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School Milk

Volume 778: debated on Wednesday 25 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to promote the increased consumption of school milk.

My Lords, this Government recognise the vital importance of pupils being healthy and well nourished. We already encourage the consumption of dairy products as part of a balanced diet through school funding legislation and guidance. Under the school food standards, milk must be available during school hours and offered free to disadvantaged pupils. In addition, schools and childcare settings receive over £70 million a year of funding through the EU and nursery milk schemes.

Is it not the case that milk can play a conspicuous part in helping to combat obesity among children and the decay of their teeth—problems, sadly, that are increasing in our country today? Is there not more that can be done by the Government, schools themselves and interested organisations to get regular, increased consumption of milk in schools, so that children gain the health benefits that it brings?

I agree entirely with my noble friend that milk is excellent for children’s growth and development. It is a good source of energy and protein and contains a wide range of vitamins and minerals. It is also rich in calcium, which growing children and young people need to build healthy bones and teeth. That is why the school food standards require low-fat milk or lactose-reduced milk to be available during school hours and why we are encouraging further consumption of dairy or dairy alternatives through our Eatwell Guide. Of course, we are focused on healthy eating through our child obesity plan.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that children who are given whole milk—as opposed to semi-skimmed milk—for the first six years of their life are much healthier and less obese than those who are not? This is because fat in whole milk enters the duodenum and delays the emptying of the stomach, giving the feeling of fullness and therefore reducing the chances of obesity.

My noble friend raises a very interesting point. I shall ensure that officials are aware of it and of all the implications to which he referred. The Government recommend that children should be given whole milk and dairy products until they are two years old because they may not get the calories or essential vitamins they need from lower-fat milks. After the age of two, children should gradually move to semi-skimmed milk, as long as they have a varied, balanced diet and are growing well. In England, whole milk can be provided up to the end of the school year in which children reach five, but after that, as I have said, school milk must be low-fat or lactose reduced.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the problems of tooth decay, which in the north-west—my area—have reached worrying levels. Up to 35% of young people there have tooth decay. The Minister will be aware that in many schools, pupils are offered dental milk. Parents have a choice: they can choose ordinary milk or dental milk. This option to choose dental milk has been very helpful in dealing with tooth decay. Do the Government have any plans to further promote the drinking of dental milk?

The noble Lord raises a very good point and I know he is very experienced in the area of primary schools. I am aware of a depressing number of children having their teeth removed because they have rotted at a very young age, and of many schools having things such as tooth-brushing schemes, et cetera. I shall certainly look more at what we are doing in the area he mentioned.

My Lords, the Minister alluded to, but did not mention, the European school milk scheme, which is funded by the European Union, but administered by Defra. It provides subsidised milk to all children above the age of five each day in school. However, Defra has committed to continuing participation in the scheme for only as long as the UK is a member of the EU. I am sure noble Lords will remember that some 40 years ago, a former Education Secretary attracted considerable opprobrium when she decided to reduce the amount of milk available to school children. I am certain the Minister would not like that to happen to his current boss, so will he commit to meeting with his fellow Ministers in the Department of Health to find a way of lobbying the Government to provide a replacement for the current scheme when it expires in 2019?

We will play a full role in the existing scheme until we leave the EU, but as our involvement in the scheme will be short term, we are taking a pragmatic approach to keeping changes to current arrangements to a minimum. We will consider the long-term approach to school milk provision, following our exit from the EU, as part of our future domestic policy programme.

My Lords, milk is also rich in vitamin D, as the Minister has said. There is some research highlighting that young girls from ethnic minorities and Asian women are more prone to vitamin D deficiency. Will the Minister say whether his department is working closely with the Department of Health to highlight this issue so that it can be addressed?

I am afraid I do not know the answer to that question. I will investigate it and write to my noble friend.

My Lords, will the Minister say whether there are any systems in schools so that children who are deprived and come to school without breakfast get the milk they need?

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness and I am very shocked to see how many pupils often arrive at school having not eaten. Some even do not necessarily use their dinner money to eat in school. All schools try to discourage this and try to get them to eat in school, but there are an increasing number of breakfast programmes, such as the Magic Breakfast, and we have announced in the Budget that we are providing further money to enable schools to provide breakfast clubs.

My Lords, milk production and milk prices are slowly recovering. The market is still volatile and many British dairy farmers suffer daily losses. Can my noble friend explain what steps the Government are taking to support the milk industry?

I can. The UK dairy industry is enormously important to us. We are working with it to encourage greater resilience in the face of global market volatility. There are examples, with the introduction of extended tax averaging, enabling many farmers to smooth their tax bills over a five-year period.