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School Meals

Volume 990: debated on Monday 4 August 1980

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12.47 am

I am grateful for the fact that I have been fortunate enough to have been drawn in the raffle to speak on the important issue of school meals.

I declare my interest on two counts. First, I am a Member sponsored by the General and Municipal Workers Union, which has a massive membership at risk with cutbacks of the school meals service. Secondly, and rather personally, 50 years or so ago, as the youngest of three children of an unemployed father, I recall walking two miles from my school to another school to partake of a bowl of soup and a slice of bread, and then walking two miles back again. Hon. Members can imagine that, when one is 7 years old and has only one and a half hours in which to conduct the operation, there is not too much time to gobble down a bowl of soup and a slice of bread with a two-mile walk each side of that meal.

There is no way in which I am prepared to see the children of my constituents in Newcastle upon Tyne, West subjected to this miserable indignity—for that is what it was. Let this House clearly understand that that is exactly what can and may well happen again in the deindustrialised North if this despicable Government carry on with their awful inhuman policies. We can and we shall go back to the soup kitchens that I remember so well in the city of Newcastle upon Tyne.

The school meals service in England and Wales is rapidly being killed off by local authorities. The crisis in the service has been stimulated and provoked by legislation and the imposition of expenditure cuts on local authorities.

The Education Act 1980 removed the requirement that the local education authorities should provide a midday meal for every child who wanted one. The Government drastically reduced the number of children eligible for free school meals by confining eligibility to children from families receiving family income supplement or supplementary benefit. First the Government and then the local education authorities dramatically increased the cost of a school meal. Released from the Government-imposed obligation to provide school meals, local education authorities have made the school meals service the scapegoat for cuts in local authority expenditure.

Let us look at the history of the school meals service. Since the Education Act 1944, local education authorities have been under an obligation to provide a suitable midday meal for every pupil who wants one. Authorities were required to comply with certain nutritional standards. The Act's requirements were the culmination of a campaign dating back all of 50 years. As early as 1896 legislation enable Parliament to provide free meals from public funds for "necessitous children". I vividly remember that phrase. The eligibility requirements were tightened in 1934 to include the requirement that children must have detectable malnutrition to qualify for free or cheaper meals.

By then, fortunately, my late father was in full-time employment, and he did not lose a day's work until the day he retired 14 years later. That was after 12 years of unemployment. I say that lest anyone thinks that he was a lazy man; lazy men do not work for 14 years without losing a day's work.

By 1939, 250,000 children were getting free school meals. The Second World War and the consequent rationing provided a further reason for ensuring that all children received at least one nutritious meal each day. This desire formed the background to the eventual 1944 legislation.

Two recently published studies suggest that school meals are an effective way of reaching those children most in need. Both studies observed the height of a sample of children, and found that free school meals went most often to the shortest children. Height in children is a good indication of nutritional status. However, additional studies have also shown that school meals often fail to meet the nutritional guidelines laid down in regulations. These studies concluded that the nutritional quality of school meals needed to be beefed up.

We should look at the present Government's approach. The Government have abandoned all responsibility for the nutritional quality of school meals. That responsibility has now been devolved to the local education authorities, as part of the Government's calculated strategy to undermine the school meals service. The first part of the strategy revolved round this year's Education Act, which allows the authorities to decide what, if any, school meals to supply. It allows them to charge whatever they like for the service provided. The exception to both those rules is that the LEAs are compelled to provide a meal for
"any pupil whose parents are in receipt of supplementary benefit of family income supplement so as to ensure that such provision is made for him in the middle of the day as appears to the authority to be requisite."
Although the Act retained the duty to provide meals to poor families, the means test for eligibility for free meals was withdrawn. Over 500,000 children lost their entitlement to a free school meal at the same time—and this was at a time when it was estimated that 460,000 children entitled to free meals were not claiming them. Clearly this law had grave implications for the economics of the school meals service. So, too, did the rapid escalation in the cost of school meals at the end of the 1978–79 school year. The centrally determined price was 25p per day. By June 1980 no local education authority was charging less than 35p, and many were charging 50p.

Northumberland had already increased its charge to 55p a day. It is no coincidence that. Northumberland is the one Tory bastion in the North-East. Durham county and all the five metropolitan district councils maintain a 35p charge. Northumberland county will not last long as the final bastion of Toryism Next year should see an end to it. The first £1 a day school meal is quite likely to be served very shortly in Lincolnshire, where a cash cafeteria system will replace the existing school meals service from January of next year.

The increased charges for school meals will undoubtedly reduce the take-up. The Tories were well aware of the inevitable outcome when they embarked upon this policy. When school meals charges were increased by 10p a day in September 1977—and the Labour Party was in office then—the take-up fell to 648,000. To help cover up the cynical destruction of the school meals service, this Government have discontinued the spring and summer census of take-up in the school meals service. Only the autumn census remains.

In October 1978, 3 million primary school pupils, including 600,000 free meal pupils, received school meals. That represented 76 per cent. of those eligible. There were 2 million secondary school pupils, including 400,000 on free meals, who received school meals. That was 54 per cent. of those eligible. In special schools, 100,000 pupils, including 34,000 on free school meals, received a meal—equal to 95 per cent. of those eligible. The narrowing of eligibility for free school meals disfranchises over 500,000 school pupils.

Price increases will have further devastated take-up. Dorset county council, God forgive it, increased its charge to 45p a day. The result is that only a quarter of pupils in schools from the under-12s now take school meals, inluding free meals. Dorset estimated a drop of 20 per cent. in demand when charges increased again at the start of the summer term. Instead, take-up plummeted to 39 per cent.

I speak with a little feeling about the stigma of the situation. The massive decline in the numbers taking school meals will leave a residue of children taking free meals. Inevitably the difficulties already experienced in preventing identification of these children as poor must increase. Such identification can cause enormous psychological damage to children. I hope that no one will run away with the idea that, because of what I have said earlier, I am psychologically damaged. I might well have been, had I been a weaker character.

Such a development is likely further to reduce the take-up of free meals among those families who most need them. Even before increases in the school meals service, the combination of the fear of stigma and ignorance of their rights deterred an estimated 460,000 children from taking free school meals. I do not apologise for repeating that figure. In Dorset, where it has been decided to discontinue the school meals service for children under 12, some form of food will be provided only for those children whose parents receive supplementary benefit or family income supplement. It will, therefore, be absolutely impossible to conceal their identity.

Local education authorities are now free not only to charge what they wish for the meals they produce but also to provide whatever amount of food of any nutritional value they please. Inevitably the LEAs have cut back on both the quantity and the nutritional content of the food they provide. "Snacketeria" and other services now abound, and the use of school meals to combat social deprivation is virtually at an end at the very time when Britain's unemployment level is inflicting hardship on increasing numbers of working people.

Three hundred thousand jobs are at stake and many of the new unemployed may well be from the school meals service. Before the onslaught of this Government, 300,000 people were employed in the service. Now every LEA is cutting back on school meals. Initially cuts were made through natural wastage, early retirement and voluntary redundancy. Cuts in hours for part-time staff were also common.

Now Dorset county council has announced the end of school meals for the under-12s despite protests from my union which organises the staff there and despite the protests of parents and school staffs. Over 700 redundancies have already been announced, and the Dorset school meals service has lost over 1,000 of its 1,500 staff since January. Moreover, the redundancies have been announced in a heartless and cavalier fashion without the proper consultation provided for under the Employment Protection Act. So anxious was Dorset county council that there should be no new term for its dinner ladies that the statutory 90-day period of consultation has been completely ignored.

Local education authorities all over the country look set to follow in Dorset's footsteps. Gloucestershire has announced up to 900 redundancies. North Yorkshire has announced that it will make 400 staff jobless. Dudley county council and Devon county council have also inflicted redundancies. But even where there have been no redundancies jobs are still being lost. Northamptonshire has cut out 301 jobs and Devon has cut the equivalent of 200 full-time jobs.

At the outset the TUC estimated that the Tory measures would take out up to 40,000 jobs and it is now clear that Tory legislation has totally undermined the school meals service. The service is being made the scapegoat for local authority expenditure cuts. All 300,000 jobs are now at stake.

I conclude by asking the House a question. Is there anything great about a Great Britain which publicly identifies each and every child in the country who suffers the deprivation caused by unemployment? That identification will be made to all and sundry but most of all to their school mates. No group is more cruel than school kids.

Surely no hon. Member can be so naive as to believe that as and when the LEAs cut out provision of staff and kitchen facilities they will make provision for supplementary benefit and FIS kids in every school. Of course hon. Members are not so naive, no matter what columnists such as Crossbencher or John Junor may say about us. None of us is as thick as to believe that.

We all know that kids on FIS and supplementary benefit will be fed communally at what the many unfortunate youngsters of my generation knew as soup kitchens.

1.4 am

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown) is to be congratulated on two grounds: first, on coming first in the ballot for a debate on school meals; and, secondly, on the way in which he has covered nearly all the ground. His speech makes further comment almost superfluous. I am sure that that will appeal to hon. Members from London constituencies, who are waiting to speak in the debate on London. Nevertheless, despite the way in which my hon. Friend covered the ground, I should like to put a few further points on the record, even though hon. Members will recognise them as being not too different from points already made.

We have discussed this issue many times in the past 12 months on the Floor of the House and, at length, in Committee. The central charge that we who opposed the Education (No. 2) Bill make is that it is the Government's deliberate intention, under the guise of increasing local authority freedom, to dismantle the school meals service. That is the charge to which the Minister addressed himself on 13 February when we considered the Report stage of the Bill. It remains our charge, and evidence indicates increasingly that that is the consequence of the changes made in the schools meals service by the Act, as it now is.

One can see two factors. Higher charges for school meals are leading directly to a reduction in the level of school meals provision. Second, as a consequence of that reduction, inevitably redundancies on the scale that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West indicated have occurred, are occurring and will continue to occur, probably at an accelerating rate.

Let us consider the changes that the local education authorities have made. Fifty-eight of 102 local education authorities have increased their prices, and all report a drop in the take-up. The reduction is particularly marked in those authorities that have imposed the largest price rises. They are Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Hampshire, Humberside, Northamptonshire—where there has been a reduction in demand of at least 50 per cent.—Northumberland, mentioned by my hon. Friend, and Solihull. They have increased their prices to between 50p and 55p per day. Not surprisingly, they cannot understand the reason for the fall. To Labour Members the reason is clear; parents cannot afford to pay those prices.

Local education authority chiefs are surprised to find that the price rises have not relieved the pressure on their budgets. It is hardly surprising that that has not happened. Perhaps I may quote here a comment in the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) to the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Brinton), who, perhaps not surprisingly, is not present. I apologise for the technical jargon. My hon. Friend said:
"If, there is a diminution in the marginal propensity to consume as a consequence of the rise in school meal prices how much of a loss is the county of Kent prepared to sustain on each school meal by under-charging for nutritious or even non-nutritious meals? Will the consequences not be that, even with higher charges on that scale, under the freedoms given in the Bill the cost of the schools meals service per unit to the providing county will be greater and thus defeat the hon. Gentleman's objective?"—[Official Report, 13 February 1980; Vol. 978, c. 1566.]
Even taking account of the jargon, that explains succinctly what is happening in a great many local education authorities. They are increasing the price and as a result the demand is falling. That is proved beyond a shadow of doubt by what is happening in Dorset. Following price increases, demand has dropped by 50 per cent. As a consequence, the local education authority has wisely decided to phase out school meals for primary pupils, with the exception of its statutory obligation to provide meals for those children covered by the very mean free school meal provisions of this Government. We should note that it is a cold meal.

Devon is the first county to see the logic behind the Tory Government's policy. I believe that Dorset is the first in a long line of local education authorities that will reduce, if not stop, its school meal service. Dorset demonstrates that, as the price of school meals increases, demand decreases, and that ultimately the only option is to stop the service. In those authorities where prices have not been increased, which are mainly Labour-controlled, working-class areas, such as Barnsley, Bradford, Gateshead, North and South Tyneside, Sheffield, Sunderland and Manchester, there has been no fall in demand for traditional school meals. Rapidly rising charges lead to a dramatic drop in demand and place the service in jeopardy. Those areas that have not increased prices should not be forced to maintain the service at the expense of other parts of the education service.

The Minister claims to be compassionate. Even at this stage I appeal to him and his right hon. Friend to reverse their policy on school meals and maintain the grant for 1980–81 at the level of 1979–80. Their policy is placing an intolerable strain on many family budgets. Parents are faced with the invidious choice of deciding whether they can afford to pay for a school meal. Many are finding that they can no longer afford it. We shall not know for many years the consequences of the reduction in take-up of school meals for children's health and general well-being.

I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to insist to the Prime Minister on a reversal of the policy. Failing that, the right hon. Gentleman should do the honourable thing and resign.

1.13 am

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown) on his good fortune am: good judgment in initiating this debate, even at this time. I am only sorry that our colleagues with other debates will have a long wait.

This is not the first time that I have sought to draw the problems of the new legislation to the attention of the House. I raised an Adjournment debate on 23 May, when I dealt with the serious problems that I believed were developing in school meal services. That was two months ago, when there was still speculation about the issue. We know what is happening. More local authorities have made their decisions. There has been a spectacular drop in demand for school meals all over the United Kingdom.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), in reply to my Adjournment debate, spoke about the benefits of the new system and the increased freedom that the Government were giving to local authorities. In his closing sentence, he said:
"the school meals service has improved rather than deteriorated because of the variety that is now available".—[Official Report, 23 May 1980; Vol. 985, c. 1016.]
"Variety" is indeed the word. Apart from the children of families in receipt of family income supplement or supplementary benefit who must have something to eat—goodness knows what—a fine old variety of alternative versions of Tory deprivation has been made available to our children.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) summed up the effect of the Education Act 1980 with uncharacteristic brevity when, on Second Reading of the Bill, he said that local authorities would have the power, the glory, but not the money. That is what it is all about. In Scotland, £18·2 million is missing from the school catering budgets of Scottish local authorities because the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not the councils, has taken advantage of the so-called discretion which is written into this nasty piece of legislation. Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that he has been able to make £.3·4 million available to privileged families who want to take advantage of the assisted places scheme. But that is another story.

Coming back to the variety of meals that the Under-Secretary said was being provided in schools as a result of the new legislation, essentially four different options are available to local authorities. We have heard about Dorset. That fine county, which gave us the Tolpuddle martyrs in 1834, is likely to give us the hungry children of 1981, because it has scrapped the school catering service altogether, except for those children of families on supplementary benefit or family income supplement—and heaven knows what they are getting. It is a pity that hon. Members representing Dorset constituencies are not present to tell us what is going on in that county. Perhaps they are ashamed of what the Tory Party is doing in that respect.

The second option is that of high rates, whereby the council covers the shortfall in the budget which has been caused by the cut in Government subsidy by increasing the rates. That is happening in the Lothian regional council, which covers the largest part of my constituency in East Lothian. The council found it necessary to increase the rates by 41 per cent., for this reason and other reasons, to maintain a reasonable standard of school meals and other services at the original price. It seems clear that the Lothian electorate is satisfied with what is going on there, because, if the results of the district elections in May are anything to go by, people are swinging to the Labour Party in no ordinary fashion.

The third option is to charge higher prices for the meals. That is happening just over the boundary from my constituency in Northumberland where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West said, 55p is being charged for a meal. That obviously causes hardship for many families, particularly those who are caught in the new poverty trap which has been created, including single-parent families and other poor families who qualified for free school meals in the past but now no longer qualify because the number of free school meals provided in the United Kingdom has been halved as a result of this nasty piece of legislation. That, combined with the higher charges, in areas where they are taking effect, is obviously leading to a lower uptake of school meals, which inevitably means that the school meals service becomes that much less efficient and is subjected to much more in the way of further constraints.

The final option available to local authorities is any of a number of combinations of all those forms of cuts—higher chargese, dearer meals or a lower standard of meals. All of those inevitably lead to a lower uptake of school meals.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland waxed eloquent on 23 May about the benefits of the cafeteria system in schools. I agreed with him. It stands to reason that in secondary schools children would benefit from having a choice of what to eat. However, on that occasion the Minister conveniently overlooked the consequences of that sort of system in primary schools. I invite the House, and the Minister in particular, to speculate on the joys of 6 year-olds taking advantage of free choice in primary school cafeterias. It stands to reason that it would be chaotic and wasteful, and the Minister knows it. It is time that he faced up to that fact.

It seems to me that the cafeteria system is an interesting new development in secondary schools. I think that the House would welcome the fact that it provides more variety for secondary schoolchildren. But I am sure that we are all worried about the additional cost that it imposes on a lot of families. In addition, we must face up to the mounting crisis in primary schools, where children are most vulnerable to the problems of poor nutrition if they do not get proper meals.

I should like to refer at this stage to the former county of Berwickshire, which lies within my constituency. It is now within the territory of the Borders regional council. There the local authority is making the mistake of attempting to implement the Government's culinary logic, if I can call it that. There are three secondary schools in that part of my constituency where the cafeteria system seems to be functioning fairly well. Two of those school kitchens also provide a service for neighbouring primary schools. Presumably, therefore, those two are safe enough.

Besides that, I have within Berwickshire 23 primary schools which are on their own so far as the catering service is concerned. The number of children in those schools ranges right down to one school at which there are only 11 pupils. All those schools are in isolated rural communities. It stands to reason that the cafeteria system cannot work in that sort of situation. Therefore, Berwickshire is down to the one-course meal for primary children in those schools, at a cost of 35p per meal. I am sure that my hon. Friends would agree that in many cases that represents an inadequate meal at an excessive price. Once again, we must face up to the fact that the uptake of the meals has slumped seriously, particularly in the summer months.

I am concerned about the possibility that the schools meals service will not survive in any appreciable scale for the winter months, when the need will be greatest. That is because, in order to balance the books, the council has had to make several of its staff redundant. Apart from those who have been made redundant, literally all members of the school meals staff within that part of my constituency are being put on short time. It is interesting to note that the reason given on the official redundancy form is:
"Changes as a result of amendments to Education Act in respect of the statutory requirements to supply school meals."
In other words, the Government are directly responsible for these redundancies.

Previously in that part of my constituency, 42 staff worked a total of 817 hours a week, at a cost to the council of £1,416 a week, to serve 1,200 meals a day for 1,500 pupils. Come September, when the new session starts, the remaining staff will have to work 560 hours a week, at a cost of £866 a week, to serve just over 1,000 meals to the same number of children; in other words, the saving will be only £550 a week. I wonder whether it is worth it. There will be a reduction of about 900 meals a week served to the children. We can only speculate on the harm that it will do to the children in that part of my constituency.

In addition to the question of hungry children, we have to ask whether the staff will consider it worth while to carry on working under this new regime. At present, the average gross earnings of people in that part of the service are £33·71 for a 191 hour week. After the cuts, their earnings will average £20·62 for 13 hours a week worked.

That average conceals some rather extreme circumstances. For instance, in my own local primary school in the village of Hutton—I hope that my son will go there eventually if the Tories have not closed it by then—the lady who looks after the school meals is at present working 10 hours a week to earn £13·61. That is two hours a day. She has been notified that her hours are to be cut to five hours a week—one hour a day—for £7·15 gross cost to the local authority. Is it really worth anyone's while to come out of the house to do a fairly tedious and unpleasant job for an hour a day to earn only that amount of money—£1·43 a day? We are clearly asking too much of some of these ladies.

We are therefore subjecting the whole system to impossible strain, particularly in primary schools and particularly in rural primary schools, where the need is greatest. When I drive through that part of my constituency at 8 am and see schoolchildren standing at farm road ends, in all weathers, waiting for transport to school, I often wonder how many of them have had a decent meal before they left the house. I am forced to reflect on the fact that many of them, in the next school session, may not get anything more than a sandwich or a packet of crisps until their parents get back from work after 5 pm. The service will have been strangled by then because of the cuts and because the people who run the service at present will not find it worth while working in it any longer.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend's constituency is similar to others, notably Brent, the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Education, where 4 per cent. of the infant schoolchildren, 9 per cent. of the junior schoolchildren, and 21 per cent. of the secondary schoolchildren will be going to school without any form of breakfast. They will be part of the 1½ million children in Britain under the age of 19 who leave home in the morning without breakfast.

These are extremely alarming statistics, and they are all the more alarming where we are talking about the young primary schoolchildren who really are not in a position to fend for themselves. This illustrates the sort of position that the Government are creating. It causes great concern to all of us on the Labour Benches.

The primary school catering service is in extreme peril as a result of Government constraints which are a monstrous travesty of the word "freedom". The Government are guilty of a number of crimes, but this crime against defenceless children must be one of the worst of all.

1.30 am

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown), Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall). and Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) on their contributions. They have all been brief, and I intend to follow their example. However, they have been extremely forceful.

My hon. Friends have been assisted by having the practical illustration of the recent action of Dorset to which to refer. I intend to make reference to that example in the hope that the Under-Secretary of State will tell us more about the position in Dorset. It is the wish of the Opposition to expose what is happening in that county so that warnings are made available for those who might become similarly afflicted as other councils are forced to follow Dorset by dint of economic circumstances and Government cuts. Dorset has provided a disastrous example.

In a sense this is the "we told you so" debate, as I am sure the Minister will readily acknowledge. I am informed that his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has already acknowledged that when the Opposition and others outside the House repeatedly warned the Government of the consequences of implementing sections 22 and 24 of the Education Act 1980 we were accurate in our warnings and that some of our worst fears have been fulfilled.

It was for reasons only of illustration and speculation that we gave instances in Committee of the consequences of a local education authority contemplating and implementing the closing down of a school meals service for some of its pupils. Even in our darkest moments during the debates in December, January and February we never envisaged that it was possible before the end of 1980 for such a thing to occur in a part of the United Kingdom.

The Government's inspiration is the social market economy as preached by the Secretary of State for Industry. It is strange that they should have such a profound misunderstanding of the market consequences of their own policy of the withdrawal of subsidies for local authorities to provide school meals at prices that parents are prepared and able to afford. They do not seem to understand their own law or economics. If the price is increased dramatically and no change is made in the quality of the goods provided in exchange for that price, or if as a consequence of increasing the price and removing other subsidies there is a possibility of a fall in the standard of provision, the result will be a significant reduction in demand for the goods that are being sold at a higher price.

We have seen reductions in demand. The reduction of 25 per cent. was quite conventional. A reduction of 30 per cent. was slightly less usual. We have seen a decline in demand of 50 per cent. among not only secondary schoolchildren, who conventionally have a lower record of uptake of school meals for a mixture of reasons than other children, but primary schoolchildren. When we argued on Second Reading, in Committee and at all other stages that the market would follow the economic law as it has been described by the Tory Party's Front Bench, and in even more dramatic terms by Tory Back Benchers, our views were dismissed as exaggerated—a favourite word of the Under-Secretaries of State—hysterical, and as a wildly inaccurate prospect being used merely to frighten the British people.

We take no joy in making the comment that we were right. Indeed, we were erring on the side of modesty in anticipation of the consequences of the Government's Act and the accompanying cuts. It is difficult to form an overall picture. We have to rely on press reports. Some of the reports, such as those that have appeared in the education weeklies such as The Times Educational Supplement and one or two other newspapers, have been pretty thorough. However, they do not have the comprehensive resources of the Department of Education and Science.

In recent months, every inquiry that has been made into price increases and their impact on the cost of school meals has met with the blunt response that such figures are not collected.

In Committee, we emphasised that the Government were making a major alteration to a basic social provision which had been in existence since 1944. We pointed out that systematic monitoring should be continued by the Department. We so argued on two grounds. We did not argue merely for the sake of argument. We wished to discover whether the Government's reaction to the local education authorities' response to cuts would be as benign as the Government anticipated. We also thought that systematic monitoring was necessary if we were to find out the effect of cuts on the standard of service provided.

In Committee, I quoted the letter that was written on 3 November 1979 and which appeared in The Daily Telegraph. It was written by doctors, hygiene experts and other experts from Brunel university, the London School of Hygiene and the Medical Research Council. They said:
"Further, there is real danger that school snacks will be based on economic tenets"—
or, as the Prime Minister would say, "teenets"—
"instead of nutritional ones".
That danger quickly became a reality. Since 3 April, the date on which the Education Act came into force, nothing has been based on nutritional or social considerations. It is true that children are in the care of local authorities, but they are ultimately in the care of the Secretary of State. Everything has been based—as the authors of the letter forecast—on "economic tenets." It represents, not only in Dorset, but in every similarly afflicted local education authority, the desertion of an elementary social obligation. Until now, every modern Government has sustained that obligation.

We did not expect the Government to understand the consequences of the Act. As a result of previous debates, we realised that the Government had miscalculated the consequences of their policy. We took advantage of the evidence made available by Mrs. Angela Rumbold. She was then a leading light on Tory education authorities. She still is a leading light, but the lamp shines slightly more inside her bushel now. As long ago as 21 September 1979 she spoke of the £200 million reduction and said that it was impracticable to reduce the service by that extent in the immediate future, for which they were budgeting. She also said that if authorities had to make savings of that magnitude, they would have no choice but to dig deeper into other areas of education spending which were already facing reductions. That could only mean reductions in the levels of basic education provision."

The Secretary of State protested then and has continued to protest that the Government's education cuts had no implications for the classroom. He implied that falling school rolls woulds cover the cuts. Cuts have fallen on meals, milk, and transport, despite some slight interference in the smooth progress of the transport provisions. They have also fallen on administration. In August 1980, we have discovered that the Secretary of State was hideously out as regards anticipated savings. Instead of saving £200 million by withdrawing school meals subsidies he has saved only £80 million. Consequently there has been a £120 million cut in other areas of education. Some of it has come from rises in school meals prices. However, the reduction in take-up of school meals and the consequent rise in the unit cost of provision has wiped out any advantage in economic terms of following that course.

We are beginning to see where the pressing need for teacher redundancies and the effect of reduction in capitation allowances come from. The Secretary of State and the Government have failed to fulfil their purpose of making reductions out of the withdrawal of subsidies on school meals. That results in cuts in the classroom, which the Secretary of State solemnly promised would not occur under the cuts programme. The situation is extraordinary. Instead of saving £200 million, we are saving £80 million. In the process the school meals service in many parts of the country has been wrecked or is in the process of demolition. At the same time, there is a reduction in classroom provision, in spite of the Government saying that such provision is their main spending priority in education.

Between September 1979, when Mrs. Rumbold was issuing her warnings, and November 1979 when I and my comrades were issuing our warnings, there was only a short time before the speech in July when the Secretary of State plaintively told the Association of County Councils that school meals on which estimates of expenditure were over 60 per cent. above the Government's assumption presented special difficulties this year—difficulties not to the Government nor to the local education authorities but to the children suffering the consequences of that hideous miscalculation, that hideous innumeracy and stupid illiteracy which the Government have shown.

The example of Dorset is before us. It moved the famous resolution at the conference of local education authorities saying that the Government should take their hands off the education windpipe of the local education authorities, which are in the frontline. They have not been known to be generous in the past. When further cuts are enforced on them, they will have to make savage and deep cuts.

Tories for several decades have made strong criticisms of the Government. The Minister should take heed of that, not only in terms of his Government's self-preservation. Conservatives who complain are speaking with the authentic accents of those whom they represent. They find that the dimension and depth of cuts on which the Government insist are utterly incompatible with the maintenance of a proper education service, let alone with the development of an improved service in the maintained sector.

We warned that the Dorsets of the educational world would occur. The Government were so frightened that they packed off a couple of civil servants to try to pull the Dorset education authority into line. That did not work. We are left with the Government's illiteracy and innumeracy being compounded by their blindness to what is taking place.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts), the Under-Secretary of State said:
"Local education authorities must make every effort to ensure that pupils and parents are aware of entitlement to free school meals. We dealt with that in the Education Act 1980. We also enabled local education authorities to be free to adopt a higher level of entitlement to free school meals as part of that assessment."
The procedure for doing that escapes me because the Act reduces the entitlement to free school meals for 400,000 children.

The Under-Secretary continued:
"I believe that the anonymity of youngsters receiving free school meals is well understood by head teachers, and I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said. It is of paramount importance that that aspect is observed."—[Official Report, 10 June 1980; Vol 985, c. 290.]
I wonder how that paramount importance is to be sustained in Dorset, where the clearest possible definition will be afforded to children who are in receipt of free school meals because their families are on family income supplement or supplementary benefits. They will be the only children receiving free meals.

An education spokesman in Dorset told The Times Educational Supplement on Friday:
"I am sure schools will find ways of handing out free lunches with the home made variety."
The report stated that, on the whole, sandwich lunches were not normally kept in satchels in cloakrooms but were handed in to supervisors first thing in the morning to be distributed at dinner time. The official said:
"Protecting anonymity has always been difficult, even in the best of circumstances; and of course there will be practical difficulties under the new system."
He was not exaggerating. In order for those children not to be identified, we shall have to see in Dorset totally indistinguishable packing, a mass-provided service that lacks all the attributes of mass production and provision. The Under-Secretary knows that the hope that he expressed in June was an idle speculation. He is doing nothing to ensure that that hope is implemented.

Dorset's awful promise was investigated by a number of people who were trying to establish whether the local education authority was in default of its responsibilities. The Secretary of State advised those who inquired that the LEA was not acting unreasonably, because the provision of a meals service where demand had significantly dropped was unreasonably expensive and therefore the LEA had discharged its duty. The moral of that tale is that if any LEA should increase its school meal charges to a preposterous level—so high as to dissuade anybody from buying the meals—it cannot be said to be acting unreasonably, because, since the consequence of the rise in price will be a dramatic fall in the uptake and an increase in the price of providing the meal, the LEA will be exempted from challenge under section 99 of the 1944 Act or under any other legislation. What a ridiculous situation the Government have got themselves into.

I cannot believe that when the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary set their hands to sections 22 and 24 they expected to get into such an idiotic situation. They repeatedly lectured us about having faith in local education authorities and told us that the word "requisite" would be generously interpreted. We were told that LEAs would go to pains to safeguard the position of children with special meal needs. We know now that that whole idea has been demolished.

We shall have to rebuild from the ruins, and to re-establish nutritional standards and meals at a price that parents can afford and in circumstances in which children want to eat them. We shall have to build a school meals service throughout the country that meets modern needs at modern prices. The job of doing that and of meeting the needs of children and meeting our duty as representatives and as a future Government has not been eased by the Government. But the greatest damage is not to the Government's credibility but to the interests of children and parents throughout Britain.

1.49 am

I shall endeavour to answer many of the points that have been raised in this important debate. If I do not echo the congratulations of his hon. Friends, I am sure that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown) will understand that many of us have been round this course before. Nevertheless, I do not object to the sincerity that the hon. Gentleman introduced into his arguments. There were many historical aspects to which no one in the House would wish to return. I hope that I shall be allowed to proceed with my speech in some degree of peace and quiet. At the risk of upsetting the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock), I shall try to answer some of the points that have been made.

I should like to deal first with the remarks of the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). He will forgive me if I do not reply in detail to the many points that he raised about his parochial problems in Scotland. I have no doubt that the points were aired fully by him in his Adjournment debate. He may not feel satisfied with the reply, but that is no doubt always the divide between Opposition and Government. If any points arise from his speech, I shall draw them to the attention of my hon. Friend at the Scottish Office. I echo the hon. Gentleman's view about the provision of cafeteria meals in primary schools. It would strike me as crazy for any school to envisage a cafeteria system for primary school children. We would do our best to dissuade any thoughts along those lines.

The hon. Member for Bedwellty and I sat opposite each other in Committee for many months and also for several hours on the Report stage of the Education (No. 2) Bill debating this clause. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that it is difficult to form an overall picture of the effects of the legislation. We must reserve our judgment. At this stage, there is a lot of speculation. Certain decisions have been taken which may not be to everyone's satisfaction, but it is far too early for any objective assessment to be made.

The Government have made clear from the time they took office the im- portance they attach to reducing public expenditure and their determination to secure this aim. The education service could not be excused from this strategy. It will be recognised that the previous Administration acknowledged that the school meals service had become excessively expensive. The previous Administration raised the cost of school meals fairly progressively throughout the mid-1970s. Nevertheless, we wanted to ensure that, so far as possible, the quality of education provided by the schools should be safeguarded. We therefore accepted the view put forward by many local authorities that there would be considerable scope for reducing net expenditure on the school meals service if the statutory requirements could be relaxed. This would be possible by a combination of reduced production costs and more realistic charging policies.

In 1978–79, the gross cost of the service was in excess of £700 million at November 1979 prices. I am glad that the humour of the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Race), even at 1.52 am, has not deserted him. That, at 1979 prices, would be equal to a net expenditure of about £460 million after taking account of income from paying pupils. To put this into perspective—it is a matter to which the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West referred—spending on books, materials and educational equipment in the same year was just under £200 million. The sum of £460 million was the equivalent to the cost of employing 70,000 teachers in the same year. The charge for the school meal was then less than half of what it cost the authority to produce.

Those points were acknowledged fully by the Labour Administration. Now that the statutory requirements have been relaxed under the provisions of the Education Act 1980, it is undoubtedly true that authorities are facing the biggest policy change on the school meals service since 1945. While the legislation is taking place within the local authorities, many decisions have been taken and others will no doubt take shape. Everyone acknowledges that, when new legislation is placed on the statute book, it takes time for local authorities to decide their priorities and policies.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West will acknowledge that the situation in 1945, was very different from that in 1980. Society and its background, and nutritional standards, were totally different. One result of freeing local authorities is that there will be considerable variation in what individual authorities do and what priority they decide to give to expenditure on school meals. There is no doubt that many authorities have made their decisions already; others will decide over the next months precisely what they want to do.

I come to the question of Dorset, which was mentioned several times, because one or two exaggerations were made. Perhaps hon. Members opposite do not understand fully what has happened here. [Laughter.] It may take me some time to make my points clear, so I would not want London Members to be under any illusion that we could start at any earlier stage on the debate in which they are interested.

The 1980 Act does not require a local education authority to provide a paid school meals service. The decision by Dorset to discontinue the service for primary pupils willing to pay is not one that I would commend to other authorities. Everybody acknowledges that. Although I acknowledge and commend Dorset's determination to reduce expenditure, I believe that all authorities, Dorset included, recognise the value of the school meals service and the importance to it of maintaining high income from paying pupils. But the task facing Dorset in reducing expenditure on the service was perhaps greater than that for other non-metropolitan authorities. That relates to the point raised by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West.

A number of Labour Members mentioned the free school meals service. About 30 authorities have so far decided to restrict free entitlement to pupils whose parents receive supplementary benefit or family income supplement. During the summer term about 50 authorities—more than half of all authorities in England—had made no change from the arrangements which were in operation at the end of 1979. Where authorities do restrict entitlement to free meals to those children whose parents receive supplementary benefit of FIS, financial hardship can undoubtedly result from the loss of free meals, particularly in large families. But it is open to every authority to ease this by using the powers in the 1980 Act and by adopting suitable policies. I stand by the point that I made to the hon. Members for Bedwellty because that point—

has been made clear throughout the debate that we had, both in Committee and on Report.

As for the word "stigma", which the hon. Gentleman used, it has never been possible to ensure that children receiving free school meals could not be identified. I certainly hope that headmasters and local authorities will always do their best to adopt arrangements to avoid such identification.

The most important point raised in the debate concerned nutrition. The school meals organisers care about the nutritional value of the meals that they provide for children. They still have available to them the information contained in the Department's report "Nutrition in schools", published in 1975.

It has not been withdrawn. Local authorities still have that document today, and it remains relevant today, when account is taken of the updated advice from the DHSS committee on medical aspects of food policy, contained in its recent report "Recommended Daily Amounts of Food Energy and Other Nutrients".

Most authorities are continuing to provide a more or less traditional two-course meal for primary pupils. The nutritional standard of these meals will not necessarily have changed, except in regard to items not popular with the children. That is an important aspect which hon. Gentlemen must understand. While they may prefer to retain what has happened over the past 30 or 40 years in the school meals service, they must understand that great changes have occurred and that children themselves are not always taking up the food that we may have had in previous generations.

It is all very well the hon. Gentleman suggesting that I should come on, but many points were raised to which I should respond—although no doubt we can continue this matter at Question Time later today. Many hon. Members—[Interruption.]

Order. There are too many sedentary interruptions.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) indicated that it was disgraceful that children were allowed to leave their homes in the mornings without having had a meal. Whether or not he lays blame at the door of the parents or on the school is open to conjecture; he did not say. No doubt he will give the House the benefit of his opinion from a sedentary position.

I am aware of reports that many children are being sent to school without having been given an adequate breakfast, but I do not see why local authorities should be expected to make up for this. I do not see that this is their responsibility. Certainly, to the extent that some parents may have come to rely on the school to feed their children properly on the 200 or so days in the year that schools are open, they will in future have to shoulder once more what most people would regard as proper parental responsibility. That is important.

However, having said that, my Department is aware and I am encouraged to learn that an increasing number of authorities are now providing mid-morning refreshments ranging from hot and cold drinks to light snacks. This helps to meet a need and may well generate some useful income. There remains the important statutory safeguard for children from the poorest families.

I wonder what the hon. Gentleman would have to say about an authority such as my local education authority, which, far from providing any sort of refreshment during the day, in terms of hot and cold drinks, has refused to allow primary or junior school children to bring their own hot or cold drinks, such as milk, into the school. Does the hon. Gentleman have a view about that?

I should have thought that the local authority was best able to judge what policies it should determine. I have no doubt that the hon. Lady will make her views known to the chief education officer and the head teachers in her constituency. No doubt the pressure from parents, if they feel strongly about the matter, will also be part and parcel of the democratic processes in the hon. Lady's area.

I want to conclude on the question of charges, which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West mentioned. Again, there were some exaggerated comments from Opposition Members. During the summer term just ended, the average charge for the school meal was less than about 40p. Out of 96 authorities in England, 41 retained the charge at 35p, the level set by the Government last February, and 26 adopted a charge of 40p. Thirteen authorities set the charge at 45p, 14 adopted 50p, and two introduced a charge of 55p. Most authorities are planning to increase their charges next term, but the average will still be less than 45p, so far as we can tell from preliminary informal inquiries. That represents a figure well below what it costs to produce the meal. Certainly that is an important aspect, because in 1978–79, the latest year for which detailed figures are available, the national average cost of the meal was about 54p of which nearly 17p was the cost of the food and 25p was the cost of staff preparing it. The retail value of the food provided is greater than local authorities pay, because they are able through bulk buying and competitive tendering to buy cheaply.

Will the Minister now try to answer the central point put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock)? The Minister has emphasised that a number of local authorities still maintain the 35p charge, and that a number have increased it by only 5p. If that trend continues, it will mean that the Secretary of State will not reach his target of saving about £200 million in this financial year. Therefore, rather than taking satisfaction from the low average level of prices, will the Minister tell us how that saving of £200 million will be made if prices are not increased?

I do not intend to speculate on the precise nature or effect of these particular actions over the next few months. The savings must be made. I think that all hon. Members understand fully the economic condition of the country. The savings will be made.

I understood the Minister to say that the meal costs 54p. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that his fellow Under-Secretary of State, answering a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), gave a list of the charges that authorities were making, and said:

"No authority is known to be charging the full cost of providing a school meal"?—[Official Report, 13 June 1980; Vol. 986, c. 314].
If, as the hon. Gentleman has just said, the cost is 54p, Northampton and Northumberland, which are charging 55p, must be charging at least 1p more than the cost of the meal. That indicates that the Department does not get its facts right. I suspect that it has given the hon. Gentleman some bad information tonight.

The figure that I quoted was for 1978–79, the latest year for which detailed figures are available. I said that the national average cost of the meal was about 54p, of which nearly 17p was the cost of the food. Before that, I said that two local authorities were introducing a charge of 55p next term. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.

Many points have been raised. I shall read the Official Report of the debate and answer some points in writing if the hon. Members concerned feel that they have not been fully dealt with.

The hon. Member for Bedwellty spoke of the "ruins" of the school meals service. That is an exaggeration. The service is still in existence. We attach a great deal of importance to it, as local authorities clearly do. We acknowledge that it is an important feature of daily school life. I cling to the view that I took in Committee and on Report of the Education (No. 2) Bill, that we have confidence in local authorities to continue with the provision of the service. Whatever adaptation there will be over the next few months, we still have that confidence.