Skip to main content

School Meals, Merthyr Tydfil

Volume 466: debated on Thursday 23 June 1949

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Pearson.]

1.42 a.m.

I am extremely sorry, but circumstances make it inevitable that I should have to protract this Sitting a little longer. On 24th February I submitted to the Minister of Education three questions on the school meals service. They were inspired by difficulties created by the Ministry of Education in Merthyr Tydfil. Without making any inquiry, the Ministry, in the name of economy, imposed a series of almost crippling conditions on our local school meals service; but the economies effected by the Ministry, having regard to the extreme importance of the service, were contemptibly small. The Ministry were apparently none too happy when they inflicted these miserable, if disturbing, cuts on local education authorities and particularly, on the one in which I am proud to be interested. They were pathetically uncertain on the principles they should apply.

In the previous year we were told in Merthyr Tydfil that too many man-hours were worked by those engaged in the service, and we were forced to cut down, to the detriment of the service, the number of hours worked. To keep the service the best we could, the employees voluntarily accepted a reduction in wage rates which had been fixed by national agreement. I am not too certain whether the Ministry are conscious of the fact that by their action, they were responsible for the breaking of wage rates fixed by national agreement.

Last year the Ministry dropped the question of the hours worked, and told us that the cost of meals was too high and had to be reduced. We were urged by the Ministry to employ part-time labour, to which we took, and still take, the strongest exception. One would have thought that the present Minister of Education, with his long and honourable record of fighting the evil of part-time labour in the textile industry of Lancashire, would have been the last man to tolerate the imposition of the same evil on the splendid work of feeding our school children. I need not assure the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary and the Government that my Socialist constituency hates, as the Socialist movement always has hated, the unmitigated evils of part-time labour.

I must tell the Ministry of Education that their attack on the school meals service is a betrayal of the provisions of the Milk and Meals Regulations of 1945. Paragraph 8 of those Regulations lays down that every dinner shall be adequate in quantity and quality; it has to be suitable as the main meal of the day and to be well prepared and cooked and served decently and in good condition. The paragraph goes on to state that the dietary for dinners shall be reasonably varied and planned in order to secure nutritionally balanced meals appropriate to the ages of the pupils, and that suitable records shall be kept of the amounts of the ingredients used. Paragraph 13 insists that the authorities shall employ a suitable and adequate staff other than teachers for the preparation, cooking, serving and, where necessary, transport of meals, and for washing up and other incidental matters.

I wish I had time to quote further from these very sensible and not ungenerous regulations, but I have quoted enough to assert that these regulations cannot be carried out with the uncertainty, indifference and lack of discipline invariably associated with part-time labour. It is no use the Ministry making any pretence at all that it can be done. In my constituency alone we have between 30 and 40 school canteens and restaurants. Of these there are only three with modern school kitchens. This means that we have been forced to improvise and adapt old school structures to fit in the canteens for our children. Our school meals staff have worked under extraordinary difficulties, and to my knowledge, they have worked hard, and with great devotion. The teaching staff of our schools, too, I am proud to say, have co-operated with equal enthusiasm and with equal devotion.

I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to listen to this, I know he will agree with me, even though he will not admit it on the Floor of the House. No simple formula evolved in the remote recesses of the Ministry of Education can apply to the very different conditions under which our school children over all the country are fed. The Minister seems to be incapable of appreciating what the school meals service means to such places as Merthyr Tydfil. We well knew its worth during the inter-war years when, under Tory administration, the overwhelming proportion of our people were for long years unemployed, and when, in the teeth of Tory opposition, we had to fight to feed the children in our schools; in the days when a Tory Government, for instance, cut down the half-pint of milk a day for our school children to one-third of a pint. Notwithstanding all these cruel restrictions imposed upon us by past Governments we did build up, a quarter of a century ago, a school meals service —and I hope the Minister of Education will appreciate this—which has been interwoven into the whole of our local school organisation.

Hence the reason why we are so sensitive to anything done in this respect which is reminiscent of past Tory administration. This Government, I admit, have done magnificent work for our school children. Why, then, the refusal on the part of the Minister to recognise that the feeding of our school children is as important as the task of ordinary education? Why this passion for part-time labour in building up the bodies of our children, in improving and sustaining the standard of health and physical well-being—that is, in the provision of a foundation without which the children cannot be educated? I must tell the Minister of Education that we do regard the feeding of the children at our schools in Merthyr Tydfil as being of the same importance as their education. In fact, with us it is priority No. 1.

At the very moment when the Ministry was attacking and lowering the standard of our meals service, the Minister of Health was extremely worried about the health of the schoolchildren throughout the country, because, on 6th April this year, an important circular was sent by the Ministry of Health to all local health authorities. I will quote a relevant paragraph from that circular. It reads:
"From information collected by the Ministers of Education and Health on the growth of children, there appears to have been a slight, but definite, decline in the growth rates between 1945 and 1947. Also, during the past two years the reduction in mortality from respiratory tuberculosis among young children has been slowed down. Therefore, the Minister of Health is proposing to make a survey of the diets of schoolchildren to ascertain whether or not they are receiving sufficient food."
At the very time conversations were taking place between the Minister of Health and the Minister of Education on this all-important subject of the health of our schoolchildren, the Ministry of Education was busily engaged in lowering the standard of our school meals service. I make that as a deliberate charge against the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Health was worried because of the increase of tuberculosis among our children, and because of the definite decline in their growth rate, and the Ministry is now taking a survey regarding the diets and standard of meals throughout the country.

Our advice to the Ministry of Health is that its inquiry should begin at the Ministry of Education and its policy during the last two years regarding the feeding of schoolchildren. The next step in their inquiries should be at those schools where meals are dependent on casual, or part-time, labour. It is such schools as those dependent on part-time or casual labour that the Minister of Education used as a standard in terms of cost in the attack on school meals services as carried out by the more progressive authorities in this country. It is known that whoever bears the cost, education authorities such as my own would not skimp a single half-penny in their efforts to provide a good and well-served school meal. The Ministry of Education has at no point adversely criticised either the quality or standard of service of meals, nor have we been accused of having wantonly misspent a single penny in the provision of meals.

I must ask the Parliamentary Secretary and the Ministry to try to live up to their ideals in this great service. I know from experience in Merthyr Tydfil what a godsend is the school meals service to our children, and I must ask the Minister to build on the foundations. and not to destroy the foundations already laid. In my opinion, while I have so fanatical an interest in education, I know of no better task which the Minister might undertake than to say he will not skimp and not discourage progressive authorities in the provision of the finest school meals service we can make today. I am certain the Parliamentary Secretary will agree with me and will realise that I have been under an obligation to this Government which, as I have admitted, have done such fine work for the children, to raise this matter and I hope he will say that that Government will do nothing to undermine the foundations so well laid.

1.58 a.m.

I shall not keep the House long at this hour but this is a very important subject. The question of the school meals service is one occupying the minds of Ministers, the teachers, local authorities, and parents. The Minister has played a magnificent part in this service throughout the country, and I do not like it to be thought that the Minister of Education is lowering the standard of the school health service in any way. Nobody speaks more forcefully for his constituents than my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr (Mr. S. O. Davies), but there is every indication that Circular 97, issued several months ago by the Ministry, needs to be more forcefully implemented by my right hon. Friend the Minister, and by the Parliamentary Secretary.

I may add this word of caution to the Parliamentary Secretary. My experience at the recent Conference of the National Union of Teachers showed that whilst the profession are exceedingly anxious to co-operate—and I was something of a rebel on this matter when I was on the Executive of the Union—they feel they have a right to look to the Ministry for a greater drive to see that sufficient assistance is brought in to help during the actual time of the meal. A teacher's job ought not to be more than that of supervision in any case, if the teacher is to do his job properly in the afternoon. I believe the Parliamentary Secretary quite agrees with that point of view, but I hope that we shall see a greater impetus given to the provision of adequate assistance in the future.

2.1 a.m.

I have every sympathy with the point of view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr (Mr. S. O. Davies) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Mr. G. Thomas). The Ministry, in co-operation with the local authorities and the teachers, is determined to do all in its power to raise the standard of the school meals service and I hope we have done nothing in the case of the school meals service at Merthyr Tydfil which detracts from our ambitions in this matter.

There is no doubt about it that from our point of view the school meals service is and ought to be as important a part of the school day as any other activity that takes place. Our ambition is that there should be a sense of style in the equipment that is used and we readily admit that at present it is in many instances far from satisfactory. We hope that with the co-operation of teachers, we shall attain the highest possible standards not only in equipment, but also in conduct. There is no question about this, that the Merthyr Tydfil school meals service is an excellent service, and I want to tell my hon. Friend that that is the view of the Ministry and of my right hon. Friend.

We are prepared to acknowledge this and to give praise where it is due. The authority at Merthyr Tydfil are feeding about 70 per cent. of their school children and producing over 6,000 school meals a day. The quality of the meals is excellent and the standard of the service is likewise excellent. We want the service to be maintained at the high level it has achieved and nothing we have done or will do, is intended to have, nor need it have, the opposite effect. I claim, however, that the Ministry have wide knowledge of other authorities' great difficulties and we have knowledge how these difficulties have been overcome.

We are convinced that the Merthyr Tydfil service can be carried on just as successfully with fewer man-hours and reduced costs and the authority is now trying to economise in this particular respect.

Perhaps I may, just for a moment, go into the history of this particular case—and my hon. Friend will admit that we have been interested in this matter for some months past. The authority's provisional estimate for 1947–48 was not unduly high but the authority was notified it could spend 10 per cent. more on food. The revised estimate showed a 20 per cent. higher level of salaries and wages, which is considerably above the amount spent by other authorities. The explanation was high man-hours of canteen staff. Even taking into account the peak period in the middle of the day we could not accept this estimate. For 1948–49 it was made clear that the Ministry would not cover in any regard such high staffing.

A special visit was paid to Merthyr Tydfil canteens to discover what the particular difficulties were. The Ministry agreed as to the difficulty of the number of canteens, and, admitting that difficulty, we were prepared to cover a reasonable extra staffing. In co-operation with that point of view the authority decided that it would make adjustments. The revised estimate showed a continuing high level of expenditure on salaries and wages in spite of the adjustment made in certain particulars, and the authority offered no explanation for the small reduction made. They have now economised, and those economies have taken effect since May of this year. We welcome this, but at the same time I must tell my hon. Friend that we still think the actual staffing in 1948–49 was too high.

There is no question about it; we expect the use of part-time labour at the peak period and we have the experience of authorities all over the country employing part-time labour at these peak periods. I must convince my hon. Friend that we have got the experience among all the other authorities, and all but six of them raised no difficulties whatever over staffing. In the case of those six they have been prepared to make reasonable adjustments. I cannot see why this excellent school meals service at Merthyr Tydfil cannot be maintained with the reasonable adjustment we require, following the practice in all the other administrative areas of the country.

I am not going into the prospect of the school meals service in Merthyr Tydfil in the years that lie ahead, but I am convinced that we have the co-operation of the local education committee and their officers. We are convinced they are prepared to co-operate and maintain the salaries and wages estimates at a reasonable level.

They have always been prepared to do so, and surely it is not unreasonable that we at the Ministry should indicate where certain adjustments can be made. We have made suggestions and in some instances they have agreed to co-operate.

Not forced; it has been a friendly adjustment on both sides, and we believe, in spite of the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman that we are spoiling the school meals service in Merthyr Tydfil, that co-operation will continue, and we shall arrive at a formula satisfactory to both sides.

Could the Parliamentary Secretary tell the House whether in Merthyr Tydfil there are a number of sittings every day for the midday meal thereby making it necessary to employ large staffs?

That does happen because we have had to improvise so many of our canteens in the old schools.

It is unfortunate we have this double sitting in many parts of the country. We do not look upon it as an ideal situation in Merthyr or elsewhere. It means we have to have the staff at peak hours.

Can my hon. Friend give me an assurance that they are doing their best to provide adequate assistance? Merthyr seems to have its share but other authorities are understaffed.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven Minutes past Two o'Clock a.m..