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School Meals Service

Volume 463: debated on Thursday 14 April 1949

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3.29 p.m.

Much has been said about finance and the large expenditure on the social services. I believe it may be profitable if we spend a short time in examining in more detail the operation and administration of the school meals service. I am sure the House will wish to congratulate the Minister of Education upon the drive which is being made to develop and extend this service. Those of us who have for many years been closely associated with this important social service are naturally pleased to see coming into full realisation a scheme which was agitated for by the educational pioneers. I, personally, have occasion to feel some measure of satisfaction, and indeed pride, because the local authority of the city of Bradford was the first in Britain to assume, in 1904, public responsibility for the feeding of necessitous children. This decision caused a nation-wide consciousness; public opinion was aroused; and it resulted in the passing, in 1906, of the first Act of Parliament dealing with this question, which extended the Bradford scheme to the whole of the country.

I cannot pass from this great landmark in the history of our educational progress without paying a tribute to the late Fred Jowett, who was the driving force behind the decision of the Bradford City Council. Jowett's whole life was spent in the service of humanity, and the poor and needy were his special care. For many years he represented my present division in this House, and became a Minister of the Crown in the first Labour Government. I am told by the older Members of the House that Jowett, by his sincerity and courage, earned the respect of all Members on all sides of the House.

The passing of the 1906 Act was the beginning of a continuous fight, first to enforce the application of the spirit of the Act, and secondly to widen the general scope of the service. There were still reactionary local authorities who did not miss any opportunity of extracting money from the parents of the unfortunate children, and who in fact fixed the income limit of the family so high that the vast majority of necessitous school children were debarred the benefits which were the real purpose of the Act. It took many years of public pressure to bring about drastic changes in the administration of the Act. I think that the period of the last war marked a great step forward in the provision of school meals, because the necessities of war, coupled with the danger arising from enemy air-raid attacks, made it necessary for the Government, through the Ministry of Food, to make provision for communal feeding in areas affected by air-raid attack; cooking depots were established throughout the country, and in order to keep them ticking over in readiness for any emergency there were used to extend greatly the provision of school meals.

It may well be that this extension of school feeding not only made it possible for some of the mothers to go into a form of war work, but was a major factor in maintaining a very high standard of health amongst the school population. That war-time service provided the basis upon which we are planning the development of the service, and I am anxious—as I believe we all are—that all its good features should be retained. We welcome the assurance of the Minister that, with the full extension of school meals, it is the policy of the Government to make them free. The net cost of the school dinners service in 1947–48, after allowing for payments by parents and staff, was about £16 million. It is estimated by the Ministry that when provision is made available for four million children to have dinners without payment, the cost to the public funds will be of the order of £40 million a year. No one will begrudge this large expenditure of public money, which should reflect itself in a healthy and vigorous youth.

Parliament is entitled to be satisfied that such moneys are properly spent. It is necessary to see that not only the children get the best quality and service, but that the utmost economy is applied in administration. Indeed, it is upon the administrative side that real concern is felt. There was within my personal knowledge a serious waste of public moneys in the administration of type A canteens as against type E, due to matters of financial control coupled with the appointment and supervision of staffs. The Ministry have, of course, tightened up the financial controls by regulations, but I am not entirely satisfied that further improvements cannot be made.

I should like to give a brief picture of the position of type A canteens. They are those that have their own cooking and service facilities. Type B canteens are those with only serving facilities, meals being drawn from central kitchens or cooking depots in insulated containers. Type A come under the management of the headmaster and governing body. The purchasing of food and staffing, by their very nature and set-up, are removed from the effective control of the education authority. For instance, food is bought in the main in the retail market rather than in the wholesale market, and in staffing very little regard is paid to training or experience. Type E canteens, on the other hand are generally under the management of first-class, highly-trained catering officers and control is by a specially appointed committee, while financial control is under the watchful eye of the finance officer.

The service of the cooking depots or central kitchens represents a very big and improved technical organisation. It is undoubtedly a considerable financial saving by providing the children with a much better balanced meal than is available in the type A canteen. Bulk purchase of food leads to a considerable saving in the cost, and ensures that purchases can be made direct from the manufacturer or wholesaler. The wholesale prices of foodstuffs are controlled by the Ministry of Food just as are the retail prices.

This control applies not only to rationed items but to a greater number of other foodstuffs. Most of the maximum prices fixed by the Ministry of Food become, as we all know well, the fixed prices. We shall find, however, that under the system of bulk purchase it has been possible to purchase supplies never above wholesale prices and often at less. The prices were adjusted from the level at which a standard bulk must be broken and often on account of the size of the order.

I have before me comparisons of the cost between wholesale and retail prices for the school meals services. They were prepared by a county catering officer. They show a saving of something like £20,000 per annum, upon a system of bulk purchase. This saving is on the basis of 126,000 meals weekly. It is estimated that if bulk purchase had been applied to the type A canteens, in those canteens also the saving per annum would have been in the region of £40,000. The following items of savings are of interest: meat, £6,000; potatoes, £5,460; flour, £1,512; margarine, £1,202; peas, £1,066; jam, £976.

It is clear to anyone who examines these figures that if bulk purchase were applied by the 146 local education authorities in the country it would result in a saving to the Ministry of Education of many millions of £s annually. Indeed, if we take the official figure of four million meals daily, which appears to be the aim of the Ministry, I estimate that the saving by bulk purchase in respect of both rationed and unrationed foods would be in the region of £4¾ million for a school year.

Would my hon. Friend agree that the saving might be even greater, if there could be some link between the school meals service and the civic restaurants service?

If my hon. Friend will allow me to make my case, he will find that I am coming to the particular point that he has in mind. If we added to that saving, the economies which would result from maintaining a centralised system of cooking, and further economies in staffing, equipment and buildings, we might well effect a total annual saving in the nature of £8 million a year. I regard that figure as a very conservative estimate indeed.

I suggest to the House and to the Minister that we cannot afford the extravagant luxury of retail purchase in connection with this great undertaking. It is clear to my mind that the provision of school meals is the job of a highly specialised officer, yet it appears that some education authorities are breaking this well-tried and successful organisation and replacing it with a costly and cumbersome system of multiple control, by introducing an administrative officer holding responsibility for other matters and an organiser who is also responsible for other matters. Further control is exercised by divisional executive school governors and managers. This development has even gone to the extent that cooks in charge are to be given additional responsibility of a nature for which they are not generally competent. I believe this to be a retrograde step, likely to result in inferior meals for the children, mess and muddle in administration, and as certain to increase costs considerably without the slightest justification.

Much could be said on the respective merits of type A and type B canteens. I personally believe that in the case of an isolated school, tucked away in the country, the type A canteen may be preferable, but there is a strong case, both on financial and administrative grounds, for the retention of the cooking depots or central kitchens to serve the popullated areas. Indeed, nothing could be more extravagant than to provide each school with expensive cooking kitchens, equipment and staff, particularly when building material and labour is in short supply and urgently needed to provide housing accommodation for our people. Whatever may be the ultimate policy of the Minister upon this matter, I most strongly urge a policy of bulk purchase and central management and control, coupled with an effective financial control by both the financial officer of the local authority and the district auditor of the Ministry of Health.

The Manchester inquiry into supplies and prices of meat for school meals service, reported in the "Manchester Guardian" on 17th August, 1948, is an indication of the need for continuous watchfulness upon both supplies and quality and cost. Briefly, the Manchester City Council were concerned with allegations of over-charging for meat varying from 4d. to 8d. a lb. It is of particular interest to note, and I commend this to the Minister, that the special sub-committee appointed by the Manchester City Council to make the inquiry recorded its unanimous opinion that the day-to-day operations of the service should be vested in an experienced catering manager.

The provision of meals by local authorities is growing not only in respect of school meals but in many other ways, such as the provision of meals and refreshments in civic restaurants, the police force, members of the council and staff, and the new Housing Bill also makes provision for the supply of meals and refreshments on council estates. It was never the intention of Parliament in making such general provisions that each department of a corporation should set up a special catering organisation with its duplication of administrative costs. Indeed, this growth of municipal catering reveals the clear need for the co-ordination of the services under one administrative head. The allocation of cost between departments presents no difficulties, a fact which is known by anyone who has been associated with local government. Nothing is more absurd that the present state of affairs.

The London County Council have coordinated these catering services under a chief officer of the restaurants and catering department. In regard to school meals this officer is, very properly, answerable to the education committee. The catering officer's department prepares, cooks and serves the school meals; the staff of the education department are responsible for supervising the children during the meals. All the catering for all departments of the county council is under the control of the specialist catering department, and this conforms with the principle of centralised specialist service adopted by the county council generally. Bulk purchase of food is regarded by the county council as a most important item of saving. My case is that the wise policy of centralisation and bulk purchase applied by the London County Council should be enforced by the Government. After all, the Government will eventually take full financial responsibility for this service.

Will my hon. Friend the Member for East Bradford (Mr. McLeavy) distinguish between the bulk purchase of foodstuffs and bulk cooking, which is another matter, and one of which he may not approve? Although the London County Council carries bulk purchase very far, it does not carry bulk cooking to such an extent, because that results in meals which are not fresh.

I not want to detain the House too long, because I want to give other hon. Members an opportunity to express an opinion and the Parliamentary Secretary an opportunity to reply. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Member for West Islington (Mr. A. Evans) will not drag me into a long discussion upon a point which I should be very happy to pursue if there were sufficient time.

The financial difficulties confronting the nation, demand the utmost economy in the management of such social services. This is by no means a new policy, nor is it confined to Labour-dominated councils. In Cheshire we have a county council upon which Labour is not strongly represented. During the war I was associated with the building up of a very large centralised meals service which provided meals for not only schools but other departments, supplemented, of course, by the type A canteen and, quite recently, about five central kitchens. This service was a part of the emergency feeding arrangements to which I have referred, and it did great work in providing meals for areas affected by air attacks.

We appointed a first-class catering officer whose duties were, in the main, similar to those of London, and we desired to continue this organisation. At least so far as bulk purchase was concerned, I desired to bring in both the cooking kitchens and the type A canteens, but the Ministry of Education stepped in and insisted upon the breaking up of our Organisation. Parliament is entitled to an explanation of why one policy is right in London and wrong in other parts. We ought to be told what prompted the Minister to take this regrettable step, and we are entitled to a statement upon future policy. I do not press for a statement of policy now if we can be given an assurance that the position will be re-examined in the light of this Debate.

I trust that the Ministry of Education will consult with the Minister of Health with a view to requesting county borough councils and county councils to set up a co-ordinated service. I believe this is the best approach to the problem. Meanwhile, I venture to suggest to the Minister, steps which I am convinced are necessary for the building of an efficient school meals service. I will confine myself to what I regard to be three fundamental changes required in the policy of the Ministry.

First, the Minister should appoint a first-class catering officer, with long experience in the trade, to take charge at the Ministry of the school meals service. Second, each local education authority should appoint a catering officer, with the rank of a senior official, with responsibilities for the complete organisation of school feeding, including bulk purchase of food, equipment, etc., and for the engagement of suitable staff, under the control of a council committee. Third, such financial regulations as may be laid down by the Ministry should be under the control of the financial officer to the authority and the district auditor for the Ministry of Health.

I know that on the purely educational side the Minister has a very capable and well-trained staff, but school feeding is a professional job and requires a type of direction which can come only from a qualified man drawn from the catering trade. I do not regard diplomas in domestic science or advanced cookery obtained at universities, or even degrees, in themselves as the type of qualifications required for the job to which I have referred. If we fail to get the right direction from the top, the whole of the scheme will be endangered. It is singularly unfortunate that the Minister's staff does not include anyone with what might be described as outstanding experience in the catering world. This is a disadvantage which should be removed without delay.

The existing regulations, made in 1945, for which the present Minister was not responsible, are remarkable for their brevity and indecision. They represent an almost complete abdication of Ministerial responsibility for the proper disbursement of public money, giving to local authorities what appears to be an open cheque for the provision of meals. The regulations say that:
"The Authority shall secure that due economy is observed in the operation of that service."
No attempt is made, however, to give general guidance upon such things as bulk purchase, central management and control, the limitation of unneccessary staffing, etc., all of which can represent a considerable saving to the national Exchequer. I am anxious that this great service shall succeed. Success depends upon the right approach. I trust, therefore, that the Minister will give serious consideration to the points I have made.

4.0 p.m.

The time at our disposal is very brief and I propose to content myself with asking the Minister three questions, to which I hope he will be able to give satisfactory answers. At present about 52 per cent. of our children are taking a midday meal at school and nearly 100 per cent. are having free milk at school. No doubt these services have been major factors in making our children the bonniest and healthiest children in the world. I understand that it is proposed in the future to make all school meals free and then we may expect that from 80 to 90 per cent. of the children will partake of midday meals at school.

At present many hundreds of thousands of children are taking midday meals in classrooms and the odour of the meal clings to the classroom during the afternoon session. The school meal, in practice, is supposed to have the benefit that it gives to the teacher an opportunity to give social training to those partaking of the meal, but that is quite impossible in an over-crowded classroom. The first essential is that every school should have a dining hut. When does the Parliamentary Secretary think that every school in the country will be provided with a dining hut? For the past year or two there has been a shortage of crockery and cutlery in schools. I believe that that shortage is being made good, but I should like an assurance that in the very near future, there will be ample provision of crockery and cutlery and that there will be enough when, in a year or two perhaps, 90 per cent. of the children will be taking the meals.

This provision of school meals has thrown a heavy burden on teachers, particularly in infant schools. There are still a number of local education authorities which are not implementing fully Circular 97. When the meals become free and 90 per cent. of the children are taking them, a much heavier burden will be thrown on the teachers, a burden so great that unless they get some relief it will interfere with the execution of their proper duties of teaching. I would like an assurance that my hon. Friend will bring pressure to bear on all local education authorities fully to implement Circular 97 in order to see that teachers have sufficient help in the supervision of scholars' meals, so as to prevent an intolerable burden of supervision, making the proper fulfilment of their functions as teachers impossible.

4.3 p.m.

I have been asked a great many questions in this brief Debate, in fact there were 10 main questions which I am expected to answer in a reply which, in the nature of things, cannot take more than about 12 minutes.

First, I want to disillusion the House if disillusionment is required, in regard to the experience of the technical staff who deal with the schools meals service. My hon. Friend the Member for East Bradford (Mr. McLeavy) said that he had not a great deal of faith in degrees and diplomas, and very often I am of the same turn of mind. Looking at the list of the technical staff, we find one who has qualified by experience as a hospital dietitian, another in a hospital canteen, another in a university hall of residence, another who was a caterer for the National Fire Service during the war, one who was a housekeeper and caterer for the Manchester and District Bank headquarters, another the manager of an American Red Cross Club, an assistant steward of the University of Birmingham, another a hospital caterer, one who was for two years an hotel manager and so on. Going through the list we can see that these people have something much more by way of qualifications than diplomas and degrees. However, financial and administrative considerations are not the only criteria in this extremely important service. There is the happiness of the school children and the dignity and place of the school meal in the day-to-day curriculum.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Bradford covered a very wide range. He brought into the picture conditions in Bradford and said quite properly that we owed much to the work of the late Fred Jowett. One would like here to pay a tribute to the City of Bradford, in that early this century it had in it such fine educational pioneers. That large central kitchen in Green Lane, which was more or less a soup kitchen, became the centre of the movement which even now is growing rapidly into the great free school meals service. My Department make no apology for having persuaded Bradford, not only to reconstruct this old kitchen, but to develop a system of self-contained canteens, that is to say, canteens with their own kitchens.

No one would suggest that carried meals are as good as meals cooked on the spot. I am quite convinced of that from my experience in going round to see the school meals service functioning both in rural areas and large urban areas. Further, I assert that the carried meals service is more costly than cooking on the premises. The economies in the large kitchen do not offset the cost of having to transport the meals, and to staff the dining rooms separately. As regards food costs, Bradford at first ran their costs up too much, so our experts got together with theirs. As a result they are now buying by large-scale tenders and contracts, and the result has been very good meals at an economical cost, below that of the particular county to which my hon. Friend referred—Cheshire. Turning to overheads, Bradford's all in cost, exclusive of food, is 5.9d. for wages, fuel, administration, whereas Cheshire's cooking depots under the catering manager cost 6.1d. for wages alone.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Bradford referred to war-time development. We are, of course, proud that from an approximate figure of 300,000 school meals served daily in 1939, we have now approached 2¾ million. But the supply of meals from cooking depots divorced from the management of the school dining halls, by the local education authority, was never a satisfactory arrangement. Experience has led local education authorities everywhere to have catering and dining under unified control in all except three areas—London, Bournemouth and Wolverhampton. Elsewhere the local education authorities insist on having cooking and dining under their own sole direct control. We think that that is an extremely good thing. At one time a proportion of the meals—about 10 per cent.—were purchased from British Restaurants. I have no hesitation in saying that that also proved to be a most unsatisfactory arrangement. Now that is done on a very small scale—less than 2 per cent. Even in London only one-eighth of the meals are obtained in this way, and this figure is steadily being reduced.

I turn to my hon. Friend's third point—and here come into the picture two of the questions which were asked by my hon. Friend the senior Member for Southampton (Mr. Morley)—concerning the present cost of the meals service and the estimated cost of a free meals service. The figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for East Bradford were those for 1947–48. I happen to have later figures—our estimate for 1948–49. For 2¾ million school meals, the figure for 1948–49 is £21 million plus £9 million collected from the parents, an estimated total figure of £30 million. If we are to have free meals, the cost for four million children would be about £40 million which, as my hon. Friend said, was the figure given by my right hon. Friend in reply to his Question of 28th February of this year.

My hon. Friend the senior Member for Southampton quite rightly insists upon the best available material. We all sympathise with the need for having not only suitable cutlery and containers of all kinds; we all agree that as soon as possible, every school must have its own separate dining room. It is perfectly true that on going into schoolrooms used for midday meals one has that sense of heaviness. There is the smell of the meal which has been taken, and I cannot believe that those conditions are the best for the afternoon work which has to be done in the school. But I am afraid it is impossible for the Ministry to give any date when that need for separate dining-rooms will be satisfied; it depends so much upon the supply of materials and the labour available. The figures which I gave to the hon. Member for East Bradford in regard to estimated costs of free meals, is a rough proportional estimate, based on current costs and allowing for some decline in the cost per meal as the numbers in each canteen rise; that is to say, we think that, as the need for the service rises, so the overheads should go down a little.

It is also true to say, in answer to the point raised by my hon. Friend, that the cost is moderate, and increases in the cost per meal are fully explained. If we exclude the amortisation of premises and equipment, the cost per meal, which includes food and overheads, in 1947–48 was 11.91d.; in 1948–49 12.73d.; and in 1949–50 our estimate is 13.08d. If that is divided into categories we find that the increase for food is.23d.; for overheads.94d., an increase for those three years totalling 1.17d. We have tried with food purchase and with regard to administration to streamline the school meals service as much as possible, for obviously the duty of the Department, in co-operation with the local education authorities, is to make the service as efficient as possible and to reduce costs wherever possible.

Leaving out of account altogether the effect of the Budget, to which I shall refer in a moment, in this period of three financial years, the figures for which I have just given, the increase in food cost is under ¼d. per meal. That increase is due partly to a slight increase in prices, but mainly it is due to a deliberate and welcome improvement in quality in the school meals service in so many areas of the country; and indeed in many areas that improvement was needed. I would suggest that this is a very moderate cost and reflects the fact that in bulk contracts local education authorities are obtaining wholesale discounts and saving about 1d. per meal—more in urban areas, but naturally rather less in rural areas with small canteens.

Having said that we have, in the three financial years to which I have referred, tried to streamline the service with regard to the food and the efficiency of administration, I must follow that up and say that some adjustment is now necessary, because of the effect of the Budget proposals in relation to increased food costs. The total cost we estimate on the food bill for the school meals service due to the Budget increases will be about one and a half million. That means that the increased cost will be another ½d. a meal; that is to say, another ½d. on the 13.08 figure which I have given as our estimate so that in taking account of the actual figures I have given for two financial years, and the estimated figure for the year 1949–50, we still have to make an adjustment in the years that lie ahead, beginning in the year 1949–50 because of the effect of the increases on food brought about by the Budget proposals.

No, Sir. In this same period the increase of overhead costs is just under 1d. Most of this is entirely accounted for by a national wages award of last summer, and the cost of National Insurance. On the one hand, the in- crease for food was ¼d. which now is to be adjusted, and on the other hand, when we come to administration costs, the increase will be 1d. That, of course, is not affected by the Budget proposals.

My hon. Friend referred to what he called type A self-contained canteens and type B dining canteens supplied with meals from the central kitchens. At the Ministry we do not use these terms. That is why I describe the type A and type B canteens. I reiterate that we think that cooking on the spot is much better than getting food in containers from a central kitchen or depot. However clean those containers may be, there is no doubt that the taste of the food, though perhaps not the quality, deteriorates. Cooking on the spot is the ideal. I suggest that it admits of no argument at all. I should say that we are all agreed about that.

Again, there is another reason why cooking on the spot is good from the administrative point of view—it is cheaper. With a system of bulk contracting for food there is little difference between the cost per meal in large central kitchens and in canteen kitchens. The better result is well worth the slight extra cost which averages less than ¼d. per meal. We save on that, because of the overhead and administrative costs. Savings at the central kitchen do not offset the cost of having a separate staff for the dining-room. In addition, central kitchens cause transport costs of ½d. to 1d. per meal or more. That is a surprising figure. Wages costs for central kitchens plus dining-rooms are about ¼d. per meal more than for self-contained canteens for units of all sizes.

In conclusion, I wish to say that we are certain that there is a financial saving by bulk purchase. There is no comparison-between the two examples given by my hon. Friend of London and Cheshire. London is exercising civic restaurant powers. Cheshire has no such powers, except by delegation at the request of a minor authority. What the Cheshire local education authority have done is to establish completely unified control over this very large catering service—an obvious improvement on every ground, financial and others. London's administration costs are just about twice the general average for the country. At the Ministry we are convinced that we have found the solution in the matter of bulk purchase. We believe that, with the advance of the school meals service, the experience we have had will result in considerable improvement as we go towards our goal of an entirely free meals service.