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10.39 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to support briefly the argument of the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). I first raised this matter at business questions some weeks ago. There is certainly great concern in my area, as well as in the urban area that he represents, and especially in small

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village schools, which do not have the budget to deal with such extra costs. In addition, the percentage involved is much greater as an overall part of their budget than it would be for a larger school. The further difficulty that such small schools have is that the head teacher has to deal with this as well as with all the other administrative tasks that they have.

Also, larger schools may often have assistants, which smaller schools do not have.

I am disappointed that the county council on which I served for several years before coming to the House has sought to take this step. It follows fast after its decision to weaken the provision of denominational transport. One had hoped that school meals and transport would be regarded as an integral part of the education service in Essex and that they would continue as hitherto.

10.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I welcome the debate that has been instigated by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). The passionate and powerful way in which he sets out his case demonstrates the real concern that exists in his constituency and throughout Essex about the decision. That is also shown by the cross-party presence in the Chamber and the points that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink).

First, I associate myself fully with the emphasis in the speech made by the hon. Member for Colchester on inclusion, the message of "Every Child Matters", the importance of healthy standards in our schools and the use of the school curriculum, including the meals service, as a vehicle to challenge some of the great issues of the day, including obesity. I associate myself with what he said about that and the connection that he made with the "Every Child Matters" Green Paper, forthcoming legislation on children's rights, and the publication of the Wanless report and its connection with the healthy schools standard.

It is important for the House to be clear about the issue. It is not about responsibility for the provision of meals, which has not actually changed, but rather about how schools can reasonably be expected to discharge their responsibilities to ensure that that provision exists.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich) (Lab): I recently attended a meeting with the governors and head teacher of All Saints school in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend think that the time scale that was put in place for schools to take on the enormous changes forced on them by Essex county council was reasonable to give them adequate time to prepare, especially given that they had just returned following the Christmas holidays?

Mr. Twigg: I share the concern that my hon. Friend and both Opposition Members in the Chamber have expressed. I shall come on to the timing of the announcements a little later in my speech.

It is important to make it clear that the Government are committed to the principle of devolution and delegation of resources and responsibilities to the local

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level, in the belief that decisions on spending are best taken at the most local level, including the level of the school. When the new arrangements described by the hon. Member for Colchester were introduced in 1999, we made it clear that funding and responsibility for the provision of school meals would be automatically delegated to secondary schools. In Essex, that took place immediately in 1999.

The situation for primary and special schools is more complex. We recognised at the time of the decision in 1999 that not all schools would want to make their own arrangements. Therefore delegation was not made compulsory—primary schools were given the option of taking it. In Essex, the decision was taken to delegate funding, and thus responsibility, to all primary schools. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, the great majority of those schools were brought back into the local education authority meals service, which was provided on behalf of the LEA by two contractors. Frankly, that mirrored the experience of most other authorities, which normally provide a meals service for schools to buy back into, although they are under no obligation to do so.

Last year, Essex re-tendered its meals service contracts because concerns were expressed about quality. The cost of the new, improved contracts was calculated at around an additional £2.2 million. In the light of that evidence, the LEA decided that it could not afford to delegate sufficient extra funding to enable schools to meet the consequent charges.

As has already been said, just before Christmas the local education authority took its decision not to enter into new contracts, and instead to end its meals service for primary schools from April this year—one month from now. The hon. Member for Colchester and other hon. Members from Essex will have received a copy of Lord Hanningfield's letter of 28 January setting out the LEA's position.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the short notice, my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree reiterated that, and the hon. Member for Castle Point spoke about a lack of consultation. We are clear that Essex is legally entitled to do what it plans to do, but we do not pretend that that is an ideal situation, particularly with regard to the timing. Schools in Essex have had very short notice of the LEA's decision, and have therefore had to devote a significant amount of time and effort to considering alternatives. Those concerns have been well expressed today.

We are particularly concerned about the position of some of the smaller schools, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree referred. To be fair to Essex county council, I must point out that it has sought to put in place a fairly comprehensive package of advice and guidance for schools, including meetings and resources via the internet. However, whatever help is given, that does not detract from the fact that, from April, governing bodies will find themselves with a continued legal responsibility for providing free school meals and paid lunches when requested, while the service from which many of them were buying has disappeared at short notice.

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I am pleased that the LEA is doing two concrete things to assist at least some of the schools in Essex. First, it has arranged to extend one of the two existing contracts—that with Initial Catering in south Essex—until the end of the summer term. That at least gives some of the schools more time if they need to make arrangements, and our latest information is that 46 Essex schools are taking advantage of that extension.

Secondly, the LEA has agreed to provide some additional resources, over the passporting requirements, into the schools budget—about £900,000, to be distributed to schools that are in financial difficulty as a result of the changes. Taking on board my hon. Friend's point, I hope that some of the small rural schools for which the situation will be especially challenging will be able to benefit from that additional resource. I welcome those decisions.

It may help if I share with the House some other figures supplied to us by the county council: 70 per cent. of primary schools have said what they intend to do from April. Besides the 46 that I have already mentioned, about 115 are making arrangements with a private contractor, 39 have decided to provide meals for themselves, and 53 will, as the hon. Member for Colchester said, provide a cold meal option, at least initially. Although cold meals can meet the nutritional standards that apply to school lunches, the Department for Education and Skills strongly recommends that at least some hot meal options should be available in all schools, so we share the concern that the hon. Gentleman expressed about that situation. I shall return to that subject briefly at the end of my speech.

Despite the transitional difficulties that will inevitably arise, it is important to remember that the existing service was not universally well thought of. Schools that are embarking on their own provision have an opportunity to build around their own wishes and circumstances in a way that involves the whole school, and I was struck by a notice from a former Essex head teacher posted on the LEA's guidance website pointing out the inspiring effect on his school of making its own meal arrangements. I have also seen that inspirational effect in other schools in other parts of the country, including smaller primary schools.

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None the less, there is a real danger that in the summer term, children at some Essex schools may have either no meals provision or an inadequate one. Responsibility in that respect is clear: the governing body of each school has a responsibility, and that will continue to be the case. However, I accept that that alone is not sufficient.

The Department certainly has every expectation that Essex county council's procurement service will make every effort to give specific help to those schools that are still in difficulty in fulfilling the requirements that we all have of them. The Government will monitor the situation closely and seek regular progress reports from the local education authority. I would hope—indeed, I am very confident—that the hon. Member for Colchester and other hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent Essex constituencies will continue to take an active interest in the subject and bring to the attention of the Government and the House any cases in which all is not going well.

Schools have been placed in a position of managing a transition in a very short time. That falls short of the ideal in terms of consultation and school involvement. From the information that I have, most schools in Essex will be able to achieve that and some, for the reason I gave, may even benefit from it. However, it would have been better had Essex county council given schools more time to plan for alternatives. I accept that since it took the decision, the LEA has gone to considerable lengths to assist schools to make other arrangements, despite the fact that it is under no legal duty to do so, and it is giving some financial assistance, as I set out.

Overall, the verdict at this stage must be to wait and see. The DFES will monitor the situation closely, with interest and concern, because we want to ensure that every child in Essex gets access to decent school food. The governors have a responsibility to ensure that that happens, but we want to work with the LEA and, indeed, with colleagues throughout the House to ensure that that aspiration is a reality for all the children of Essex.

Question put and agreed to.

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