Our aim is for all pupils to be offered good food in schools and to understand the importance of good nutrition. That is why the Secretary of State has asked the co-founders of the Leon restaurant chain, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, to examine school food, determine what more needs to be done to make nutritious and healthy food available to all school children, and ensure that children understand the importance of healthy eating.
Free school meals are a lifeline to many families living in my constituency and there are concerns that the Chancellor has now called for a further round of expenditure cuts. Will the Minister give an assurance that no category of child eligible for free school meals at the moment will lose their eligibility during the life of this Government?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He knows that, to make work pay, we are reforming the benefits system and introducing universal credit. We are working with the Department for Work and Pensions on how that translates into eligibility for free school meals, but we are determined to see no drop in the numbers of parents and their children eligible for free school meals.
July’s independent NatCen report on the two-year free school meals pilots in Newham, Durham and Wolverhampton showed a very positive impact on healthy eating, attendance and pupil attainment, just as in Hull when we had free, healthy school meals for primary and special school pupils, so why do not the Government now act on the evidence and have free school meals in our primary schools?
I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of a healthy school meal to children’s behaviour and their concentration at school. To extend free school meals to the whole population would cost £3.4 billion. The state of the public finances that we inherited from her party’s Government means that we have one of the highest budget deficits in the G20. We have reduced the budget deficit by a quarter in the first two years of this Government, which is a tremendous achievement, but we cannot, however worthy the spending programme, undertake new spending programmes of that order.
Is the Minister aware that, according to the School Food Trust’s own survey, almost half of all state secondary schools offer non-permitted foods, and over a quarter offer non-permitted snacks at mid-morning break? Does not that show that it is nonsense to suggest that academies are the only schools not meeting those standards?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The evidence suggests that there have been improvements in maintained schools and in academies, but that more needs to be done in both types of school, which is why we have established the school review under Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent. There have been improvements over the past seven years in the proportion of healthy food taken at lunchtime. More pupils ate a balanced meal in 2010 than in 2004—67% compared to 60%, but that still means that a third of our youngsters are not taking a healthy meal at lunchtime. That is what we seek to address.
Does the Minister not agree that if the capable and intelligent people who have been given the opportunity to run their schools under academy status, and also free schools, are able to decide complex things such as finance and how the school is run from top to bottom, it is only reasonable that they should be given the opportunity to decide the nutritional value of school dinners?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Government’s direction of travel is to give the professionals who run our schools more autonomy to run their schools as they see best. If regulation were the answer to all our country’s problems, every child would be a fluent reader and know their multiplication tables, and every local authority school would be in full compliance with the school nutrition regulations.