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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.
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.
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 schoolsall of them volunteers, many of them parentsnow find themselves faced with the organisational duties and legal consequences that hitherto were undertaken by paid and professionally qualified full-time officials.
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 mealeither paid or free, as applicablecan do so.
This is not a reckless demand for greater public spending, but rather a plea for joined-up governmentat all levelsso 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?
The alternative is the real risk of some childrennot just those from backgrounds which are already disadvantaged, but more widelyhaving 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 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 mealthere are around 7,000 in Essexwill 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:
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 linethey deprive their children of hot school dinners.
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 givenjust days before Christmasthat the service would be terminated at the end of March. Heads, teachers, parents, governors have all protested, but all to no avail.
It left schools having to try to hammer out their own deals with dinner providers within just a few weeks.
Some have managed to keep their hot dinner service, but many have not. It means hundreds of schoolchildren in and around Colchester will only be offered sandwiches for lunch."
We are going to have to offer packed lunches. We hope this will just be a stop-gap measure and we will be trying to offer hot dinners as soon as possible. It might be back from September but it is too early to say."
This is a disgrace and shames the politicians and bureaucrats at County Hall whose own lavish facilities mean they never go without."
And then there's single parents such as myself. It is nice to know they've had a hot meal at school because we lead such busy lives and it takes the pressure off to know they have had a hot meal."
Schools effectively had three months to arrange a new contract. Business plans were provided. Most schools were predicted to make a lossminimum £2,800 for North School. This does not take into consideration the age of the kitchen; replacement, maintenance and repair at North could potentially be very costly.
Losses would have to be covered from individual school budgets, which are already very tight and predicted to remain at a standstill for the coming year in Essex. This takes money away from the teaching and learning provision of every child in that school. How can this raise standards?
There is no longer equity for children in Essex, and this decision does not sit comfortably with the Government's Every Child Matters. It also makes a mockery of the Teachers Work Load Agreement.
No consideration has been given to staff involved, namely Headteachers, Governors and the cooks. They were not included in the discussion nor decision to end the group contract. Many cooks now face redundancy after many years of service."
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 itas 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 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.