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Meals And Transport Charges

Volume 980: debated on Tuesday 4 March 1980

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asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what proposals he has for monitoring the increases in school meal and school transport charges to be imposed by local education authorities as a result of the Education (No. 2) Bill.

My Department is maintaining a close interest in these matters and in the progress being made by local education authorities towards decisions on the issues.

Is the Minister aware that the proposals already announced by some local authorities mean that many poor families just above the supplementary benefit and family income supplement levels will have to meet extra charges of between £5 and £10 a week? What steps is he taking to try to persuade the more reactionary Conservative-controlled local authorities to modify their policies?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has indicated the features that he would like local authorities to regard as good practice. During the passage of the legislation it was emphasised strenuously in Committee and on the Floor of the House that local authorities must determine their own course of action. We are confident that local education authorities and head teachers are aware of such families. Supplementary benefit and family income supplement is taken into account and the local authorities have power to add to that help.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is not just a matter of good practice but of new practice in the provision of school meals? Does my hon. Friend agree that counties such as Somerset, which have run schemes alongside the State traditional scheme, operating at greater cost, have experienced a bigger take-up and that parents are prepared to pay for alternative types of food? Will my hon. Friend take steps to spread such schemes to other authorities?

It is not my right hon. and learned Friend's practice to lay down strict guidelines about the precise content of meals and what form they should take. Somerset has given us a fine example of how catering can be diversified. Somerset is not alone. Hon. Members will be aware of what happens in their constituencies. The cafeteria or snack type convenience foods are the hallmarks of many young peoples' eating habits and are popular.

How many local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales have decided not to introduce school transport charges? Will the Minister commend those authorities?

I shall answer the question put from a sedentary position. My Department is maintaining a close liaison with the local authorities to find out precisely what their charges will be once the legislation has completed its passage. Not all local authorities have yet taken the full council vote. A number of recommendations have been made. It is as simple as that. I shall notify the House as soon as possible and I shall write to the hon. Member as the situation develops.

Does not the Minister's reply mean that he has not a clue what the changes wrought by the Education (No. 2) Bill will mean in terms of charges on parents, access to schools and the injustices that will be perpetrated as a result of the new charges? Has he not a responsibility to children and parents throughout the country? Is this not a desertion of that responsibility?

The hon. Member disappoints me. His synthetic indignation has occurred too early this afternoon. Not all the plans are known by local authorities. The hon. Gentleman obviously misunderstands, because the Bill has not completed all its stages. Clauses 22 and 23 were contentious and it will be some time before local authorities reach their decisions.