HC Deb 04 February 2004 vol 417 cc296-304WH 3.30 pm
Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab)

Over the past few months, there has been a great deal of public discussion about children's diets. We hear a lot about the large amounts of fat and sugar that they consume in fizzy drinks and snacks; quite rightly about the effect of advertising upon children; and about the likely health problems that will occur in the future.

However, we do not hear enough about the one area that the Government can directly influence, which is the provision of school meals. The decisions that the Government take now, and the regulations that they decide to adopt, have potential to improve the diets of our young people—particularly the poorest among them—and to set a pattern of healthy eating that we hope would continue. The money that is spent now on school meals could save us a great deal of human suffering, and cost to the health service, in future years.

Yet, as a country, we have failed to give this issue enough attention. We know what the facts are. The recent Food Standards Agency report on children's diets showed that mean energy intakes were lower than the average requirement in almost every age group from four to 18. It noted that diets were high in fat, salt and sugar but very low in fruit and vegetables. Sadly, none of that is new. The then Education and Employment Select Committee's report on school meals in 1999 quoted the Acheson report on the need to improve children's diets. It also quoted evidence from the National Heart Forum that showed that the propensity to develop diseases was set in early life, thus making intervention in children's diets essential. In addition, it cited evidence to show that cognitive functions, which are impaired by poor diet, can be put right by simple interventions, such as providing breakfast.

That is a truism; the importance of the issue has been known about since the 19th century, when charitable people started to provide school meals for children. We knew so much about it that in this country we enshrined it in statute in the Education Act 1944, which made local authorities provide a meal that was suitable in all respects as the main meal of the day.

We are now dealing with what happened as a result of the Education Act 1980, which was introduced by the then Conservative Government. That broke the consensus on the importance of school meals and ended almost all central control on the issue. The result of that was disastrous: staff were de-skilled and heated up pre-prepared foods; school kitchens closed down; and, in some cases, only sandwiches were available for children who were entitled to free school meals. There were fewer and fewer of those children as the social security regulations were tightened up. It was a prime example of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, for which many young people still pay the price.

The result of that was that when this Government first came into office in 1997, they faced an appalling situation with regard to school meals at a time when the whole education system required massive amounts of public spending. I commend what the Government have done since then. There are schools—Beamont junior school in my constituency is a very good example—that received great new dining facilities. The national school fruit scheme, which provides fruit for young children in school, is very popular in my constituency. The healthy schools initiative encourages schools to examine healthy living and healthy eating in the round. Those are commendable first steps, but they are only first steps. There is still a lot of work to do.

Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend accept that other agencies have an equal responsibility in this; for example, television advertising, which force-feeds young children the desire to have some of this rubbishy food, and supermarkets and food manufacturers, who stuff food with the three S's, salt, sugar and saturated fat? The issue is much wider than just school meals, although I accept my hon. Friend's point that that is a starting point.

Helen Jones:

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Because of those problems, we need to focus on what we can influence and control: school meals.

There is no use lecturing our young people about healthy eating if we do not provide them with good meals. Part of the problem with school meals, as the recent report from the Soil Association showed, is that we value our young people's diet so little that we do not spend much on it. Average spend on the ingredients of a primary school meal provided by local authority caterers is 35p. For those provided by private contractors, the spend can he as low as 31p. That leads to our young people being fed a diet of highly process food, mechanically recovered meat and lots of additives.

One does not have to be a devotee of organic eating—I freely confess that I am not—to be worried about some of the ingredients that are highlighted in the report. For example, there was a so-called fish product that contained only 35 per cent. fish; the rest was breadcrumbs, rusk, raising agents and water. A cheese product contained only 30 per cent. cheese, and again was filled up with breadcrumbs, additives and so on. Under current regulations, those two items counted as fish and cheese and as the protein part of a meal. That is a particular problem because so many of our young people are not eating adequately outside school.

I asked a group of young people at a secondary school in my constituency to keep food diaries for a week. I have them with me, and I hope that the Minister will look at them later because the results are horrifying. I commend the young people for their honesty and bravery because it would be easy for them to be singled out; lest anyone try to do that, I do not think that their diets are any better or worse than those of most youngsters in my constituency.

The results were startling. Many of the young people went to school without breakfast, although some got breakfast or a mid-morning snack in school because the school provided it. However, the mid-morning snacks were usually nothing that we would recognise as nutritionally adequate. It was what the young people ate for lunch, however, that was the most worrying. I shall give some examples; chips and gravy, pie and chips and cheese pizza, often accompanied by a fizzy drink. They ate lots of snacks, crisps and chocolate, but very little fruit or vegetables in school. Although many parents provided both breakfast and a hot meal at night, there were still examples, in the 21st century, of children who went through the whole day without a proper meal; they were merely snacking on bits. That is an indictment of our society.

When I discussed that with the head teacher, what was most worrying was that it was often the children from the poorest families who were eating the most inadequate school lunches. Although the diaries were a snapshot and not a scientific survey, they reflect what we know from other national surveys. The Acheson report highlighted the difference in nutrition between different socio-economic groups, and clearly showed that poorer people have a lower intake of fruit and vegetables and, hence, dietary fibre. I know that there are complex reasons for that, but I return to the idea that it is our duty to influence that part of the food chain that we are able to, which is school meals.

There are some examples of what can be done even under current regulations. I visited St. Paul of the Cross primary school in my constituency, where Jane Gallagher, who is the cook there, and her assistant, Sylvia Thomas, talked to me about how they cooked fresh food for the children and encouraged them to try new dishes. I am grateful to the primary school children who told me bluntly, in the way that children will, what they liked and what they did not. They liked things such as baked potatoes, pasta and fruit. That gives the lie to what people often tell us, which is that children will only eat highly processed food. All parents know that the truth is that children will eat what they are used to, and that it is our jobs as adults to get them used to eating decent meals.

I accept that things are much more difficult in secondary schools. There are two problems that we need to tackle there. First, too many schools are still using vending machines as a source of revenue, and they are usually stuffed with unhealthy products. We must give much firmer guidance on that to head teachers and governors. Secondly, pricing policies in school canteens make it almost impossible for those on lower incomes to eat healthily. All of us who have teenage children know that they are always hungry. For those on a limited budget, there is a temptation to eat things that fill them up quickly and seem to offer a lot for the money, whether or not they are healthy. That is particularly true of children who are entitled to free school meals.

The guidelines of the Department for Education and Skills state that a free school dinner ticket should buy a two-course meal and a drink. I know of very few secondary school canteens where that could be achieved. The value of a school meal ticket varies considerably between local authorities; in some cases, it can be as low as 90p. Government research on improving the take-up of free school meals showed that, and I congratulate the Department on commissioning the research. In every school surveyed, the average spend was higher than the value of a free school meal ticket. Even in the school with the highest-value meal ticket—£1.65, I think—the set meal of the day when the research team visited was fish and chips, which cost £1.75. That could not be afforded, even without vegetables or a drink. Therefore, it is no wonder that many children who are entitled to free school meals end up eating sandwiches and snacks. In another canteen the set meal of the day was sausage roll, gravy and chips with a drink. What price healthy eating in those circumstances?

We need to start turning that around by providing better meals for our children. That would fit in with the Government's overall policies because it would improve provision for everyone while having a particular benefit for the poorest children. It would benefit working parents, who would know that their children were getting a decent hot meal at lunchtime, so they do not have to rush home to cook one at night. It would also radically improve the diets of the poorest.

A number of things must be addressed. First, the quality of the meals that we provide could be radically improved were we to move away from the current food-based standards for school meals, which allow the serving of highly processed products that count as meat, fish and so forth. We should adopt the nutrient-based standards that were recommended in the 1999 Select Committee report and which are still recommended by many experts. That would, with one step, improve quality.

Secondly, the value of free school meals must be addressed. It is untenable that a national benefit, the entitlement to which is decided on national criteria, should vary so widely from one local authority to another. We must at least set a minimum standard of entitlement to free school meals that is sufficient to buy a two-course meal and a drink.

We also need to grasp the nettle with regard to hot meals. We must accept that many schools are still not serving hot meals. Some local authorities still only serve sandwiches, and we must decide whether that is acceptable for our children. I suggest that no other European country would accept it; we need to start to end that. It can only be done gradually. For example, we all recognise that school kitchens have to be reintroduced. If we are going to defuse the health time bomb that faces us, we have to think seriously as to whether we value our children enough to re-introduce kitchens.

I also suggest to the Minister that we need to remove the disincentives in the system for schools to encourage the take-up of free school meals. As a school's budget for free meals can be delegated by the local education authority at the beginning of the year, increasing the take-up of meals means that the school ends up funding the deficit itself. That is clearly nonsense. I do not believe that the finest minds in the DFES cannot find a way round that.

I also suggest to the Minister that when people claim any other benefits—such as income-based jobseeker's allowance or income support—that might entitle them to free meals, we need some joined-up government so that they can make sure that they apply for meals there and then. As well as that, we need to remove the stigma that is often attached to children receiving free school meals. We need to give schools much stricter guidelines on that. As the evidence shows, many parents abandon free school meals, even after they have applied for them. Evidence also shows that many who are entitled to do so do not apply in the first place; many abandon them after they have applied, either because their children are singled out or because the quality of the food that they can purchase is so poor that they would rather try to provide something themselves. We must seriously try to ensure that heads and governors appreciate that it is part of their duty to consider school meals, which are vital not just for children's health, but for their educational attainment.

As I said, we need to do something about the proliferation of vending machines in schools. It is time for a bit of central direction on that, because local decision making is clearly not solving the problem. The truth is that we cannot keep blaming the children and we cannot keep blaming their preferences. We are the adults and we have to steer our children in the right direction. I hope that in the future we face up to that as a country and face up to our obligation to start providing decent school meals for all our children.

3.47 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband)

Ministers usually start licking their lips when an hon. Friend starts talking about the need for centralisation, but I thought that that would be an inappropriate response. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), not just on securing this debate, but on her continuing campaign to ensure that the Government are held properly to account and make best use of advice and ideas from as far and wide as possible to get this serious issue right. I applaud the work that she has done on the issue and applaud also the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard). As members of the Education and Skills Committee, my two hon. Friends are a formidable duo. I fear that if we do not give them full answers today, we may find the Education and Skills Committee turning its fire on us.

I agree 100 per cent. with what my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North says about the value of high quality school meals, the necessity of meals for youngsters to develop properly in education, and the fact that that matters twice over in our poorest communities and for our poorest youngsters. That must surely be right. She spoke with all the passion of a mother and a former teacher in putting that case and I concur wholly with what she said.

I want to use my remarks to address both the supply side of the issue, what we are doing to raise the quality of meals provided, and the demand side, what we are doing to shape children's choices about what they eat. In the process, I hope to show that all is not bleak. I hope that I will be able to give some examples of outstanding provision, not in my hon. Friend's constituency but elsewhere. We should not neglect the fantastic work that is done by many cooks in communities and at local education authority level throughout the country.

The context for this is consistent evidence that children are growing not just taller but heavier; that many are consuming too much fat and eating too much sugar; that a significant number do not get the right amount of vitamins and essential minerals; that, like some parts of the adult population, significant numbers of children are getting fatter; and that those four items are especially the case in poorer communities. I was not referring to my hon. Friends. They are certainly not evidence of the burgeoning girth of the adult population, but significant numbers of children do suffer from that.

By way of introduction, my hon. Friend raised some interesting points about the take-up and in-year registration of free school meals, which sounds like an issue that we should consider. She may be interested to learn that the Department for Education and Skills, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions, which is key to getting things right, are working to develop a new one-stop application process at Department for Work and Pensions offices. That will ensure that all parents are aware of the free school meal entitlement as soon as they register for the benefits that she described, and that they are not deterred by the plethora of forms that must sometimes be completed, but are fast-tracked through the process. We will ensure that my hon. Friend is informed as soon as we know of any results on take-up from that initiative. At the moment local education authorities have quite a lot of discretion in administering the free school meals package. Different authorities do that in ways that either maximise or fail to maximise the take-up. We do not want to venture into greater central direction of such matters because of the need to maintain stability and predictability in funding, but we shall keep the situation under review.

My hon. Friend did not dwell at length on the new nutritional standards for school lunches that have been in place since April 2001. I am sure that she would agree that those standards, which were the first for more than 20 years, were a big step forward. There was a wide debate in the run-up to their introduction. The consensus among a range of local education authorities and health and food groups was that, to be effective, the standards should be based on the familiar balance of good health diagram, which sets out the right types and proportions of foods, rather than nutrients, that make up a balanced diet. That was designed to ensure that the standards were more practical to implement and that children—the ultimate consumers—would understand them.

We are also honour bound to monitor the implementation of that commitment. An exercise is being conducted between the Department for Education and Skills and the Food Standards Agency, which is obviously an important body, to ensure that the standards are adhered to. Through that study we shall be able to gather a multitude of contextual information that was not previously available, such as the purchasing power of a free school meal ticket. The study that is under way will enable us to consider that in rather more detail than before and will help to put in place the most effective systems throughout the country.

We are also looking for information about the different catering contracts around the country, the visibility of certain types of food and the impact of other lunchtime activities. There is obviously a need to hold youngsters in the school—some people think it would be simpler to shut the gates and keep them in, as is done in some schools. My hon. Friend mentioned the quality of the dining rooms and the need to ensure that facilities are adequate, which is important. She mentioned the co-operation of the pupils from William Beamont high school in Warrington in work on children's food diaries, which I look forward to reading carefully. I hope that learning what is popular will inspire me as well as horrify me. We are also keen to ensure that the environmental aspects that my hon. Friend mentioned—sustainability and organic issues—are properly considered in that context.

Positive provision exists around the country. There are downsides to a decentralised system of 150 local education authorities, but there are also some upsides, which are embodied by the experience of Icknield high school in Luton. I can only describe the chef who has been employed to provide meals there as the Jamie Oliver of the free school meal world. He was trained as a chef at the Savoy hotel. Pupils at Icknield can look forward to boeuf bourguignon, mussels and pheasant, chicken teriyaki, seafood paella and fresh bread baked daily on the premises. Before hon. Members start running to Luton for their lunches, he also offers tasters of unfamiliar foods to encourage people to try something different. There are downsides to relying on this sort of inspired leadership at local levels, but it does show what is possible under the current rules, and it might be an inspiration to others who are providing similar services. Maybe we can do a better job of making the experience of Icknield high school more widely understood.

That relates to the supply side, but the demand side is also important. My hon. Friend referred to the frustration of seeing a range of foods on offer, but only those that fall into her cheese pizza and chips or sausage roll and chips category being chosen. I want to run through a few relevant aspects of Government intervention in this area. First, the national curriculum itself is important in this area. Food education in both primary and secondary schools teaches children about the importance of healthy eating and an active lifestyle. They also learn how to prepare meals. In the science curriculum in primary and secondary schools children study basic nutrition and receive information on the range and type of foods available, their nutritional composition, the function of different nutrients in contributing to health and well-being, digestion and human dietary and nutritional needs. This puts a particular onus on science teachers, but also teachers in other subjects such as personal, social and health education, which is important in this area.

Secondly, my hon. Friend mentioned in passing the growing schools initiative, which encourages teachers to use the outdoor classroom as a valuable, regular and integrated part of pupils' day-to-day learning, growing food in a school's own grounds.

A third aspect is the national healthy school standard, to which a significant sum of money is now attached—nearly £6 million has been spent every year since 2000. The standard was launched in 1999 and offers an opportunity to ensure that healthy eating is firmly embedded in a school's ethos. I do not have with me the details of how many schools have now signed up to the standard—as with Investors in People, it would be interesting to see how widespread it is—but I will write to my hon. Friend with details of numbers and of what we are doing to publicise this whole school approach to healthy eating.

Fourthly, there are design and technology issues, because that part of the curriculum allows pupils to learn about food and nutrition, and this is a central part of the food technology strand of design and technology at GCSE and beyond. I was struck by the fact that food technology is now taken by 100,000 14 to 16 year-olds a year. Ofsted reports that excellent work is to be found in these classes throughout England. My hon. Friend referred to the particular challenges for secondary-age pupils—I do not think it was only her son who was a challenge in this regard. The popularity of food technology, a subject that was not available when I was at school, is encouraging.

Fifthly, the food in schools initiative was developed in conjunction with the British Nutrition Foundation and the Design and Technology Association to produce practical guidance on how schools can develop their activities in this area. The guide "Establishing a Whole School Food Policy" links what is taught across the curriculum with the food provided for children to eat at school to ensure that consistent messages about healthy food choices run throughout all aspects of school life.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans mentioned the importance of working with other partners in the wider community, notably in industry. The development of food education in the national curriculum is an ongoing process. A couple of examples sprang to mind when reading the briefing. The Waitrose focus on food bus and the Sainsbury's taste of success food awards scheme are part of this wider engagement with the community. Over 1,100 teachers are registered on the taste of success scheme, and over 115.000 pupils have been awarded certificates for excellence since the scheme began in 2000.

The issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North go far and wide. They have a direct impact on youngsters' educational achievement, and they touch on difficult issues regarding the relationship between central and local government that is at the heart of our constitutional settlement, but is also a restraint on the centralising tendencies—dare I say Stalinist approaches—that my hon. Friend might like to see us adopt in ensuring that the entitlement and the requirement for every youngster to learn not just intellectually and emotionally, but about their physical development, is seen through. That links closely to sport, which I know she has talked about before. I hope that we can use this debate as a basis for moving forward and improving provision.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Four o'clock.