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School Meals (Charge)

Volume 486: debated on Monday 16 April 1951

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10.2 p.m.

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Regulations, dated 1st March. 1951, entitled the Milk and Meals (Amending) Regulations, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 340), a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd March, be annulled.
The fact that I am able today to move this Motion is an illustration of the old maxim of "three times lucky," inasmuch as on the first occasion when this Prayer appeared on the Order Paper it was forcibly postponed by the Government and on the second occasion was voluntarily postponed by myself in response to a request from the Government. We have also noticed that this is the only Prayer within the last few weeks to which no Member opposite has attempted to add his name, but so intricate are the mental processes of Members opposite that we are unable to deduce whether they approve of this Prayer any more than of the others.

I should like to start by assuring the Minister of one thing. The fact that we find it necessary to pray against these Regulations does not mean that we are against an increase to 7d. of the charge for school meals, particularly in view of the fact that Circular No. 235, in which this charge was announced, showed a clear awareness of the need for making particular exceptions in cases of hardship, which in this service is obviously of the greatest importance.

Nor am I personally concerned with the provisions contained in paragraph 3 (a), which simply seeks to add the day special school to the privileged class of nursery schools and nursery classes. It is explained in Circular No. 235 that this change is made because the school meal is considered as an integral part of the school curriculum in the case of day special schools. I think it is true to say that mainly the population of these schools come from the lower income groups and that there is therefore a good case for this; but we should welcome some explanation from the Minister on whether in fact this makes any real change in the procedure which has so far been adopted, because I understand it does not make much difference.

The main part of what I have to say is directed towards the provision in paragraph 3 (b). It is the wording of this provision which I wish to discuss. I know that I should not be in order in discussing the Explanatory Note to these Regulations, since it does not form part of the Regulations, but it is very difficult to deduce from reading the Regulations the fact that they are increasing the charge to 7d.

The announcement of the increase in the charge was made in Circular 235 and it stated that directions would be sent to local education authorities on the matter. I take it that those are taken under the Ministry's Memorandum No. 392, unless there is a more secretive method to which I have not access. The change made in paragraph 2 (b) of these Regulations is very significant and deserves the attention of the House. It seeks to substitute the following words for paragraph 3 (a) of Regulation 10:
"For any dinner supplied the parent shall be charged according to an approved rate."
The words to be deleted are:
"For any dinner supplied, the parent shall be charged according to an approved scale of charges, and in approving a scale of charges the Minister shall secure that no charge for a dinner shall exceed his estimate of the average cost for any dinner of the food supplied by authorities in dinners for all-day pupils in maintained schools;"
In effect, it seems to me—and I should be most grateful for the Minister's explanation about this—that this removes a very important restriction on the ability of the Minister to raise the price of school meals. What we are entitled to ask is why this change is made, for it is a substantial change, in my contention.

There is a paragraph in Memorandum 392 which is relevant and interesting. It says:
"With regard to the food costs, it will be understood that the increase of the charge to 7d. does not imply that there should be any increase in the authorities' expenditure on food for meals at present-day prices."
In that circular, which first raised the price, that increase is directly attributed to the need to reduce the contribution from public funds to the cost of school meals. We are entitled to assume that, unless something is said to the contrary, the price of 7d. to which the present price of 6d. was increased from 1st April, is above the average cost of the food in school meals throughout the country. I notice that the Parliamentary Secretary nods his head, so that that is a reasonable assumption. If it were necessary to raise the price of school meals to 7d., it was also necessary to change the provisions of the 1949 Order, which imposes these restrictions.

What I want to point out is that the way in which this change is made not merely enables the Minister to increase the price to 7d., but enables him to increase it to anything he likes at any time without even tabling an Order in this House. In a word, that is carefully concealing the very wide power which, unless one looks for the Order involved and notes precisely what the amendment is, is unsuspected. There is no suggestion in the Order that the Minister is asking for power to raise the price of school meals, if necessary to 5s., next week, even without making an Order which Parliament can, by Prayer, annul. I do not know whether costs of food vary very widely among authorities. If they do, it may be true that some authorities could not cover the cost of food at 7d., but we are entitled to ask why costs vary widely and what is done to reduce them where they are most expensive.

The Regulations raise in the minds of most hon. Gentlemen on this side, and I should have thought in the minds of many hon. Gentlemen opposite, a distinct fear that the original intention of these proposals might be jeopardised in the future. I am not suggesting that the present Minister of Education will raise the price unduly within the next few months, but there is a danger that some Minister might do so. It is now very much easier for him. It has always been generally understood that this service was introduced by a Conservative Government. I do not share the views of my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Leicester, South-East (Captain Waterhouse) about the future of the school meals service. During the debates on the Butler Education Act, it was agreed that this service was vital, must not bear hardly upon the beneficiaries of it, and that in the interest of education as well as nutrition, it deserved the support of all parties.

Regulations of this kind cannot be allowed to pass without comment. If the price is to be substantially increased in the future, the House ought to have an opportunity of discussing the matter. If the Ministry is afraid of the effect of the rising cost of food, there can be no objection to retaining in some form the restriction which the Regulations seek to remove. Under the old Regulations, however much food cost to the authority, they could not raise the charge so long as the cost did not exceed the average of all school meals throughout the country. There was no fear that the Minister would be tied to a static charge with rising costs of food. What the Ministry seek to do is to give power in such an emergency and to have carte blanche to raise the price of food as much as it likes without tabling any Order or giving us an opportunity of discussing it. That is a dangerous precedent to allow any Ministry to have in regard to a social service of this kind.

10.15 p.m.

I beg to second the Motion.

Those of us who on two previous occasions have been prepared to bring this subject to the notice of the House are flattered by the attention which our success at last has achieved in the number of hon. Members opposite who are here to listen to the debate. It is perhaps a tribute to the co-operation of my hon. Friends and myself with the Government in this matter.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, South (Mr. Angus Maude), reminded the House, we were somewhat roughly stopped from moving the Prayer on the first occasion. Then, out of consideration for the neurotic condition in which the Government party was by then, we undertook to move the Prayer when we thought the House would rise early, on Budget day. To our surprise, our considerate attitude was rebuked by the Government Chief Whip, who sent a special message to ask us to move it not earlier in the afternoon, as we had intended, but late in the evening of another day such as this. However, I have no doubt that in due course hon. Gentlemen opposite, having watched the clock as has been their custom for so long, will walk out at 11 o'clock and we shall be left to the normal procedure under which these Prayers take place.

Although one says that in perhaps a slightly rebuking spirit, I am sure that hon. Gentlemen opposite will realise that this was the only way in which any backbencher from either side of the House could bring to the attention of Ministers the importance and effect of this Statutory Instrument. Like my hon. Friends who have a particular interest in the problem of education, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will answer some of the questions which we shall put to him and that in doing so he will remember that we are speaking not merely for ourselves on a matter which interests a few of those concerned with education but on a matter which has wide repercussions throughout the length and breadth of the country.

I should like to read to the House a letter which I received recently from one of my constituents. She said:
"I am writing to ask if you think it is fair that the price of school dinners should be raised again. My grievance is this. My husband is an agricultural worker, and our rent is high. I cannot add to the weekly wage in any way owing to lung trouble and have been under a doctor for four years. I find the ever-rising cost of living a great worry, as indeed do most housewives. When one thinks back to the last Election, a Labour handbill put through my letter box read, 'Vote Labour, and keep the cost of living down'; and just see how everything keeps soaring in price. It is disgusting. I am sorry to trouble you, but if you ever get an opportunity I wish you could speak up for we mothers who have to pay while plenty get dinners free and are much better off financially."
It is with regard to the problem of that lady, Mrs. Cranfield—I am sure she will not mind her name being mentioned—that I want to ask the hon. Gentleman questions. My hon. Friend mentioned Circular No. 235 of 2nd March in which the increase in prices is put into effect. It says:
"While the present level of Authorities' income scales remains broadly adequate, proposals for some measure of adjustment may be considered on their merits."
Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will say whether, in a case like Mrs. Cranfield's, the difficulties will be met in accordance with what we assume, I hope rightly, to be the spirit of the circular. The Opposition feel strongly that one of the principles of social legislation should be to ensure, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) said earlier, that those who most need the assistance of the community should get it. We find by this example of raising the price of school meals, that only too often the Government seem to have taken the crude and sometimes quite unjustifiable step of making a block, sweeping rise in prices or cuts in the social services, as indeed this amounts to, without giving full justification to the House.

I might take this opportunity of reminding the House that the school meals service and its price is part of the system of family allowances as was agreed at the time of the Second Reading debate on the Family Allowances Bill. In that debate the present Lord Chancellor, who was then Minister of National Insurance, said that whereas the noble Lord who at that time sat for Berwick-upon-Tweed had suggested that the family allowance should be 9s., of which 1s. should be provided in kind—and indeed, was already being provided in kind—the Government intended to make the family allowance only 5s. because he hoped that within a short time there would take place:
"…a great increase of meals and milk, which are to be free for all children in grant-aided schools."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th March, 1945; Vol. 408, c. 2262.]
I think the House will recollect that at that time it was freely recognised that 3s. of the 8s. recommended by Lord Beveridge in his famous Report as being part of the system of family allowances and which should be paid in kind, would be provided in the shape of school meals and milk.

What has really happened? This seems to me to be the vital point which the Parliamentary Secretary has to answer. What is the justification for what is another step in the dismantling of the structure of the social services that have been erected with great tribulation, great effort and imagination, contributed by all parties over such a long period of years? It may seem that the addition of 1d. to the cost of school meals is a small item, but let hon. Gentlemen opposite remember that we were expecting in 1945 that school children in this country, so far from their fathers and mothers having to pay 7d. a day for school meals, would by now be getting those meals free.

Indeed, if one were to go into the calculations as far as they affect the total of family allowances, one would find that the increase in charge which is effected by these Regulations has reduced the value of family allowances—taking into consideration the views held in 1945 and the recommendations of the Beveridge Committee—to a figure of 2s. 11d. as against 8s. And that does not take into consideration the fall in the value of money which, if it is taken into consideration, brings down the value of family allowances now to 1s. 7d. or 1s. 9d.

I make this point against this big background of family allowances and school meals because obviously another important issue in this is the whole question of population policy. Perhaps it may appear to be a small matter to the right hon. Gentleman and the Parliamentary Secretary and hon. Members opposite, but I believe that this House should allow nothing to be taken away from our ideas of what a proper system of social security in this country should be without having it justified in detail by the Ministers who are responsible for it. I think we are right to ask the Minister whether he made quite certain before he took this step that there was no other way of meeting the present immense cost of school meals.

If I may give some figures from the county in which my constituency lies, they illustrate the problems of the administration and the comparative costs of food and administration in the school meals service. It will be remembered that when the Lord Chancellor was speaking on the Family Allowances Bill, he said it was estimated that the cost of school meals would be two-thirds for the cost of food and one-third for the cost of administration.

Let us see the situation as it exists in Essex today. The estimate for 1950–51 was that the cost of food for school meals would be £732,000. The cost of overheads for the school meals service, exclusive of food, was put at £819,000, the proportions being 48 per cent. for food and 52 per cent. for providing the food. That is a long cry from the original estimate in 1945. It is also, I think the Minister will agree, a very disturbing fact, because if one tried to calculate it, one would find, I think, that it would be cheaper, instead of making parents pay 7d. per head for their children per day at school, to let them off that payment entirely and to add 2s. 6d. to the family allowances and to let them provide the meals at home themselves.

I do not for one moment say—and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, South, who moved the Prayer, has already made it clear—that we on this side are in any way against—indeed, we are very much in favour of—the continuance of the school meals system. Our party, as we have been reminded, was largely responsible for bringing it in, and we look upon it as an integral part of the routine and life of the school. Unless it can be administered with reasonable economy, however, it will become a burden upon ordinary families and will not only destroy the value to the child of the improved nutrition, but will also destroy some part of the atmosphere of the community life of the school which we all hope to provide.

Again, I am taking my figures from the county which I know—Essex—in pointing out that of the 178,500 children, only—and I am right in saying "only"—106,000 actually take school meals. I should like to see a great many more do so. I realise that in some cases they may not do so because they live very close to the school and, therefore, it is easier for the child to go home, but at the same time, the more that take the school meals, the better. One of the main reasons—I have this on evidence from headmasters and headmistresses—why more are not taking school meals is simply the price.

When the last rise, from 5d. to 6d., took place, a substantial number of children ceased to take school meals. A certain number subsequently returned, but now that the price has been raised from 6d. to 7d., a considerable number more will cease to take school meals; and of those, so the headmasters and headmistresses tell me, fewer in their estimation will subsequently return to enjoy them. Therefore, the Minister, because all sections of the community are gravely hit by the whole problem of rising prices, by his action, which may be justified, has certainly hit at the principle of improved nutrition and improved community life.

Another point is that we regard the school meals service as taking some of the burden off the housewife. Let me take the point of the reaction on the housewife and mother. For the majority of mothers the task of providing two hot meals a day, luncheon for the children and an evening meal for the husband, is a difficult one. Hon. Members, and particularly hon. Ladies opposite, will realise that it is not only hard work to do the cooking and washing up, but it is also extremely difficult to find sufficient food. At the present time in very many houses, particularly those of manual workers, the meat, such as it is, is kept for the husband's evening meal. It is going to be difficult for these mothers to provide adequate nutrition for the children.

At the same time as they are faced with that problem, they are going to be less able to pay the money which is required to allow their children to enjoy school meals. A penny may seem a small amount after our five days' talk of hundreds and thousands of millions of pounds, but when added up for a family of four, the cost is something like 12s. a week. Out of the housekeeping money of the average working-class family, which does not fall within the rules for free meals laid down by the local authorities and approved by the Ministry, that sum is a quite considerable burden. I believe we have to think here not merely in terms of large sums of money but also in terms of the small sums that mean far more in the lives of the ordinary people who are our constituents than the millions we talk about so glibly.

I feel that the Minister, when he replies, has to justify this increase. I offer no excuse to the House for joining my hon. Friend in moving this Prayer, because I believe that, whether comfortable or otherwise to the Government in power, it remains the duty of the House to watch every action of the Executive, however small it may be, to ensure that if they take an action which affects hundreds of thousands of people, they come before this House and justify it to us.

10.34 p.m.

I am astonished at the attitude of the Opposition on this subject. I feel that it is so much hypocrisy on the benches opposite towards mothers. I am sorry that they did not show this great consideration when I was bringing up my boys. The hon. Member who seconded the Motion talked about the great difficulty mothers have in finding sufficient food. In the days I speak of, the good old Tory days, there was plenty of food because nobody had any money to buy it. In those days I happened to get one shilling a week for each of my boys. That was the amount I got wherewith to feed my family of growing boys. It would appear that hon. Members opposite did not have any consideration of the costs, yet I well remember when the ex-Minister of Education rose to announce the commencement of free milk in all schools she was immediately assailed by the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) who asked:

"Can we be told…the cost of these desirable benefits? and in view of the imminence of the Budget can we have the amounts specified?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th March, 1946; Vol. 421, c. 588.]
They were concerned about the cost then, but today they are not. They have, however, discovered that there is a way of meeting this charge. The seconder of the Motion says, "Add 2s. 6d. to the family allowances and let them prepare the meals themselves."

May I interrupt the hon. Lady? I am sure she will not wish to misrepresent me in any way. I said it would be cheaper to do it that way, but I did not say it would be a good thing. She will remember that I said school meals are an essential part of the improvement of nutrition and the maintenance of proper environment in schools.

I am glad the hon. Gentleman is trying to make himself a little more clear, but he still contradicts himself. I noticed that he said, "Is there no other way of meeting this charge?" and suggested we should add 2s. 6d. to family allowances. [Interruption.] He cannot even agree with himself, so how can he get his hon. Friends to agree? I should like to know where they propose to get the money for this additional 2s. 6d.? At the week-end there was a meeting of the Scottish Junior Unionists, addressed by the hon. and gallant Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith). He said—and perhaps this is the way they would get the money—

"The need to abolish food subsidies as a means of cutting expenditure was advocated by Commander T. D. Galbraith, M.P., speaking on the social services from the economist's point of view. Food subsidies represented 3s. on the standard rate of income tax. Food subsidies had been perverted from their original point."
That might be one of the ways in which this extra family allowance of 2s. 6d. could be obtained. Do hon. Members agree? Yet this was said at the meeting of the Junior Unionists. When we ask hon. Members opposite what is their policy for food subsidies, they are as silent as the Stone of Destiny.

The hon. Member for Ealing, South (Mr. Angus Maude) said that whatever happened they did not wish any change to bear hardly on the beneficiaries. This school meals service is surely a supplementary to the home service and, if the home food service becomes immeasurably dearer—dearer eggs, milk, bread, cereals, potatoes and sugar—and if the mother, because the subsidy is withdrawn from butter, has to buy margarine, that will bear hardly on the beneficiaries. It is more important that the children should be well fed at home and that we should have our eyes primarily on the children's meals and on the nourishment they can get at home. What they get at school never satisfies any children—they come in saying that it makes them hungry and that it sharpens their appetite.

We ought to know whether the policy the Tories are urging now is to deprive the mother at home and to give the school children a little more on the school plate. I think the Motion is inspired by political propaganda and reeks of hypocrisy and treachery.

10.41 p.m.

I am sorry that the hon. Lady should have thought fit to impugn the motives of the mover of this Motion. I do not believe that in her heart of hearts, unless appearances are very deceptive, she believes what she says. During the last few minutes of her speech, I first thought she was dilating again on the old days of Tory misrule, but I do not now think she was. I believe that of all the Prayers that have been moved in recent weeks, very few have been more justified—and I believe they have all been justified—[Interruption]—I am not going into my reasons now—

Will the hon. Member tell us that he believes what he is saying now?

I believe very few have been more justified than this one. We are not denying the value of meals in school. After all, it was a Conservative Act which introduced them originally and, if the hon. Lady casts her mind back to 1934, she will remember that it was her party which voted against milk in school—

I can cast my mind back even further than 1934 and I am reluctantly compelled to admit that I go back to 1906, when it was urged in this House by Labour Members.

I was only asking the hon. Lady to remember the date in 1934 when her party voted against milk in schools. We are not attempting to argue that it is not a good thing that the children of this country, particulary today, should have their dinners in school. All we are doing—and I believe that is not only the right but the duty of the Opposition—is to ask the Minister to justify, not only the increase by a penny, but also the Regulation which will enable him at any time in the future to increase, or for that matter to reduce, the price of school meals by any amount he likes without reference to the House at all.

Surely it is one of the primary duties of the House of Commons—and I am sure the hon. Lady will agree with me in this—to scrutinise legislation and expenditure. That is the only motive we have in bringing forward this Prayer tonight, and I ask hon. Members opposite to consider that and not to impugn our motives, which were not hypocritical, as I am perfectly certain they all know. I ask them to consider what we are doing and if the issue is put to the vote, to vote accordingly.

10.46 p.m.

I had no intention of speaking tonight until I heard the speech of the hon. Lady the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann), which seemed to have no relation whatsoever to the matter we are discussing. If we look at the front of these Regulations we find it stated:

"the substitution of the following paragraph for paragraph (2):—"
in earlier Regulations—
"In the case of a pupil in attendance at a Nursery School, Nursery Class or day Special School"—
and for some reason "or day Special School" is printed in heavy type—
"the parent shall be charged according to an approved scale of charges for meals or refreshment, but so that the charge shall not exceed the Authority's estimate of the cost of the food or drink supplied".
The next amendment is:
"the substitution of the following sub-paragraph for sub-paragraph (a) of paragraph (3):—
(a) for any dinner supplied, the parent shall be charged according to an approved rate".

Well, I happen to belong to the Church of England—in choirs and places where they sing, here followeth the Anthem. In order to explain this document I turn over to the other side, and as the bulk of hon. Members opposite have not read this document—

Well, I can only judge by their attitude. On the other side there is the Explanatory Note—and there would not have been an Explanatory Note but for the activities of myself and my hon. Friends during the war—

I agree it has not been delivered but I am entitled to it. The Explanatory Note says:

"(This Note is not part of the Regulations, but is intended to indicate their general purport.)
The main purpose of these amending regulations is to enable effect to be given to the decision to raise the charge for school dinners to 7d."
Well, I think that is an increase from 6d. to 7d. I tried to explain this document to some hon. Members when we were standing outside the Chamber—although I suppose I should not refer to that—but I am perfectly certain that nobody who has read this document has the faintest idea what its purpose really is.
"The parent shall be charged according to an approved scale".
I want to know who approves the scale. I do not know whether it is the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Education. Outside the House I call him my right hon. Friend but inside I must refer to him as the right hon. Gentleman. Who approves the approved scale, and where is the approved scale in this document? Sub-paragraph (a) of paragraph (3) says:
"The parent shall be charged according to an approved rate".
I think we are entitled to know what the approved rate is. Who approves it? Does Parliament approve it? Does the Minister of Education approve it? This is something putting up by 1d. what parents have to pay for children's school meals, and it is according to an approved rate.

I am only quoting a document which I do not suppose the hon. Gentleman has read. Who approves the rate? If it is an approved rate, surely that approved rate ought to be submitted to this House. This is a most vague, indefinite document. In the first amendment of the earlier Order, it twice refers to "an approved scale of charges for meals," but in the second it refers to "an approved rate." I hope that when the Minister of Education replies, he will, for the information of his supporters who have not read the document, tell me who approves the rate. [Interruption.] I think that we ought to know who does approve it. After all, when the General Election comes—I hope at an early date—hon. Gentlemen opposite will have to defend their action in having approved an increase in this charge.

There is a proposal to increase a charge by an approved rate. Approved by whom? When he replies, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, who may have an adequate explanation, will tell us what I want to know, which is, who approves the approved rate. [Interruption.] I really thought this House was a legislative assembly; but apparently hon. Members opposite, who do not believe in the slightest degree in democracy, are quite willing to hand all decisions to the bureaucrats. Therefore, I hope someone will explain who approves the rate.

10.52 p.m.

I am sorry that the only contribution to this Debate which has been made from the other side of the House did not concern itself with the Regulations which are before us. At least that complaint cannot be made against the speech which has just been delivered by my hon. Friend. As my hon. Friend who moved the Motion pointed out, these Regulations are not merely concerned with a matter of detail, namely, the alteration of a charge by one penny.

They involve an important point of principle. That point of principle is that by these Regulations the limitation upon the cost of school meals which exists at present is removed. At present the limitation is that the parent may not be asked to pay more than, broadly speaking, the cost of the food which the child gets. My hon. Friend pointed out that the removal of that limit has an important constitutional effect, in that a further increase could be made without reference to this House.

But there is another side to the matter. This ceiling was based upon rational considerations, and I think we ought to hesitate long before we agree to its being removed in this way. It is perfectly proper that we should regard the provision of a mid-day meal in school as an essential part of the education service, as it ensures that the children are in a condition, and in a frame of mind, to benefit from their instruction. But it is quite a different thing to open the possibility that a parent may have to pay more for that meal than the cost of the food involved.

If we do this, we lay ourselves open to this retort. The parent may say to the Minister of Education, or to the local education authority, that he or she can buy this food at the same price and prepare it at home and serve it there to the children. The parent may say that it is not reasonable that he or she should be called upon to pay more than the actual cost of the food because the overheads involved when the school serves the meal are not involved when the meal is prepared at home.

There is, therefore, a perfectly sound, logical reason behind this limitation of the cost of the school meal which this Order removes. But let us suppose, for a moment, that the Minister is only going to make the fractional increase above the present average cost of the food which is involved in raising the price to 7d. Let us be under no misapprehension that to increase the price from 6d. to 7d. will mean a sharp and permanent reduction in the number of school meals taken by children. I have made inquiries into the effect in my own borough of Wolverhampton of the increase made previously in the price of school meals, from 5d. to 6d., which became operative on 1st January, 1950. In the first nine months after that date, a quarter of a million fewer meals were served than in the corresponding nine months of the year before.

Of course, at the same time, the Minister may say, there was a move going on to prune down the number of school meals served without charge at all. I have tried to see if the effect of that made any real difference; but I find that it accounts in no way for the sharp reduction in the number of meals taken following the previous price increase. We can, therefore, assume that this action will reduce sharply and considerably the number of children availing themselves of the school meals service. Incidentally, this will further raise the cost of that service by increasing the proportion of overheads per meal served.

Therefore, in connection with this increase from 6d. to 7d., I put two definite questions to the Government. I understand that, at present, the average cost of the food is about 6¾d. If that is so, it would appear that this Order would not be necessary at all if the Minister had been prepared to impose a fractional charge—if he had been satisfied with raising the cost to 6½d. or 6¾d. He would then not have been answerable for this Order to-night. May I ask, therefore, why it was necessary to have this Order at all if the present cost of the food is still appreciably below 7d. per child?

Secondly, is the Minister satisfied that he has taken all the measures that he can to keep down the cost of school meals? From what I learn of the relationship between Ministry instructions and the school meals service, I am far from sure that that is the case. The House will be aware that the operation of the meals service in schools is closely regulated by the Ministry of Education. This close prescription of the contents of meals, in some cases, unnecessarily raises the cost of the service.

I should like to give the House one concrete example of how this happens. It is a Ministry regulation that one ounce of dried milk shall be served with each meal for each child. Now, that ounce of dried milk increases the cost of the dinner by 1d. gross; but if instead the equivalent amount of fresh milk were served, it could be given for a ½d. less per child. So the increase due to the insistence upon dried milk, under Ministry instructions, is responsible for a ½d. out of the 6d. or 7d. charged for the meal. Incidentally, I may say that the children dislike the dried milk; and it makes the preparation of the meals more difficult, as in the case of custard making. That is what is said by those who prepare the meals: I am assured that there is more risk of custard, and similar dishes, "turning."

There is one instance in which I should hope that if the Minister looked into the instructions that he issued to the school meals service, he could find ways and means of still keeping the cost per head of the food below the proposed figure of 7d., and thus avoid the two evils which this Order involves. Those two evils are, first, the actual increase, with its repercussion upon the diffusion of the service, and secondly, the abolition of a principle which is important and valuable in itself.

11.1 p.m.

It is very gratifying to those of us who sit on this side of the House to hear this eulogy of the school meals service tonight. In fact it will seem that it has almost been a love affair when one reads it in HANSARD.

During the Budget debate the right hon. and gallant Member for Leicester, South-East (Captain Waterhouse) had something to say which does suggest that this admiration for the school meals service is a very fickle thing indeed. The right hon. and gallant Member called upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer to effect a saving in expenditure of some £22 million—which, by the way, is an inaccurate figure—on school meals. He said:
"…the local authorities have no incentive, or virtually none, towards economy at all. I think I am right in saying that this service will still cost £22 million."—
Actually the cost is £25 million—
"Hon. Members who have seen this service working—I have seen it at work both in city and country districts—will know that hundreds of thousands of children get these meals, at the reduced price of about one-third the actual cost, who do not need them at all."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th April, 1951; Vol. 486, c. 1271.]
I understand, too, from what has been said tonight in this curious eulogy of the school meals service that this was a service introduced by a Conservative Government. The service was, in fact, first started by the passing of the Education (Provision of Meals) Act, 1906, which, as has already been pointed out, the new-born Labour Party introduced into Parliament and which received the support of the big Liberal majority. The opposition to this Bill came earlier from the representatives of the party opposite.

I have rarely heard such a solemn parade of verbal hypocrisy and I will try to explain to hon. Members opposite why these Regulations have been made and say something in detail about the provision of meals for school children and about the cost of those meals.

Before doing so, I think it is important to remind the House that the cost of meals was regulated by Act of Parliament up to 1945. That meant that at least the cost of the food had to be extracted by payment from the consumer. From 1945 that charge could not be more than the cost of the food. The purpose of this Order is, as the Explanatory Note suggests, to enable the charge for school dinners to be raised by 1d. from 6d. to 7d. The charge to be payable—except where remissions on the ground of financial hardship have been granted—has therefore gone up from 1st April of this year. At one time the full charge to the consumer was 5d. There was an increase to 6d., which we regretted; and we regret the necessity of making the increase from 6d. to 7d. as is suggested in this Order.

Can the hon. Gentleman help me? I have tried and failed to find what part of the Order prescribes this increase.

If the hon. Gentleman will wait a moment, I will try to explain it to him in the simplest terms I can command. In looking at this increase of 1d., it is important to realise the cost of the school meal, the normal charge for which is 14.9d. Allowing for all remissions, the net estimated cost per meal chargeable to public funds is 9.9d. The number of total remissions is 300,000, and the number of partial remissions approximates to the same figure.

Does that figure of 9.9d. include the food subsidies, because the hon. Gentleman said that it was the total cost.

The total cost per school meal is 14.9d., and the cost which is chargeable to the funds of the Exchequer is 9.9d. which includes all administrative costs and overheads. It includes everything until we come to this increase from 6d. to 7d. for the consumer. All charges up to 1st April of this year have been below the average cost of the food, but the current cost of food per dinner is a little less than 7d. It is not 6.75d.; it is 6.85d. per meal; and it is proposed to increase the normal charge by an extra penny.

This increase cannot be made without this amending regulation because at present, as has been pointed out, the Minister has no power to increase the price to the consumer above the average cost of food without bringing to this House these amending Regulations. It is perfectly clear that these Regulations sever the approved charge from the cost of food, and are related to the present economic situation of the country and the needs of the defence programme.—[An HON. MEMBER: "Hypocrisy!"]—In other words, here is a need for each Department to make what saving it can, and to make a saving with the background figure of 9.9d. per school meal subsidy from public money. The proposed increase is an economy—an economy in expenditure running to £25 million a year out of the public purse, £11,500,000 of which is being subscribed in payment by the consumer, bearing in mind all the time the various remissions numbering 600,000 which I have already mentioned. The immediate effect of this is a saving of £1 million.

The suggestion has been made that this increase will mean a further decline in the number of children taking school meals. There is no evidence whatsoever for that suggestion. It is true that the increase was dated from 1st April, but already we have some data in the Department, and there is no evidence of any decline in the number of children who are taking school meals. [An HON. MEMBER: "The children were on holiday."] No, they were not. This is data we have from 1st April.

All free meals and partial remissions will continue in spite of this Order, and the Minister has already asked local authorities to pay particular attention to families on the borderline which cannot afford to pay more than they are paying. He has made it clear that he will look with favour on adjustments to local hardship scales for this purpose. So there is no reason why the increase should accentuate hardship cases.

The hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) asked what was the significance of the amendment affecting day special schools. If he turns to Circular 235, paragraph 2, he will see the reason. As he said, the main purpose of sending a delicate child to an open air special school is that the child should benefit from the school meal. The treatment which the delicate child receives would be largely defeated if he did not remain at school for dinner and for the special period of rest which follows the midday meal. Thus, different considerations arise regarding the charge for dinners, special schools being in a different category so far as charges for meals are concerned, and charges for such meals are separately approved by the Minister.

The reference to the decline in number of those who took the school meal after the charge had been raised from 5d. to 6d. prompts me to give the actual figures. The demand for school meals in October, 1949, represented 53.2 per cent. of the school attendance, and when the charge was raised the demand went down to 50.4 per cent. in October, 1950. In February of this year, which is the latest date for which we have figures, there had been an improvement of 1.2 per cent., making the percentage of those attending school taking the midday meal 51.6; and the month of February is not the best for taking statistics referring to the school meals.

What the hon. Gentleman has said is absolutely true. Would he not agree that he has been comparing 1st April with a day in February, and that the illustration he gave that the numbers did not fall off is erroneous, because there was much sickness?

The point I am making is that there was a decline when the cost of school meals rose from 5d. to 6d. The present increase from 6d. to 7d. has shown no indication as yet of a decline; in fact, far from a decline, the figures for February of this year show there has been a reasonably steady rise towards the original position.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport) referred to the Government pledge in regard to free meals. In Circular 96 the Minister stated that the Government had decided to make school dinners free at the earliest possible date, but this could not be until canteen facilities were sufficient to meet expected demand. The condition that canteens are available at schools where they are required is far from having been reached at the present time. In any case, this rise in price has nothing to do with the Government's pledge on free meals. We could not possibly embark on such a policy unless we were certain that full provision had been made and meals themselves could be provided.

My last point concerns the analysis of the cost of school meals. I think this has a most important bearing on the discussions we have had tonight. The hon. Member for Colchester referred to costs and overhead charges. In 1947–48, the gross cost per meal was 11.8d., of which food was 5.5d. and overheads were 6.3d. In 1950–51, the cost was 14.9d., of which food was 6.85d. and overheads 8.1d., making an increase in the cost of food of 1.3 per cent., and in overheads of 1.8 per cent.

The hon. Member for Colchester laid the emphasis on the cost of overheads. We have, and I think rightly so, tried to meet the constant representations of the teaching profession over the incessant supervision of school meals. The teachers do not wish day in and day out to do the administrative work and supervision of the school meals service. Representations have been made and local authorities, following advice by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education, have engaged supervisors and clerical assistance to help in running the school meals service. Has any Member of the Opposition any objection to this?

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the National Union of Teachers have been asking for the appointment of supervisors for school meals, because we do not consider that teachers should be required to undertake that duty when supervisors can be employed?

I am perfectly prepared to believe that is true, but there are many sorts of supervisors. The supervisors who come out to inspect school meals are regarded with a considerable amount of distaste by teachers.

My right hon. Friend and I entirely support the view put forward by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas). I have yet to come across representations to the contrary from teachers. At conferences representations have been made by way of resolution and at other times by correspondence to my right hon. Friend to give every help possible in the appointment by local authorities of helpers in the administration and supervision of school meals.

There is something else to be said about the actual cost of the food used in school meals, the 6.8d. as compared with 5.5d. in 1947–48. It must be borne in mind that all food for the school meals service is bought by tender and contract. In other words there is no question of trying to get food other than by ordinary commercial channels, and we have found that throughout the country contractors have been prepared to tender and to rival one another in tendering for the supply of food in the school meals service.

There is no question that the school meals service fulfils a most important need in the life of the schools. It is run extremely efficiently, and there are cases where local authorities co-operate with private contractors and in these cases we have the greatest difficulties in keeping the school meals costs at a reasonable level which we have propounded from the Ministry. Teachers themselves would far rather have the school meals run on the lines on which we are running them now than have this kind of dual control. From the point of view of efficiency, I suggest that this service could bear examination of the most ruthless and penetrating kind. It is one of the very finest pages that anyone could refer to in the report of the Ministry of Education.

Before the hon. Gentleman resumes his seat, could I invite his comments on the central point of the Regulations, that they remove from the Minister his one restriction against raising the prices without consulting the House?

May I raise a point with the hon. Gentleman, who promised to answer my question but has not done so?

That is frequently the case, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

11.22 p.m.

I will keep the House for only three minutes but it seems that my plans have brought off a remarkable treble. It is the third Prayer that we have brought before the House and we have been accused of blatant hyprocrisy because, as Conservatives, we talk on social services. But the Minister has completely missed the point. I am sure the hon. Lady, the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann), who I am sorry to see has left her place in the Chamber, will not mind my saying that if she wishes to attribute two statements to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Alport), neither of which he made, she will not find it odd if there are certain differences.

The central point of this Prayer is this: Does it give to the Minister the power to raise the cost not to 7d.—because that is not in the Order—but to 9d. if he wishes, 10d., 1s. 0d. or 1s. 3d. The answer is: Yes, it does. There cannot be any hon. Member who does not feel deeply concerned about this. We have raised this question and put down the Prayer to get an answer. Is this power exercisable without an Order being tabled? We asked that question, and we got no answer.

The answer is, of course, that the Minister can put the price up to 1s. without any reference to the House. Can he give any assurance that if the price is to be put above the notional figure of 7d., he will come to the House and not rely on these powers, and will put another Order before us on which the matter can be discussed? That is the least one is entitled to ask. When in one moment one is accused of blatant hypocrisy and immediately afterwards the Minister says this is part of re-armament, I wonder what would have been the reaction if the Conservatives had put 1d. on the kids' school meals to pay for rearmament.

11.25 p.m.

I think we should get things straight. Is it a fact or not that this Order gives the Minister power to put up the price of meals not simply to 7d. but, if he wishes, to 8d., 10d. or 1s.? That is the real point. Here is an Order which does not mention 7d., but gives the Minister that power. All we ask is that the Minister shall give us the straight answer. Does it give him power to increase the price of school meals above 7d.?

11.26 p.m.

The Order as drafted gives the Minister power to raise the price to 7d. and it would enable him to raise it to any amount, but that is neither the thought nor the intention. If any other Order had been presented to the House raising the price to 7d., it would have been out of order; consequently this one has been drawn in this way so that it should be in order.

Question put, and negatived.