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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. It is a courtesy that we practise in the House when referring to Members of the upper House to refer to them in the proper way, and not in a manner such as that used by the hon. Gentleman.

Bob Russell: I am grateful to you for correcting me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Even Baroness Thatcher, the milk-snatcher, never attacked some of the most vulnerable people in our society, depriving children as young as four or five of wholesome, nutritional hot dinners which are so important for their development and well-being.

For many children, the school dinner is their main meal of the day. For some, it is their only hot meal of the day. That is particularly important at this time of year.

I urge the Minister tonight, as I urged the Prime Minister on 28 January, to intervene to ensure that Essex county council continues to provide a proper school meals service, as it has done for decades, and ideally to return to what it was prior to the Education Act 1980, which was the first move to undermine the ideals enshrined in the Education Act 1944.

Unfortunately, the Essex Tories are hiding behind a Government 1999 education order to carry out their dastardly deed to rid themselves of the moral responsibility to maintain a countywide school meals service. Governors of 356 junior, primary and infant schools—all of them volunteers, many of them parents—now find themselves faced with the organisational duties and legal consequences that hitherto were undertaken by paid and professionally qualified full-time officials.

Mrs. Jan Blackwell, chair of the governors of North primary school in Colchester, tells me:

Immediate revocation of the Government's 1999 order is called for because I cannot that believe it was ever intended that it be used as it is now.

We also need an explanation from Essex county council as to why it has acted as it has. We need to do whatever is necessary to restore matters to the way they were previously, the objective being to ensure that all parents who require their children to have a hot midday meal—either paid or free, as applicable—can do so.

If Essex county council is saying that it cannot oversee the school meals service of 27,000 meals each day with its purchasing power as the second-largest local

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education authority in the country, how does it expect individual schools, or perhaps a few schools banding together, to achieve a better deal at very short notice? Some might, and good luck to them, but for those schools that do not have the capacity to do so, the moral responsibility ought to remain with the LEA. Perhaps Essex feels that it is not getting a fair financial deal from the Government to keep the meals service. Whatever the truth—it is academic for parents and the schools—either county hall or Whitehall must find the resources.

This is not a reckless demand for greater public spending, but rather a plea for joined-up government—at all levels—so the world's fourth-richest economy ensures that no child goes hungry or is deprived of a hot meal for what, in terms of Essex's massive budget and what the national economy generates, is petty cash in comparison.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman think that full consultation prior to taking a decision constitutes joined-up government? Will he ask the Minister to get Essex county council to have such consultation, something for which I called at column 1783 in an Adjournment debate on 18 December?

Bob Russell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention and I sincerely hope that that will be taken on board. Lack of consultation is one of the major issues that we need to discuss.

The alternative is the real risk of some children—not just those from backgrounds which are already disadvantaged, but more widely—having their whole development damaged, with consequences for their health sooner or later. With national health service budgets always under pressure, the cost to the public purse ultimately will be greater than if children grow up healthy with a proper diet, of which a school dinner is often the main ingredient.

Young bodies damaged by lack of proper nourishment throughout their growing years may never recover. With obesity increasing all the time, often through poor diet, doing away with the carefully structured diets that hot school meals should provide will do nothing to help the situation. Essex LEA is setting the scene where, alongside obese children, we could also witness the return of rickets in others. That is irresponsible behaviour by the county hall administration.

The Government must act. The principles of the national healthy schools standard must be upheld; ditto the children's national service framework to promote healthy diets. It is not good enough to commission such worthy reports as "Securing Good Health for the Whole Population" from Derek Wanless, published only last week, and "Every Child Matters", published last September, and then do nothing when Essex county council undermines the good intentions in those reports by scrapping the school meals service. That service is vital to so many of the county's children, particularly those from disadvantaged families or from families where parents are at work and where the school meal is an important feature of that family's lifestyle.

I draw the Minister's attention to page 156 of the Wanless report, box 7.3, which states:

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I remind the House that the Prime Minister, in answer to my question to him just over a month ago, said that

Will the Minister tonight match the Prime Minister's encouraging response?

I am deeply concerned that, with the ending of hot school dinners and their replacement with packed lunches, those children who currently have free meals will be the only ones served with a packed lunch, provided by bulk delivery or whatever. These will be identical little packages, making it obvious to everybody who is in receipt of a free lunch. Currently, all children having a school dinner sit together; there is no segregation or obvious difference as to who is in receipt of a free dinner and those whose parents can afford to pay. Only people in the office know. Children whose family circumstances qualify them for a free meal—there are around 7,000 in Essex—will in future be exposed, with all the unhappiness that can so often happen as a result of such singling out.

Although, of course, I recognise that ultimately it is the responsibility of each individual to look after his or her own body, and those of their children, the Government cannot ignore situations such as that to which I have drawn to Parliament's attention. Only last week, the Consumers Association warned:

The association's call for a nutrition council is welcome. I am sure that such a council would want school meals promoted, not scrapped. Incidentally, getting rid of school meals will not help the Government in their aim of providing better opportunities for working families. School dinners are a great help where one or both parents are working.

A roll call of schools in my constituency where the reluctant decision has been taken to provide only packed lunches from next month includes the Montgomery infant and junior, the St. Michael's primary, and the King's Ford infant and junior schools. There are others, but I deliberately highlight those five because they are the ones attended by the bulk of children aged under 11 whose parents are members of Her Majesty's armed forces based at the Colchester garrison.

About 3,000 soldiers from Colchester served in the Iraq war less than a year ago. Currently 600 other soldiers from the town are on peacekeeping duties in Iraq. That is how Conservative councillors reward our troops who put their lives on the line—they deprive their children of hot school dinners.

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I shall be drawing the attention of the Secretary of State for Defence to that scandalous situation. The House needs to know that it is not good for the morale of our troops, and does nothing to help the retention of our professional soldiers, for their children to be going without a hot school dinner because of penny-pinching by those who control the public purse.

As an aside, I am told that the food allowance per meal that the Home Office makes available for each prisoner is greater than the cost of a school dinner. Is it asking too much for equivalent funding to be provided for the school meals service in Essex, so that the health of our children is given the same consideration as that of prisoners?

The scrapping of the school meals service in Essex has led to a major outcry right across the county. The only people who seem to be in favour of it are Tory county councillors. Schools are outraged at the short notice they were given—just days before Christmas—that the service would be terminated at the end of March. Heads, teachers, parents, governors have all protested, but all to no avail.

Two weeks ago, Ms Ruth Brock, chair of the Essex primary heads association, told a packed meeting at Colchester town hall:

Mrs. Fran Wagstaff, secretary of the local branch of the National Union of Teachers, said:

There has been massive media coverage of something that appears more to echo life in Charles Dickens's Victorian Britain than the supposedly more enlightened times of 21st-century Britain. The Colchester Evening Gazette has been running an excellent "Save Our School Dinners" campaign from which I would like to quote extracts. For example, last Wednesday, 25 February, the main headline on its front page stated: "Schools End Hot Dinners". A sub-headline added:

Chief reporter Laurence Cawley wrote:

The head teacher of King's Ford junior school, Mr. Lawrence Garside, told the Gazette:

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Over at Montgomery junior school, head teacher Mr. Graham Eskell said that it was likely that the school's kitchens would be decommissioned and added:

Meanwhile, at North primary school two cooks, Mrs. Carol Tralau and Mrs. Evie Drummond, who between them have prepared dinners there for a combined total of 40 years, are to lose their jobs. They are typical of the dedicated dinner staff at many schools across Essex who are to be made redundant because of the disgraceful behaviour of the county hall Tories.

On Thursday, the Evening Gazette carried a full-page article with the comments of pupils at King's Ford junior school, stating that their message

Seven-year-old Rose Chandler feels so strongly that she has written to the leader of Essex county council, Lord Hanningfield, begging him to rethink the council's decision. She said:

Ten-year-old Louis Woods said:

It is worth quoting what the chairman of governors of King's Ford junior school says. Referring to the short time scale given to individual schools to make alternative arrangements, Richard Bourne told the Evening Gazette:

Mr. Bourne speaks with authority and personal knowledge. He is a Labour county councillor.

Parents are deeply angered. Their views are summed up by Ms Paula Chandler, of Monkwick, who has organised a petition urging the county council to rethink its position. She said:

The decision to scrap the county-run school meals service was sudden. The first that schools knew was just before Christmas when Essex county council said it would no longer be awarding group contracts for dinners—the schools were handed the legal responsibility for providing a school meal, whether hot or cold.

Mrs. Blackwell, chairman of the governors of North primary school, described matters from her perspective, saying:

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Those comments from Mrs. Blackwell will be echoed by chairs of other school governing bodies across Essex. She demonstrates the shabby, shoddy way in which schools in Essex have been treated by the Conservative-controlled county council. Schools are looking to Government to step in to save the school meals service in Essex. The well-being of children, their good health, and the need to ensure that no child is left hungry or under-nourished, demand that urgent action be taken to prevent the service ending at the end of this month.

It is not enough to say that the responsibility is one for the local education authority, for the LEA has passed the legal responsibility to school governing bodies, which in most instances would prefer not to have it—as a general rule, they do not have the experience or the qualifications to operate the school meals service, they do not have spare revenue funds to finance it, and they have no capital to pay for replacement kitchen equipment in due course.

Government intervention is the only solution. I urge the Minister to act without delay. Children at schools across Essex, as well as their parents and all involved with the school meals service, will appreciate it. After all, as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said in his introduction to "Every Child Matters",

The executive summary of "Every Child Matters" stresses the need for children to have a healthy lifestyle and to enjoy better health—and for the eradication of child poverty.

The end of the school meals service in Essex is against what the Government have been striving to achieve. To me, every child matters. I look to the Minister to demonstrate tonight by a promise of immediate action that every child in Essex matters to the Government.

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