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School Meals: England And Wales

Volume 982: debated on Wednesday 2 April 1980

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

Lords amendment: No. 16, in page 20, line 24, leave out from "such" to end of line 26 and insert—

"facilities as the authority consider appropriate for the consumption of any meals or other refreshment brought to the school by such pupils."

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendment provides that it is for the local authority to decide on appropriate facilities for children to eat their own food on school premises. Without the amendment, there could be dispute about how far local authorities should go in providing facilities. A local authority must provide suitable accommodation but is not required to provide cooking facilities. In certain circumstances it might be appropriate to make arrangements for storing food, but that is for the authority to decide.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) for not wishing to move his amendment to the Lords amendment. He will acknowledge that certain factors could be attached to his proposition.

I did not move my amendment because of the implications. We considered our opposition to the amendment to be more a matter of principle than of detail.

This is one of the most serious amendments to come from the Lords. It has not had the publicity which was attached to Lords amendment No. 17, which caused something of a sensation. We were led to believe during deliberations on clause 22 that the changes would place upon local authorities an absolute statutory obligation to provide pupils who brought their own refreshments or food to school with facilities for consuming that food on the premises. That was the safeguard offered. That was the undertaking and the reassurance. It was supposed to blunt fears that, given the power not to provide school meals, local authorities would interpret that provision literally and not even provide facilities for meals or refreshments on the premises.

Although our fears and the fear of people outside were not abated by the reassurances of the Government, at least they were written into the Bill. Unless we have grossly misinterpreted the meaning of Lords amendment No. 16, it appears that the force of the obligatory word "shall" at the beginning of clause 22(1)(b) is neutralised by the words
"as the authority consider appropriate for the consumption of any meals"
which appear in the amendment.

In clause 22(2)—I use it only for the purpose of illustration—we have the phrase
"as appears to the authority to be requisite."
This caused a great deal of dissension, and counsel's opinion was taken by the Child Poverty Action Group and others as to the implication of that phrase. Exhaustive consideration could also be given to the phrase
"as the authority consider appropriate".
I understand what the Under-Secretary has said. In his opinion, it is substantially a matter of the kind of accommodation that should be provided by a local education authority, and he has no qualms about saying that the authority will be expected to provide accommodation. He said that in very definite terms. As he said, it is very much a local authority matter—and I believe I quote him precisely. It is also up to the local education authority to decide whether to provide facilities for additional refreshments, such as a drink of water, or for the storage of food.

I do not want to be unduly harsh but a few examples have been accumulating in recent weeks of LEAs that are being over-zealous—I use no stronger term—in their interpretation of the new freedoms that the Government have given them under the Bill. Some local authorities have extended those freedoms to the point where they have become dead liberties. I have in mind Kent, Surrey and, to some extent East Sussex. East Sussex has applied the freedoms that the Government proffered to it in the Bill and has even anticipated those freedoms before the Bill has received Royal Assent.

The LEAs, under their present control, not just their political control—their "philosophical tendency" is the phrase that would be used if they were Labour controlled, but perhaps the Conservative Party does not have tendencies—are given the freedom to decide what is appropriate and have no obligation to serve the interests of the community other than very general obligations. The members of the local community have no power under the Bill to say to the Secretary of State "Would you come and help us because the interpretation of the word of the law by our LEA has been much too literal? It has let it be known that it does not consider it appropriate to provide a decently lit, heated and hygienic room that is kept clean and swept daily." In Kent, of course, the pupils will have to sweep the room themselves.

Members of the community have no power to say to the Secretary of State that they do not have facilities for liquid refreshment or for storage of food. Such sophistications are beyond their wildest dreams—"Our local authority does not even consider it appropriate to provide facilities for the consumption of meals." That would happen because the clause, as amended, would read
"shall provide such facilities as the authority consider appropriate for the consumption of any meals or of other refreshment brought to the school by pupils."
The onus has moved and become much more a matter of the will, whim or predilection of the local education authority. It is no longer one in which the right of pupils or, indeed, parents are upheld. Compared with this amendment, the original form of words was strongly preferable. I find it difficult to understand—even given the view of the Minister that all power should be given to these latter-day soviets and that the local authorities should be complete masters in their own domain—why the form of words in clause 22 (1) (b) which caused no problem earlier should have been amended in this way.

11.30 pm

I hope that we may have further explanation on this point, because it will cause consternation and concern among those bodies and pupils who will be relying upon a satisfactory standard of provision of facilities for the consumption of snack meals, sandwiches or whatever on school premises.

The hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) has raised a number of points, with which I shall try to deal as briefly as I can. I am surprised at the hon. Member's sudden turnabout within the past 18 months or so. He said that the Socialist Party was one which had tendencies. He certainly had some tendencies 18 months or so ago when he was one of the most indefatigable antidevolvers in the House. Now he is showing signs of not wishing to devolve any powers to local authorities.

The Conservative Party is the party of principles. I hope that I shall be able to convince some Labour Members that this amendment from their Lordships is worthy of acceptance. The hon. Member for Bedwellty and I have often clashed over the question of how one should view the role and responsibilities and commitments of local education authorities and school teachers. I do not believe that the local authorities or the school teachers are irresponsible. It is in their social interests and in the interests of the whole community that they provide these facilities and control the way in which food is consumed on the premises.

Hon. Members have graphically illustrated the problems which can arise if schools do not control pupils during the lunch break. I am confident that this amendment will result in those involved acting authoritatively and responsibly. I have faith in the capacity of head teachers to control pupils during the lunch break.

While the hon. Gentleman has every right to raise a few beacons over some of his fears and to take the opportunity to do a bit of "Conservative bashing" with certain selected local authorities, I am convinced that the head teachers will provide the facilities which they consider appropriate for the consumption of any meals. This question has to be left to the local education authorities. We believe that this clearly includes accommodation, furniture and supervision which will enable pupils to eat in a civilised manner, in suitable conditions, the sandwiches they have brought from home. The duty would not extend to providing facilities, for example, for cooking or heating food. That is straightforward. It is the intention of my Department to provide guidance to local authorities at the appropriate stage.

I hope that with those words—

I have read the amendment with some care. Would I be right in supposing that, if the local authority decided that it was inappropriate to provide any such facilities, it would be under no obligation to do so?

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to clause 22(1)(b). As amended, it would state clearly that local authorities

"shall provide such facilities as the authority consider appropriate".
I would deem that to be an obligation.

Is not the first question for the local authority that of deciding whether it is appropriate or inappropriate? If it decides that it is inappropriate, there is no mandatory obligation.

There is. Clause 22(1)(b), as amended, would state that the authority

"shall provide such facilities as the authority consider appropriate".
I should have thought that my hon. Friend would take the view that local education authorities, chairmen of education committees and chief officers of local education authorities would recognise their commitment to pupils to provide facilities. If my hon. Friend takes an opposite view, I think that he is being gravely and unnecessarily critical and disparaging of some extremely responsible people, and I hope that his fears—

It is a matter of interpretation, but I should have thought that, given the social responsibilities of local authorities and local head teachers, hon. Members on both sides of the House could have their fears allayed because of the commitments and responsibilities that exist.

I had hoped that at this late stage in our consideration of the Bill—indeed, right at the buttock of the Bill—the hon. Gentleman would not employ his favourite stratagem of dodging behind his praise of local education authorities, chief executive officers, headmasters and so on—a view that we share in full—to avoid the question that has been put to him both by myself and by the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). Is it not the case that the obligatory "shall", which precedes the subparagraph, is neutralised, neutered, rendered eunuch-like, by the inclusion of the phrase

"as the authority consider appropriate"?
Is it not the case also that if the local education authority, for whatever reason, considers it not appropriate to provide facilities in a school, neither the hon. Gentleman, with the best will and with his high motivations, which we share, nor any parent or anybody else will be able to do anything to change the will of that authority by the employment of the law against it, short of excluding the clause from the Bill? Why did not the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to do that now and leave the Bill in its original form?

Again, it is a question of interpretation of words. I can understand the concern of my hon. Friend who has raised the matter. One has to look at the phrase

"such facilities as the authority consider appropriate".
That is an interpretation of the facilities that will be provided. It may be a classroom, a kind of refectory, a converted refectory, a small dining room or some accommodation on the school premises.

I should have thought that that was putting the clock back to some Mid-Glamorgan-type view. I should have thought that the matter was clear, and I hope that hon. Members will accept the amendment.

Question put and agreed to.