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Mr. Miliband: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I do not know whether he is raising a London-specific issue, but the creation of high-quality sports facilities—"sports" being broadly defined—is essential. [Hon. Members: "Hartlepool."] The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) was raising a specific point to which I was responding. I visited my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool in his constituency to help to campaign for him. As a local councillor he did an awful lot to promote high-quality, affordable sporting facilities, and I glad to back him in that drive.

All these aspirations, from housing to antisocial behaviour and youth services, require a strong partnership between central and local government. The best of local government can teach central Government and the private sector a thing or two about how to meet complex demands, and it is vital that the best practice is spread across the whole of local government. On Friday, I met the council leaders and chief executives of
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England's eight biggest cities outside London. Incidentally, all three political parties were represented, and there was an independent. I found common ground about the challenges—a tough global economy, rising demands on public services and citizens wanting more say. Yet I found, too, common ground on the solutions—the importance of education, including higher education, the need to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour, the key role of public-private partnership and the importance of transport links.

Eight years ago, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister talked about his vision of urban renaissance. Around the country that renaissance is evident today. The Conservative party may not have many MPs in our big cities, but I suggest that its members pay them a visit. Central Government have an important role to play, promoting local leadership at local level, providing the right incentives for service improvement, supporting new models for the devolution of power to neighbourhoods and backing strategic projects, from the Bristol harbourside to the Sage in Gateshead, which breathe confidence into towns and cities. This we are determined to do.

Central Government also have an important partnership with local government in respect of local government finance. We share responsibility with local government for raising public money. I am pleased, as, I hope, is the whole House, about the 33 per cent. increase in grants to local government since the election of this Government in 1997. We share responsibility, too, for driving over £6 billion of efficiency savings through the system as part of the Gershon agenda—another area in which there is room for cross-party co-operation. We also share responsibility for ensuring a disciplined and effective approach to council tax. We look forward to the report of the Lyons review in December to help shape a national debate about the best method of raising local government finance.

We have had an excellent debate today on the themes of equal opportunities and strong communities. The Government believe that there is such a thing as society, and it finds tangible form in our diverse communities, from quiet villages to busy cities. Across Britain, the Queen's Speech has made clear, there is a renewal of civil pride, as the silent majority of citizens who want to live well together stand up for their vision of a thriving village, town or city. Those communities are made by people, not Government, but we are determined to do all that we can to help, and in the months and years ahead that is what we will do. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.

Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell.]

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

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School Meals

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell]

9.58 pm

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As my new regional Whip may find out, I am an unregenerate non-conformist. This was especially true in my formative decade, the 1960s. I was a Rolling Stones fan when most were following the Beatles, a cyclist in the Peak district when my peers were on scooters to the east coast and, most shocking of all, I    loved school meals when my classmates moaned constantly about them.

Today, as then, school meals can make an important contribution to the daily nutritional intake of young people. They can promote growth and development through access to a varied and balanced diet. They can protect health by minimising risks of physical and mental illnesses. They can improve concentration and help to fulfil potential, both inside and outside school.

But what has gone wrong? Tomorrow will be the first anniversary of the tabling of early-day motion 1256 by the former Member for Stourbridge, who will be remembered in this place as a superb and vigilant campaigner on children's issues. Her motion noted that there was—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

David Taylor: The early-day motion noted that there was

shown by the levels of obesity among children and the appearance in young people of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, which were previously confined to adults.

In the past 12 months or so, the issue has risen rapidly up the political agenda. It is rare for a TV celebrity publicly to defend any of the founding policies of the welfare state, but in his powerful Channel 4 series "Jamie's School Dinners", Jamie Oliver did just that, and he is to be congratulated on doing so. Something has to be done if we are to arrest the upward trend in poor diet and obesity among children that we have seen over the past decade and the knock-on effects that it will have on future educational achievement and avoidable national health service costs. For example, in 2002 16 per cent. of boys and girls aged two to 15 were obese and almost a third—30 per cent.—were either overweight or obese. Ominously, rates of physical activity are declining. The facts are bleak.

It is no surprise that the companies currently contracted to cater for schoolchildren and those who sell to that market have been quick to highlight the variety of initiatives and programmes that they have introduced to promote healthy food in schools—coincidentally, since "Jamie's School Dinners" first aired.

Private contractors are, of course, just reacting to the existence of a private market, and they can only be expected to act in a way that maximises their profits for their shareholders, whatever the sector in which that
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market operates—a market created by the Conservative Government in 1980. Their catastrophic legislation released local education authorities from their obligation under the Education Act 1944 to provide school meals for all children, and swept away all nutritional considerations for the minority who, because of low parental income, would have to rely on an underfunded, undervalued and stigmatised free school meals service. That came on the heels of the infamous cessation of free school milk, and it was clear that the then new Government were intent on carving up as much of the state school meals service as possible without causing alarm among their shire supporters, but enough to have thrusting free marketers salivating at the prospect of public sector catering contracts free from any inconvenient statutory demands regarding nutritional content.

A cynic might observe that as the nation's palate has grown more sophisticated and the adult consumer more health conscious, schoolchildren have softened the blow to the profits of the companies that produce the processed, reclaimed, reformulated foods that are advertised so heavily during children's TV programming. Commercial confidentiality enables the proposition to be kept fact-free. Unison, the Caroline Walker Trust, the National Union of Teachers, Sustain, the Welsh Food Alliance and the Soil Association have long campaigned to restore statutory minimum standards of nutrition in the provision of school food. Sadly, the current reality is a patchwork provision where   price is paramount. Children's health—and as   a   consequence, educational outcomes—are thus subordinated to free market principles and a postcode lottery.

None the less, the Government are to be applauded for their aims in respect of nutritious school food and healthy eating, which predate Jamie Oliver's campaign for changes to the purchasing, preparation and nutritional value of school food. The healthy living blueprint for schools accelerated the demise of those speechless dispensers of high-sugar, high-salt products, vending machines. I pay tribute to the work of the former Members for Stourbridge and for Croydon, Central and to the Food in Schools Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), but even though the removal of sponsors' names from the covers and the greater promotion of fruit are welcome developments, there is still a long way to go to remove the dietary scourge of vending machines completely.

The breakfast club initiative has provided thousands of pupils with one of the most important meals of the day—and regularly—whereas previously those same young people started the school day with their cognitive faculties impaired.

The Department of Health national school fruit scheme from 2000 has conveyed the importance of eating fruit to the under-16s. The creation of the national healthy school standard is already bringing some improvement to the nutritional standard of school food with the long-term aim of reducing rates of childhood obesity.

My local educational authority is doing much good work. In North-West Leicestershire, 16 primary and five secondary schools are working towards the national
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healthy school standard. Achievement of that status depends partly on the contents of vending machines on the school site. That is a particularly welcome criterion.

Latterly, the school food trust and the school meals review panel have been established to help both parents and food nutritional experts develop healthy menus for schools that offer healthy food choices that children will eat. The trust will also offer the sort of independent advice on food and nutrition that many school heads and their catering staff have long asked for. Indeed, the principal of Ibstock community college, of which I am a governor, Bill Kelly, made that very request for independent information on nutrition. I am pleased that the Government are putting together a programme to satisfy that need, and to empower schools with the knowledge that they need to cater successfully for their pupils.

I am also encouraged by the recent statement by the chair of both the school food trust and the school meals review panel, Suzi Leather, who has said in relation to the work ahead of her:

These are laudable sentiments, which I am confident enjoy the support of the whole House, including even those veteran Conservative Members who voted for the 1980 Act, the effect of which continues to impair the skills mix of our economy, and will probably continue to do so for the next decade.

The Government should accept that despite the restoration of national nutrition standards in April 2001, school meals remain a dangerously neglected aspect of education policy. Dietary junk is still routinely served to our children. We must ensure that the £280 million allocated before the general election reaches children in the form of better food from their school kitchens, and is not swallowed up by existing contractual arrangements, as The Guardian recently said was likely.

The central tenet of the 1944 Act was for schools to provide a lunchtime meal that was suitable in all respects to be the main meal of the day, along with the free   provision of transport, milk and medical and dental treatment for schoolchildren. Local education authorities invariably satisfied this criterion and, despite the odd serving of pink custard and grey stew, the health of children—and, consequentially, that of the nation as a whole—improved immeasurably. We are still reaping the benefits of that policy, and many in the House, particularly on the Government Benches, are living proof of its success.

Ironically, as we have learned more about diet and healthy eating habits, the nutritional value of food in schools has gone in the opposite direction. It is irrefutable that the most significant blow struck to the nutritional value of school meals was the 1980 Act, ushered in by a Government headed by a grocer's daughter. That is a further irony, upon which I must not dwell.

From September 2005, new statutory minimum standards for nutrition in school food will be in place, and it is vital that Suzi Leather and her teams resist the
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predictable overtures from companies that benefit from the lax stop-gap introduced in 2001 for nutritional content—or rather, food group standards.

The school meals review panel's Department for Education and Skills remit is strongly to consider the introduction of nutrient-based nutritional standards, using the Caroline Walker Trust guidelines as a starting point, and in doing so to bear in mind issues of cost and implementation. While use of these guidelines as a starting point is most welcome, it is the bearing in mind of the issues of cost and implementation that rings alarm bells in my mind.

Given the uneven nature of the provision of school meals and the present shortfall in nutritional content, I respectfully suggest that issues of cost and implementation should not be the concern of the review panel. The needs of the private sector run counter to the short-term health and educational needs of children and the longer-term public health needs of society, and to raise that aspect in guidance to the panel smacks of an eventual compromise.

Then we have the systemic and myopic use of the private finance initiative in education. The appalling failure of the engineering firm W. S. Atkins in delivering even a modest education service for the children and parents of Southwark, one of London's poorest boroughs, should make the Government wary of promoting profit in the education sector. Sadly, some Ministers remain unremittingly upbeat about the continued involvement of private finance in education, and frustratingly reluctant to admit it when the policy fails children, teachers and parents, as has happened in Southwark and elsewhere.

It appears that the lessons from handing an engineering firm the contract to teach the national curriculum in Southwark schools have not yet been acknowledged by the Government, although the private sector is certainly mindful of Atkins' failure towards children and parents in Southwark, and the negative publicity that that rightly generated. An analysis of local education authorities in The Times Educational Supplement found that performance in the public sector surpassed that in LEAs that had been privatised. Indeed, there is a long list of LEAs that remain trapped in binding direct service provider contracts with private companies such as Amey, Serco and the unfortunately named Tribal Group.

As with its involvement in the NHS, the private sector's attitude to state education is generally to cherry-pick the most lucrative parts of the service. Catering, along with building construction and maintenance, is certainly one of the most profitable aspects of the state education service. Merton council in south-west London has judged that its six new PFI schools could be exempt from new Government guidelines on nutrition under the terms of the 25-year PFI contract, which includes catering. That is a shocking conclusion at which to have arrived. There are 450 other PFI schools in England and Wales. No doubt the redeployment of Lord Adonis as the Education and Skills Minister in another place will increase the flow of private profiteers into our schools, but if that brand-new peer and his
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backers think that that is the way to reform education for the benefit of the many and not the few, they really are in another place.

One of the most important and successful aspects of "Jamie's School Dinners" was publicising the poor conditions, lack of training and low pay with which kitchen staff in our schools must cope. The average wage for school kitchen staff remains about £82. As Unison has observed, attacks on retainer pay and ineligibility for jobseeker's allowance during the holidays has locked in a meagre national income with an hourly rate below the statutory minimum wage.

The dinner lady—more than 98 per cent. of school catering staff are female—is one of the most important and remembered workers in state schools. Those of us who went to such schools tend to remember the invariably good-humoured staff who served us our food for much of our time there. However, little did we realise the extent to which they were exploited. The Government have known that since 1997, and finally did something about it last year in the public health White Paper, "Choosing Health". The creation of a new vocational qualification is good news for the present and future Nora Sands in our school kitchens, but guarantees must be secured that catering staff, as we should now call them, will receive pay for attending training and other prescribed national vocational courses, so perhaps the Minister would like to state the Government's feelings on that subject when she responds.

It is also good to hear that the Learning and Skills Council will be allocated some of the £280 million to introduce a new ladder of qualifications to train staff in the basics of hygiene and nutrition, as well as the necessary preparation and cooking skills that will help our school kitchens and their suppliers to move away from the oven and towards the stove. I will be grateful if the Minister confirms the amount that the training programme will receive, how the programme will be implemented and, again, whether catering staff will be paid to attend training courses, as they would in any other industry. The Government must follow their bold and progressive streak—we are told that we are better when we are bolder—and we must resist the predictable and hollow accusations of nanny state-ism from the usual suspects, such as the Daily Mail.

An attractive menu to follow could be the Soil Association's "Food for Life" school meals action pack. It recommends that at least 50 per cent. of meal ingredients should be sourced from the local region, that at least 30 per cent. of food served should have improved nutrient quality, that three quarters of all food should be made from unprocessed ingredients, that school lunches should meet the nutrition targets set by the Caroline Walker Trust, and finally that, via the national curriculum, better classroom education on food and sustainability issues should be implemented.

In closing, may I say that there are no unhealthy foods, only unhealthy diets? However, present school menus still have far too many unhealthy choices. More and more schools and parents are trying hard to promote healthier eating and combat the immense power of advertisers and peer groups; as a father of four daughters, I know how difficult that task can be. We have a moral, social and economic duty to back them to the hilt in their work to persuade children to be non-
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conformist in their dietary decisions. I look forward to hearing the Minister, whom I greatly respect, describe how she plans so to do.

10.14 pm

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