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5 July 2006 : Column 276WH—continued

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing the debate; perhaps I should congratulate the double act that is now in place, because he and the hon. Member for Sutton and
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Cheam (Mr. Burstow) are each sharing one another’s concerns, as they did a few years ago. I am pleased that I have the opportunity to respond on behalf of my Department, although I should apologise for the absence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, who would normally respond on these issues. Unfortunately, she has had to be away on departmental business.

Obviously, the comments that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington made show that he has been concerned about this issue for some time. I am very much aware of the strength of feeling in the local community; it was clearly and successfully demonstrated in 2003, when the decision to close Sutton magistrates court was taken by the then Greater London Magistrates’ Courts Authority.

I am grateful for the positive and gracious comments that both hon. Gentlemen made about my friend, Christopher Leslie, who was the Minister at the time and who, along with the Lord Chancellor, upheld the subsequent appeal, having taken into account the needs and views of local users. I hope that by saying this at the beginning of my response, it will give some reassurance to both hon. Gentlemen: our position remains that there are no plans to close Sutton magistrates courthouse.

The court is a five-courtroom courthouse in the centre of Wallington. The property is wholly owned by Her Majesty’s Courts Service, and is in a good state of repair, which is perhaps unusual when one considers the comparison with other courthouses in London—the one that serves my local community could do with some money invested in it, and I may come to that point later. Some 17 staff are employed, including legal and administrative staff, and there is strong support from about 90 magistrates. It serves the community of Sutton and the surrounding area, with a mixed case load of criminal and family work, and it does so to a high standard. It is important to put that on the record.

Her Majesty’s Courts Service works closely with key local stakeholders, criminal justice agencies, magistrates and the judiciary on the effective delivery of services to local communities. It must also balance the demands placed on it with the resources that it has at its disposal.

I am acutely aware of the need to provide services as close to the local community as possible, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam made clear in his closing remarks, but there is also a requirement on the Courts Service to review continuously the effectiveness and efficiency of its operation, to maximise the use of its buildings and to provide the best front-line service possible to local users of courts.

Within the London region, recent discussions with magistrates and criminal justice agencies have concluded that there would be a benefit to grouping neighbouring magistrates courts into clusters. That would improve the flexibility in the listing of cases, use courtrooms more efficiently and allow staff to be deployed more flexibly.

In practice, such a move could make it possible to run trial courts alongside each other, and allow the listing of work into those courts from any of the
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boroughs within the cluster. It could also concentrate the work of certain non-Crown Prosecution Service prosecution agencies in particular courtrooms, so releasing CPS prosecutors to appear at other remand and trial courts; accommodate the administration that undertakes important back-office functions at a single location to improve the quality, consistency and efficiency of the service provided; and allow the creation of a single legal team to support all the courts in the cluster, thereby providing better cover and increasing the range of work available to each legal adviser. That should have positive results for the local community. In particular, it should provide benefits to victims and witnesses because the cases in which they are involved will be listed and progressed more quickly. It should also provide benefits for the magistrates working in the cluster groups because they will be able to gain broader case experience.

As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said, it is proposed that Sutton magistrates court is clustered with Croydon and Bromley courthouses as one of the 10 clusters recommended for London. To be fair, the hon. Gentleman made the point about Bromley, but Croydon is also in that cluster. I heard what he said about travel problems between Sutton and Bromley, but Croydon is an important transport hub for both Bromley and Sutton and we should not lose sight of that.

Tom Brake: While that is true, in fact transport connections from the London borough of Sutton are via West Croydon, but the main interchange is East Croydon, so transport access is not straightforward.

Bridget Prentice: Yes. I know the area very well and I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point.

There is already a precedent for joint working between courts in south-east London. For example, Camberwell has a satellite court at London Bridge, and Greenwich and Woolwich magistrates courts work co-operatively together, which has proved to be very productive in terms of relationships. I have a personal interest in that because those courts serve my community.

Mr. Burstow: Would it be possible, after the debate, to obtain access to information about any modelling that has been done of the cluster idea in terms of its effect on the use of the three courts’ capacity and what it might mean for our constituents in terms of their travelling and where they might end up travelling to? It would be useful to know whether any modelling has been done.

Bridget Prentice: I will certainly try to ensure that if such information is available it is provided to the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington.

Tom Brake: We referred earlier to the fact that Sutton is an opportunity court. The comments on other opportunity courts state that Ilford, for example, has the potential to relocate. Could the Minister try to ascertain from the relevant Department precisely the way in which Sutton constitutes an opportunity?

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Bridget Prentice: I shall come to the definition of opportunity, but it means that there are likely to be different opportunities for continued usage in future. However, that does not necessarily mean closure. It could mean a court being used for a batch of similar cases that could be dealt with more productively if, for example, they were all based in one place.

The bench chairs in London have discussed the issue and agreed that clusters are a sensible way forward. That has also been discussed with the criminal justice agencies in London which support the change. The Courts Service intends to publish a consultation document later this month setting out the proposals in detail. If the proposals are widely supported, we would expect to implement them in the spring next year. However, they are subject to that consultation, and attention will be paid to the responses. We believe that the improvements to working practices should deliver an improved, high-quality service to local residents in Sutton by introducing greater flexibility and the ability to target resources more effectively and efficiently.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to victims and witnesses and we really want to put them at the heart of our court system, so it is important that we give them the opportunity to see their cases through as efficiently, professionally and sensitively as possible.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam asked about the definition of opportunity and I hope that I have made a reasonable attempt to respond. Another issue concerns what drives the courts strategy. We are looking in detail at improving the court estate. For example, Greenwich magistrates court needs substantial work. The facilities and conditions of the court estate are not good enough and there are still areas with too much mixing of victims, witnesses and defendants. I am sure that the hon. Gentlemen are aware of the issues.

Mr. Burstow: During the formal consultation phase of the proposals, would it be possible for the Minister or her colleague the Minister of State to meet me and my hon. Friend and representatives of the London borough of Sutton to discuss our concerns in a little more detail? Obviously, at that point we will have had the benefit of looking at any modelling and other data on the proposals.

Bridget Prentice: I do not want to commit my right hon. and learned Friend to meetings without having a
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word with her, but I will certainly put it to her. She is generally very open to meetings with colleagues and, if her diary permits, I am sure that she will allow that.

On strategy, there is not a bottomless pot of money. The Courts Service must demonstrate that it is efficient and effective in its use of public funds, including its estate.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked whether the local authority could appeal under the system. Local authorities no longer make a financial contribution to the courts and I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about whether the local authority can definitely not appeal against closure. At the moment, of course, there is no closure, but I will ensure that that point is clarified. If at a future date the agency concludes that any of its courthouses should close, that could only follow rigorous evaluation of the benefits of doing so, including full consultation with local communities and key stakeholders who may be affected. Obviously, Members of Parliament are key to that.

Tom Brake: I thought that the Minister was about to conclude. Will she respond on the bench legal manager issue, if not now then at least in writing? That is clearly an issue that JPs are most concerned about. I thought from her response that she was saying that there would be only one legal representative per cluster, but perhaps I misunderstood her.

Bridget Prentice: I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman about the bench legal manager. There will be local centralisation of administrative functions, but I shall have to take advice on whether that means only one legal manager. I will return to the hon. Gentleman on that.

I hope that I have reassured both hon. Gentlemen about Sutton magistrates court and its role in our court service. I want to put on record our thanks to the magistrates in Sutton for the splendid work that they do and will continue to do. We want to ensure that we give them the opportunity to expand their experience within a strategy that ensures that our court service serves the people it is supposed to represent.

11.29 pm

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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School Meals

2.30 pm

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I am delighted to have secured the debate, and I am very pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), is responding to it. Although this is clearly an educational matter, it has wider ramifications. It fits with the public health agenda that has been followed since 1997, and the Government’s target and commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020.

There is broad consensus that childhood obesity is a serious and increasing problem. It is storing up major worries for the future. The most recent figures show that more than one quarter of our children in secondary schools are clinically obese, which is almost double the proportion of a decade ago. The National Obesity Forum said that it was a public health time bomb, as children who are obese in their early teens are twice as likely to die by the age of 50. Some experts report that, unless the issue is tackled quickly, today’s children could be the first generation to see their life expectancy fall below that of their parents. Given the strides in medical technology and general standards of living, childhood obesity and smoking are the two key public health issues facing us today.

I want to use the experience from my constituency to showcase a joined-up way of tackling childhood obesity and improving public health for this generation and those that follow. Hull is an area of great health inequality and one of the most deprived cities in England. Using any indices of deprivation, we find that Hull is in the unenviable position of being one of the areas with the highest childhood mortality rate. Unemployment is twice the national average, heart disease is rising and is in excess of the national average, teenage pregnancies have been among the highest in England and attainment in secondary schools, although improving, is one of the lowest in England. With one of the highest obesity levels in England and Wales, Hull not surprisingly has been dubbed the country’s “fat capital”.

When I became an MP, I was struck by the statistic that life expectancy for a baby boy born today in Kingston upon Hull is six years less than a baby boy born in Kingston upon Thames. In light of that, Kingston upon Hull city council decided that, on healthy eating, it needed to get ahead of the game. In February 2004, it introduced healthy menus to primary schools and special schools. However, it continued the policy of allowing free school meals only to those on means-tested benefits, and the take-up fell from 48 per cent. to 36 per cent. Although the council was right to introduce healthy food, fewer children accessed it, and that undermined the policy.

It is also worth reflecting on the fact that 70 per cent. of those eligible for free school meals in Hull claim them. National figures show that one in four of those entitled to free school meals do not claim them. I had a look at the eligibility criteria for free school meals, and it is bureaucratic. The entitlement states that, if a parent or carer is on income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance or in receipt of child tax credit,
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providing they are not entitled to working tax credit and their income is less than £14,155 a year, their child is entitled to free school meals. It is bureaucratic, and there is still a stigma attached to children who access free school meals.

We also need to address the issue of families who are just above benefit levels. For them, school meals payment can be a burden. Unison conducted a survey recently and it found that the average cost to parents of primary school meals is about £7.40 a week per child. That is quite a lot of money to families on low income. More fundamentally, childhood obesity is not merely a welfare or poverty issue, but a wider public health concern. The problems of childhood obesity are not confined to the entitlement limits of means-tested benefit recipients.

Kingston upon Hull city council decided to adopt a radical approach. It considered the experiences of the Hull education action zone, which was introduced after 1997. Like many zones throughout the country, Hull allowed schools to take forward innovative projects, try them out and do things that had not been done before. In Hull in particular, schemes such as breakfast clubs worked very well. Teachers said that breakfast in school was a huge benefit to children’s behaviour, attendance and concentration.

The Labour-controlled council considered the experience of the Hull education action zone and it talked to the city’s two primary care trusts. As I have stressed, public health is at the centre of the debate. The PCTs already provide fresh fruit for four to six-year-olds in primary schools. The council and the PCTs considered what they could do together to challenge the received wisdom about school meals and think outside the box. They considered the Education Act 2002 and its provision of powers to innovate, whereby local authorities can put forward new ideas to the Secretary of State, who at that point was my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), and say, “We would like to do something really radical. All our school meals should be free.” To his great credit, he agreed that Hull could go ahead and do that. The city council was the only local authority that chose to take that step.

The proposal was called the “Eat Well, Do Well” campaign, and it was led by councillor Mary Glew, who held the health and public protection portfolio on the city council. She was a great champion of youngsters in Hull having access to good, healthy food, so that they would do far better in school and their health would be far better as they grew up.

The campaign is a pilot project. It has been running since 2004 and it completes its three-year pilot in 2007. Liberal Democrat and Tory councillors opposed the approach, so the project had to be phased in over one year. The first schools started the scheme in late April 2004, and the final phase of primary schools began in early 2005. Professor Derek Colquhoun at the university of Hull and his colleagues are monitoring the scheme, and they will produce a final evaluation in 2007.

There has already been an incredibly positive interim report, and monthly monitoring shows that take-up has been very good. So far, it has risen from 36 per cent. to 64 per cent., and in many primary schools in my constituency, the figure has reached 80 to
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90 per cent. Some 24,000 pupils in primary and secondary schools benefit from breakfast clubs, free healthy school lunches and free healthy refreshments for our after-school clubs. There is also free fresh fruit for all primary school children.

To implement the policy, we needed the support of all primary schools, school cooks and lunchtime supervisors. Local trade unions have been magnificent in supporting the scheme, and Unison and the GMB in particular fully appreciated and understood that the present investment in our youngsters is vital to the future health of Hull.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and on early-day motion 2486, which deserves the support of a wide cross-section of the House. She mentioned the trade unions. Is it not the case that, in addition to the benefits that she has itemised—more nutritional school meals, wider access and better behaviour—a fourth quality that is particularly important in Hull and elsewhere is that jobs are created in the locality or community? That is worthy of note and it is pleasing that the trade unions are supporting the campaign in the vigorous way that they are.

Ms Johnson: That is absolutely right. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, as jobs are important to Hull.

I want to say something about Jamie Oliver. He visited Hull before he decided to take his television programme to the London borough of Greenwich. I think that he said that Hull was ahead of the game, and that the story was not there any more but at other local authorities that had failed to grasp the nettle. He had a look at what we were doing and was impressed.

Sue Rae, Kingston upon Hull city council’s healthy eating co-ordinator, said that:

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