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Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) on the Bill and for giving us the opportunity to discuss an important subject. I suppose that I should declare an interest as someone who visibly likes good food.

My mother was a school meals organiser for the late-lamented Middlesex county council at the end of the war and immediately afterwards when there was a lot of deprivation and difficulty in ensuring that children received proper nutrition.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) made the important point that we need to foster a culture of good nutrition, not only at school but at home. I pay tribute to my wife who has worked hard so that our children now actually enjoy nutritious meals. That makes everything a lot easier.

As a parent, I am irritated when we go out somewhere to eat and the children's meals offered include some of the most ghastly options, such as chicken nuggets that have not seen a chicken for some years. We need to tackle the problem everywhere, and that is why it is difficult to achieve change only in schools. As other hon. Members have said, if it is only at school that nutritious meals are force-fed to children, they will be put off even more. Nor would that endear school to children.

Geraint Davies: The idea behind the Bill is to take one step at a time, and to do something rather than nothing.
 
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I could have introduced a Bill to ban chicken nuggets, but the idea is to take one step at a time—not to force feed anyone.

Mr. Randall: Well, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman in that I do not think that it is possible to legislate good intentions. I agree with the aspirations behind his Bill, but I have seen from other legislation that it is not always that easy just to say that things must be done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) mentioned earlier the problem of children going down the road from school to the fish and chip shop, and the same applies to the vending machines. If children cannot get chocolate out of the vending machines in schools, they could go to the shop down the road, although I accept that the hon. Gentleman would try to restrict children's ability to leave school to do that. I have some sympathy with that view, but I am not sure how easy it would be to put into practice.

I, too, welcome some of the initiatives by the Government, especially the free fruit and vegetables for four to six-year-olds. That has been used effectively in my constituency and, if possible, I would like to see the scheme widened. It is a question of getting the children used to such items, because some of them have not come across some of the fruits and vegetables before. I also welcome the initiatives on physical activity in schools, although more could be done. I know that the issue is being considered.

I have an example from my constituency of the problems involved. At Longmead primary school in West Drayton, the caterers decided to try to follow the guidance on introducing more nutritious food. Unfortunately they found that the children did not find the meals as appetising. Demand fell, and the caterers faced insolvency. The then chairman of governors of the school, Mr. Frank Manning, requested some help from the local education authority, because the school was very keen to increase the nutritional value of the meals. The LEA thought about it for a while and came up with an inflatable broccoli, which was its answer to promoting nutritional values. If we are to take such matters seriously, we need a serious commitment to help those who are trying to increase the nutritional value of school meals.

Geraint Davies: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what follows from that is not that we cannot deliver nutritional standards, but that we face a challenge to provide tasty meals that children will eat? That is the very challenge being confronted by Jamie Oliver. Surely it should be our ambition to square that circle, if it can be done.

Mr. Randall: I would agree with that, but my problem—it is probably connected with cynicism—is that I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's Bill would achieve that because it is too prescriptive. In my seven or eight years in the House, I have seen many attempts to regulate people's lives through legislation. As in this case, the legislation may be well intentioned and have a desirable outcome, but it may not represent the best way forward. Conservative Members accept that there is a big problem with the nutritional value of
 
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school food and we are in favour of improving it. However, we believe that the best way to achieve that is to provide more money directly to schools and grant them the freedom to spend it themselves.

1.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Derek Twigg): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) on his presentation of the Bill. It deals with an issue that has, quite rightly, aroused considerable attention from the press and elsewhere. It is the fourth private Member's Bill related to school food in just over a year. On Wednesday, we saw the start of a new TV series on school dinners presented by a famous chef and I understand that dinner ladies play a major role in the series. I realise what an outstanding job they do because my mother was a school dinner lady when I was at school in the 1970s. The press have been hot on this story, producing articles with titles such as "Cool dinners", "Please, sir, can I have some more?" and "Junk the fatty school dinners". Clearly, it is a high-profile issue at the moment.

While I welcome the debate and the interest generated in this topic, I believe that the legislation is unnecessary. The Government have a good record in taking steps to deal with the problem and we will continue to take action on it. Our approach is based on wide consultation to establish consensus on the best way forward, rather than issuing central directives. We are empowering schools, pupils, parents and communities to lead the way forward from the bottom up according to local circumstances, rather than through a top-down approach that tries to make one size fit all.

What are the Government doing at the moment? In association with the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills has invested £2.5 million in the food in schools programme. In the recently published White Paper "Choosing Health: Making Healthier Choices Easier", we made a commitment to improve the food and drink available in schools. As part of the food in schools programme, we have been running healthy eating and drinking pilots to look at good practice in terms of the food available in schools outside of school meals, such as drinking water, and that supplied by tuck shops and cooking clubs. The results of the pilots will be available very soon.

In 2001, the Government set minimum nutritional standards for school lunches for first time in 20 years. We monitored standards in secondary schools last year and the results were poor. Even where healthy options were available, pupils were not making healthy choices, so we placed a duty on local education authorities to provide guidance for parents on catering standards.

To address those shortcomings, we announced a raft of measures. Our aim is to make every school a healthy school by 2009. In April, a new vocational qualification for school catering staff was introduced to help them promote and deliver healthy food. Like teachers and classroom assistants, high-status school cooks are a fundamental part of the whole school team.

By July this year, we will have provided more help for schools and LEAs in drawing up catering contracts to provide healthy school meals services and offer healthy
 
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food in vending machines, tuck shops and breakfast clubs. From September 2005, healthy eating is to be part of the Ofsted school inspection process. There will also be a revision of primary and secondary school meals standards—focused on reducing fat, salt and sugar and increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables—leading towards tougher minimum standards from September 2006. We are developing standards relating to processed foods used in school lunches, and they will be implemented this year. We shall also extend school lunch standards to cover all the food on school premises.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) referred to hot food, but it is not necessarily more nutritious than cold food, and it is for LEAs to take the decision on the food supplied.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The Minister mentioned introducing a pilot on cooking in schools. Is he referring to teaching all youngsters in schools the skills required? I cannot cook for the life of me and never did cooking at school. It would be useful if skills were available to all children, irrespective of academic ability.

Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should spread cooking skills in schools. I did not have any great cooking skills then and still do not. I do not know whether his have improved since then.


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