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Everybody seems to have an opinion, whether good or bad, on their school meals. For some, they are responsible for a lifelong love affair with great British food. In fact, one has only to mention jam roly-poly to see pudding lovers—myself included—turn gooey-eyed with reminiscence. For others, custard may always remain a byword for the inedible.

More recently, school meals have fallen under a less nostalgic spotlight. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Jamie Oliver, we are having to face up to the consequences of opening up our school kitchens to competitive tendering. The “profit at all costs” mentality so prevalent throughout the era of Conservative Government has led to our nation’s school dinner tables becoming awash with high levels of salt, E numbers and mechanically recovered meat. We are only just beginning to see the true cost of that neglect. The 2003 report by the Select Committee on Health stated:

That is simply not acceptable.

The cost to the economy of the rapidly rising levels of obesity is conservatively estimated at about £3.5 billion a year. On top of that, obesity is rapidly closing in on smoking as the biggest killer in Britain. Good education is fundamental to combating the rising threat of obesity to our nation’s health. For those reasons, I strongly urge the Government to work towards the universal provision of free school meals, particularly for primary school children. For the 190 primary school days in the year, we should get back to the basics of the great Labour reformers of the post-war era and provide all children with food suitable in all respects as the main meal of the day.

I welcome the proposals in the Education and Inspections Bill, which will remove the statutory obligation on schools to charge pupils who are not exempted for school meals. The long-term goal of introducing free school meals would show true Labour values by fighting discrimination, battling the causes of poverty and ensuring that every child has an equal opportunity to lead a healthy lifestyle.

It is unfortunate that, despite attempts by local education authorities, there is still a stigma attached to free school meals. I should know, as someone who qualified for free school meals from my first day at school to my last. As many as one in four children entitled to free school meals do not claim them. That is an unnecessary waste; introducing free school meals for all would help to end such discrimination.

As my hon. Friend said, a recent Unison study found that the average cost of primary school meals was £7.40 per child per week; for parents with more than one child, the cost of school meals can soon add up, and that makes such parents more likely to take the cheaper option of producing a packed lunch for their children. Although packed lunches are not always necessarily unhealthy, the fact remains that it is cheaper to fill up on biscuits than bananas. My son informs me that children often swap items such as crisps and chocolate from their packed lunches. They become a valuable currency among those with the healthier packed lunches.

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The pilot scheme in Hull has seen the uptake of school meals almost double—from 36 per cent. to 64 per cent. There is clear evidence that introducing free school meals reduces the number of children liable to be eating cheap and unhealthy packed lunches. In many urban areas, such as those in my constituency, it is not always possible for families to access, let alone afford, fresh food for their children. That leads to a diet high in calories but low in nutritional value.

It should come as no surprise that income levels remain a stronger determinant of educational attainment than any other factor. It is our responsibility to ensure that every child receives at least one good meal a day. That would help strengthen the Government’s strong commitment to combating the detrimental effects of child poverty. The benefits of achieving that are clear to see. A Hull university study has proven that better nutritional intake improves concentration and readiness to learn. We must help our teachers in their daily battle for the attention of school pupils and ensure that we maximise the benefits of every moment that a child spends in school. That will be easier with no spikes after a lunch of sugar and E numbers. It is our duty to provide every child with the best possible chance in life. Although I welcome the improvements that the Government have made, we must never stop pushing for a better chance for our children. Pursuing the long-term goal of free school meals would be a clear-cut case of social justice in action.

In Britain, we are lucky enough to have a tremendous amount of regional diversity in our food, and that should be reflected in the nation’s school dinner menus. By aiming to meet the Soil Association’s target that 50 per cent. of the food used in school meals should be sourced locally and that 75 per cent. of the meal ingredients should be non-processed, we can use school meal funding to sustain and boost local economies. Whether it is fresh fish, root vegetables or ripe fruit, every area has local produce that can be incorporated into school menus.

Although I will stop short of recommending Newcastle brown ale to the local education authority for the steak and ale pie in my area, research has shown that for every £10 that is spent on locally sourced goods, an extra £25 is generated for the local economy. That is a healthy return, and I applaud the schools in my constituency that have taken part in the intergenerational allotment scheme, which is run in conjunction with the charity Age Concern. Such initiatives, with a local focus, will help us to deliver nutritional value and value for money.

We should take heart from the success of other countries. In Sweden, more than 85 per cent. of pupils take free school meals. On a recent visit, I saw first hand how integral lunch time is to the school curriculum, with classes and teachers eating together as a unit, just as families should, and, indeed, most do. The food was tasty, healthy and appetising. All the children tucked in heartily, helped themselves to seconds and tidied up after themselves before retuning to wipe down the tables. When I asked whether that was normal behaviour, the Swedish teachers were astonished that we did not do the same here. They asked whether we did not realise how important it is that children eat a good, nutritious meal at lunch time
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if they are to concentrate and learn. As hon. Members can imagine, I had to give an awkward answer, which has only made me more determined to highlight the importance of providing free, healthy school meals to every child.

Sweden is not the only success story. Finland has succeeded in reducing its rate of heart disease by more than 60 per cent. since it introduced free school meals. More recently, the Hondurans, recovering from the devastating effects of hurricane Mitch, have decided that providing free food at school will help to strengthen the link between the education system and wider society.

In making the case for free school meals, I acknowledge that steps are already being taken in the right direction. Contracted caterers have begun to respond to the demand for healthier options, junk food has been removed from our schools and the amount that is spent on school meals continues to rise.

Almost all adults are familiar with the idea that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, and many of us will have gone to work on an egg. I am sure that all of us have momentarily wished that we ate more carrots when we have been plunged into darkness during a power cut. Sadly, however, the health and lifestyle benefits of food are not always well known to children today.

Given the long decline in school catering and the rising price of quality food, the country is left facing a long-term health crisis. To alleviate it, we should continue to strive to ensure that Britain’s children receive a top-quality education from the start of the day until the end of the day and, most important, during lunch times. We need to make lunch time a platform for teaching children the healthy eating habits that will stay with them for ever. Aiming to deliver free school meals to every child is the best way of doing that.

3.14 pm

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): This is an important issue, which hon. Members on both sides of the House agree needs to be tackled. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) said, a quarter of children are obese or overweight, and that is what we should be focusing on in this debate. We should also be concentrating on finding solutions—particularly national solutions—rather than on policy disagreements at Kingston upon Hull city council.

I think we all agree that the issue of providing food in schools is critical to this debate; indeed, it is possibly the most important issue. Of course, other factors play a part. For example, young people take insufficient exercise, and hon. Members on both sides need to take that issue seriously. Nevertheless, we are all aware that high-calorie foods are cheap, available in abundance and heavily promoted directly at children and young people. I shall challenge the Minister on that later.

Andrew Gwynne: Will the hon. Gentleman say whether the fact that he has skipped over the issue of Kingston upon Hull city council means that he disagrees with the Hull Liberal Democrats?

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Greg Mulholland: The hon. Gentleman shows a remarkable impatience. I have only just started my speech, and if he sits tight and listens, he will hear what I have to say about that issue and the wider debate.

Mr. Wills: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I want to raise a general point about the relationship between the national and the local. He made a remark about that at the beginning, but I think that he is going to move on. When he says that it is important to deal with the issue nationally, is he proposing that a national solution should be imposed on every local authority, or does he think that local authorities should have some freedom to make their own decisions?

Greg Mulholland: One of the problems in this area of policy is that the Government have been quick to come up with directives, but they have not come up with any money to back them up, so the point is interesting.

As I was saying, the issue of the food that is made available to children is at the heart of the debate. Liberal Democrat Members are committed to all children having access to a healthy and affordable school meal option. Otherwise, as I am sure we can all agree, the problem will continue.

What I think we will find it much harder to agree on is the fact that the Labour party consistently and rather tediously demonstrates a bizarre Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde relationship, or a love-hate relationship, with the idea of local power. Here we are debating the situation at Kingston upon Hull city council, but the simple fact is that every local authority, of whatever colour, must makes decisions according to the local priorities in their manifestos and according to budgetary restrictions. The sad fact is that, every time a non-Labour council makes a decision that local Labour Members do not like, those Labour Members cry blue murder, even if that council happens to be in Scotland, where there is a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition Administration.

Ms Johnson: Just so that I am clear in my mind, will the hon. Gentleman explain the national Liberal Democrat policy on school meals? Is he saying that the Liberal Democrats do not support free, healthy school meals in local authorities? Is it his view that there should be affordable school meals?

Greg Mulholland: I am minded not to take any more interventions from the Labour Benches, although I will quite happily take one from the Opposition Benches, if the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) wants to make one. It is rather tedious to have interventions before I have set out the substance of my speech. I will indeed give some suggestions about national policy if I am allowed to do so in the limited time that we have.

Labour Members have a strange relationship to the decentralisation of power. They think that it sounds good on paper, but when non-Labour authorities happen to be in control, they do not like it. That is regrettable, and the fact that they have resorted to sending one of their local MPs to raise the issue at Westminster, when it is clearly a matter for the local authority, shows some of the motivation behind the debate.

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Let us talk about some principles. We have heard the misleading suggestion that Liberal Democrats do not agree with means-testing. That comes from the fact that we support the idea of a universal citizen’s pension, and we are proud to do so. Like everyone else, we support the idea that everyone should have access to school education, and we do not think that they should pay for that. We also, of course, support such things as free personal care for the elderly and free access to higher education to first degree level. However, we must be clear what the principles are. The principle of free education for all is based on that being a good thing, and a right. It is not based on our thinking that it is a progressive policy.

In response to the questions put by the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, North and for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), there is a sensible debate to be had about whether we should provide free school meals for all primary school children. I would happily take part in that debate, and would be happy for my party to take part in it. It is not Government policy, and if the Labour party wants to put it in its manifesto at the next general election, I look forward to seeing it. We know that the things that go into Labour party manifestos are generally not worth the paper they are written on, but that is another story.

One myth in the context of the debate is the suggestion that the pilot scheme in Hull has been scrapped. It has not been scrapped; it is running its course. It is a three-year pilot scheme and it will continue. A pilot scheme runs for a certain period. As to the idea that the findings will not be looked into, they will be looked into once the pilot scheme has ended. The council has made it clear that it will consider the university of Hull’s independent evaluation. When we have the result, depending on what it is—we obviously have some interim figures—it may be the right time for the council to lobby central Government to ask for funds to continue the scheme. That is where the debate arises. It is ridiculous to suggest that something costing £3.8 million a year must not be assessed alongside other council priorities. If any of the national parties want to adopt a policy of free primary school meals for all, they can do so. We can have that debate and they can say how the measure will be costed, but the responsibility cannot be forced on to local authorities without the money being provided.

Two things are particularly important in considering where to divert resources. I accept that some hon. Members take the position that there should be free primary school meals for all. I suggest—and I challenge the Minister to give us his thoughts—that we have seen what is most fundamental in school meal provision, and that is the quality of the meals and making the meals nutritionally valuable. We all know that that has not been the case, and we have heard examples of that. The Government have responded very slowly, but at least there are measures in place now and we look forward to the problem being addressed. However, if there is a need to put resources into something, they should clearly go there, to the benefit of all.

The second important matter concerns raising the threshold of free school meals. I thought that it was valuable to hear from the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West about her experience and the stigmatisation that went on. Consideration could
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be given to the threshold and to ways of including more pupils in the scheme, perhaps in such a way as to avoid stigmatisation. It could sensibly be argued that the money available would be better spent in those two areas than on universal provision, because there is a danger that that would mean universal provision of inadequately nutritionally balanced school meals. I am sure that that is not what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North is suggesting, but those are real issues and everything comes down to limited budgets and priorities.

If I tackle head on the question whether there should be free school meals for all, from my own position as a parent—admittedly of a one-year-old, who will not be starting school for a few years—I must ask whether I should expect or demand that my child’s school meals be paid for while I am on a salary of £59,500 a year. Actually, I do not.

Ms Johnson: Do you expect free personal care?

Greg Mulholland: Free personal care is based on the fact that people who have contributed throughout their life to society should be looked after by society. That is an easy one to deal with. I do not believe that I need the state and the taxpayer with their limited resources to pay for my children’s school meals. I look forward to participating in that debate.

I think that a veil should now be drawn over the situation in Hull, and it should be left to the people of Hull to decide about it in a democratically accountable way. Kingston upon Hull city council has made it clear that it is and will remain committed to healthy meals for all children, and will consider the conclusions of the pilot programme next year. It has, indeed, decided that the resources would be better spent on the overall quality of food, rather than on subsidising everyone, including the rich, to receive those things. That is the policy that it is putting forward. However, for those hon. Members who want the scheme to continue, the Minister is sitting in the Chamber. The leader of the city council, Councillor Carl Minns, has written to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills dealing with the point that, if universal free school meals are such a good idea, there should be Government funding for them. Let us see what the Minister will say about that.

I want briefly to deal with the points that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North made in relation to overall policy. The impetus provided by the school meals debate in the past couple of years is welcome, although her holier-than-thou attitude is a little tedious considering that it took a chirpy TV chef and a prime-time television programme to get the Government to do anything to face up to childhood obesity and the appalling food being served in too many of our schools. The Minister will be well aware that some schools have found the money that they needed to fulfil the Government’s requirements—the 50p per head at junior schools and 60p per head at secondary schools. When will we receive a clear indication of where the funding is expected to come from? Will it be simply an extra burden on councils, without any help, or is it suggested that schools will effectively have to raise funds to reach those standards voluntarily? Will the Government commit to maintaining the expenditure increases that will, of course, be involved beyond 2008?

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Vending machines in health centres have been talked about, but of course we have a problem with vending machines in schools. The Government are not at this stage tackling the issue well enough. I have some experience of the involvement of companies as I used to work for a marketing agency that had Britvic Soft Drinks as a client. What Britvic Soft Drinks was interested in was getting as many of its soft drinks as it could—as many brands and as much volume—down the throats of children, including primary school children, as regularly as possible.

We must accept that the pressures of the market and of profit affect what happens; increased regulation is needed. We all know that there is financial pressure on education and there always will be. However, some schools make £2,500 a year from vending machines. Clearly those responsible for them feel that, because of the pressures on them, that is something that they must, with regret, do. However, figures from the School Food Trust show that the food and drink companies make profits of £45 million a year from vending machines in schools. That is an issue that the Government have not tackled head on. We believe that food from school vending machines should meet minimum health and nutrition standards, just as any other foods provided in schools should.

Another interesting question that has come out of the Education and Inspections Bill is what would happen if an academy were sponsored by Britvic Soft Drinks or Coca-Cola. Would there be pressure to have those products in the school? That is an interesting issue that I want to put to the Minister.

Andrew Gwynne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Greg Mulholland: I will not give way; I have given way three times and there is very limited time now.

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