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Schools: Food Standards

Volume 834: debated on Wednesday 15 November 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they plan to review the regulations relating to standards for food in schools, and in particular whether they plan to reduce the amount of added sugar they allow.

My Lords, the school food standards regulate the food and drink provided at both lunchtime and other times of the school day. They already restrict foods high in fat, salt and sugar. We believe that the current standards provide a robust yet flexible framework to ensure that pupils in England continue to receive high-quality and nutritious food that builds healthy eating habits for life. We continue to keep the standards under review.

My Lords, I am disappointed that the Minister is not indicating that the Government are willing to undertake a review. Is she aware that they undertook a review in 2014, which eased the rules so that more sugar can be used in school meals? This is damaging the health of children, as we see from the evidence of morbid obesity. Will she review the position and please move to at least apply the regulations that applied when Labour was in power, when we had fewer children with obesity?

I hope that the noble Lord recognises at lot of the measures that the Government have taken on sugar content in food generally and the positioning of food products in retail settings, as well as our wider approach to food education in the national curriculum and our investment in the primary PE and sport premium.

My Lords, I draw the Minister’s attention to a study published this week showing a welcome reduction in the number of hospital extractions of children’s teeth due to the soft drinks industry levy. Does she agree with the chair of the British Dental Association that now is the time for the Government to double down on measures that force industry to reduce the amount of sugar in food and drink, and that our school meals regulations should be part of that doubling down?

We have made significant changes with the soft drinks levy, the regulations on home calorie labelling and the restrictions that I mentioned in response to the noble Lord opposite regarding the location of products high in fat and sugar. I understand that those location restrictions are judged to be the single most impactful obesity policy on reducing children’s calorie consumption.

My Lords, what is concerning is the apparent lack of understanding among many schoolchildren today about where and how food is produced and what is wholesome and healthy food. With that in mind, is it not time for the Government to look again at investing more in domestic sciences to teach children how to cook good food that does not include unhealthy contents?

I reassure my noble friend that that is covered in the national curriculum in a number of subjects, including within design and technology, where there is a focus on exactly the issues of where food is produced and how to cook in a healthy way, and on teaching children to cook a number of mainly savoury recipes.

My Lords, the Minister has referred to a number of actions that the Government have taken that go wider than schools, but why have the Government consistently postponed the introduction of a ban on multibuy products relating to high sugar and fat content? It has now been postponed for another two years. Why is that?

I may need to write to the noble Lord with a detailed answer to that. The Government follow the evidence on what will have the greatest impact. Specifically in relation to children, as I said, it is the location of products that makes the biggest difference.

My lords, the Minister referred in her first Answer to my noble friend to a certainty that food that was supplied to children would be healthy and nutritious—I think those are the words she used. If I were a parent with a child at school, how would I find the evidence demonstrating that the food being offered to them met those standards?

I am sure that parents can access the school food standards. We work closely with schools and help them, particularly at times of inflationary pressure, to ensure that they get the best value for money. We offer that service to any state-funded school that wants it. Again, I can write to the noble Baroness with details of where parents would find that information.

My Lords, this week happens to be Sugar Awareness Week. The Question from my noble friend Lord Brooke rightly highlights the risk of sugar in school food. Shockingly, four in 10 children now leave primary school at an above healthy weight. What more action will the Government take to ensure that all foods and drinks served in schools are as nutritious as possible? Have they assessed the impact of delaying advertising bans aimed at protecting children?

As I think I have tried to say in response to earlier questions, the school food standards are part of a much wider picture of what impacts on childhood obesity, which I agree is at very worrying levels. This Government have introduced universal infant free school meals, we have robust school food standards that are set in legislation, and we have made a number of other moves to make sure that children get a healthy diet and are educated in a way to understand what that is.

Are we aware that one of the reasons why children eat a lot of sugar is that their parents do? There is inherited bad performance when it comes to food and your social position. When will the Government get behind my Bill, which would create a ministry of poverty prevention so that these things can be dealt with? We cannot just keep expecting people suddenly to wake up to the fact that sugar is not good for them. Until we hit poverty, we are not going anywhere.

The Government have a strong record in this area, with changes to the eligibility for free school meals for families in receipt of universal credit. I hear the strength of the noble Lord’s feelings, but, as he will have just heard in the King’s Speech, I am afraid the direct answer to his question about when the Government will support his proposal is that it will not be in the near term.

My Lords, although it is obviously important that we inform pupils and their families about eating less sugar and having healthier diets generally, are my noble friend the Minister and her department aware of some of the unintended consequences? For example, when the soft drinks levy came in, one company found that its sales were going down, so it brought in an older version called Irn Bru 1901, which was sweeter and more expensive for consumers. How do we make sure that we do not cause the unintended consequence of unhealthier drinks?

As I said, specifically on food and drink available in school, our Get Help Buying for Schools service makes sure that schools buy not only efficiently and compliantly but well and healthily.

This week, given what the King did yesterday in launching his charity to tackle food poverty, we need to acknowledge that this is a real issue. Many children who are entitled to free school meals have never been registered for them or claimed them. Sheffield has had an auto-enrolment scheme for free school meals, which has meant that 6,500 children who otherwise would not be getting a meal at school now are. Will the Government encourage every local authority to auto-enrol children who are eligible but not claiming? That would be a tiny but none the less significant step in tackling food poverty.

I am very interested in the noble Baroness’s example of Sheffield because, when I have been asked about auto-enrolment previously, I noted that the constraints around it relate to data protection and the ability to share someone’s details. I would be interested to follow up with the noble Baroness later.