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The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on securing the debate. It is an unexpected pleasure to join him and respond on behalf of the Government, with my friend and colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), sitting beside me.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck presented his case in typical fashion. He is a good and committed local MP, and he championed the interests of a company in his constituency. His description of that company's innovatory approach, its range of products and its success in securing important contracts throughout the country was impressive, and I understand his concerns.
My hon. Friend mentioned the panel and its report. As he probably knows, the recommendations are out for consultation. The consultation will continue until the end of the month, and obviously no decisions have yet been made. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will take account of what has been said this evening for the purposes of the consultation, and that others in his Department will read the report of the debate. In particular, I can reassure my hon. Friend that what he said about the advisory committee will be considered.
My hon. Friend is plainly as committed as the Government to meeting children's need for healthy food as an essential part of their learning and development. We all share an interest in children's health, diet and development. We have heard reports that our children's diet contains far too much fat, salt and sugar, and that
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obesity levels are rising as a result. In 2002, one in five boys and one in four girls in the United Kingdom were categorised as either overweight or obese, and according to experts the situation will deteriorate further unless we take significant action.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. That is not strictly true of interventions. It normally applies to major contributions to Adjournment debates. In any event, as we have time in hand, the normal customs do not apply on this occasion.
The Coca-Cola company is based in my constituency. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that major drinks manufacturers of that kind can play a major part in the campaign for healthier, lower-calorie, vitamin-enriched drinks in schools. Indeed, many are eager to do so. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind.
The problems of diet, health and obesity among children have been recognised, and there is now a real will in Government to make improvements. More nutritious school food could help to reduce the risk of diet-related health problems such as obesity, but also of cancer, coronary heart disease and diabetes in later life.
For some time, the Government have been committed to promoting whole school approaches to health. School meal standards were reintroduced in April 2001. The first standards, incidentally, were in place for more than 20 years and it was promised then that they would be reviewed after a time. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has made clear, that time has now come. The House will also be aware that in March this year, the Secretary of State announced a package of measures designed to improve significantly the quality of school food and committed £235 million of funding to help achieve it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck mentioned the school meals review panelan expert group that was convened by the Department as a temporary advisory group. The panel comprises 24 members from a variety of professional backgrounds, including field and academic dieticians and nutritionists, head teachers, governors and other school staff, support staff, catering and industry professionals. The Department also invited observers from other Departments that had a contribution to make to the panel's proceedings to attend its meetings.
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The panel's remit was to advise the Government on how best to meet their commitments in the public health White Paper, which set out to improve school food through the revision of school meals standards aimed at delivering a reduction in pupils' consumption of fat, salt and sugar and an increase in the consumption of fruit, vegetables and other foods containing essential nutrients. Anyone living with young children or who has had them in the past will be aware of the scale of the challenge to get them to eat healthily and nutritiously.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, the panel's report was entitled, "Turning the Tables: Transforming School Food". He quoted quite extensively from it and I welcome the clear support that he gave to its principal approach and findings when it was published. As I said earlier, it remains subject to consultation that runs to 31 December. The report recommends far-reaching changes to the standard of food and drink in schools. It recommends that tough minimum food-based standards should be implemented for school lunches by September 2006, stipulating the portions of food that should be served, and, importantly, restricting children's choices to ensure that they cannot opt out of healthier food.
Anyone concerned about those issues would recognise that such measures will work best when children receive consistent messages about food from schools. Most would accept that there is no point in setting strict standards for lunch time food, if children can then access foods that have a low nutritional value or are high in sugar and salt elsewhere on the school premises at other times during the school day. To that end, the panel also recommends that standards similar to those for school lunches should also apply to tuck shops, vending machines and other outlets.
Mr. Murphy: I was at pains to point out in my contribution that I would never suggest that food or drink that was high in sugar or fat should be available in schools. Rather, I pointed out the danger of the present policythat unless a sufficient variety of healthy, low-fat, low-sugar and low-calorie foods is available, children will be tempted to eat outside school or bring unhealthy stuff into school with them. That was my point.
John Healey: My hon. Friend did indeed make those points clear in his contribution. What I am trying to set out clearly now are the panel's recommendations. To be clear, the consultation is not on the settled policy of the Government that will result from the process, but on the recommendations of the panel. Views have been invited and this evening's debate provides another valuable contribution.
The school food trust, a non-departmental public body, is being set up. It will give independent support to schools and parents to help make the transformation to healthier school food. It will also undertake the work necessary to develop standards for other school food.
The school meals review panel wants children to drink waterand only wateror drinks with a nutritional value. Its view is that substituting any other drink for a healthy drink is a wasted opportunity. In "Vending healthy drinks: A guide for schools", the Food Standards Agency recommends replacing carbonated
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drinks with a simple healthy offer of water, milk or juice. It has also developed a nutrient profiling model that identifies food types and allocates points, depending on the level of each nutrient per 100 g of food. Products are then categorised on the basis of their overall points score. However, the model has been developed for use in relation to advertising controls only, as part of the Government's programme to regulate broadcast advertising to children of foods that are high in fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar. Food and drink that the model might categorise as "healthy" may not necessarily meet the more stringent standards recommended by the school meals review panela point about which my hon. Friend may be concerned.
There has been some concern and confusion among schools, local authorities and other stakeholders about the Health Education Trust's relationship with the Government. My hon. Friend touched on several matters relating to the HET, which is a charity formed to promote the development of health education of young people in the UK. The HET's director was a member of the school meals review panel and actively contributed to the proposed new standards on which we are consulting. The HET is independent of the Government and as such, the Government rightly have no direct control over its activities. I understand, however, that officials have been in touch with the HET to ensure that its advice is based on Government recommendations and standards currently reflected in published Government toolkits.
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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has already indicated that she is prepared to take tough decisions on which food and drinks will no longer be provided on school premises, where there is a case for taking such decisions. However, matters of detail such as the inclusion or exclusion of a particular dietfor example, those sweetened with artificial sweetenersor of carbonated drinks will need to be dealt with once the consultation has finished. The products produced by the company in my hon. Friend's constituency fall into that category. I underline the general point that I made at the outset: no decisions have yet been taken and the purpose of the consultation is to bottom out some of the more detailed issues. My hon. Friend has made a timely contribution to this process.
I can assure my hon. Friend that decisions will be made only after the responses to the consultation have been properly collated and analysed, and only after obtaining further expert advice from the school food trust and the FSA. I hope that he will draw some reassurance from the answers that I have given, and that they will prove useful to him in his continuing discussions with the company in his constituency. If there are further points that he or the company wish to make, I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be only too pleased to receive them.
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