I am delighted to have secured the debate, and I am very pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), is responding to it. Although this is clearly an educational matter, it has wider ramifications. It fits with the public health agenda that has been followed since 1997, and the Government’s target and commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020.
There is broad consensus that childhood obesity is a serious and increasing problem. It is storing up major worries for the future. The most recent figures show that more than one quarter of our children in secondary schools are clinically obese, which is almost double the proportion of a decade ago. The National Obesity Forum said that it was a public health time bomb, as children who are obese in their early teens are twice as likely to die by the age of 50. Some experts report that, unless the issue is tackled quickly, today’s children could be the first generation to see their life expectancy fall below that of their parents. Given the strides in medical technology and general standards of living, childhood obesity and smoking are the two key public health issues facing us today.
I want to use the experience from my constituency to showcase a joined-up way of tackling childhood obesity and improving public health for this generation and those that follow. Hull is an area of great health inequality and one of the most deprived cities in England. Using any indices of deprivation, we find that Hull is in the unenviable position of being one of the areas with the highest childhood mortality rate. Unemployment is twice the national average, heart disease is rising and is in excess of the national average, teenage pregnancies have been among the highest in England and attainment in secondary schools, although improving, is one of the lowest in England. With one of the highest obesity levels in England and Wales, Hull not surprisingly has been dubbed the country’s “fat capital”.
When I became an MP, I was struck by the statistic that life expectancy for a baby boy born today in Kingston upon Hull is six years less than a baby boy born in Kingston upon Thames. In light of that, Kingston upon Hull city council decided that, on healthy eating, it needed to get ahead of the game. In February 2004, it introduced healthy menus to primary schools and special schools. However, it continued the policy of allowing free school meals only to those on means-tested benefits, and the take-up fell from 48 per cent. to 36 per cent. Although the council was right to introduce healthy food, fewer children accessed it, and that undermined the policy.
It is also worth reflecting on the fact that 70 per cent. of those eligible for free school meals in Hull claim them. National figures show that one in four of those entitled to free school meals do not claim them. I had a look at the eligibility criteria for free school meals, and it is bureaucratic. The entitlement states that, if a parent or carer is on income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance or in receipt of child tax credit, providing they are not entitled to working tax credit and their income is less than £14,155 a year, their child is entitled to free school meals. It is bureaucratic, and there is still a stigma attached to children who access free school meals.
We also need to address the issue of families who are just above benefit levels. For them, school meals payment can be a burden. Unison conducted a survey recently and it found that the average cost to parents of primary school meals is about £7.40 a week per child. That is quite a lot of money to families on low income. More fundamentally, childhood obesity is not merely a welfare or poverty issue, but a wider public health concern. The problems of childhood obesity are not confined to the entitlement limits of means-tested benefit recipients.
Kingston upon Hull city council decided to adopt a radical approach. It considered the experiences of the Hull education action zone, which was introduced after 1997. Like many zones throughout the country, Hull allowed schools to take forward innovative projects, try them out and do things that had not been done before. In Hull in particular, schemes such as breakfast clubs worked very well. Teachers said that breakfast in school was a huge benefit to children’s behaviour, attendance and concentration.
The Labour-controlled council considered the experience of the Hull education action zone and it talked to the city’s two primary care trusts. As I have stressed, public health is at the centre of the debate. The PCTs already provide fresh fruit for four to six-year-olds in primary schools. The council and the PCTs considered what they could do together to challenge the received wisdom about school meals and think outside the box. They considered the Education Act 2002 and its provision of powers to innovate, whereby local authorities can put forward new ideas to the Secretary of State, who at that point was my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), and say, “We would like to do something really radical. All our school meals should be free.” To his great credit, he agreed that Hull could go ahead and do that. The city council was the only local authority that chose to take that step.
The proposal was called the “Eat Well, Do Well” campaign, and it was led by councillor Mary Glew, who held the health and public protection portfolio on the city council. She was a great champion of youngsters in Hull having access to good, healthy food, so that they would do far better in school and their health would be far better as they grew up.
The campaign is a pilot project. It has been running since 2004 and it completes its three-year pilot in 2007. Liberal Democrat and Tory councillors opposed the approach, so the project had to be phased in over one year. The first schools started the scheme in late April 2004, and the final phase of primary schools began in early 2005. Professor Derek Colquhoun at the university of Hull and his colleagues are monitoring the scheme, and they will produce a final evaluation in 2007.
There has already been an incredibly positive interim report, and monthly monitoring shows that take-up has been very good. So far, it has risen from 36 per cent. to 64 per cent., and in many primary schools in my constituency, the figure has reached 80 to 90 per cent. Some 24,000 pupils in primary and secondary schools benefit from breakfast clubs, free healthy school lunches and free healthy refreshments for our after-school clubs. There is also free fresh fruit for all primary school children.
To implement the policy, we needed the support of all primary schools, school cooks and lunchtime supervisors. Local trade unions have been magnificent in supporting the scheme, and Unison and the GMB in particular fully appreciated and understood that the present investment in our youngsters is vital to the future health of Hull.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and on early-day motion 2486, which deserves the support of a wide cross-section of the House. She mentioned the trade unions. Is it not the case that, in addition to the benefits that she has itemised—more nutritional school meals, wider access and better behaviour—a fourth quality that is particularly important in Hull and elsewhere is that jobs are created in the locality or community? That is worthy of note and it is pleasing that the trade unions are supporting the campaign in the vigorous way that they are.
That is absolutely right. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, as jobs are important to Hull.
I want to say something about Jamie Oliver. He visited Hull before he decided to take his television programme to the London borough of Greenwich. I think that he said that Hull was ahead of the game, and that the story was not there any more but at other local authorities that had failed to grasp the nettle. He had a look at what we were doing and was impressed.
Sue Rae, Kingston upon Hull city council’s healthy eating co-ordinator, said that:
“The council expected a drop after the introduction of the healthy eating menu. It’s quite a culture change to get children accustomed to a menu that isn’t dominated by things like burgers, chips, pizza and chicken nuggets: it takes time to educate children’s palates to a broader range of tastes and textures, but if we can do that with children in primary school then we really are giving them a better chance of being healthier later in life”.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, particularly about the ground-breaking work in Hull. She mentions the need for cultural change for children, but there is a need for cultural change for parents, too. Does she have a view on the impact of schemes such as Sure Start, which help to develop parents’ cooking skills? Will that not have an important impact on this serious issue, too?
My hon. Friend anticipates what I was going to say about the valuable role of Sure Start and children’s centres in promoting healthy eating and encouraging parents to try cooking if they have not been used to it before. They have provided some excellent courses and support for young parents, particularly in my constituency. I pay tribute to the Sure Start at the Lemon Tree and the Newland and Avenues Sure Start, which are doing some amazing work on that.
I also wanted to comment on some of my personal experiences of school meals in Hull. Early on, children said that they did not think that they liked the healthy food. Hull took a good approach, packaging the healthy food in a way that made it exciting and interesting to children. I remember a child saying to me that he did not like the sound of a vegetable and meat stew, as he thought it sounded pretty dire. However, when that was described as cowboy pie, he was much more enthusiastic.
I was very impressed, when I was standing at some school gates last year, to see children coming out of school munching on carrots and apples. When I was at school, we left eating not fruit and vegetables, but chocolate bars and bags of crisps. I pay tribute to the work of the Parks primary school, which has embraced the issue of healthy school meals. I was impressed with the work done by the staff to encourage children to try different types of food. The head teacher in particular, Cathy Byrne, is an inspiration to local families and children when it comes to trying new things and being excited by different types of food. I invited the Minister with responsibility for public health, the Minister of State, Department of Health, to visit the school to see what was going on. I know that she was particularly struck by the school and the positive messages that were being given about healthy eating.
In my debate on this subject earlier in this Parliament, I pointed out that, although some schools have a good track record in promoting healthy eating and high-nutrition meals, others allow the presence of machines containing snacks with high-salt and high-sugar content. Would it not be futile if a child had a healthy midday meal, only to supplement it with such unhealthy food? Does my hon. Friend hope that the Minister will have something to say about that?
I look forward to what the Minister has to say about the provisions in the Education and Inspections Bill about the type of food that is available in schools.
Kingston upon Hull city council was awarded the Caroline Walker Trust award for improving the nutritional standards of food in the public sector. Earlier this year, we had an international conference in Hull to consider healthy school meals. Councillor Glew, who took forward the project, wanted to ensure that older people, too, could be included in the healthy eating pilot. Some of the meals on wheels provision in Hull is now linked to the primary schools, so that older people also benefit.
We cannot just say that food is the key. Exercise is also important. I am delighted that Hull has led the way in providing free swimming to our children. Not only is there a safety issue, but if we get children to exercise when they are young that will carry on into later life.
That all sounds good and positive, and I am proud of it. Unfortunately, the progress in Hull is threatened because our new Liberal Democrat administration has made it clear that it intends to have a managed withdrawal of universal free primary school meals from April 2007. Not only is that the wrong thing to do, but it is short-sighted, as the council is taking no notice of the final report and evaluation of the pilot scheme in Hull, which the university will produce next year.
Why are the Lib Dems doing that? Before the May local election, the leader of the Lib Dems told our local newspaper, the Hull Daily Mail, that they wanted to bring back charging to provide more revenue further to increase spending on ingredients. After the election, they claimed that the policy was unaffordable because of Hull’s budget position.
The flip-flopping Lib Dem administration has changed its tune about the policy in general. The leader of the Lib Dems has spent several months rubbishing the take-up figures for the free healthy schools meals and painting universal free school meals as a failure. He went on to our local BBC “Look North” programme to ask why, if the policy was such a good idea, no other council was doing it, clearly failing to accept that it was an innovative pilot scheme and involved a local authority deciding what solution was required for its area, and that Hull was, for once, taking the lead on an issue of national importance.
The Lib Dems have also said in the Yorkshire Post that the £3 million cost of the project has presented problems for social services and crime-related services in Hull. That concerns me greatly, because anyone with a passing understanding of budgets would know that the police budget is separate from the local authority budget. More recently, when protests about the council’s policy started to grow and people heard that the scheme would be withdrawn, Councillor Minns, the leader of the Lib Dems, told the Hull Daily Mail that he would carry on with universal free primary schools meals, provided that Hull received more money from Whitehall to fund it. That prompts the question of why the Lib Dems want public money for a policy that they think is such a failure.
Others object to free universal school meals because, in the words of Hull’s Tory group,
“it perpetuates a culture of state reliance”.
Many hon. Members have been victims of such right-wing political correctness, finding that, whenever they promote measures to discourage people from harming themselves or to allow them to make positive, healthy choices in their lives—for instance, with smoking bans or measures to prevent scalding in the bathroom—they are accused of a nanny-state mentality, big Government or state dependency. It seems to me that it is more about enabling people to make healthy, better decisions in their lives. I see the policy as an invest-to-save policy. The policy of free school meals has long-term scope, as we invest now to avoid larger bills for taxpayers in future years. Childhood obesity and the related educational underperformance can lead to spiralling costs in the NHS, more welfare dependency, and a reliance on a range of local government services that are related to ill health and incapacity.
One of the less publicised aspects of the Education and Inspections Bill is that it will make permanent the local discretion necessary to allow councils to follow Hull’s example of abolishing charges in the drive to promote healthy diets in schools. We know that the Bill contains provisions to improve nutritional standards— they have already been referred to—and we know that the Liberal Democrats voted against that part of the Bill.
There must be grave doubts in Hull about the Liberal Democrats’ decision to scrap that groundbreaking policy next year. There has been massive investment in educational funding from the Government, in Hull as in the rest of the country. It is possible for Hull to continue the “Eat Well, Do Well” policy beyond the initial pilot scheme, which ends next year, within the available budget. Hull Liberal Democrats set out their stall, alongside Hull’s two Conservative councillors, as being hostile to universal free school meals and in favour of means-testing—to the point of announcing, as I said earlier, that they will scrap the scheme from next year without considering the evaluation.
I shall now concentrate on the fact that Hull’s experience is valuable nationally. Although I understand and respect the sound reasons why the Child Poverty Action Group is campaigning for universal free school meals across the country, as a localist, I do not advocate imposing a detailed school dinner policy from Whitehall on Hull or any other local authority. However, I believe that providing universal free school meals is an effective option in improving children’s health in areas of greatest deprivation. Local situations deserve local solutions.
I was pleased that, within the health arena, spearhead primary care trusts allow the most deprived areas to innovate, and to find different ways of doing things in order to reach groups that were previously difficult to reach. For instance, we have health trainers in Hull who get alongside the community and work with people who have chronic conditions.
The success of Hull’s scheme should give every local authority, especially those in areas of greatest health inequality, the incentive to use the new powers of the Education and Inspections Bill, and to follow Hull’s previous Labour administration. I assume that a great many local authorities share the aspiration to improve the diets of school children. It is for democratically accountable local councils to set local priorities on how to achieve that. That applies especially to those that are taking what I believe to be a regressive step in Hull.
Which of the Liberal Democrats’ policies will allow them to address some of the fundamental public health issues that we face today, and to ensure that our children are healthier and eating better? I do not know what their policies are: nationally, they talk about being against means-testing; locally, they use it when it suits them.
What next? In Hull, we will be fighting a vigorous campaign with local schools, parents, teachers, groups such as CPAG and trade unions to try to get the Liberal Democrat administration to change its mind before taking that step. Rob Batty, the Unison branch secretary for Hull, said that it is regrettable that school meals have become a political football. He will be working hard with other unions to mount a joint campaign with parents. Les Dobbs, the regional officer of GMB, said that the union is committed to action with parents. We want to promote best practice in fighting childhood obesity, and all that that is storing up for the future. In Hull and similar places, it may mean not only keeping universal free school meals in primary and special schools, but extending it to secondary schools.
I want to make it clear that I do not seek additional funds from Westminster for Hull’s scheme to continue. As I have already said, Hull, like everywhere else in the United Kingdom, has received a massive investment in education and health since 1997, and it has the power to pursue local initiatives. I am much more interested in local councils and PCTs pooling budgets creatively, and considering local area agreements and other methods of dealing locally with the public health agenda. Hull already has a joint director of public health, and the PCTs and the local authority show that we can have an effective partnership at that level.
I invite hon. Members to support my early-day motion 2486 on childhood obesity and healthy school meals. Liberal Democrat Members have a choice: they can distance themselves from their administration in Hull, or they can support the council’s regressive, wasteful and confused policy, which is to the detriment of a whole generation of children in Hull.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) on making a powerful and compelling case. I do not think that either side of the House would argue about the importance of public health. It is crucial to the future of our children—and, indeed, to the future of our country, particularly the most deprived areas.
I want to talk a little about my constituency in Swindon. Although everyone agrees on the general principles, when it comes to local decision making, local authorities all too often seem not to understand the importance of public health.
Before I go on to deal with junk food and healthy diets in Swindon, I shall pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North about free school meals. She made a good case for Hull’s visionary experiment, which pioneered innovation for universal free school meals—an attractive option. We have not been quite so visionary in Swindon, but my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) and I have been trying to work with Swindon borough council for nearly 18 months to get it to drive up the take-up of those entitled to free school meals. We all know that too few of those entitled to free school meals are taking them. A lot of information is held about entitlement, but data protection issues make it complicated to translate that information in a way that would allow us to encourage those entitled to free school meals to take them.
They are complex issues, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon and I have been engaged in dialogue with the council and Departments. Data protection is important in protecting the liberties of every citizen, but that is no reason not to do things that are in the public interest. Data protection is often used as an excuse by lethargic bureaucrats not to do things that are perfectly possible under data protection legislation, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look again at the matter and to get his officials to work with other Departments and local authorities to overcome those data protection impediments. Resolving that problem would drive up the take-up of free school meals by those entitled to them.
I want to talk about two issues in relation to healthy diets in Swindon. When the Conservative administration took over in Swindon, it rapidly came to the decision that it could no longer afford to subsidise hot school meals, and it asked schools to make alternative arrangements. Unfortunately, a number of primary schools were unable to make such arrangements, and as a result some primary school children no longer have the option of a hot school meal.
I was concerned about that, and I conducted a survey of primary school heads in my constituency. It is not a scientific result, but it is a reliable indication of the scale of the problem. The head teachers’ estimation was that in some schools, particularly those serving some of the more deprived areas, up to 25 per cent. of children received their only hot meal of the week at school. As a result of the council’s decision, even that is no longer possible. Swindon is a relatively prosperous constituency with areas of deprivation, but some primary school children receive no hot school meals.
There is some dispute about how essential a hot school meal is for nutrition; some people make the case that it is perfectly possible for someone who eats only cold school meals to have a healthy diet. I tend not to believe that, but for important social considerations it is important for children to sit together and have a hot school meal, or at least have the option of doing so. Having one is not possible in Swindon primary schools.
Fortunately, thanks to the Government’s new investment in school diet, Swindon borough council is to receive a significant sum of new money. It has told me that, as a result, it will consider reintroducing hot school meals by 2008. However, I am concerned by recent local newspaper reports suggesting that the council’s suddenly estimated costs for providing those hot school meals are way beyond what they used to be and way beyond the new investment that the Government are providing, and that the council is looking for a way not to provide the option of a universal hot school meal for primary school children in Swindon.
I am deeply concerned about that and would be grateful if the Minister gave some indication of his Department’s policy on hot school meals for primary school children; I know that it has been considering the issue. I would also be grateful if he did what he could to encourage local authorities, such as the one that I mentioned, to look much more constructively at the issue. We cannot take risks with the health of our young people, but I fear that that is at stake.
I turn to the issue of junk food in leisure centres. To its credit, Swindon borough council set up a working party to consider that issue, and it came forward with a number of recommendations. One seems important: to ban the sale of junk food in the council’s leisure centres. It seems pretty obvious to me that junk food on sale in a borough council leisure centre sends the message that such food is acceptable for the young people who enjoy the facilities. That message is unacceptable.
In looking at the issue and rejecting the recommendation of its own working party, the borough council said that the issue was one of freedom of choice and that it should not dictate what young people should eat. With all respect to the council, that slightly misses the point. Of course everyone believes in freedom of choice, but since the 19th century, elected representatives have placed constraints, on grounds of health and safety, on the freedom to sell absolutely any food to absolutely anyone. That is the issue here.
We should not send messages to young people or their parents that junk food is a viable healthy diet. It simply is not, although that does not mean that people should not enjoy it as part of a balanced diet. No elected body or borough council should send out that message, particularly to young people. Having junk food on sale in a leisure centre sends out precisely the wrong message.
I would be grateful if the Minister had a look at the issue. The Government have legislated to try to protect people from the consequences of all sorts of unhealthy options in their lives. Does he think that the practice of putting junk food on sale in borough council leisure centres should be encouraged?
Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North on raising this very important subject. I have been glad to make my contribution just on what is happening in Swindon. The issue is crucial for our young people; anything that the Government and the Minister can say to encourage all local authorities to take a more visionary attitude, such as that adopted by the Labour administration in Hull, would be very welcome—on both sides of the House, I hope.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) on securing this debate. I have also signed early-day motion 2486 and encourage all hon. Members on both sides of the House to do the same.
I am pleased to contribute to this vital and topical debate. The policies that we adopt to fight childhood obesity will be vital to ensuring that we limit the damage to our nation’s future health. I was pleased to hear that the pioneering free school meals pilot in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North will continue. It shows the folly of the Liberal Democrats’ attempt to scrap the scheme; they have now been forced into a U-turn.
There is an unbreakable bond between the two issues being discussed today. Although a focus on school meals can only ever be part of the solution to the growing problem of obesity in our society, I hope that by setting a strong, healthy example to our children, we can aim to tackle the problem at source.
Everybody seems to have an opinion, whether good or bad, on their school meals. For some, they are responsible for a lifelong love affair with great British food. In fact, one has only to mention jam roly-poly to see pudding lovers—myself included—turn gooey-eyed with reminiscence. For others, custard may always remain a byword for the inedible.
More recently, school meals have fallen under a less nostalgic spotlight. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Jamie Oliver, we are having to face up to the consequences of opening up our school kitchens to competitive tendering. The “profit at all costs” mentality so prevalent throughout the era of Conservative Government has led to our nation’s school dinner tables becoming awash with high levels of salt, E numbers and mechanically recovered meat. We are only just beginning to see the true cost of that neglect. The 2003 report by the Select Committee on Health stated:
“On some predictions, today’s generation of children will be the first for over a century for whom life-expectancy falls.”
That is simply not acceptable.
The cost to the economy of the rapidly rising levels of obesity is conservatively estimated at about £3.5 billion a year. On top of that, obesity is rapidly closing in on smoking as the biggest killer in Britain. Good education is fundamental to combating the rising threat of obesity to our nation’s health. For those reasons, I strongly urge the Government to work towards the universal provision of free school meals, particularly for primary school children. For the 190 primary school days in the year, we should get back to the basics of the great Labour reformers of the post-war era and provide all children with food suitable in all respects as the main meal of the day.
I welcome the proposals in the Education and Inspections Bill, which will remove the statutory obligation on schools to charge pupils who are not exempted for school meals. The long-term goal of introducing free school meals would show true Labour values by fighting discrimination, battling the causes of poverty and ensuring that every child has an equal opportunity to lead a healthy lifestyle.
It is unfortunate that, despite attempts by local education authorities, there is still a stigma attached to free school meals. I should know, as someone who qualified for free school meals from my first day at school to my last. As many as one in four children entitled to free school meals do not claim them. That is an unnecessary waste; introducing free school meals for all would help to end such discrimination.
As my hon. Friend said, a recent Unison study found that the average cost of primary school meals was £7.40 per child per week; for parents with more than one child, the cost of school meals can soon add up, and that makes such parents more likely to take the cheaper option of producing a packed lunch for their children. Although packed lunches are not always necessarily unhealthy, the fact remains that it is cheaper to fill up on biscuits than bananas. My son informs me that children often swap items such as crisps and chocolate from their packed lunches. They become a valuable currency among those with the healthier packed lunches.
The pilot scheme in Hull has seen the uptake of school meals almost double—from 36 per cent. to 64 per cent. There is clear evidence that introducing free school meals reduces the number of children liable to be eating cheap and unhealthy packed lunches. In many urban areas, such as those in my constituency, it is not always possible for families to access, let alone afford, fresh food for their children. That leads to a diet high in calories but low in nutritional value.
It should come as no surprise that income levels remain a stronger determinant of educational attainment than any other factor. It is our responsibility to ensure that every child receives at least one good meal a day. That would help strengthen the Government’s strong commitment to combating the detrimental effects of child poverty. The benefits of achieving that are clear to see. A Hull university study has proven that better nutritional intake improves concentration and readiness to learn. We must help our teachers in their daily battle for the attention of school pupils and ensure that we maximise the benefits of every moment that a child spends in school. That will be easier with no spikes after a lunch of sugar and E numbers. It is our duty to provide every child with the best possible chance in life. Although I welcome the improvements that the Government have made, we must never stop pushing for a better chance for our children. Pursuing the long-term goal of free school meals would be a clear-cut case of social justice in action.
In Britain, we are lucky enough to have a tremendous amount of regional diversity in our food, and that should be reflected in the nation’s school dinner menus. By aiming to meet the Soil Association’s target that 50 per cent. of the food used in school meals should be sourced locally and that 75 per cent. of the meal ingredients should be non-processed, we can use school meal funding to sustain and boost local economies. Whether it is fresh fish, root vegetables or ripe fruit, every area has local produce that can be incorporated into school menus.
Although I will stop short of recommending Newcastle brown ale to the local education authority for the steak and ale pie in my area, research has shown that for every £10 that is spent on locally sourced goods, an extra £25 is generated for the local economy. That is a healthy return, and I applaud the schools in my constituency that have taken part in the intergenerational allotment scheme, which is run in conjunction with the charity Age Concern. Such initiatives, with a local focus, will help us to deliver nutritional value and value for money.
We should take heart from the success of other countries. In Sweden, more than 85 per cent. of pupils take free school meals. On a recent visit, I saw first hand how integral lunch time is to the school curriculum, with classes and teachers eating together as a unit, just as families should, and, indeed, most do. The food was tasty, healthy and appetising. All the children tucked in heartily, helped themselves to seconds and tidied up after themselves before retuning to wipe down the tables. When I asked whether that was normal behaviour, the Swedish teachers were astonished that we did not do the same here. They asked whether we did not realise how important it is that children eat a good, nutritious meal at lunch time if they are to concentrate and learn. As hon. Members can imagine, I had to give an awkward answer, which has only made me more determined to highlight the importance of providing free, healthy school meals to every child.
Sweden is not the only success story. Finland has succeeded in reducing its rate of heart disease by more than 60 per cent. since it introduced free school meals. More recently, the Hondurans, recovering from the devastating effects of hurricane Mitch, have decided that providing free food at school will help to strengthen the link between the education system and wider society.
In making the case for free school meals, I acknowledge that steps are already being taken in the right direction. Contracted caterers have begun to respond to the demand for healthier options, junk food has been removed from our schools and the amount that is spent on school meals continues to rise.
Almost all adults are familiar with the idea that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, and many of us will have gone to work on an egg. I am sure that all of us have momentarily wished that we ate more carrots when we have been plunged into darkness during a power cut. Sadly, however, the health and lifestyle benefits of food are not always well known to children today.
Given the long decline in school catering and the rising price of quality food, the country is left facing a long-term health crisis. To alleviate it, we should continue to strive to ensure that Britain’s children receive a top-quality education from the start of the day until the end of the day and, most important, during lunch times. We need to make lunch time a platform for teaching children the healthy eating habits that will stay with them for ever. Aiming to deliver free school meals to every child is the best way of doing that.
This is an important issue, which hon. Members on both sides of the House agree needs to be tackled. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) said, a quarter of children are obese or overweight, and that is what we should be focusing on in this debate. We should also be concentrating on finding solutions—particularly national solutions—rather than on policy disagreements at Kingston upon Hull city council.
I think we all agree that the issue of providing food in schools is critical to this debate; indeed, it is possibly the most important issue. Of course, other factors play a part. For example, young people take insufficient exercise, and hon. Members on both sides need to take that issue seriously. Nevertheless, we are all aware that high-calorie foods are cheap, available in abundance and heavily promoted directly at children and young people. I shall challenge the Minister on that later.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I want to raise a general point about the relationship between the national and the local. He made a remark about that at the beginning, but I think that he is going to move on. When he says that it is important to deal with the issue nationally, is he proposing that a national solution should be imposed on every local authority, or does he think that local authorities should have some freedom to make their own decisions?
One of the problems in this area of policy is that the Government have been quick to come up with directives, but they have not come up with any money to back them up, so the point is interesting.
As I was saying, the issue of the food that is made available to children is at the heart of the debate. Liberal Democrat Members are committed to all children having access to a healthy and affordable school meal option. Otherwise, as I am sure we can all agree, the problem will continue.
What I think we will find it much harder to agree on is the fact that the Labour party consistently and rather tediously demonstrates a bizarre Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde relationship, or a love-hate relationship, with the idea of local power. Here we are debating the situation at Kingston upon Hull city council, but the simple fact is that every local authority, of whatever colour, must makes decisions according to the local priorities in their manifestos and according to budgetary restrictions. The sad fact is that, every time a non-Labour council makes a decision that local Labour Members do not like, those Labour Members cry blue murder, even if that council happens to be in Scotland, where there is a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition Administration.
Just so that I am clear in my mind, will the hon. Gentleman explain the national Liberal Democrat policy on school meals? Is he saying that the Liberal Democrats do not support free, healthy school meals in local authorities? Is it his view that there should be affordable school meals?
I am minded not to take any more interventions from the Labour Benches, although I will quite happily take one from the Opposition Benches, if the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) wants to make one. It is rather tedious to have interventions before I have set out the substance of my speech. I will indeed give some suggestions about national policy if I am allowed to do so in the limited time that we have.
Labour Members have a strange relationship to the decentralisation of power. They think that it sounds good on paper, but when non-Labour authorities happen to be in control, they do not like it. That is regrettable, and the fact that they have resorted to sending one of their local MPs to raise the issue at Westminster, when it is clearly a matter for the local authority, shows some of the motivation behind the debate.
Let us talk about some principles. We have heard the misleading suggestion that Liberal Democrats do not agree with means-testing. That comes from the fact that we support the idea of a universal citizen’s pension, and we are proud to do so. Like everyone else, we support the idea that everyone should have access to school education, and we do not think that they should pay for that. We also, of course, support such things as free personal care for the elderly and free access to higher education to first degree level. However, we must be clear what the principles are. The principle of free education for all is based on that being a good thing, and a right. It is not based on our thinking that it is a progressive policy.
In response to the questions put by the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, North and for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), there is a sensible debate to be had about whether we should provide free school meals for all primary school children. I would happily take part in that debate, and would be happy for my party to take part in it. It is not Government policy, and if the Labour party wants to put it in its manifesto at the next general election, I look forward to seeing it. We know that the things that go into Labour party manifestos are generally not worth the paper they are written on, but that is another story.
One myth in the context of the debate is the suggestion that the pilot scheme in Hull has been scrapped. It has not been scrapped; it is running its course. It is a three-year pilot scheme and it will continue. A pilot scheme runs for a certain period. As to the idea that the findings will not be looked into, they will be looked into once the pilot scheme has ended. The council has made it clear that it will consider the university of Hull’s independent evaluation. When we have the result, depending on what it is—we obviously have some interim figures—it may be the right time for the council to lobby central Government to ask for funds to continue the scheme. That is where the debate arises. It is ridiculous to suggest that something costing £3.8 million a year must not be assessed alongside other council priorities. If any of the national parties want to adopt a policy of free primary school meals for all, they can do so. We can have that debate and they can say how the measure will be costed, but the responsibility cannot be forced on to local authorities without the money being provided.
Two things are particularly important in considering where to divert resources. I accept that some hon. Members take the position that there should be free primary school meals for all. I suggest—and I challenge the Minister to give us his thoughts—that we have seen what is most fundamental in school meal provision, and that is the quality of the meals and making the meals nutritionally valuable. We all know that that has not been the case, and we have heard examples of that. The Government have responded very slowly, but at least there are measures in place now and we look forward to the problem being addressed. However, if there is a need to put resources into something, they should clearly go there, to the benefit of all.
The second important matter concerns raising the threshold of free school meals. I thought that it was valuable to hear from the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West about her experience and the stigmatisation that went on. Consideration could be given to the threshold and to ways of including more pupils in the scheme, perhaps in such a way as to avoid stigmatisation. It could sensibly be argued that the money available would be better spent in those two areas than on universal provision, because there is a danger that that would mean universal provision of inadequately nutritionally balanced school meals. I am sure that that is not what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North is suggesting, but those are real issues and everything comes down to limited budgets and priorities.
If I tackle head on the question whether there should be free school meals for all, from my own position as a parent—admittedly of a one-year-old, who will not be starting school for a few years—I must ask whether I should expect or demand that my child’s school meals be paid for while I am on a salary of £59,500 a year. Actually, I do not.
Free personal care is based on the fact that people who have contributed throughout their life to society should be looked after by society. That is an easy one to deal with. I do not believe that I need the state and the taxpayer with their limited resources to pay for my children’s school meals. I look forward to participating in that debate.
I think that a veil should now be drawn over the situation in Hull, and it should be left to the people of Hull to decide about it in a democratically accountable way. Kingston upon Hull city council has made it clear that it is and will remain committed to healthy meals for all children, and will consider the conclusions of the pilot programme next year. It has, indeed, decided that the resources would be better spent on the overall quality of food, rather than on subsidising everyone, including the rich, to receive those things. That is the policy that it is putting forward. However, for those hon. Members who want the scheme to continue, the Minister is sitting in the Chamber. The leader of the city council, Councillor Carl Minns, has written to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills dealing with the point that, if universal free school meals are such a good idea, there should be Government funding for them. Let us see what the Minister will say about that.
I want briefly to deal with the points that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North made in relation to overall policy. The impetus provided by the school meals debate in the past couple of years is welcome, although her holier-than-thou attitude is a little tedious considering that it took a chirpy TV chef and a prime-time television programme to get the Government to do anything to face up to childhood obesity and the appalling food being served in too many of our schools. The Minister will be well aware that some schools have found the money that they needed to fulfil the Government’s requirements—the 50p per head at junior schools and 60p per head at secondary schools. When will we receive a clear indication of where the funding is expected to come from? Will it be simply an extra burden on councils, without any help, or is it suggested that schools will effectively have to raise funds to reach those standards voluntarily? Will the Government commit to maintaining the expenditure increases that will, of course, be involved beyond 2008?
Vending machines in health centres have been talked about, but of course we have a problem with vending machines in schools. The Government are not at this stage tackling the issue well enough. I have some experience of the involvement of companies as I used to work for a marketing agency that had Britvic Soft Drinks as a client. What Britvic Soft Drinks was interested in was getting as many of its soft drinks as it could—as many brands and as much volume—down the throats of children, including primary school children, as regularly as possible.
We must accept that the pressures of the market and of profit affect what happens; increased regulation is needed. We all know that there is financial pressure on education and there always will be. However, some schools make £2,500 a year from vending machines. Clearly those responsible for them feel that, because of the pressures on them, that is something that they must, with regret, do. However, figures from the School Food Trust show that the food and drink companies make profits of £45 million a year from vending machines in schools. That is an issue that the Government have not tackled head on. We believe that food from school vending machines should meet minimum health and nutrition standards, just as any other foods provided in schools should.
Another interesting question that has come out of the Education and Inspections Bill is what would happen if an academy were sponsored by Britvic Soft Drinks or Coca-Cola. Would there be pressure to have those products in the school? That is an interesting issue that I want to put to the Minister.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
The final issue that I want to raise with the Minister is the advertising of unhealthy food during children’s TV programmes. The Government have not yet decided to ban the advertising of junk food during such programmes, despite evidence that it contributes to the obesity epidemic that costs the NHS billions of pounds a year.
The Food Standards Agency and Ofcom appear to be working at cross-purposes when it comes to such advertising. Ofcom, which has been lobbied by far more food industry representatives than consumer and health groups, supports junk food advertising during children’s TV programmes because, apparently, it pays for new programming, yet the FSA disagrees because of the issues surrounding children’s health. I believe that most of us would agree that that confusing position must be rectified. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on those issues.
This debate has been about a local situation but also a serious national concern. We need a national framework that includes things such as minimum nutritional standards, which were touched on by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills). I challenge the Minister to give us his thoughts on that. It would be helpful, without in any way forcing local authorities to do things that they would not otherwise do. That suggestion would also apply in other sectors such as care homes, on which I have campaigned.
Given the positive developments, the Government must put their money where their mouth is—technically, I suppose that they must put their money where our children’s mouths are.
On the situation in Hull, I believe that the Unison representative is right. It is regrettable that that situation is being used as a political football. Instead, we should agree locally and nationally on the importance of better, healthier food for all our children, and we should maintain and perhaps increase the commitment to ensure that less well off children in our society continue to get free school meals. Let us end on a note of agreement and concentrate on that locally and nationally. If followed through with proper funding, that is what will make the biggest difference to children’s health and well-being.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) on securing this important debate. Improving the nutritional content of school meals is vital, as childhood obesity is a serious problem. The official Opposition welcome action to improve school meals, and we supported measures in the Education and Inspections Bill that were aimed at achieving that.
I listened carefully to the hon. Lady’s interesting and positive speech about the innovative approach taken to school meals by Kingston upon Hull city council. I was impressed that it has used powers in the Education Act 2002 to innovate, as few authorities or schools have used them. I was also impressed by what she said about the “Eat Well, Do Well” campaign, and I will be interested in the outcome of the evaluation and the conclusions that are drawn from the pilot scheme in Hull.
The Government have promised improvements in school meals for some time. In 1997, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who was then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, stated that he was determined to ensure that all children who have school lunches were served good, healthy and enjoyable meals. In 2001, the Government introduced standards for school meals that were based on providing pupils with food from certain food groups on a specified number of days. Despite that, concerns continued when it emerged that average spending on primary school meals dropped to just to 35p per head a day. The Soil Association noted the contrast with the £1.74 per head spent by the Prison Service on food for inmates.
As other hon. Members have said, the controversy culminated with Jamie Oliver’s television series last year. Following it, in March, the Government set out £220 million of new funding grants for 2005-06 to 2007-08 to ensure that local authorities spent 50p per head per day on meals at primary schools, and 60p per head per day at secondary schools.
The Government also created the School Food Trust and introduced tough minimum nutrient standards, which are to be made compulsory from September 2006. The new standards are to apply to all food served in schools, including, I believe, from vending machines. I hope that the Minister will correct me if that is wrong. We welcome those measures, because we believe that they will play a useful role in improving the health of our children. Ensuring that the food that is served in schools is nutritious is essential. High intake of saturated fat is associated with raised cholesterol and coronary heart disease, and high salt intake can lead to hypertension, which leads to heart disease and stroke. In its report entitled, “Salt and health”, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition stated that it would be inadvisable for children to become used to the levels of salt intake currently habitual for adults.
As we know, increased consumption of products containing added sugar can lead to tooth decay and predispose children to obesity. In 2002, the national diet and nutrition survey found that consumption of added sugar by four to 18-year-olds was higher than the recommended level. The main source of that sugar was carbonated drinks and confectionary—the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) raised those very points in discussing the vending machines in too many of our schools.
The benefits of healthy eating extend beyond the medical. The British Medical Association has suggested that anaemia can account for as much as one grade difference at GCSE, and there are social benefits to be derived from the shared enjoyment of a meal, too. In 2004, France Bellisle, of the Hotel Dieu in Paris, published a paper entitled, “Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children” in the British Journal of Nutrition. He found:
“Diet can affect cognitive ability and behaviour in children and adolescents.”
He cited cases where thiamine deficiency was shown to lead to behaviour problems, and noted that that occurred in cases where adolescents’ diets consisted largely of high-calorie junk food. Treatment with thiamine alone resulted in behavioural improvement in patients who had failed to respond to drugs or psychotherapy. Similarly, non-verbal IQ scores rise in children with nutrient deficiency when vitamin supplements are introduced.
In addition to the problems of poor nutrition, many argue that this country faces an obesity epidemic—the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North argued that, and I agree.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very interesting contribution but, before he moves on, does he agree that, given the evidence that he has cited, the collective provision of a hot school meal is important, particularly for primary school children?
I absolutely agree and will come to that issue in a moment. I have been to Finland and have eaten a hot meal in a Finnish school—it was pasta with a salad, and it was simple, delicious and very healthy. I am not here to make Conservative party policy, just as the Minister will not commit his party to vast amounts of public spending, but I shall be interested to read the evaluation of what has happened in Hull. The importance of a hot, healthy meal in the middle of a school day cannot be overstated.
The 2004 joint report by the Royal College of Physicians, the Faculty of Public Health Medicine and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health found that obesity in two to four-year-old children almost doubled between 1989 and 1998, and that it trebled among six to 15-year-olds between 1990 and 2001. If current trends continue, the report estimated that one fifth of boys and one third of girls will be obese by 2020. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North said, the National Obesity Forum has found that children who are obese by their teens are twice as likely to die by the age of 50. The National Audit Office estimated that more than 30,000 deaths were attributable to obesity in 1998.
Providing children with a balanced, healthy diet will not completely solve the problems that we face, however. As the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West said, childhood obesity is due as much to children exercising less than in the past as to problems with nutrition. Such provision is, however, an essential first step, although getting food right in schools raises further questions.
We need to address the issue of children leaving school premises during the lunch break to buy fatty fast foods. We also need to address the issue of packed lunches, which other hon. Members raised. One of the unintended consequences of the recent controversy surrounding school dinners has been a marked decline in the number of children taking school meals. According to the Local Authority Caterers Association, the number of pupils opting for school dinners has fallen by 12.5 per cent., which is nearly 400,000 pupils. Kevin McKay of the Local Authority Caterers Association said in May that
“a 4 per cent. increase by 2008 will only return the service to pre-downturn levels”.
I am sure that that is just a transitional issue, but it is concerning.
Concerns have been expressed about the funding of the new nutritional standards, which the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West mentioned. The Local Authority Caterers Association has also raised that point, and there are concerns that the wages of catering staff will need to rise if they are to prepare food in line with the new standards. That would mean that more money was needed than the £22 million that has already been announced. Meanwhile, the school meal review panel believes that to meet its standards the cost of ingredients would have to rise to between 70p and 80p per head. That increases the probability of caterers having to introduce higher charges to cover the shortfall, which will affect the take-up of meals.
Then there is the issue of kitchen facilities. According to evidence, one third of new schools are not built with proper kitchen facilities, and many schools that once had kitchens have now converted them into classroom space—there are primary schools in my constituency where that has happened in the past few years. The refurbishment of kitchens is essential to achieve the school meal review panel’s goal that meals be cooked on site. At present, too few schools have such facilities, not to the mention the dining room issue, which other hon. Members mentioned.
PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates the cost of refurbishment to be about £206 million for primary schools, because so many have had their kitchens removed, and £83 million for secondary schools. The Government are achieving that by making the refurbishment or construction of new kitchens a priority, through the “Building schools for the future” programme. However, there is no “Building schools for the future” for primary schools, so it is unclear which mechanism will be used to ensure that funding is channelled to where it is needed. Perhaps the Minister in his response could indicate how many kitchens still need to be built, and within what time scale he expects that to be completed.
Another issue that has been raised is local procurement. The inclusion of organic, local produce in school meals is one of the aims of the Soil Association’s “Food for life” campaign. The school meal review panel suggested that food should be sourced from local suppliers. The regulatory impact assessment for the Education and Inspections Bill—those of us who sat on the Committee and considered it for several weeks will know it backwards—stated that
“by sourcing food from local suppliers and farmers this would have a positive impact on the local economy and would help to promote sustainable development.”
Interestingly, it continued:
“By using local suppliers there is a direct benefit to the local economy. There is also an opportunity for caterers to work with producers to develop meat products and seasonal menus for schools, based on what is easily available locally, to take advantage of lower prices when produce is plentiful.”
The regulatory impact assessment also cited Oxfordshire, where using local suppliers resulted in a 20 per cent. reduction in the cost of food and a 69 per cent. reduction in weekly food miles. There is concern, however, that European Union procurement rules would prevent local authorities from sourcing food in that manner, as they preclude authorities from specifying local produce. A Government response to that point would be helpful, too.
We on the Conservative Benches fully share the Government’s objectives on school meals. Better nutrition means better long-term health, better behaviour and higher standards of educational attainment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Marshall, and to make my debut in an Adjournment debate. I also extend hearty congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) on securing such an important and topical debate.
I have listened to hon. Members’ views with great interest and I am glad that, whatever our differences—there are some small differences in emphasis in some areas—we all agree that childhood obesity is a matter of the utmost importance. The growth in obesity is an international problem, and this country is far from immune. The increasing prevalence of overweight children in England is among the worst in Europe. However, we are also the only country that has set itself a public target of halting the rise in childhood obesity, which we have pledged to do by 2010, within the public service agreement target.
There is a wealth of evidence to illustrate the scale of the problem. Twenty-two per cent. of men and 23 per cent. of women in England are obese. The figures have trebled since the 1980s. Sixty-five per cent. of men and 56 per cent. of women—24 million adults—are overweight or obese. Obesity rates among children aged two to 10 are rising fast. They rose from 9.9 per cent. in 1995 to 14.3 per cent. in 2004, and they are rising fastest among eight to 10-year-olds. Recent studies show that more than 30 per cent. of boys and 31 per cent. of girls aged two to 15 are overweight or obese.
The debate is therefore topical and important for our times. We are all aware that being overweight can lead to stigmatisation, including bullying, by childhood peers, but overweight and obese children can also suffer depression, poor social functioning, social exclusion and lower academic achievement. Those problems can easily continue into adulthood. In 2001, the National Audit Office estimated that obesity led to 9,000 premature deaths a year.
Just as there are many adverse consequences of obesity, the problem has many causes. At one level, obesity is a simple problem: it results from an imbalance between energy consumed and energy expended. However, at the heart of the problem has been a profound change in the way in which we and our children live our lives. We value the material improvements in ordinary life over the past two generations, but just as convenience lifestyles lead us to consume more calories, so they lead us to using fewer calories along the way.
We have more cars, televisions, computers and labour-saving devices at home and at work than ever before. The new technologies of home and the workplace ensure that we expend less physical effort on getting our work done. There is virtually no activity that cannot be done faster, easier and with less effort than was required 20, 10 or even just five years ago. We ride more and walk or cycle less. Many more children are driven to and from school today than was ever the case before. We and our children spend more of our leisure time sitting watching TV, on games consoles and using the internet, and less time in physical play. Children spend less time in unsupervised outdoor play today than they did in the past. Until we took action to reverse the trend, there had been a decline in the amount of sport and physical education that children took part in at school—activity that is now very much on the increase again.
Those factors are bound up with the profound changes that we have experienced in the economy and society at large, but they do not tell the whole story on obesity. There are unique factors for every individual, and several factors are likely to be at work at the same time. One factor is physiological characteristics. We do not all use calories at the same rate; we all have slightly different metabolic rates. There are psychological characteristics: we each have different attitudes to food, exercise and lifestyle. There are environmental factors, such as family lifestyle. As children, we are very much influenced by our parents’ diet and behaviour, and socio-economic status. Children who have two overweight parents are six times more likely to be overweight than other children.
The debate is about obesity and school food. I do not deny that what children eat at school is a major part of the issue, but it cannot be the only part of our strategy for tackling childhood obesity—it is not the only club in our bag. As we have discovered throughout the debate, there is no single simple cure for obesity. Preventing obesity is much easier than treating it. Prevention involves introducing the right eating and lifestyle habits in early childhood. Good nutrition and physical activity are essential for a developing child and are fundamental to energy balance and weight control. Families need to be educated and empowered through guidance that recognises the effects of poor eating and activity habits on their children’s health.
The complex, multi-factorial nature of obesity is the reason why our strategy to tackle childhood obesity is shared across the Government. Our PSA target to halt the year-on-year rise in obesity in children under the age of 11 by 2010 is led by the Department of Health, but is a shared responsibility with the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government. That cross-departmental approach is essential to ensure that we have the widest possible engagement with the issue and that we join our resources and actions to halt the childhood obesity epidemic by working across many fronts simultaneously.
The issue also involves antenatal and postnatal services and Sure Start, which my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) mentioned. Sure Start and children’s centres are important in getting children off to a healthy start in life, not least by establishing patterns of healthy eating and exercise as a foundation for the future. Parents and parents-to-be are being made aware of the crucial role that they play in determining the health and well-being of their child. Children’s centres have practice guidance that includes ideas on combating obesity. Those ideas will be further developed when the practice guidance is updated later this year.
Our aim is that by 2009 all schools will have healthy school status and be focusing on healthy eating, PE, sport, emotional health and well-being and personal, social and health education. The healthy school initiative has been hugely popular with schools. Three-quarters of schools have started working towards healthy school status on a voluntary basis.
Full-service extended schools are expanding the provision of health and fitness activities outside normal school hours for pupils, their families and the whole community. That can mean opening sports halls and playing fields to wider use, running fitness clubs, cookery skills courses and food co-ops to encourage healthy eating, with services tailored to the demands and needs of local communities. We have also come a long way in a relatively short time on play, with the Big Lottery Fund’s £155 million strategic play programme.
In the time left, I shall deal specifically with food in schools. The debate was called to draw attention to the importance of school food in tackling childhood obesity. It is vital that children get the right messages about food and its importance to their health. Of course, for most children, most of their eating is done with their families, and I have outlined what we are doing to encourage healthy eating and healthy lifestyles in families. However, children’s experience of food at school is important in helping them to develop a healthy diet and a healthy attitude to food that I would want them to maintain into their adult lives.
In partnership with schools, local authorities and parents, we are engaged in an ambitious three-year programme to effect nothing less than a transformation of school food. We are under no illusions about the scale of the task—we are trying to undo decades of neglect—but we are showing a level of commitment that has not been seen before. The announcement of new nutritional standards for school food is a major step in that programme. Those new minimum standards will be the bedrock of the drive towards better food in schools.
We are keen to make real changes quickly, which is why the regulations governing food-based standards for school lunches will be introduced from September 2006. That answers the question asked by the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland). It means that, from September, new food-based standards will ban economy burgers from the school lunch table; deep-fried products such as chips will be limited to twice a week; and chocolate, crisps and sweetened fizzy drinks will no longer be available as part of school lunches, including from vending machines, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
Even more stringent nutrition-based standards, stipulating the nutrients required for school lunches, will be in place for primary schools by no later than 2008 and for secondary schools by no later than 2009. To answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), I point out that tied into the funding for 2008 will be additional funding for those that ensure that those nutritional meals are hot rather than cold meals. All that will tie in with the healthy schools programme, which requires schools to adopt a whole school food policy that has been developed through wide consultation, and implemented, monitored and evaluated for impact.
How will we implement the change programme? A lot has been said about finance and how we intend to finance that. Some £15 million is available until March 2008 for the School Food Trust to give independent support and advice to local authorities, schools and parents to improve the standard of school food. The trust will work with schools that want to provide healthier food in vending machines and tuck shops, and will work with industry players to identify effective ways of making changes to school food provision and educating pupils about making healthier choices. New qualifications and training are being developed for school caterers to help school cooks to understand what makes a healthier meal, and, importantly, how to market them to encourage young people to eat them.
School food is now being considered as part of the regular Ofsted inspection process, with inspectors considering schools’ overall approaches to healthy eating. The Government have not subsidised the cost of school meals in England since 1967, when financial responsibility for the provision of school meals passed to local authorities. The cost of school meals is met through a combination of local authorities, parents, carers and, sometimes, schools. It is up to local authorities and schools to make decisions about how that money should be spent and the right balance of expenditure between the authority, schools and parents. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North makes a strong case about what has happened in Hull and the local benefits of that.
Healthier, better quality food may mean increased costs, but many local authorities and schools are investing more money in school food provision. In Sunderland, for example, there has been an increased spend per pupil in primary and secondary schools of 10p and healthier menus have been created. Greenwich has just announced an increase in resources of over £600,000 in 2006-07 for school meals, and in Devon, there has been a £2.1 million cash boost to provide healthier and improved school meals. The issue may not always be about spending more; it may be about spending the money better. Perhaps efficiency savings could be made through better procurement arrangements and the more effective use of existing resources.
Research shows that children spend over £549 million a year—on average, £1.75 per pupil per day—on junk food on the way to and from school. If children could be persuaded to eat more healthily, there could also be a saving to the parent's purse. There is a clear need for such a transformation to be driven at a local level, taking into account the wide range of circumstances in different parts of the country. That is why we are providing £220 million of additional money to help authorities and schools to improve their food.
Last September, local authorities each received a share of a £30 million targeted school meals grant. They will receive a further share of £50 million in 2006-07 and another £50 million the next year. Consequent spending arrangements will be determined after the comprehensive review, so I cannot give an answer on that now. Schools are also getting other funds. In October 2005, schools received a share of £30 million to fund local improvements such as increased training and working hours for school cooks. A further £30 million will be shared out to schools in 2006-07 and another £30 million in 2007-08. I hope that that demonstrates that the Government are serious about putting extra money in.
We have had an interesting debate on a vital subject. The World Health Organisation has called obesity a global epidemic and, in 2002, the chief medical officer called obesity a health time bomb. The Government are committed to defusing that obesity time bomb. We are under no illusion. That will be difficult, but I assure hon. Members on both sides of the House that we are determined to do that by providing the resources to do it and by working with local authorities to provide the best possible offer for local school children.