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School Meals (Food Poisoning)

Volume 531: debated on Tuesday 27 July 1954

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

1.52 a.m.

We are here dealing with a vast service which is responsible for providing no fewer than 500 million meals per year to our school population. While I have some observations to make upon the adverse effect of the outbreak of food poisoning on the service, I want to enter a qualification in so doing that the service has much to commend it.

These outbreaks recently have been much too frequent for complacency. First of all, let me say to the Parliamentary Secretary that on the question of hygiene the Minister did an excellent job when she issued that circular to local education authorities which is commonly called circular 272. There the advice set out for the purpose of maintaining a high standard of hygiene was admirably done. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, that advice was most comprehensive, and not only covered hygiene in connection with the equipment used for preparing, cooking and serving the food, but also included a very essential section on the importance of maintaining a standard of personal hygiene by those who are responsible for handling the food.

I am perfectly certain that, while the Minister has encouraged in every possible way what might be called education in hygiene, in which the local medical officers of health and their staffs have done an exceedingly good job aided by the lectures arranged by St. John Ambulance Service, it is my contention, whether the Minister realises it or not, that the Minister's action is a contributory factor to the outbreak of food poisoning in the school meals service.

The circular advises local authorities that food should be preserved, cooked and served on the same day. That is particularly important in connection with meat dishes, because when they are warmed up and served some time after they have been prepared, they are considered among the most potent factors in the outbreak of food poisoning. The Minister also emphasises the importance of seeing to it that all utensils that are used are thoroughly cleansed, that the walls and working surfaces in the kitchens and the fittings are properly cleaned and that high standards of personal hygiene are maintained.

These measures to maintain a high standard of hygiene involve labour time. In other words, unless provision is made for staff to do these things, it becomes physically impossible to maintain efficiently the standard of hygiene that is set out in the Minister's circular. Recently the Minister has come down on the local authorities and has imposed additional economies in staffing arrangements. I refer particularly to the Manchester Corporation school meals service where, as a result of pressure from the Minister, economies have been effected in labour supplies, particularly in the kitchens.

Not only in Manchester but also in Birmingham and elsewhere, the education authorities are chafing under this constant imposition of staffing economies which not only militates against the necessary standard in hygiene but expresses itself in increasing use of tinned foods. Even tinned vegetables, such as carrots and peas, are used. I was made aware for the first time that a potato powder, which the children call "Pom," a kind of dehydrated potato, is used as a substitute for fresh potatoes.

While tinned food may be an economy and may be labour-saving, when fresh vegetables are in season and are readily available at reasonable prices it is wrong that they should be replaced by tinned food merely to ensure that the cost per meal, as laid down by the Minister, is observed by the local authority. These two by-products, as it were, arise directly from the Minister's policy of economy in staffing arrangements—first, it is made increasingly difficult for the staff to maintain the general standard of hygiene laid down by the Minister in circular 272 and, secondly, there is an increasing use of tinned food in substitution for fresh vegetables.

In a large number of cases food is being prepared and cooked on one day and served the next day, totally against the Minister's instructions. The explanation is that the staff are unable to cope with the service unless that is done. I spoke to some girls from a grammar school about this service and they told me that whenever they smelled steak and kidney pie being cooked on a Tuesday, they knew that they would get steak and kidney pie on a Friday. I do not say that this is general. I know of some excellent school meals services where food is prepared, cooked and served on the same day.

I want to draw the Parliamentary Secretary's attention to the recent annual conference of the local education committees, held at the end of June. The conference unanimously passed a resolution asking the Minister to review the unit cost per meal of the school meal service which she has laid down; if it is exceeded, the local authority has to pay the additional cost on the rates for it is not accepted by the Minister. That resolution was debated and carried unanimously. Alderman Mrs. Smith, who seconded the resolution —representing the Birmingham City Council—said, in winding up her speech, that the Minister thought that the school meals service was overstaffed. The Minister wanted circular 272, emphasising the cleanliness of working surfaces, fittings, walls and so on, adhered to; but yet at the same time he exerted constant pressure for saving and scraping. That was her comment.

In a recent Adjournment debate I raised the question of the school meals service and asked the Minister to bring the trade unions into consultation. I repeat that request to him now. His right hon. Friend is advised by her own advisers, who have some experience of the school meals service, but she would be wise also to have other advice—that of the representatives of those who are employed in the service, people who are doing an excellent job, sensible people, full of zeal. I ask the Minister once again to bring the trade unions, both locally and at the centre, into consultation with her Department. Let the Minister hear what they have to say about the staffing arrangements for which she is responsible in the conduct of this service. The right hon. Lady will do a good thing if she accepts this advice, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will convey it to her.

I do not ask for a reply tonight on the representations I am making, particularly in regard to the need for consultation with the trades unions, but I ask that I should be given an answer later. This service is vital to the school population. We want to make it an efficient and a popular service, and that can be achieved if the Minister does not, by a policy of parsimony, kill the essential qualities of the service.

2.6 a.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle) for saying that he does not expect a reply tonight on the point that he has made about the trade unions, although I will try, if there is time, to give him some sort of reply. But I was not warned of that point, which is plainly one of great concern. It is also the case that I have not been warned of the points raised about the annual conference, or the unit costs, and I must ask to be forgiven if I do not say anything specific about those. For the rest, I think that I can answer all of it if I go straight and try not to wander into dealing with the exact expressions of the hon. Gentleman; which is the form I would prefer if there were more time. I would say that I, too, believe in the zeal and sense of vocation of those who prepare meals in this service, and I should even more readily support him if he was more willing to believe in the sense of zeal and vocation of Ministers.

When the hon. Member last spoke in this House about the school meals service, he was concerned with the decline in the number of children taking school dinners, and I think that I should begin with a word about that. The decline in the number of children taking school dinners was from 51·3 per cent. in October, 1952, to 45·1 per cent, in October, 1953; a drop of 6·2 per cent. In Worcestershire during the same period there had been a drop of 6 per cent., and in Oldbury a drop of 12 per cent. I promised on that occasion to let him have later figures when they were available because they interested him, but they show that one cannot make any particular argument from them because there is a figure of so much in England and Wales, and a different figure in, say, Worcestershire or Oldbury.

I can now tell the hon. Member that on a day in June, 1954, the percentage of children taking school dinners was, over England and Wales as a whole, slightly higher than in June, 1953–43·5 per cent. as against 43·1 per cent. In Worcestershire the figure in June, 1954, was 1·6 per cent. higher than for the previous June–50·6 per cent. compared with 49 per cent.—and in Oldbury there was in the same period a rise of 1·2 per cent.; that is, 32·3 per cent. compared with 31·1 per cent. One must not lay too much stress upon these figures, but there is evidence from them that the drop in numbers which followed the last raising of prices, as it followed the risings in January, 1950, and in April, 1951, may be at least partly temporary.

The second reason why I mention these figures is that there must be some proportion between the numbers of children taking the meals and the number of people employed in preparing them and clearing up after them. If a decline in the number of children were not accompanied by some reduction in staffing, clearly there would be a disproportionate increase in overhead costs.

I think if this were the time to be controversial I might not unreasonably resent the hon. Gentleman's expression about the Minister's actions having been a contributory cause of what he called an "outbreak." "Outbreak" sounds a very serious word; it sounds as if there had been a great number in a very short period of very serious cases. I hope to show that that is not true. Nor is there any evidence that I know of—if there is evidence I should pay the greatest attention to it and see it was brought at once before my right hon. Friend and the officials concerned—that, in so far as there have been cases of this sort, they have been in any way the consequence of any Ministerial pressure for a reduction in staff.

Of course, it is my right hon. Friend's duty to do what she can to ensure that expenditure on the school meals service is reasonable, since she pays 100 per cent. of the cost out of the pockets of the general population. To assist her in assessing what is reasonable she has the advice of Her Majesty's Inspectors in the form of a set of suggestions which are considered as a sort of broad guide on reasonable staffing proportions, and that guide is available to any authority that may be willing to use it. It serves as a basis for discussion when there are discussions with authorities, but it in no sense lays down an obligatory scale, and I am sure no local authority ever has thought it did lay down an obligatory scale.

Some authorities have scales of their own; some get along by trial and error without any systematic scales at all. The responsibility for the efficient running of the school meals service is a matter for the local education authorities themselves primarily, and it is for them to determine the detailed staffing arrangements. Local conditions vary very much indeed as between country and town, with central or scattered kitchens, a few large centres or many small ones, and so on.

When my right hon. Friend is assessing what seems reasonable expenditure for grant purposes she makes every endeavour to take full account of local conditions as well as of all the technical advice from Her Majesty's Inspectors, and it would not be proper for her to interfere with the detailed staffing arrangements by seeking to impose a particular staffing scale for a particular area, nor has she ever done so.

About consultation with trade unions, the hon. Gentleman kindly indicated that he did not expect an authoritative answer followed by immediate action tonight, and I think that was fair of him; but as he said so much about it I ought to say a word or two, and I think the most important word to say is that no Minister of Education—this is not a new thought —has thought it appropriate for the Ministry to take this step. The L.E.A.s are the employers; it is for the L.E.A.s to decide with the unions. No previous Minister has thought himself the proper person to deal with employees' suggestions or employees' organisations. But of course, the suggestion put by the hon. Gentleman will be most carefully put before my right hon. Friend. There is no reason at all to suppose, and I have made the best inquiry I can, that there is any under-staffing of the service in Worcestershire, or that local authorities, generally, are restricting their numbers in such a way as to run the possible risk of unhygienic practices. I am aware of the cases of food poisoning in the hon. Member's constituency last November. They were carefully investigated, and I feel confident the authority are taking all reasonable precautions to prevent any recurrence. The school medical officer said that the kitchen in which the food was prepared was well managed, the workers clean and orderly and conversant with the proper practices in the matter of their duties.

The advice given to my right hon. Friend by Her Majesty's Inspectors on staffing allows for the necessary standards of hygiene in the school meal service. The hon. Gentleman seemed almost to make it a matter of complaint that there was a paragraph or more in Circular 272 which was, as he said, essential to personal hygiene. It is essential, not in the sense that there was no personal hygiene before, but, plainly, personal hygiene is as important as cleaning of utensils and premises, and to mention one without mentioning the other would have been to invite criticism. What the circular has done is to make doubly sure. Many local education authorities are now reviewing, or have recently reviewed, their arrangements and are taking—I will not say an increased—an awakened interest in the question of hygiene and, in addition, my right hon. Friend has asked her medical officers to pay particular attention to it.

I will come to the question of the hon. Member's speech, which was on the assumption—any listener would have taken it for granted—that there had been more cases of poisoning in the recent past. That simply is not true; there is no evidence of it at all. The number of outbreaks of food poisoning in the school meals service has fallen steadily from 68 in 1949, to 45 in 1951 and 32 in 1953, and up to 14th July this year, 13. This suggests that things are rapidly going the right way. I hesitate to say so, (a) because I might be accused of complacency and (b) because I am reminded of unberufen the German superstitution, that, when you say things are going well, they will go wrong. But, all the evidence is that it is going the right way.

In Worcestershire there were two cases—I do not mean individual cases—two small epidemics—perhaps even that is not the correct word—in 1952, two in 1953, and, touching wood, none at all this year. And let us remember that cases of food poisoning that arise elsewhere are not always reported; cases of food poisoning that arise in schools and canteens, are, as a matter of course, reported to the medical officer of health.

About tinned vegetables, my right hon. Friend has never advised the use of tinned vegetables in substitution for fresh vegetables as an economy measure. Rather, they have been discouraged from using tinned vegetables, although it is understood in some districts, at some seasons of the year, there may be proper use of vegetables so prepared; but it has never been advised as an economy measure and it is of course for the local education authorities to provide a properly balanced dinner. I am quite sure there is no local education authority not aware that fresh vegetables are a necessary ingredient in such a preparation.

Secondly, when Her Majesty's Inspectors have given advice on staffing scales they have always borne in mind the necessity to make allowance for people to cook and prepare fresh vegetables, and certainly have not suggested that the number of persons engaged should be cut down by saving time using tin openers instead of potato peelers. That has never happened.

My right hon. Friend is very fully conscious of the value of the school meals service, highly appreciative of those who work in it, fully agrees that it ought not to lose any of its essential virtues by reason of economy, does not consider that anything she has done is likely to have that effect, or tend to that effect, and will certainly always examine with the greatest care the amounts of money allowed for this purpose, in order to avoid any such risk.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-two Minutes past Two o'Clock a.m.