HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc471-4WH
2. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab)

What guidance the Government give local education authorities and schools on the nutritional standards of school meals; and if the Government will take steps to raise those standards. [153640]

3. Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton):

How many schools have joined the national school fruit scheme and what estimate has been made of how many children eat the fruit provided. [153641]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg)

The Department's guidance on healthy school lunches provides advice on implementing the standards. The findings of the Department for Education and Skills and Food Standards Agency exercise examining school lunches in 80 secondary schools will inform future policy decisions on this issue.

Department of Health research shows that 95 per cent. of the 1 million children in the 7,619 schools participating in the national school fruit scheme eat the fruit provided.

Mr. Kidney

I recognise that exercise and diet go together. I have a question about diet. Does my hon. Friend not agree that school meals provide a great way to ensure that we reach every young person? We could offer a very attractive nutritional meal once a day to every young person. Does he not think that that is worth the effort? Physically, we can provide good quality food, and educationally we can give young people a message that they take with them through the rest of their lives and that they take back to the rest of their families. Is it not worth a universal effort across Government to get that done?

Mr. Twigg

Indeed. There are enormous benefits in terms of health, education and physical well-being. I have seen some great examples of schools that are way ahead of the field in this respect. We can share best practice. The purpose of the research to which I referred is to see whether there is in the system sufficiently strong advice and guidance to schools. We will evaluate that and reconsider the existing advice in the light of that research on 80 schools.

Mrs. Dean

I am delighted with the national school fruit scheme. It is a real pleasure for those of us who have visited schools—I am sure that all hon. Members have done so—to see the children enjoying their fruit. That sends a strong message as they grow up.

In Staffordshire, I am pleased to say, 312 schools are taking part in the scheme, and 178 are taking part in the welfare milk scheme. Will my hon. Friend congratulate Staffordshire county council on the work that it is doing with schools to develop the whole-school approach to healthy eating? Will he also congratulate the 293 Staffordshire schools that are taking part in the health-promoting schools award scheme?

Mr. Twigg

I am delighted to congratulate Staffordshire and its schools that are taking part. The fruit scheme is beneficial. I pay tribute to colleagues in the Department of Health who led on and will be funding that programme as it moves forward. It is a great example of joined-up government. The more it can be integrated with other aspects of the healthy schools standard in the way that my hon. Friend describes, the greater the impact will be.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the national school fruit scheme. Has any research been done to maximise the take-up of fruit in schools and to find out whether any fruit is less or more popular? Are there any plans to extend the scheme to some of the more popular raw vegetables?

The Under-Secretary of State for Health (Miss Melanie Johnson)

Perhaps I could answer the hon. Gentleman. Although the fruit that children like to eat varies from child to child, many vegetables are proving popular—and some quite surprising vegetables, too. Vegetables have been tried in some schools as part of the programme. We will consider supplying some vegetables as part of the national roll-out for the remaining areas. Carrots, for example, are proving popular with young children.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North) (Lab)

Is my hon. Friend aware that Ilford Jewish primary school is so keen on the national school fruit scheme that it is campaigning to extend it to key stage 2? Will he congratulate that school on its campaign and say whether the key stage 2 extension could be considered?

Mr. Twigg

I certainly was aware of that. I met one of the teachers from the school at the weekend. He told me that it intends to present a petition to No. 10 Downing street to that effect. I am not in a position today to make a dramatic announcement, saying that we are going to spend some more Department of Health money on extending the programme from key stage 1 to key stage 2, even though it is always tempting to spend other people's money. The success of the scheme in key stage 1 is demonstrable. Over the next two years it will cover the whole of the country. It will be appropriate at that point to review whether we can take it further into key stage 2 in our junior schools.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD)

Is the Minister aware that nearly 750,000 schoolchildren who are eligible to take up school meals currently do not do so? Although the steps that the Government have taken to improve the nutritional value of school meals is welcome, if not overdue, does he agree that their efforts would be futile if children and parents did not take up their rights because of a fear of embarrassment? What steps are being taken to overcome that problem?

Mr. Twigg

I very much agree with the hon. Lady that there is a serious issue in many parts of our country with the stigma attached to taking up free school meals. Every effort has to be made nationally, and most importantly at the school and local level, to ensure that parents are aware of the eligibility criteria—because there have been changes in recent years, and that is part of the picture—and that the stigma is overcome, so all our young people can benefit from those programmes, and others, such as breakfast clubs. I am happy to look further into what we as a Government can do about that and write to the hon. Lady setting out our plans.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab)

I wonder whether when my hon. Friend reviews school meals he will look carefully at whether we really need to adhere to the current food-based standards, bearing in mind that they allow items to be served that contain little meat, fish or cheese and are highly processed, and consider again the recommendation of the Education and Skills Committee that we adopt nutrient-based standards for school meals. That would go a long way to improving the content.

Mr. Twigg

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her doughty campaigning on this issue, both in Parliament and beyond. She secured a debate on the subject in this Chamber only last week.

I mentioned that we are conducting research with 80 secondary schools. In light of that research, we will consider all possible options, including those that my hon. Friend proposes. I would point out that, when the food-based standards were set up, it was according to the majority response to the consultation, but of course as time moves on we will need to consider the impact of the standards. We will consider that as part of our response to that research.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con)

Further to that answer, I ask the Minister to liaise with his colleagues from the Department of Health on the issue of food colourings and additives, which often have an adverse affect on the behaviour of children and young people. Will he see what can be done to eliminate those from school diets and make people more aware of the side effects? They can so often lead to disruptive behaviour in the classroom.

Mr. Twigg

I spoke recently at the Westminster diet and health forum, and the issue was raised with me there. In conjunction with my colleagues in the Department of Health, I undertook to look into the matter. I will write to the hon. Gentleman setting out what we discover from that, and any plans that follow from it. Logically, it makes sense to consider that in the context of the broader work that I have been describing. I am happy to do as he has asked.

Charles Hendry

I am grateful for that constructive answer. The Minister will also be aware that many children do not eat school meals, and buy their lunches instead from food vending machines. Is he aware that many schools want to get rid of the vending machines that sell fizzy drinks, snacks and unhealthy junk food, but cannot replace them with a so-called green machine selling healthier food because they cannot afford the loss of income that would ensue? Will he see what help schools can be given to address the issue, so that we can prevent schools that try to encourage healthy eating from being financially penalised for doing so?

Mr. Twigg

I am certainly aware of the concern that has been expressed by a number of schools. I want to use my position in the Department to encourage school heads and governors to take up the healthy vending options, and to replace the fizzy drinks and crisps with an alternative. I understand that in those schools where the alternative is provided, many of the children opt for the fruit or water—the healthy options. The Department is in discussion with some of the providers of those healthy alternatives, and I want to send out a strong signal to schools to encourage them to consider those options when making their decisions.

I realise that there is a financial factor, and that is an issue for some schools—I do not underestimate that. However, there are also potential savings to schools from having more healthy options available in terms of the behaviour and attentiveness of the children in class. There is an issue with finance, and we are certainly considering that as part of our guidance to schools with respect to the availability of those machines.

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