meals.

I begin by making a confession. The only active role that I played in the report was presiding over the press conference, because I was appointed Chairman of the Select Committee after all the hard work had been done. However, since that time I have immersed myself, if one can, in school meals and have taken it upon myself to visit many schools to check some of the facts that the Select Committee discovered and reported. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will bear with me if I purport to be an expert on the subject of our report, but I did not make the visits with the members of the Committee, a number of whom have changed since the report was put together.

The Chairman of the Committee was my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks), a colleague of the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), who will reply to the debate. I pay tribute to him and the members of the Committee who did such a thorough job on the report. I assure hon. Members that we shall act as passionate and informed advocates of the findings.

I have read the report in great detail and read the evidence. Indeed, it has been one of my priorities on the many trips that the Select Committee has made to schools to visit school kitchens and look at the meals that are provided.

We discovered that the overall nutrition of many people in this country is in a serious state. Indeed, it would not be too dramatic to say that the diet of many British school children is a disgrace and a savage indictment of our society. Hon. Members should read recent reports on nutritional levels in Glasgow and study the Medical Research Council's work, which points out that in many ways the diet in 1950 was much healthier than it is now or was in the 1990s. That is shocking to most people in this country, who would expect us as parliamentarians to try to do something about it. It was the intention of my colleagues on the Education and Employment Committee to tackle this state of affairs with their normal thoroughness.

Many people put nutrition to one side, as if it were an added-on extra, believing that what is important is teachers, resources, computers and all the other things in a good school, but a child who is undernourished and not getting a proper diet is less able, or unable, to concentrate on the lessons. That is not a healthy child: it is a child who cannot apply himself or herself to the business of acquiring knowledge. Therefore, I hope that today we can focus on the integral part that the school meal and school nutrition play in our children's educational levels and the overall health of the population.

The overall impact of poor nutrition on children's health is a cause of serious concern. If the Government are serious about their commitment to reducing infant mortality by improving the health of expectant mothers, and doing something about the burden of coronary heart disease that kills most of my constituents —in some areas the largest killer is cancer, but in my constituency it is coronary heart disease —and the many forms of cancer and bone disease that affect people in later life, they must regard childhood nutrition as part of that commitment. We must consider not only childhood diseases but the diseases that occur later in life. Childhood nutrition is a significant factor in achieving those goals. Furthermore, a great deal of research shows that improving a child's diet has a positive effect on his or her educational performance.

Those who take an interest in the history of this matter will be aware of that great piece of legislation, the Education Act 1944. Some of my friends who make over-generous claims about what Labour did in 1945 sometimes make the mistake of saying that the 1944 Act was introduced by Labour. It was not. It was the Butler Act, introduced by Rab Butler, who later became Lord Butler. However, although he introduced the Bill, it had the support of the wartime coalition Government, who were still in power in 1944. The approach to the Education Act was therefore agreed by all parties.

In addition to the tremendous change that the Act brought to the education system, it ensured a fundamental change in our approach to school lunches, as they were described. The regulation prescribed that those lunches should provide children with one third of the daily nutritional requirements laid down by the Department of Health. One can understand that approach being taken in a country that was coming out of the war and out of rationing. The embargo around Britain made it difficult to bring in fresh food, of which there was a scarcity.

After the war, therefore, the importance of school meals was realised. I do not want to make a heavy political point, but they were, tragically, abolished by a Conservative Government when Mrs. Thatcher, as she then was, was Prime Minister, in the full flush of her first Administration in 1980. That did a great deal of damage. I know many members of the Conservative party in the House today who agree that it was a mistake. They can now see the problems that were caused. They understand that, given the Medical Research Council's research comparing 1950 with the 1990s, something went seriously wrong, which no one anticipated. It was believed that the markets would provide, and that good food would come naturally from a competitive process in the school meals system.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

How does the hon. Gentleman respond to the evidence given to the inquiry that implied that much of the food being produced pre-1979 was not being eaten by children because they found it so unattractive?

Mr. Sheerman

I have read all the evidence, and the report. I found much evidence from all sides on that matter. Of course, I understand that there is a great deal of food wastage. One must move with the times, and not provide stodgy, old-fashioned food. There was an element of that, and I do not want to push this aspect of the argument too far.

However, there is no doubt that, with no guidance or standards, it was impossible to judge the quality of school meals for 20 years. I welcome unreservedly —as does the all-party report —the reintroduction of standards relevant to our time that give a basis on which to judge the quality of the food that our children eat in school.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

The hon. Gentleman was setting the scene successfully until he reached his last point, from which it would be wise for him to move on.

The comments of my hon. Friend are amply borne out by the evidence recorded on page 17 of the report. In response to question 60, the chairman of the Local Authority Caterers Association said that, after an initial drop-off from 1980, the number of pupils taking meals increased year by year, that school catering provision was extremely good and that many local authorities had excellent standards. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman wants to move away from that point.

Mr. Sheerman

I want to move on, but I should comment briefly on the dreary experience of many of us who were in Parliament during those years. There was a real decline in the quality of school food-shift towards the culture of baked beans, pizza and chips and away from a proper balanced diet. One could not say to the head of a school or governing body, "This is not of the right standard", because there was no standard by which to judge. It would have been unfair of me not to have made that point, but I shall now move on.

In February 1997, following a commitment in the run-up to the general election, the new Labour Government introduced voluntary guidance entitled "Eating Well at School". In July 1997, in the "Excellence in Schools" White Paper, the Government announced that they would introduce minimum nutritional standards for inclusion in school meal contracts by May 2002. The Committee wholeheartedly welcomed the Government's decision and their commitment to ensuring that nutrition in school meals reached acceptable standards.

I have to say —not just to please everyone in the Chamber —that I have a criticism of the Government. Given that there is such a demand for standards, why must it take so long —until 2002—for a Government elected in 1997 to reach the point that we all want to get to? I understand what is involved in consultation processes and in producing our report. I have been a Member of Parliament for a long time —probably about the same length of time as you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, despite that, and the fact that I understand the procedures involved and the difficulty of introducing change, I still feel that the machinery of government grinds small and slow. I should have liked this problem to have been dealt with much faster, as a matter of priority. I hope that I have been even-handed in balancing the blame for that.

The Committee strongly advocated that the school meal regulations should be based on scientific, nutrient-based guidelines. We were therefore very disappointed when the Government did not accept our recommendations that nutritional standards for school meals should be based on nutrients, which can be measured. The evidence that the Committee took clearly showed, across a range of opinion, that any adopted standard should be measurable. Alternatives such as "You can have a bit of that and a bit of this", "It looks nice on the plate" or "You can only have chips three days a week and baked beans once a week" do not add up to a standard that we could present to a school, saying, "Here are the guidelines and how to meet them through nutritional standards". It seemed to members of the Committee to be plain common sense, backed up by much of the research work and many of the leading health advocates in the country, that we must have a standard that can properly be measured.

Unfortunately, in that fundamental regard, the Government's response has been disappointing. They have made a mistake: the Committee has not changed its mind about that. Governments being Governments, they have the right to disagree with Select Committees —although I cannot understand why, especially in the case of the Education and Employment Committee. During our few hours of debate, perhaps we will have been so eloquent that the Minister will have totally changed her mind and we will get a pleasant surprise.

I understand from the National Heart Forum, with which the Minister had a meeting earlier this week, that her Department believes that it can ensure nutrient levels using the food-based approach. "Food-based approach" is an interesting phrase. I do not know what other approach there is. It is a technical term for a balance of foods on the plate throughout the week. However, it is unclear to the National Heart Forum and to me how that balance will be delivered. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us.

As a political realist, I agree that there is scope for strengthening the guidance for monitoring local and national standards. If it came to a knock-out fight, I would rather have a standard than not, but I would be very careful about how it was monitored, and I agree with the experts that after two years it should be reconsidered. I am giving the Minister until the end of the debate to change her mind and to accept the suggestion of a review after two years. I am providing a good range of options.

I am again going to criticise the Government, because I would have expected a Health Minister to be present. The two elements are indivisible. The educational element cannot be cut out, and diet is so important that I would have liked the Minister for Public Health —an hon. Lady who represents another Yorkshire constituency —to be alongside the Under-Secretary. There is a joint responsibility, and standards cannot be monitored without a strong health input. The Government have introduced a Food Standards Agency and a Health Development Agency. Most people believe that those two new organisations should be involved in the early evaluation and review of the regulations. Some have also called for full evaluation of the achievement of those two bodies after the two-year regime.

I urge the Minister to change her mind and to back the nutrient-based standard, but if our advocacy fails, we would still want the guidance to be strengthened with the implementation of the regulations monitored and evaluation by the two bodies.

That is my most critical comment on the Government, and I shall move on to matters of common agreement and concern.

The Select Committee is pleased that the Government have accepted much of our report, including the necessity of the whole-school approach to learning about food and nutrition. Some of us would go even further and argue for a more multi-dimensional approach to health and life skills in schools. Some members of the Committee met the BBC's education unit only this morning and looked at some of the amazing educational programmes, including some about life skills, that are being adapted to on-line learning.

Every product —every chair, bench, light, piece of plastic and so on —can be given a life-cycle analysis. We can tell how much energy it uses, where it originated, how it was made, what it cost and what it will cost to dispose of it. A total life-cycle analysis can be made of any material object. Why do we not have a life-cycle analysis of young people? Why do schools not have a fully dimensional approach to teaching young people about a healthy diet and exercise, explaining that smoking and other drugs, early pregnancy, ear piercing and tattooing in obvious places can lead to poverty and difficulty in achieving what most of us would consider a good standard of living? There is an urgent need for the health, food and education sectors to get together and —perhaps with some of the extremely good material that the BBC is providing and planning —to ensure that we have a life-cycle analysis for human beings so that people can learn about the implications of early decisions on the rest of their lives.

Schools should have a whole-school, holistic approach. I have received many letters from people stating that Delia Smith would never have had the enormous success with her "How to Cook" book teaching people to boil an egg if anyone anywhere had been properly teaching children about food and the preparation of food. We are getting to a dangerously low level of activity in the food sector in schools. I know that there is a minimum period —I think it is 12 weeks —but we need an holistic approach that goes right through the school experience, because learning about food and diet is so important.

What is most depressing is to see a young woman becoming overweight —I believe that it applies to young men now, but I did not know that until recently —because she eats too much junk food, and she then takes up smoking to slim. What an awful cycle of bad health that is! I am looking at a great friend and neighbour of mine, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), who has the noxious habit, but I think that he will accept that it is not a good cycle to get into. He may have seen the light since I last spoke to him and given up, but I have my doubts. Young students' life chances are affected by the negative effects of poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, drug abuse and early pregnancy. The Committee's findings highlighted the fact that a child who does not receive sufficient nutrition is a child severely disadvantaged in the learning journey.

One thing that I congratulate the Department on is the concept of a learning journey and the way in which the curriculum has been redesigned. There will now be a rough guide to the learning journey for parents and a map to the learning journey for students. That is brilliant. That is a very modern way of describing the educational process. A child must be well fed, well nourished and well provisioned if he or she is to survive that tough journey. Gaining knowledge is not easy: one must sweat and work with all one's heart and mind. However, those of us who have been lucky enough to undertake the journey successfully know that it is worth while.

Before closing my remarks, I want to answer one or two other criticisms that have been made of our report. Some of those involved in school catering have accused us of too much interference, when they, the experts, have far more knowledge of the food industry. I saw one letter that said "What a cheek, trying to suggest that we should know how to steam fish and boil potatoes". There are some good providers in the food catering sector, but they are not all equally good. Members of Parliament know that. Many of us go to receptions and meals in the course of our work not a mile from this place —usually about half a mile —and we have pretty fair opinions of the quality of catering in the different establishments.

Going round the schools, I found dramatic differences between the really good and the average school meals. There were some schools that, through good management and imagination, provided excellent school meals with diversity and choice, and a good range of vegetables, salads and pastas. The best are very good, much better than the average. I tell the catering partnerships that it can be done, but I acknowledge that good food is often more expensive than poor food. I know that, when budgets are cut, there is a temptation to go back to beans, burgers, pizzas and the dreary litany of ghastly food that so many people, young and old, indulge in. That is not to say that there is no room for fast food. I have four children —three daughters and a son. I used to drive tens of miles to find a Pizza Hut when my son went through a phase of thinking that the Pizza Hut was the only good place to eat. Indeed, we once spent some time in the Nevada desert looking for a Pizza Hut, which was particularly taxing. Nevertheless, we found one —they are everywhere. We are seeking a balanced diet.

If the Government want better food, they cannot ignore the fact that that will mean more expense and a larger food budget for schools. We should not kid ourselves or pretend that all schools can provide a wide range of beautiful, fresh food and a greater range and diversity in an attractive environment. Too often, we saw horrible places to eat. We do not expect adults to eat in horrible places, although during the time that I have been in Parliament I have come across some pretty horrible places for Members to eat in —some are better, but some have a pretty horrible environment.

In general, people have a choice —they go willingly to eat in pleasant and welcoming environments. We must do more to encourage schools to provide the premises that make eating food a pleasurable experience. I realise that that has cost implications. The Government have a significant initiative involving school building and renovation —much work is going on in my local authority, Kirklees, where a private sector partnership is carrying out a massive reinvigoration of school premises, and 20 schools will be affected.

Unless the importance of school meal provision is emphasised, the facilities may be tucked away in a corner or in the oldest, dreariest and least lit or ventilated part of the school, which is not good. The design of kitchens and schools is important.

To return to the point that was made by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), although standards are involved, we also need to move with the times. These days, in order to make food attractive to young people one has to make the places in which they eat attractive, which requires innovation and imagination. One sees that in the high street —a wonderful revolution in our country has resulted in London, Leeds, Huddersfield and Halifax having better food, more restaurants, and more diverse places to eat than ever before. People want to eat in settings that are attractive. If we cannot provide such facilities in schools, we should not be surprised if the lure of the burger bar and the fish and chip shop becomes compelling to schoolchildren. That is how I respond to the suggestion that our approach involves interference by a nanny state.

I shall conclude on the most important point. One's diet in one's early years has a dramatic effect on one's life expectancy and life chances. When I re-read the Committee's report, I was struck by the fundamental themes that run through it. A significant percentage of our population is tragically affected by the poor diet that they choose. Recent medical research shows that the situation has declined rather than improved during the past 40 years. Children get the habit of good food in their early years and at school. Schools are about education, and they should educate students about diet and good food. We should inculcate them with knowledge about the essentials of good, fresh food and the need for a proper diet. We must encourage lifelong learning —that will help children to become healthy adults and, in turn, good and nurturing parents.

Although members of the Select Committee produced an excellent report, they should not simply walk away saying, "We have finished the report. Producing it was a good, cathartic experience." We should say to the Government, "We shall watch carefully to see how you will respond and whether you will incorporate our conclusions in policy commitments." We shall return to this matter time and again. This subject is too important to be left alone.

2.59 pm
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

I really enjoyed this inquiry. We had an interesting visit to a school in Reading and we had our fair taste of school meals whenever we visited schools in the course of other inquiries. We went to Lambeth, Reading and other parts of the country to look at early years provision. Nutrition is very important in early years. I am sorry to have missed the first few minutes of the speech made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), but this issue needs to be addressed from the earliest stages of the education system. The hon. Gentleman asked why it is taking the Government so long to act —five years in all. Typically for this Government, however, they have a five-year implementation period but only a two-month consultation period with the outside world on their proposals. That is a wholly disproportionate effort.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is so anxious for the Government to act so quickly to reverse the previous Government's legislation that removed nutritional standards for school meals.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. I was surprised —although that was tempered by previous experience of this Government—that in the course of a five-year programme, they have allowed only two months for outside consultation. They have allowed five years for implementation because they do not believe that the problem is that pressing. We heard a great deal of evidence that the deregulation of the provision of food had not caused any overall deterioration. The object of introducing new guidelines must be to raise standards.

We must be careful here. We can be forthright in our views about what is right for children. However, all of us who have children —the hon. Member for Huddersfield and I have ample experience —know that they do not always do what one expects. Unless their diet is attractive as well as wholesome and nutritious, they will find their own means of supplementing the food that they are given. It is hard to escape the observation that although the past 50 years have seen a massive increase in the amount of soft drinks consumed by children, which one would have expected to have done a great deal of damage to their teeth, children's dental health has markedly improved. As in all the areas, we can point to good practice. We should, as the report recommends, encourage children to consume healthy liquids as well as healthy foods, but we should not become too precious in our approach to their development in the big bad world.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. I do not want to make a judgment on the point he is making. I simply want to counsel him and other hon. Members on the dangers of associating cause with effect on the question of whether the improvement in dental health is despite or because of an increased consumption of fizzy soft drinks and sugar.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose knowledge of medicine greatly exceeds my own. Indeed, I was implying that that improvement was despite the consumption of these fluids. One must keep the problem in perspective, given that there are other remedies, such as proper dental health care. There was a moment when I thought that the hon. Member for Huddersfield was decrying the fact that children in the 1980s and 1990s discovered baked beans, pizza and chips. Those will always be a part of children's diet. There is little that we can do about that.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Would the hon. Gentleman take it from someone who was teaching before and after the Education Act 1980 that the experience on the ground was of a great deterioration in school meals? Fresh meat and fresh vegetables almost disappeared from school canteens. Does he accept that we cannot encourage children to make healthy choices about food if those healthy choices are not on the menu?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody)

Order. Interventions, however telling, must be brief.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Certainly we saw evidence from a number of sources that the effect of deregulation was not as bad as that. As I implied earlier, the meals that were provided met the nutritional standards laid down at the time, but were often deeply unattractive to children. Many children simply did not consume that gunge. I respect the hon. Lady's specific experience, but we received written evidence from the Local Authority Caterers Association, which says on page 9 of the report: Without doubt the introduction of Compulsory Competitive Tendering has led to some Local Education Authorities saving money on the provision of school meals and updated the systems and methods of production. I will deal with that issue in a moment. Other witnesses told us that, initially, there was a drop in the take-up of school meals because the price went up in 1980, but that was rapidly reversed. In the opinion of most, including the National Heart Forum, it would not be fair overall to say that the quality of school meals deteriorated.

I mentioned the evidence of the Local Authority Caterers Association. One important change that resulted from the introduction of competitive tendering following deregulation was that a great deal of investment went into the production of school meals. Many schools had hopelessly out-of-date kitchens and facilities, many of which might have been regarded as unhygienic. They certainly would have been regarded as such by today's standards.

There simply has not been the scope within the education budget in the past 20 years to meet the significant capital investment and economies of scale that have been undertaken by contractors. We can see the results today. Many contractors have hubs from which they distribute school meals, which means not only that their internal standards can be more rigorously tested and enforced, but that delivery of school meals is much more consistent and efficient than previously.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that contractors in rural areas must travel a lot further.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Indeed. However, in rural areas —which, typically, have much smaller primary schools —a hub from which to deliver meals has induced a great many economies of scale. Small rural primary schools have avoided making the capital investment that they would otherwise have had to undertake, which has perhaps enabled many schools to survive. Therefore, a deregulated system has many advantages.

However, no one pretends that deregulation is perfect. We can always look for improvement. As a member of the Select Committee, I endorse the idea that new standards should be set, because I believe that we now have an opportunity to make improvements, build on the successes of the past 20 years and learn from them. Why should we make improvements? Despite the fact that children's health has been improving overall, poor nutrition has a significant effect on their educational attainment. We took evidence from Dr. Michael Nelson, who says on page 34 of the report: Recent evidence from the US and the UK shows that cognitive function is poor in children with poor dietary status but no overt signs of deficiency, and that intervention to improve diet…results in improved cognitive function and learning ability. There can be no doubt that well-fed children, who have breakfast before they enter class and eat nutritious food during the day, will be more capable of concentrating on their studies. As Members of Parliament, we know what it is like to rush into the House to deliver a speech without having eaten a good meal beforehand.

Schools want to ensure that their pupils have a decent meal. Pressure to ensure a high quality of school meals exists in the local education authority system, which is why the need for new standards and guidelines has not been pressing hitherto. However, we are moving towards a new world. The Government already contemplate more direct funding for schools to purchase provisions themselves. The Conservative party will take that to its logical conclusion and make schools free of local education authority interference in such spending decisions. As purchaser provision reaches school level, more guidance about standards is necessary, but it is also important that schools retain flexibility in choosing how best to deliver a decent school meal.

The National Heart Forum mentioned a national school fruit and vegetable scheme, which the Select Committee looked on with enthusiasm. In its evidence, the National Heart Forum told us, on page 31 of the report: Fruit and vegetables… are one of the main components of the diet where you see huge social class differences with those in social class one eating about 50 per cent. more or half as much again as those in social class 5. This… to an extent, this reflects the social class differences in heart disease and in cancers later in life. If we can develop schemes whereby all children receive their fair share of fruit and vegetables, we will have done a great deal for their physical as well as their educational development.

There is, however, a problem with a fruit and vegetable scheme. In comparison to milk, fruit and vegetables are far more perishable, so any scheme will have to be flexibly developed. It may require Government initiative and incentive, but it will take place at the local level. Schools will, perhaps in collaboration with local farmers, farm producers and food stores, work out their own schemes.

Children must be encouraged to consume what is good for them. It can be difficult persuading those who are entitled to free meals to claim them. Much confusion, as a result of conflicting evidence, reigns on that matter. Some said that children were unhappy about showing that they merited free meals; others disagreed. There are new ways of identifying the children, so they can claim their free meal without it being evident where the meal is delivered. That must be preferable to the old-fashioned systems.

Where there is a high entitlement to free school meals, it may be worth considering converting the cost of the entitlement into a general subsidy for the delivery of meals on the site. That would not mean departing from contracting-out arrangements; once the price of the school meals had been negotiated with a contractor, a standard percentage discount would be applied to make them highly accessible to the children.

The report's main conclusion is that the Government should get on with it. Many who responded to the consultation on the draft regulations and guidance wanted the Government to take action. Curiously, the Government did not consult on one question. Paragraph 24 of the report on the response to the draft regulations, published earlier this month, said: Food vs nutrient-based standards…was not an issue for consultation. The argument about food versus nutrient-based standards arose during the Committee's inquiry. Although responses were not invited on that issue, respondents who volunteered views were split down the middle. More than half supported food-based standards, and the minority, which was nevertheless 20 out of 44, supported nutrient-based standards.

High prices will deter take-up by children, so we must be mindful of the cost of imposing the new regime. A nutrient-based system will be easier to police than a food-based system, because conditions can be built into the contract with the supplier, who could be subject to spot tests. If the supplier failed a spot test, severe penalties could be imposed. That would place the onus on the supplier to meet the standard.

Food-based standards will require more evidence-gathering in the school, and much more debate will take place after the evidence has been gathered. Food-based standards will be more expensive to implement and regulate. The Government should consider the extent to which their food-based approach should be legally enforceable, instead of part of the guidance package given to schools.

The Committee heard that many with experience in school meals felt patronised by the Government's initial approach. It was unnecessary to tell those people how to undertake basic tasks such as boiling an egg or baking a cake. I gather from the latest response that the Government have wisely withdrawn from such excessive nannying of the people doing the cooking.

If the Government are to succeed in responding to the consultation, they must set new standards, use a light touch and only generally educate the schools that will now take the purchasing decisions. That will ensure that the quality of school food is raised and, more important, that the quality of school food consumed is raised.

3.18 pm
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

One of the first debates in which I took part in the House, 13 years ago, was on health and I spoke about the importance of school meals. That subject is dear to my heart, as a Member of Parliament, a mother and a recipient of school meals when I was younger. I welcome the debate and congratulate the Committee on its report. I congratulate also the Government on accepting some of the recommendations, and I will say how I would like the measures to go much further.

A school meal is one of the most valuable services that we can offer children. Even now, it is the main meal of the day for some. We could all visit schools in our constituencies and talk to teachers who would tell us that such a meal is the mainstay for many pupils. For almost 100 years, schools meals have played a vital role in nourishing children, especially those from poorer families. The meals were first introduced in the 19th century, when they were provided by charities. My mother, who was one of 11 children, welcomed the free school meal, which was provided by a charity because she was from a big family; she told me many times that she would have gone hungry without it.

The 1906 Act allowed local government to raise money on the rates to provide meals for schoolchildren. The interest in school meals came about when working-class recruits in the Boer war died like flies; their health was so poor, they could not fight off diseases. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said, the Education Act 1944 was vital; it was part of the welfare state and made it compulsory for local authorities to provide a school meal for any child whose parents wanted to buy one. As a child of that generation, I benefited directly from the measure and so did my family.

During the second world war, school meals were provided for all children as a public health measure. The nation had gone through a very bad period in the 1920s and 1930s and health was not as good as it could be. In 1965, the price of a school meal was fixed at an affordable level, and strict nutritional guidelines for the quality of those meals were standardised throughout the country. Under the 1965 directive, schools also had to provide free school milk for children during their mid-morning break. That seems like an age of enlightenment because, at that time, everyone accepted the case for good public health and recognised that what one ate as a child determined one's health as an adult. There was a consensus about health; that consensus was inherited when we all worked together so closely and so well during the second world war.

We returned to the dark ages in terms of public health with the election of the Tory Government under Mrs. Thatcher. It was an act of unique irresponsibility to get rid of nutritional standards; Mrs. Thatcher, who earlier got rid of free school milk for the majority of school children, was determined to go even further. I do not understand the logic of anyone who applies a free-market philosophy to children's health, but the Education Act 1980 removed the obligation for school meals to meet nutritional standards. We can all talk about freedom, but I want freedom from poor health and from eating junk food. Those are much more important freedoms to give to the nation.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I should be interested to know what the hon. Lady would say to the representative of the National Heart Forum who, when asked in the Select Committee if standards in schools had declined since the previous Government took nutritional guidelines off the menu, said: It is difficult to say, but from some of the latest information we have had from school children, it looks as if it is more or less the same.

Mrs. Mahon

I was a mother with children at school during that period and I know that the quality of school meals went down. My children had previously loved school meals and did not enjoy them as much after the nutritional guidelines were removed. Fast food, fizzy drinks and chips were introduced after 1980; my children were brought up to eat fruit and vegetables and to like a good midday meal. I witnessed a deterioration of the standard of school meals.

Mr. St. Aubyn

There may have been a variation in standards. Was the local education authority where the hon. Lady's children went to school run by her party or another party?

Mrs. Mahon

During the 1980s, the LEA was run by the hon. Gentleman's party, but that is irrelevant. I was active in the public sector union NUPE at the time and as I was on the national advisory committee for women, I represented the school meals staff. I went in and out of schools all the time, so I had vast experience throughout the country of the quality and popularity of school meals. The National Heart Forum may have carried out research, but I have certainly done my own.

I cannot understand how a Prime Minister could have been so irresponsible. Why did Mrs. Thatcher set out —almost deliberately, it would seem —to destroy what everyone agreed was a cheap, efficient and valuable service? I am not saying that it did not need to be modernised or that the menus did not need to be revised —I am all for change. Perhaps we should not be surprised. On taking office in 1979, the same Government tried to bury the Black report on inequalities in health, which was commissioned by the Labour Government in an attempt to identify and offer solutions to the specific health problems experienced by those living in poverty.

It is interesting to note that the Black report recommended free school meals for all children. Sir Douglas Black was quite unequivocal, and recognised the value of the midday meal. I have supported the principle of free school meals throughout my life, and I give the Minister warning that I have campaigned on this issue frequently. In the long run, free school meals would be cost-effective in terms of the health of the nation.

I congratulate some trade unions —Unison in particular —on campaigning tirelessly to put the issue of school meals in the spotlight, and the Child Poverty Action Group has published superb material and carried out good research over the years.

How do we make further progress? The report and its recommendations are moving the debate along, and that is certainly doing some good. I must also congratulate the Government on accepting some of the recommendations. That is to be welcomed, and if we are serious about improving the health of the nation, that is the place to start. We are all sensible enough to know that children need nourishing diets to protect their health.

Reliable surveys have shown that the diets of British schoolchildren are high in fat and sugar, and often low in the vitamins and minerals necessary for healthy growth and development. We can all quote from our favourite survey but, by and large, surveys agree on those points. Scientists and the medical profession agree that the best way to protect against dietary diseases in later life, such as heart disease and certain cancers, is to begin as early as possible. High nutritional standards and enabling children to eat a healthy diet in school are a very important part of that, and I support my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield in his plea for a raising of standards.

For many years, the Child Poverty Action Group has called for the implementation of many of the report's recommendations. In particular, I pay tribute to the Child Poverty Action Group in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney). I have spoken to members of that group and listened to what they had to say. They are very active and have contributed much to the debate. A recent letter from the Bradford group stated: In addition to the reports recommendations — which it welcomes— we would like to see entitlement to Free School Meals extended to children in families receiving Working Families Tax Credit or Disability Tax Credit. Like Unison, it also wants to see action on encouraging take up of Free School Meals and the ending of the stigmatization of children claiming them. That is still the most significant reason why some children do not take up free school meals. I realise that all manner of procedures have been designed to prevent those who do take up those meals from being discovered by their peers, but the truth is that children have a way of finding out such things. If all children received free school meals, we might escape that problem, and I wholeheartedly support the Bradford Child Poverty Action Group's plea.

Finally, I am slightly disappointed that the Government have not gone a little further. I have already mentioned Unison and the Child Poverty Action Group. They gave evidence to the Committee on the question of the low take-up of free school meals, and the attitudes of children and parents towards them. It is a very sensitive response, and I am pleased with it. Similarly, the British Medical Association gave irrefutable evidence that school meals are vital if we are to be serious about the health of our children.

The health of our children is far too important to be left to chance. I give warning to the Government and the Minister that some of us are not going to let this one go. We want free school meals. Will the Minister, at the very least, consider free school meals for the children of people who draw family tax credit? That would be an enormous start.

3.28 pm
Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

I am delighted that the Select Committee report has received so much interest in terms of media coverage and this three-hour debate. I am especially pleased because I proposed the report to the Committee, and I was delighted that it was taken up.

I had three reasons for proposing the report. First, school meals are an important part of a child's day. If one has unhappy children in the dining room, one has unhappy children in the classroom also. That makes a tremendous difference to their learning ability. Secondly, nutrition can make a real difference to learning outcomes, especially among more deprived children. School meals can provide a significant proportion of their nutritional intake, because so many of them do not have a cooked meal in the evening. A hungry child cannot learn. Thirdly, school meals provide an opportunity to the school and to us to teach children about the value of healthy food.

We chose to conduct our inquiry at the time when the Department was working on its draft regulations and guidance for nutritional standards for school lunches. They are a significant development, and a real credit to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. He has been committed to reintroducing nutritional standards for years. I remember him giving that commitment to Unison conferences many times; first as shadow Secretary of State for Health, then as shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment and finally as Secretary of State. He has turned around the situation that the Conservatives introduced when they stopped nutritional standards being part of the important service delivered in schools.

The reintroduction of nutritional standards is a milestone. That is the case whether those standards are based on nutrients or on food groups, as long as the process is properly monitored. One of our recommendations was that governors should monitor the delivery of school meals, and that the Office for Standards in Education should make sure that they do so. As chair of governors at a primary school in London, I regarded the subject of school meals as a very important part of my duty. I was chair of governors at an inner-city primary school with an intake of very deprived children—including a great many children of refugees and of single parents and children living in short-stay housing —and school meals were very important.

We have a worrying legacy, because we are becoming a nation of snackers and junk food addicts. Average sugar consumption has risen in Britain by more than 30 per cent. since 1980. Britain is the proud holder of one title: the fattest European nation. In this country, 17 per cent. of men and 20 per cent. of women are considered clinically obese. How can we break this vicious circle? Schools are already worried about obesity in children. Recent Medical Research Council reports have concluded that today's children are more at risk of developing osteoporosis, heart and respiratory diseases and some forms of cancer than their more deprived parents and grandparents.

Eating habits are learned, primarily, at home. What can schools do to turn back the tidal wave of junk food? As a governor of a school in London and Member of Parliament for a Staffordshire constituency, I am aware of a wide range of provision. The Committee saw some good provision in Reading. However, in my role as chair of governors in a London school, I was alarmed by the way in which school meals contracts went to outside contractors. In such cases, the considerable skills of the school meals staff were undermined. Schools were serving up standard menus, prescribed by these outside contractors.

Instead of Val the head cook serving up her excellent cheese and tomato tagliatelle—a great favourite with the children, especially the vegetarians —she had to cook fish tiddlers and turkey dinosaurs. Turkey dinosaurs taste a bit like chewed string, but they are expensive to buy in, even though they do not really look like food at all —just lumps of substance that have been chewed up and covered in breadcrumbs. Many children never saw anything that resembled natural food and got used to eating a diet of —almost —pre-digested mush that would have been more suitable to a one-year-old child than to a growing young person.

The situation in rural Staffordshire is different. Staffordshire caterers provide marvellous Staffordshire oatcakes, filled with cheese, which are very nutritious, and good-quality meat dishes. Perhaps this is because there are beef farms producing excellent beef, and dairy farms producing excellent milk. People are used to eating real food —although, of course, huge amounts of chips and burgers are also eaten.

Primary schoolchildren are a more captive audience; they are less likely to vote with their feet and leave the dining room than secondary school pupils. If we are to change eating habits, we must start with the youngest children. As a nation, we are not very interested in good food. In most other European countries, family cooking and dining out represent the norm. In France, good restaurants are full of children; they are often very young, but well behaved and enjoying real food. They eat smaller portions of their parents' food, and the restaurants encourage parents to bring their children, so that they can enjoy that experience.

In the United Kingdom, food is often cooked in a microwave and rushed down by children sitting in front of the television. That is a way of filling up with food, rather than enjoying it. Sitting down to eat with classmates is an important communal experience for schoolchildren. It gives them the opportunity to develop the social skills that, sometimes, can be sadly lacking.

When we visited Reading, we found that one of the pupils' complaints was that children who brought in a packed lunch were not allowed to sit with the children who were having school meals. That creates many problems. It encourages children with packed lunches to eat their lunches quickly and go outside, rather than enjoy eating with their classmates. Children might be encouraged also to tell their parents that they would rather have a packed lunch, because they can sit with their mates. The Committee recommended that school governors should ensure that there is enough space to allow all pupils to eat together, even if it has to be in several sittings. The shortness of the lunch break may present problems, but it is important not to segregate children. I believe that children may decide not to have school meals because they cannot sit with their friends.

The challenge that we face is how to wean children off instant energy foods, such as burgers, chips and sweets, and build in fruit and vegetables. One suggestion, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), was a national fruit and vegetable scheme, building on existing good practice. The Committee recommended such a scheme in the introduction to the report, and I am pleased that the Government's response was positive.

We said that the Department for Education and Employment should work with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to secure an expanded intervention stocks disposal scheme, so that we could use the mountains of surplus apples and pears to encourage children to eat fruit at school. Most children—certainly my 13-year-old daughter —are unlikely to choose an apple rather than an inviting pudding, so the fruit should be offered at break times. It is particularly important for teenagers who do not have breakfast to have a piece of fruit at break time to help them to carry on with full attention until lunch. Therefore, I hope that we can introduce that scheme. I hope that the Minister will be able to update hon. Members on the progress being made on the MAFF and DfEE initiatives. The intervention stocks disposal scheme clearly would be only a small part of a programme to improve diets.

Many of those who would benefit most from a nutritious school meal are missing out—the number is estimated to be more than 300,000 —because they do not claim their entitlement to a free school meal. The Select Committee backed Unison and the Child Poverty Action Group in calling for research into the reasons for the low take-up. I am pleased that the Government have responded positively to that recommendation too.

I want to see a similar campaign to the pensions take-up campaign, in which we are encouraging pensioners to take up the minimum income guarantee. Such a campaign should be conducted in schools and at benefit offices to encourage parents to claim free school meals. The children of parents on working families tax credit are not entitled to free school meals, but I hope that we can ensure that such families will get them for their children, as well as those who have not claimed.

Schools can adopt many strategies to remove the stigma attached to the take-up of free school meals. In primary schools, many pupils pre-pay for their school meals, so it is not such a problem. In general, the teachers collect the money or it is taken to the school office, and no money changes hands at the counter. However, we should encourage secondary schools to introduce a swipe card, so there is no way of knowing whether pupils are having a free school meal or not.

In Reading, we saw some excellent food when we visited a local school. I was amazed how easy it was to pick out the pupils having free school meals, although it was for the best possible reasons. A paying child could go up to the counter and choose six doughnuts. We heard about one child who had parental support for choosing six doughnuts for his lunch. Pupils on a free school meal had to have a balanced lunch, so they had to have a vegetable, a main course item and a pudding. However, that meant that they were picked out, which clearly was not sensible. I would like that school to encourage all pupils to have a balanced diet. I appreciate that there is a problem, because some pupils might object and might leave the dining room empty. However, I hope that we can overcome the stigma attached to free school meals, even if the arrangements are introduced for the best possible reasons.

We have an opportunity to make a significant impact on the quality of school meals and to turn round the diet of our school pupils. If we do not, we will store up massive health problems for the future. There must be a middle way between girls who starve themselves to achieve the waif-like figures of fashion models —which led to the body image summit—and the fast-food junkies who are making the UK the obesity capital of Europe.

Several hon.


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Three more Back Benchers want to speak before the winding-up speech. Hon. Members are being very attentive, so I am sure that they will bear in mind that if there is discipline we shall fit everyone in.

3.45 pm
Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North)

I welcome the report of the Education and Employment Committee. For far too long, the school meals service has been the Cinderella of children's education, yet it plays a vital role because in feeding the mind, one must feed the body as well. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) mentioned the Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906. That came about because, in the early 1900s, Bradford council had the temerity to introduce school meals. In a spirit of malice—there is no other word for it—the then Liberal Government said that it was illegal and that the council could not do it. The council went to court and won its case, which resulted in the 1906 Act.

Bradford was also the first local authority to introduce pre-school and after-school meals, which is an aspect that is ripe for development. In the list of evidence submitted to the Committee, I was pleased to see evidence from the dietician's department of our local hospital, which has played an important role over the past 20 years in trying to maintain nutritional standards, despite Government efforts.

I come from a generation that, perhaps unwittingly, benefited enormously from the 1945–51 Government, who introduced measures such as national health milk, orange juice and cod liver oil. One cannot overstate the contribution that diet makes at an early age to people's health in adult life, in relation to bones, teeth, cholesterol levels and the heart. That is why nutritional standards are so important. One cannot over-regulate for that, and deregulation should not even be on the agenda.

In due course, there will be 25,000 individual providers of school meals instead of 140 local authorities. I am worried about how to keep tabs on that. I know head teachers in my local authority area who have been jumping for joy at the prospect of school meal budgets being devolved to the school, because they see opportunities to extract money from that. By working with relevant food contractor suppliers, they will be able to do so. There is a real danger that the devolving of budgets, with the best of intentions, will have a negative effect.

We live in a society with a fast-food culture. I personally think that McDonald's is the enemy of the world. I can say that here, because I cannot be sued for libel. My six grandchildren —there is another one on the way—love McDonald's, but there has to be a balance. Once a week is probably all right; every day is not on.

Over the past 30 years, we have seen enormous changes in eating opportunities. In my city, there are Chinese, Thai, Indian, Italian and Caribbean restaurants. There is even the odd fish and chip shop left. People's tastes and opportunities have changed, and children have been exposed to those new influences. There is no need to put dull, stodgy food on the table to give school kids a balanced, nutritional and healthy meal; it can be tasty and enjoyable. I am old enough to remember the time when rice was a pudding. Nowadays, nobody knows what rice pudding is or how to make it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) suggested that the right setting in school can contribute immensely to children's social and personal development. Much has been said about stigma and whether it exists. About 40 years ago, I was receiving free school meals, which was the worst experience of my life, bar nothing—I have not lost an election yet, and that might be worse. A bowl of sago was placed in front of me and the head teacher stood over me and told me that the state had paid for that bowl of sago and that I would stay there until I had eaten it. I could not stand sago and, to this day, I can smell it at 100 yd and become nauseous. Such experiences may not be as frequent in schools now, but they still exist and they turn people off.

We should be worried that some 35 per cent. of all children who are entitled to free school meals are not receiving them. Somewhere, someone is suffering, because those children come from the poorest families. If they are taking money from the family budget to spend elsewhere or are receiving meals by other means, that is a failing. For many years, I have been involved with the Child Poverty Action Group and during the past couple of years I have been involved locally with its take-up campaign on school meals. The Tong school in Bradford is a progressive school in most matters, but it did not realise how discriminatory it was being until it became aware of our campaign. Its deputy head teacher wrote to me stating: We recognised the stigma still attached to the receipt of the pre paid tickets and stopped separate queueing. The letter continued: Students, school staff and families are delighted with the improved provision, and we now feel we are catering properly for all the pupils who need, and deserve a satisfying mid day meal. The letter also stated that the take up of free school meals increased by 25%. We now have a regular 100% take up, of the pupils in school, who are entitled to the meal. That is a progressive school with a good head teacher and a good governing body who understand the world. Yet those practices had existed for 20, 30 or 40 years. Sometimes it is necessary for someone outside to look at what is happening.

It is worrying that 35 per cent. of children entitled to free school meals are not receiving them. The problem involves practices, different coloured dinner tickets and different queues. Kids are extremely sensitive to being made outsiders within their own environment. There is discrimination and we must recognise that.

I turn to the wider social exclusion agenda. Commendably, the Government have a target to eliminate child poverty and the thrust of that policy is to get parents into work. By and large, people are better off in work than on benefits. Calculations will show that someone who works 20 hours a week will receive this much and be that much better off, but they never include the fact that the right to free school meals is lost. That means £20 to £30 a week for someone with three children and those families, even with parents in work, are poor if they were entitled to that benefit. There is a deception.

It was wrong when the right to free school meals was removed in the Social Security Act 1988 for the children of parents on income support and when that right was abolished in terms of family credit. A notional calculation was made and when questions were tabled to the Treasury, the replies explained what those notional calculations were. However, that meant nothing to people. What matters to people is that if their children suddenly stop receiving free school meals, they must find £20 to £30 a week from a low wage. If we are serious about abolishing child poverty and about the welfare-to-work agenda, that bullet must be bitten. The measure would cost between £350 million and £400 million, which is peanuts. It is 2 per cent of the amount we got for the mobile phone licences. If we are serious about child poverty and welfare to work, that is the agenda that the Government must grasp.

About 200,000 people are employed in school meals services up and down the country. Admittedly, most of them are part time. But there is a tremendous job-creation opportunity in the school meals service if it is developed properly. There was a time when 60 per cent. to 70 per cent. of children stayed for school meals. It is now down at about 35 per cent. Where are they going? Most parents work, so where are those kids going at lunchtime? It is all right if they are 14, 15 or 16 but seven, eight and nine-year-olds are leaving school at lunchtime. What dangers are they being exposed to?

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax mentioned the Black report in the 1970s and how it was ditched and quietly buried. Another report was published in 1988—the Acheson report on health inequalities. It showed that, in 20 years, nothing had changed. Health inequalities were, if anything, worse than in the 1970s. A fundamental element of health inequality is the school meals service and the amount of money that people can spend on food. That is why the agenda must include the working families tax credit and whether people will have enough money to pay for school meals.

3.56 pm
Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), I was not a member of the Select Committee when the report was prepared, so I claim no credit for it. It is an excellent report and I wanted to say a few brief words because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), I believe that this country used to have a proud and honourable tradition of providing good school meals. We should return to that tradition because, as has been said many times already, it is important for children's health and their educational prospects,

The Select Committee received plenty of evidence that good school meals are vital for children's health and should be an important part of our public health agenda. The National Heart Forum has been quoted several times already. It said that the risk of developing chronic disease is established early in life, making a focus on children and their diets essential to an effective prevention strategy. It estimates that a third of serious heart diseases and a third of cancers in this country can be attributed to poor nutrition. That is the scale of the problem that faces us. We also know that a diet high in fats and sugar is causing obesity. Not only do many of these problems begin in childhood, but they are overwhelmingly the diseases of poverty.

The Child Poverty Action Group pointed out that the diets of families on income support were far less likely to be adequate than those of families not on benefit. It quoted the 1999 survey by the Local Authority Caterers Association, which pointed out that 22 per cent. of parents still rely on a school meal to ensure that their children have a balanced diet, and 60 per cent. of parents consider it a vital part of their children's diet.

Good school meals play a vital part in ensuring that children can learn effectively. They should therefore be seen by the Department for Education and Employment not simply as a peripheral issue, but as an important part of raising education standards in schools. The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) quoted Dr. Nelson's evidence that poor diet had been shown to impair cognitive functions. That could be put right by simple nutritional intervention.

The BMA also gave evidence to the Select Committee to show that children who were anaemic had a lower IQ. That could be equivalent to at least a grade at GCSE. One does not need to read the academic evidence. Anyone who has seen children in schools knows the effect that a lack of food has on their concentration. Any teacher, and I was one for 10 years, knows which children have not had breakfast. Any teacher can see a child's concentration dip mid-morning if he or she has not been adequately fed. We want to put that right.

The deterioration that took place in the school meals service over 18 years of Conservative government was an attack on the poorest in our society. It affected not just their health, but their education and life chances. It hit at their chances of getting themselves out of poverty through education. The Education Act 1980, which abolished nutritional standards for school meals, was one of the most retrograde steps in both health and education policy. I must tell hon. Members who dispute that that some of us were there at the time, and we watched children's diets change.

Before the 1980 Act, a school meal was by and large the main meal of the day not only for children, but for teachers as they were fairly low paid. Young teachers often relied on it. It changed almost overnight from fresh vegetables and decent meat to frozen pizzas, the chicken dinosaurs that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax described, chips and pasties. School children ate those foods day after day. It was made even worse under the Social Security Act 1986 when 500,000 children lost their entitlement to free school meals. It was legislation by spite, which has never been put right. Children paid the penalty for that, which is why I welcome the Government's response to the report and the fact that they have accepted many of the Select Committee's recommendations. It is an important part of the antipoverty agenda, but much more needs to be done.

As the Select Committee said, there needs to be a whole school policy on teaching about healthy eating. We must try to ensure that children learn to deal with advertising and to assess properly the messages that many advertisers give them about food. My hon. Friend the Minister will appreciate that we must start teaching young people to cook in schools again. The decline in cooking has been one of the most awful things that has happened in the past few years. People do not learn about food and healthy eating.

When one in nine children go without breakfast, and one in six do not go home to a cooked meal, it is appalling that the take-up of school meals, particularly free school meals, is falling. The reason is clear from the evidence: there is a stigma attached to taking free school meals. The Select Committee heard a lot of evidence about how that can be overcome by using tickets, smart cards and so on. I hope that the Government will give clear guidance to schools now that they have devolved budgets on how they should administer free school meals, so that children are not deterred from taking them up because of the stigma. I also hope that they will reconsider their attitude towards hot meals, because children are far less likely to take a free school meal—or their parents want them to—if only cold meals are provided. A hot meal is far more attractive and provides better value for money.

More important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) said, many of those who are not currently entitled to receive free school meals should be. The Acheson report recommended the extension of free school meals to children whose parents are in receipt of working families tax credit as an important way of improving health. The cost would be about £400 million, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said on 4 April. That substantial sum must be weighed against the cost of treating diseases that arise from nutritional deficiencies, and against the loss to this country of educational attainment. It is cheap at the price, and the Government should accept that.

I also want to speak about the educational and social value of children eating school meals. That is so important, but the environment in which they eat is often not conducive to learning social skills. Dining rooms are often too small, so children are rushed in and out in shifts. The decoration is often appalling because of years of neglect of school buildings. The crockery and cutlery is often abysmal. I pay tribute to school meals staff who have struggled to provide a good service in those conditions. Many of them are good at providing decent school meals, but also perform valuable social functions within a school. Children often provide dinner ladies with information that they would not give to their teachers. They are often the first to pick up children's problems.

I also pay tribute to schools that have tried to improve the atmosphere in which their school meals are delivered. The William Beamont community school in my constituency has set up a proper dining room with tablecloths and flowers on the tables, proper crockery and cutlery. Children have to earn points in the school's behaviour management programme in order to eat in it—and they queue up to do so. That shows that young people respond when they are given proper facilities.

Much more needs to be done to make school dining rooms more attractive. I cannot complain, because we have recently received funding for a new dining room and kitchen in another of my constituency's schools— the Beamont infant and junior school—but many schools still need new buildings. I have seen the Government's response to the Select Committee's recommendation on using the standards fund to improve school dining facilities, and I hope that the Government will also take advantage of the new opportunities fund.

We must update school meals. We must provide a proper environment in which to eat and we must ensure that children eat properly. The Government have made an excellent start, but they must regard it as the beginning, not the end, of a continuing process that is so vital for children's health, well-being and education.

4.8 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

It has been an interesting debate on an interesting report. I shall be brief and not reiterate what other hon. Members have said. We appreciate the need for joined-up government for the operation of schools and the health service, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will confirm that she is working with her ministerial colleagues. I am not sure whether the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), was right to ask for a member of the Department of Health team to be present today, but I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will inform Ministers in other Departments about what was said here about taking matters forward.

I shall not speak for long on the nutritional aspects of the report, because other hon. Members have covered them well. However, as an aside, I shall remind my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) of the lobbyist who spoke to us on a recent trip to the United States with the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. The current criticism of McDonald's in the USA is that it is not fast enough. People who go to McDonald's are arguing for even more convenient food. The time between placing an order and receiving that order is now down to 42 seconds, which says something about humanity. The argument is that people who go to McDonald's want to spend more time with their families and therefore need their food quicker. It would be better if they sat down with their families to eat, rather than tried to place the convenience factor higher up the agenda. We all face such problems as parents and as people interested in the operation of our schools.

One important aspect of the report has not yet been touched on. I shall tread gently in talking about it, because of the accusations about a nanny state and about new Labour's views on telling people what to do. The operation of school meals is important to the evolution of food policy. We have no food policy, because the Government have been wary about the subject. My friend Tim Lang, a professor at Thames Valley university, argues that we will always have problems associated with eating until we have a proper debate. It is time that we had that debate, so I will take it forward, even if I do so gingerly.

It is little known and perhaps less understood that many rural local education authorities, based on the remaining county council areas, still have county farm estates. In my authority in Gloucestershire, I have pushed for those estates to be used to provide food for our children. For far too long, we have centralised the food chain. Now, there is a big demand for a return to local production, and county farm estates could help to develop that. Of course, that is difficult, because we have grown used to obtaining produce, whether it be bananas, oranges or other foods, at the drop of a hat. However, our farms can grow many vegetables that could be provided to children. Dare I say that we could understand and rediscover seasonality? Many of us grew up with that, but it is no longer part of people's dietary habits. People are now supposed to have everything whenever they want it.

Choice and the availability of provision are important issues that we cannot underestimate. There is something of a secret garden about the provision of food through the school meals service. I learned about that through my involvement with the Meat and Livestock Commission, which rightly argued with local education authorities and contractors for the restoration of beef to school menus. I tried to do what I could to help that process. I was involved because of my association with agriculture, and my involvement was interesting because it must have been the first time that a long-standing vegetarian had argued for the reintroduction of beef. Life is full of interesting asides. Some LEAs have been a bit negative and restrictive in their unwillingness to take beef back on to the menu. They should give children the choice. We should advertise the fact that our beef is the safest in the world wherever we can.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) has just returned. I concurred with much of what he said, but I disagreed about the suggested advantages of contractualisation and of producing food in one place for distribution elsewhere. The problem is that the facility is often lost to the community.

School canteens can be a useful community facility. If we have pre-school and after-school provision, those facilities—I do not like the word "canteen"—could be important in providing children with meals that would not otherwise be available. Those facilities are so important to rural areas, because they are the main areas that have lost them. That has led to two problems. First, there is less choice, because the meals that are brought in are not as varied as they could be. Secondly and more particularly, there are problems with free school meals, which we have often discussed. My experience is that it is even more difficult now to prevent segregation. It is blatantly obvious which children receive free school meals. If there is only cold provision, it is clear that the kids with the sandwiches laid before them are the ones who receive free school meals. That is absolutely awful.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that if village schools had had to find the capital required to upgrade their school kitchens to meet modern requirements, it would have been too great a hurdle for some of them? I suppose that if those schools could not provide any meals, they would ultimately have had to close. The hon. Gentleman has described the disadvantages, but the current more efficient and economic approach means that there is still an option to have a village school.

Mr. Drew

I do not disagree entirely, but I am arguing that school canteens should not have been the first sacrifice. When schools need additional space to do other things, it is often the canteen facility that has to go, always because of the capital costs. I challenge my hon. Friend the Minister: the Government have said in response to the report that they want to use the new deal for schools money to help catering facilities. I genuinely hope that that will be the case and that we will move away from this nonsense that the food facility can be sacrificed. There is a downside to that.

I agree entirely with what a number of my hon. Friends have said, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North, about the importance of passported benefit. The kids who do not take up free school meals because of the problems often live in rural areas. I am not saying that such children do not live in urban areas. I accept that some of this is apocryphal, but we all know—I have seen it—that kids are sometimes listed on the register as receiving free school meals and their names are called out for that reason. As I have said, those meals are sometimes provided in a different way, and children are made to sit in different places.

That situation has improved, and it had to do so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) said, teachers are much more sensitive and people are more attuned to the problem than they were previously. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North said, a child needs to experience such discrimination only once to remember it for the rest of his life, as my hon. Friend has remembered it. Quite simply, we must not allow that to happen. Anything that we can do to prevent such discrimination must be done.

This is a good report, with a lot of ideas. I hope that the Government will treat it seriously. For all sorts of reasons, we should provide children with decent school meals. For many children, the meal that they receive at school is their only substantial meal of the day. That is true in rural and urban areas. That situation may be getting worse instead of better, because people are less likely to eat together and know what their children are doing. A lot of good could come out of the report, and I hope that the Government will push it along. Criticism may have been voiced that that process is not moving quickly enough. My hon. Friend the Minister should take that on board, and I am sure that she will.

4.18 pm
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

I, too, must confess that I was not a member of the Select Committee when the report was prepared. I joined just after the current Chairman, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who spoke so eloquently. I watched the process of publication with a great deal of interest. I would have supported the report in its entirety, had I been on the Select Committee at that time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) was on the Committee. He is disappointed that he cannot be present, but he is speaking at an education conference in Harrogate today. However, he wants to join me in paying tribute to the members of the Education and Employment Committee, and to the previous and current Chairmen, for their work.

It was interesting to hear occasional attacks on the provision of fast food. As an eater of such food, I may be on the defensive, but there is no such thing as bad food, only a bad diet. On that basis, I hope that I can continue regularly to purchase fast food from the Burger King outlet at Paddington station, as I did on the way here today. The right attitude to nutrition should not be "ban this, ban that": it is all about balance. Whenever I consume a burger product, I try to eat several tangerines on the same day. It makes me feel better and full.

Mr. Sheerman

The hon. Gentleman knows that I, as Chairman, have sometimes referred to his hyperactivity: all is now explained.

Dr. Harris

I get criticised for hyperactivity and sometimes for the opposite in the Select Committee. A novel development has taken place at Thameside school in my constituency, of which I am a governor. The breakfast club for pupils—many of whom are on free school meals, come from deprived backgrounds and are not getting hot breakfasts—was sponsored by the local franchise holder for Burger King. He may regard me as one of his best customers, but he sponsored the club without any wish for publicity. I hope that my reference to Mr. Silver of the Oxford banqueting group will not be picked up by the media, but I nevertheless pay tribute to him. Sides should not automatically be taken on the issue.

The hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) made an excellent contribution to the debate on free school meals. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to apologise for the actions of the Liberal Government in 1906. I look forward to further opportunities to apologise for more up-to-date approaches with which he has difficulty. Both he and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) mentioned the loss of free school meals when people move from welfare to work as a contributor to the poverty trap. I have noticed that problem in my constituency work too. The costs of £300 million to £400 million will give the Government pause for thought, but they may be maximum costs. It may encourage greater welfare to work by removing the poverty trap though, sadly, there may not be a full take-up of free school meals.

The allocation of funding would be redistributive. Perhaps we are not supposed to use that term, but the hon. Member for Bradford, North recognises that the Government could extend free school meals to people on working families tax credit, which would be highly redistributive. Recommendation 7 relates to the importance of taking steps to encourage school lunches to be taken together as a school community. Both the hon. Members for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) and for Warrington, North spoke eloquently about that. I concur that it is an important part of social training. The Select Committee examined how care and education in the early years can encourage social behaviour. Meal times provide an excellent opportunity for such behaviour —the sharing of milk and other provisions during the part of the meal when people take from a communal source.

It is important that children who bring packed lunches to school, be it for religious reasons, preference or food allergies, should not be made to feel different and forced to sit apart. The report itself and contributions today point out that the size of the school dining hall can restrict that feeling of community. I saw the Minister raise her eyebrows when the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) said that it was the legacy of previous decades of underspending on capital that our school buildings are not fit for the purpose in many cases. There are other drives to deal with the problem of inadequate school dining halls.

Mr. St. Aubyn

The period of underspending to which I referred was before the deregulation of the school meals system in 1980. It was a period under the Lib-Lab pact when there were budget cuts for schools around the country.

Dr. Harris

That is very amusing, but those of us who listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech understood that the 20 years to which he referred were 20 years of Tory spending plans: 18 years under Tory Governments and two years under this Government. That trend has been reversed in the past two years, which is welcome. At Dunmore primary school in my constituency, a good proportion of the school dining hall has had to be taken over by desks for the computers that it has been given or has raised funds to buy. Excellent teaching is done there, but it further reduces the capacity of the dining hall and it affects the school's ability to be a community.

On the subject of packed lunches, I should like to draw attention to the excellent work on food allergy carried out by the Fair Play campaign in Harrogate, and in particular by Mrs. Johnson who has corresponded with my colleagues and me. She is concerned about the need for more allergy awareness among catering staff and the provision of adequate first aid for the very rare, but serious, anaphylactic attacks that can occur. She also wants to ensure that children, who because of allergy, particularly peanut allergy, bring a packed lunch when many of their friends have a school meal are not excluded or isolated. I pay tribute to her and the campaign. I hope that the Minister will pay careful heed to it.

There have been many helpful contributions about recommendation 3, which is about the low take-up of school meals and the wish to find mechanisms at least to research the reasons for it. Anecdotally we feel that it is because of the stigma, although the Select Committee found conflicting evidence about that. One can see why. I welcome the Government's acceptance of that recommendation and I look forward to hearing what funds they are putting into research on why that happens and on the identification of best practice, such as smart cards, to improve matters.

It was a helpful coincidence that the Government held their summit on body image for women and young girls yesterday. I entirely support that campaign. Some of the media criticism about some aspects of that campaign has been unfortunate. Clearly a balance needs to be struck, because part of the concern that forms in girls' minds about weight may result from the warnings about eating fatty foods. Prevention is better than cure. Our concerns about the health of young people refer to the particularly obese. Many of those affected by eating disorders, particularly the epidemic in bulimic disorders, are of normal weight. The perception of body image is at fault.

It is important that hon. Members recognise the fact that concern about obesity must be consistent with concern about body image problems. Manufacturers could play a role in achieving that. There is a profusion of diet this, diet that and diet the other. Why is Diet Coke not called sugar-free Coke? Pepsi managed to call its drink Pepsi Lite, a name not associated with diets. Pepsi Max is actually Pepsi Min in terms of some of its sugar and calorific content. Therefore, manufacturers can attract young people without appealing to the fad for diets.

I agree with the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew): many local education authorities have been too sensitive to public opinion on food content. At the first sign of trouble over beef, which was probably unwarranted, and because of the slowness to reassure about beef content in diets, political gestures were made and motions were passed. I may not be fully supported by all members of the Committee in my view that there is little scientific basis for similar action taken over food with genetically modified ingredients. However, I am not saying that there is no scientific basis for fears about the effect on health of the currently commercially available food with genetically modified ingredients.

Like other hon. Members, I shall focus on some of the history. The Tory Government's response to the 1982 Select Committee report that recommended that they introduce minimum standards enforceable by LEAs was remarkable. They said that even if recommended standards were promulgated there is no evidence that they would result in pupils eating the food so prescribed: previous experience with national standards showed that much of the food provided was wasted. That view was based on the idea that a child can be taken to good food, but she cannot be made to eat.

If one substitutes the idea of providing good nutrition with the idea of providing good teaching, one can see that such an approach is nonsense. All Governments need to uphold minimum standards of education. Not every child will learn as much as one hopes, but minimum standards and adequate training are a basis for levering up quality. It is illogical to say that we should not bother to set minimum standards because some children will not benefit.

On the subject of logic, I will expand on the point that I made in an intervention on the hon. Member for Guildford, who showed complacency on dental health. Dental health has improved, mainly through fluoridation—I know that merely by saying that, I shall receive a series of letters, many from members of my party—but despite that improvement, children's teeth still have severe problems, particularly in non-fluoridated areas.

Charlotte Atkins

I am glad to say that when the hon. Gentleman's constituents who are opposed to fluoridation write to him, he will be able to turn to the York university study, which will prove that fluoridation improves dental health.

Dr. Harris

I am in no doubt that fluoridation not only improves dental health, but tackles the problem of inequity in dental health. Young children from poorer backgrounds are particularly liable to have bad dental health. That is partly diet related, as dental health studies comparing areas of fluoridation and non-fluoridation have shown. The dental health profession is in no doubt that the increased consumption of soft drinks rows against the tide of improved dental health. As dental health has generally improved because of fluoride in toothpaste and fluoridation of water, we must be careful not to allow children in non-fluoridated water areas to have high-sugar diets.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is more important that children consume sufficient fluids during the day, or that they consume only fluids that will not damage their teeth, even if they drink too little of those fluids?

Dr. Harris

Clearly, a balance must be struck. The same applies to the argument cogently made by the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands about fruit. Given a choice at lunchtime between fruit and pudding, those without a guilty conscience will probably choose the pudding. However, people do not feel that need for choice at break time, and if something is offered, it may be taken up. I think that those fair concerns can be tackled in that way.

I share the concern of many hon. Members who have spoken and many members of the Committee, including the hon. Member for Huddersfield, about the Government's five-year delay in introducing standards. I think that those standards will be welcomed, but five years is a child's experience of primary school. There is an argument for prioritising child health issues, not only because of the health gain, but because people would otherwise miss out on an opportunity —a snapshot while children are growing and developing. The same arguments apply in education.

Hon. Members are used to the Government saying that they cannot do everything quickly, because they do not have the money. They find that hard to understand, particularly given the austerity of Labour's first two years in government. However, this is not a cost-related policy. It could have been, and could still be, introduced more urgently.

The Government's rejection of a nutrient-based approach to standards is regrettable, and I question whether the explanation in their response to the Committee's report is logical. In the words of one respondent —presumably specifically selected and possibly selectively quoted —nutrient-based standards can be a tyranny of numbers. However, we must not run scared of numbers, because numbers and data are the basis of a scientific evidence-based approach to policy. That is why I support the Minister and her colleagues in trying to obtain data on body image and people on television. It is no good seeking to obtain numbers and data on one issue that has caused criticism, while regretting that approach on another.

I think that the Government are guilty of selectively quoting again in the draft regulations and guidance. In paragraph 24, which the hon. Member for Guildford mentioned, the Government point out that food versus nutrient-based standards was not an issue for consultation: Many responses were, however, generally supportive of the Government's intention to introduce nutritional standards for school lunches and… raised no objections to setting food-based standards…Of these, over half (24) expressed explicit support for food-based standards, and the minority (20) for nutrient-based standards. Surely the Government do not claim that that is a statistically valid sample. It is a selective sample of people who chose to respond. It would take only an advocate of food-based standards, perhaps someone in their office, to encourage five respondents to state that preference for that majority to exist. If an issue has not been consulted on formally, I question whether it is valid for the Government to mention it. If the evidence went the other way, they would be reluctant to do so.

In general, there is more to welcome in the Government's response than to challenge. Therefore, in welcoming the Select Committee's report, and with the qualifications that I have made, I look forward to the Minister's reply.

4.38 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I join those who have congratulated the Select Committee on its choice of subject and on the report, which has eventually been prepared. Going back to our early lives, we are all familiar with the subject, which is of everyday importance and of great importance to many people.

We have had a good debate on the report. I congratulate the present Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) on the way in which he opened the debate. He certainly showed that he had done his homework on this subject even though he was not the Chairman of the Select Committee when it conducted the inquiry. Subject to the one reservation that I have already entered, I do not want to revisit the past, even the 1906 Liberal Government. I am happy to refer to that Government because they were returned with an extremely large majority, but became divided and were followed by a long period of Conservative predominance.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield opened the debate in a thoughtful, constructive and balanced way. As he made clear, the Government have accepted a number of the Committee's recommendations, but by no means all of them, and they have accepted them with a varying degree of commitment. The hon. Gentleman described some of their response as disappointing. It is important to consider the action that the Government propose to take in the light of those important recommendations.

There is a divergence of view between the Government and the Select Committee about the central recommendation contained in the conclusion of the report. In paragraphs 15 and 16 the report recommended that the compulsory element of the regulation should be based on scientific, nutrient-based guidelines, rather than the food-based approach taken by the Government. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) has commented on that, and in his opening remarks the Chairman of the Select Committee said that it was very disappointing.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon spoke about the nature of scientific-based evidence. I note that the Select Committee preferred the evidence of the expert witnesses who appeared before it under the auspices of the National Heart Forum. They represented the health interest, and were in favour of the nutrient-based approach. We should bear in mind the Chairman's opening remarks about the link between diet in childhood and illness later in life, particularly coronary illnesses, cancer and other significant illnesses.

In the course of her evidence, Maggie Sanderson, the secretary of the National Heart Forum and a lecturer in nutrition, said that the food group approach, preferred by the Government, would be difficult to monitor. There appeared to be little in it to regulate the amount of fat and sugar in the menus, and the high fat intake among schoolchildren meant that obesity was increasing. Those are important points, given that that comes from an authoritative and expert source. The Government owe the Committee and the House an explanation of why they chose not to prefer the evidence that came from the health experts.

Whether one takes the nutrient based or the food group approach, we should remember that what is important is what is eaten, rather than what is provided. It is accepted on both sides and in the evidence that it is no use providing healthy food if it is not eaten. We are all familiar with the sight of children, especially older children of secondary school age, opting out of any form of school lunch and leaving the school often to visit shops where what they buy is not always good for their health.

The Select Committee was also reminded that some children who opt for school lunches leave most of it. I quote briefly from the evidence of Ms Pat Fellows of the Local Authority Caterers Association who described how we cooked all this nutritional food all morning, and we spent the afternoon putting it in the pig bin. The evidence from LACA contains some useful suggestions on the marketing of school catering and the ways in which schools could provide healthy and nutritious meals that appeal to children. The Committee deserves to be congratulated on opening up the subject. I hope that it can be taken forward.

I do not want to go through all that evidence, or through all the evidence and the recommendations in the report. In the time available I want to stress three points arising from the report and the Government's response.

The first is free school meals, a subject that has been raised by a number of hon. Members. Free school meals are likely to be particularly important for the nutrition of children from lower-income families, which is a major consideration. It is of concern that nearly one in five of the children entitled to free school meals do not exercise their entitlement, although it may be their one opportunity in the day to have a hot and nutritious meal. The Committee was right to reflect on that concern.

It is not clear why that should be the case. Hon. Members, among them the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), have suggested a number of reasons for that from personal experience. He and the other hon. Members who have said that it might be because of the stigma that attaches to free school meals may be right. I do not know whether that is the reason, and I know that the evidence presented to the Committee was conflicting. However, what is important is the Committee's recommendation that there should be research into the attitudes of children and their parents to claiming their entitlement. In the light of this debate that is a valuable recommendation.

I note that the Government accept the recommendation in principle. However, they do not give a commitment to funding such research. The hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) said that the Government's response was slightly disappointing. I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to go further than that when she winds up the debate, because such research is justified. Life is a struggle for children and their families when the parents are on income support, and it is a shame if they do not take advantage of the opportunity of free school meals. We must discover why they do not, as it may have major implications for the rest of their lives.

My second point is the vexed question of persuading children to eat fruit and veg. We have heard a number of contributions on that, and particularly on the national fruit and vegetable scheme, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) and is contained in the report. We know that children from all social backgrounds do not eat enough fruit and veg. The Committee recommends that greater efforts should be made to provide an attractive choice of fruit at break times. That is welcome. It also recommends that the Department for Education and Employment should work with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to introduce an expanded intervention stocks disposal scheme as the basis of a wider national fruit and vegetable scheme for schools. I note that suggestion, which I believe should be debated and possibly explored. In their response, the Government say that they accept the recommendation in principle, but it is noticeable that they give little detail about the use of intervention stocks in the way recommended by the Committee.

The Government's response has come more recently than a written answer on 19 July 1999 from the then Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who said that it is hoped that it will be possible to distribute fruit to schools in the coming season, following a recent change in the rules which allows transport costs to be claimed.—[Official Report, 19 July 1999; Vol. 335, c. 436W.] It would be interesting to know whether any fruit has been distributed to schools in England and Wales since that reply was given. We understand that last month the Scottish Executive announced a pilot project, apparently based on a Finnish scheme, to provide free soft fruit for children at meal times in Scotland. Have Ministers any plans to do something similar in England, with fruit from European Union intervention stocks or any other source? That leads me to observe that a massive amount of such stock is disposed of in ways other than for the nutrition of children. Last year in the EU, 350,000 tonnes of apples were disposed of at a substantial cost to the taxpayer, without doing anyone any good. One wonders whether there is scope for a common-sense investigation into this matter.

Thirdly, it is important to note the Committee's recommendation that the Government should not be over-prescriptive in their approach to implementing minimum nutritional standards for school lunches. It would be all too easy for prescription in this area to go over the top and become impractical and unrealistic. There is a balance to be struck, and my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) made some important comments about that. He made the case for realism in persuading children to eat the right things.

The Minister admitted that many respondents to the consultation found the Government's proposals too detailed, and said that the Government would bear that in mind. We hope that they will bear in mind the need to avoid over-prescription, and that some common sense can be brought to bear in this matter. We need common sense when deciding how to persuade children to eat healthy meals.

As the Chairman said in his concluding remarks, which I endorse, there is also a need for this important subject to be kept under investigation. This was a brief report on an important subject, and there is a case for keeping the matter under investigation to see what progress is being made. It is incumbent on the Government to give us a response to these points and, perhaps, to take a little further their response to some of the recommendations made by the Committee.

4.51 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Jacqui Smith)

I am pleased that I ate a healthy and filling lunch before coming to this debate, because I shall clearly need all my energy to respond to the important points that have been raised. This has been a good debate, and I should like to congratulate the Select Committee on its work in gathering the evidence and producing a report on a matter that we would all agree is important. We all want a nation of healthy young people and the education service has a key role to play in promoting health among schoolchildren in a number of ways. As hon. Members have said, the knowledge, skills and attitudes learned at school stay with us for life and affect our health for life.

Naturally, I also want to do what I can in partnership with other Departments, agencies and external partners to remedy the deficiencies. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Select Committee, that I have had detailed discussions with colleagues from the Department of Health on the recommendations on school meals and on a wide variety of other issues that I hope to have time to discuss later. I say to my hon. Friend, with a feeling of mild sadness, that the nature of joined-up government means that we can talk to each other as Ministers, and we do not necessarily need to line up in order to show that we are taking a cross-governmental approach. However, I assure my hon. Friend that we are.

I shall refer first to the need for compulsory standards for school lunches. In our consultations, there was overwhelming support from all quarters—including nutritionists, caterers and parents —for the reintroduction of nutritional standards for school meals. We believe that, in taking this action, we are trailblazing in the public sector, and putting back in place an important factor for children's health.

School meals are part of a wider picture of promoting better health, in which the education service has an important part to play. The standards, which are to be enshrined in law for the first time in almost 20 years, signal the importance that the Government attach to the health of our young people. I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) that this is not only a health issue, but an educational standards issue. I accept the argument that well-fed young people are more likely to be well educated and well behaved.

On compulsory standards, many catering contracts already specify healthy food requirements, and many catering staff do a marvellous job in terms of the meals that they provide. I should like to take this opportunity to commend the work that goes on in many of our kitchens and catering companies and to thank their dedicated staff. However, practice does vary, and the new standards will ensure that a national minimum standard throughout the country is established in regulations.

As the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) pointed out, we must not forget that school meals are optional. However, to suggest that enforceable standards could result in children not eating their meals is the wrong conclusion to draw. In my experience, parents who provide their children with a packed lunch do so because that is the only way to guarantee the standards that they expect. The standards that this Government will put in place will enable certainty about the nutritional value of school meals, which will help to boost take-up and provide an important opportunity for the school meals service.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Committee Chairman, chided the Government about the timetable for introducing nutritional standards. He is right to say that May 2002 is our ultimate, published target, but he will be pleased to learn that we will lay regulations in respect of standards this Session. They will come into force in all education phases in April 2001, together with the new duty to provide paid meals. To help school caterers prepare, we will issue comprehensive guidance in the autumn. However, it is important to get matters right, and I should point out to those hon. Members who criticised the extent of the consultation process that we consulted on two separate occasions. The results of the first consultation were published in April 1999, and the results of the second—which hon. Members quoted today —were published recently.

Hon. Members have rightly pointed out that the way in which the standards were designed has proved controversial, and has given rise to the question of whether they should be food based or nutrient based. It is important to note that these are the first standards for school meals in 20 years, so it is not surprising that the form that they should take has been the subject of much debate.

The debate stems from the common objective that standards need to make a difference and improve nutrition for our children. The standards should provide a sensible basis for the caterers—who will be responsible for their implementation—to plan school meals and bring about an overall improvement in children's nutrition. They must also fit with other healthy eating messages given out by the Government in general and schools in particular.

We want flexible standards that will make a difference in schools. We believe that food-based standards will be easier for caterers to understand and interpret when planning menus, purchasing supplies and preparing meals.

Mr. St. Aubyn

In describing the standards, will the Minister explain how much the compliance costs associated with her system of regulation will add to the cost of the typical school meal?

Jacqui Smith

We believe that, in respect of monitoring, a food-based standard is more efficient than a nutrient-based standard. That conclusion was supported by the response to our consultation exercise, and I shall explain our thinking on that in a moment. More importantly, it is easier for pupils to identify with that—it fosters a wider understanding of food and is more meaningful to them.

Although we are to introduce minimum standards, schools and authorities will be free to exceed them if they choose. The proposed food-based standards, which are widely used by the Government in our messages about the need for a balanced diet, will be able to accommodate any nutrient-based standards that are already in place in local education authorities and schools. We are not trying to dictate or prescribe best practice, although we have clarified what should be promoted in schools. LEAs and schools should decide what works best for them, but they should operate within a minimal legislative framework that is understandable by all and, importantly, enforceable and deliverable.

Several people who lobbied me suggested that nutrient-based standards—in particular, those that were devised by the Caroline Walker Trust—are often used as an ideal to which we should aspire. I applaud the trust's good work; its guidelines contain important information and targets. Caterers will have to comply with our regulations. It will not be good enough simply to aspire to meet them, because those who do that will be breaking the law. The regulations must be designed so that caterers can comply with them.

Several hon. Members mentioned consultation. We have consulted widely on the draft regulations and the guidance on nutritional standards for school lunches. That consultation process showed that a majority supported the use of food-based standards. During the first round of consultation, we asked for comments on the use of food-based, rather than nutrient-based, standards.

The caterers who provide the school meals service are—naturally, one might say—more enthusiastic about the use of food-based standards. The school cooks who they employ do a terrific job, but they are not necessarily trained dieticians. Dieticians also support the use of food-based standards. For example, one dietician commented: They are best simply because everyone understands them. That is not to deny the importance of essential nutrients in a child's diet. I earlier discussed how our standards would fit in with a broader Government message about healthy eating. We believe that the use of food-based standards complements the Government's healthy-eating messages, which emphasise the need for balance and variety of foods in the diet, rather than specific nutrients. When making decisions about health diets, that is the easiest way to make the relevant choices understandable. That lesson has clearly been learned by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who has an admirably balanced diet.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) raised a point that is contained in the Select Committee report, suggesting that our original proposals and guidance were too prescriptive and patronising. We have heard that criticism and reviewed the terms in which the regulations and guidance are couched. As I said, we want the regulations and guidance to make a difference, but they should do so in a way that involves flexibility for caterers and builds on current best practice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield rightly said that it was important to monitor and review the success of standards. We shall introduce light-touch standards. Monitoring is important, but that, too, should be light touch. For example, our guidance to caterers will include simple checklists to help them ensure that they are meeting the standards. Local education authorities and schools will ensure that caterers comply with the standards set out in their contracts.

Dr. Harris

I read with interest that part of the Government's response that deals with this issue. It states: Light touch standards will require light touch monitoring. Why? I would have thought that the lighter the standards, the more important it is that the monitoring should be tough, to ensure that the standards are met.

Jacqui Smith

As I shall explain, the monitoring process has a range of prongs. I am sure that the Select Committee will agree with our approach, as we are emphasising the need for schools to concentrate on raising standards in a non-bureaucratic way. Anything that puts extra pressure on governing bodies and schools would be unsatisfactory. However, I recognise the importance of monitoring. Although we shall prescribe light-touch, day-to-day monitoring for local education authorities in respect of caterers, our guidance will include also details of the recommended weekly nutrient content for school meals. Schools, LEAs and caterers will decide how to monitor school meals, using those guidelines. As a result of my meeting with the National Heart Forum, I believe that we might be able to encourage schools and caterers to use information technology packages to help them. I am keen to pursue that.

The Government want to make a difference to children's nutrition. When the new standards have settled down, we shall undertake an evaluation of school meals, using sample school surveys. That could include nutrient analysis of food offered and consumed, as we recognise that food will be nutritious only if the children actually eat it. We would then consider the regulations again, in the light of the outcome of the survey. We want the standards to make a difference, but it must be possible for the people who deliver school meals to implement them. We will also work closely with the Food Standards Agency and other relevant bodies.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) for her important contribution to the report. She referred to her own experiences in this area. I, too, was a governor and helped to determine a school meals contract. I taught and, as the mother of a six-year-old boy, I have a strong personal interest in the food that he will receive at school. My hon. Friend referred, rightly, to the way in which the expertise of school caterers can be used to provide healthy but enjoyable food that our young people will eat.

My hon. Friend gave the lie to the accusation made by the hon. Member for Guildford that healthier school meals necessarily would be more expensive. We do not believe that. My hon. Friend gave examples that showed that it was possible to provide healthy meals, such as cheese and tomato tagliatelle, curry and rice, shepherd's pie, pizza—which can, in fact, be healthy —cauliflower cheese and baked potatoes with various fillings. All of those are enjoyable, nutritious meals that can be provided by imaginative school caterers.

We have made significant progress with regard to the fruit and veg scheme. I have spoken to colleagues from the Department of Health not only about how we develop the MAFF scheme, but what we need to do, taking a common-sense approach, to ensure that children are able to eat more fruit and vegetables in school in a way that does not impose bureaucratic pressures on those schools. I assure hon. Members that we are actively working on plans to take that forward.

My hon. Friends the Members for Halifax, for Staffordshire, Moorlands, for Warrington, North and for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) eloquently expressed the importance of free school meals to many of our children. New nutritional standards will ensure that all children are able to have healthy and enjoyable school meals. Children from less well-off families, including those who receive free school meals, are likely to benefit most from new nutritional standards. Those standards thus play an important role in eradicating child poverty and in dealing with the issues that affect children from some of our poorest families.

A strong argument was made for the extension of eligibility for free school meals to the children of parents receiving working families tax credit. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North recognised, working families tax credit contains a provision for free school meals. People across Government will have heard the passion with which that case was made. However, it is an expensive option, and one that any Government would need to consider carefully.

Mr. Sheerman

My hon. Friend will probably cover this point, but the real passion arose because the Department could easily take the step of putting out an edict of anonymity in relation to free school meals. The Department already sends messages to schools and local education authorities, so why cannot there be such an edict? Would not my hon. Friend be proud if she managed to achieve that quickly?

Jacqui Smith

My hon. Friend is right. I was coming on to the important point that, for a variety of reasons, not all eligible pupils take up their free school meal entitlement. I am sure that hon. Members will therefore be pleased that, following the Government's response to the Committee's report, we are now providing funding for a research project with the Child Poverty Action Group. The project aims to identify the reasons for low levels of take-up of free school meals in some schools and high levels of take-up in others—in other words, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North pointed out, to identify the actions that schools can take to increase their take-up. The project also aims to highlight successful strategies for models of good practice employed by schools that are successful in increasing their take-up.

I assure hon. Members that the research project aims specifically to offer practical evidence on ideas to school meals providers on ways to maximise free school meal take-up. We intend that the project should be completed by February 2001, when we shall disseminate its results. It will be an important contribution, and a link to the Government's target on reducing child poverty.

Mr. Sheerman

I am sorry to press the Minister, but she did not answer my question. Research is not needed to prove that anonymity is important in terms of free school meals. She could achieve that much sooner than 2001; it could happen very soon indeed. Research is not necessary; many people whom we know in our constituencies have personal experience of the humiliation involved. If that could be eradicated one week or one month quicker, so much the better. Common sense should tell us that it is wrong to mark such people out.

Jacqui Smith

We already make it clear to LEAs that schools and LEAs should be taking such action to ensure that all children who are eligible to take up free school meals do so. One point that arose from the Select Committee report, as hon. Members have mentioned, is that there was no consensus in the evidence about the best way of increasing that eligibility. It is not enough simply to issue edicts from Sanctuary buildings. We must find examples of good practice and ensure that those are put into operation.

Dr. Harris

The Minister should understand that there are two issues. It may not be clear that the marking out of people reduces the take-up of school meals, but there is merit, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said, in not marking people out, regardless of what the research shows to be the effect on take-up. Surely, the Minister could agree to look at that.

Jacqui Smith

I shall certainly look at it, but if anonymity is not delivered because of different queues, raffle tickets and so on, schools should have the common sense to realise that they should not be doing that. We have told them clearly, but there may be a range of other issues. It is not helpful to jump in before the research backing and the good practice guidance is available to enable us to go further in ensuring that children who are eligible for free school meals take up their entitlement.

Mr. Clappison

I do not want to take the matter too much further, but is there not a case for the Department simply issuing an edict, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield suggested, to look at every way possible in which to disguise the identity of children who receive free school meals? Surely the Minister's Department could consider whether it is possible to issue general guidance along those lines without going into matters that may be subject to research.

Jacqui Smith

I shall certainly consider ways in which we can ensure that those messages get through to local education authorities and schools. We are not in the business of issuing edicts, but we are in the business of collecting good practice and ensuring that that is disseminated to schools.

I want to move on to whole-school approaches to healthy eating, which was helpfully raised by several hon. Members. Of course, school meals do not exist in isolation and we need to educate and encourage our children to be able to make informed food and life style choices. My Department is involved in a number of initiatives. We work closely with the Department of Health and we shall work with the Food Standards Agency and with external partners to promote good health and broader messages about food throughout schools.

For example, the Chairman of the Select Committee eloquently argued that we need to bring health and education together in the way in which we work in schools. I am sure that my hon. Friend knows about the close collaboration between the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment on the healthy schools programme, which now operates and is funded throughout England. The programme brings together health authorities and local education authorities in local partnerships to support schools in meeting standards laid out in the national healthy schools standard.

A key theme in the guidance on the standard relates specifically to healthy eating. It suggests that schools that will be recognised under the standard—all schools now have access to the support to enable them to do so —should present consistent, informed messages about healthy eating. For example, food on offer in vending machines, tuck shops and school meals should complement the taught curriculum. Various examples suggest that that is working.

Newall Green high school in Manchester, for example, decided as part of its local healthy schools work to improve the atmosphere in school during lunch time by boosting the uptake of healthy food in various ways. Pupils were surveyed, school kitchens were refurbished, teachers were encouraged to eat with pupils and organisers were trained in positive behaviour management. That returns us to the important points that were made by my hon. Friends the Members for Staffordshire, Moorlands and for Warrington, North about the relationship between behaviour, a child's social development and what happens during school meals.

Local sports celebrities were brought in to talk to pupils about the importance of healthy eating, and many positive messages were promoted, not least of which was the suggestion that healthy eating in pleasant surroundings can be fun. The results went beyond the school's expectations. The school cook could confirm that children were eating more healthy food options, and parents and children were impressed by the changes that resulted. We work closely with the Department of Health and various companies, including Kellogg's, to promote breakfast clubs in schools. The national curriculum gives lots of room to schools to promote healthy eating.

Helen Jones

Will the work that the Department for Education and Employment is carrying out with the Department of Health include a cost-benefit analysis of the effect of extending free school meals to families who are on working families tax credit? If we know the cost of treating future diseases, it should not be too difficult to carry out that analysis.

Jacqui Smith

Those arguments have been heard across Government. This matter is not solely the responsibility of the Department of Health and it could not be delivered by the joint effort of that Department and the DFEE; as my hon. Friend knows, Treasury decisions are also involved.

My hon. Friend stressed the importance of teaching children how to cook. That often helps children, when they become adults, to prepare healthy food. We are introducing food to the curriculum in various ways, including the Government's focus on food, which has given pupils hands-on experience of cooking with professionals. The programme has used a fully equipped bus, which has visited more than 100 schools and prepared food for a reception at No. 10 Downing street. The cooking for kids initiative, which has benefited more than 10,000 children since its launch in February 1999, is also significant. However, we still have further to go.

We should come up with new ways in which schools and external agencies can help children to learn the important skill of cooking. A whole-school approach to healthy eating and to life style is vital in the promotion of good health among schoolchildren. I hope that that is demonstrated by the initiatives in which we are participating. We want to play a full part in the new national task force for children's nutrition, which was recently announced by my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health.

The hon. Member for Guildford had a bit of a cheek, dare I say it, when he emphasised the importance of increased capital spending on school kitchens. However, he has a point; we should compare this Government's approach to capital spending with that of the previous Government. We are already making money available through the new deal for schools. Kitchens and dining areas are important because children are more likely to eat a school meal if the dining area is pleasant and the kitchen provides good food.

Under the new deal for schools, the Department is currently funding 42 projects that involve a major kitchen or dining area component. That investment is worth more than £12.5 million, and 117 schools are benefiting.

To give just one example, in an infant school in Halton, new deal for schools money is funding the provision of a new kitchen, serving directly on to the dining area. The school, which has a high proportion of pupils on free school meals, will now be able to provide all its pupils with hot food in comfortable surroundings, whereas previously meals had to be imported from a nearby school.

Despite the significant increases in funding, it will not be possible for all schools to receive that amount of investment. Sometimes even a lick of paint or imaginative decoration by the children can make all the difference to a dining area. I agree that we must give children good surroundings if we are to encourage them to take their school meals.

Mr. Drew

The key point is access to the community. I know that there are health and safety issues and environmental health issues, but if the facilities could be made more widely available, I am sure that we would all have the benefit of the virtuous circle.

Jacqui Smith

My hon. Friend is right. He will know that we are trying to promote access to school facilities for the community in a range of ways.

I welcome the opportunity that the debate has given us to talk about school meals and food issues in the education service generally. The ground-breaking introduction of nutritional standards for school lunches provides an exciting opportunity for the education service, in tandem with the opportunity provided by the delegation of school meal budgets. Caterers and all those involved in the provision of school food can use this opportunity to review and update their services. It is a focus from which I hope many new initiatives will spring, such as many of the good suggestions that have been made in the debate today, to improve the health and educational chances of our young people. I hope and believe that this work will herald a new, modern era for school meals.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Five o'clock.

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