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School Meals

6. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): If he will make a statement on the uptake of school meals in secondary schools. [225783]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): The latest School Food Trust survey shows that take-up of school meals in England at secondary school level stabilised between 2007 and 2008 at just below 38 per cent., which brings to a halt the steady decline that we have seen since the mid-1970s.

Mr. Goodwill: Schools up and down the country are banning all sorts of ingredients, such as Marmite and
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tomato ketchup. My favourite food, in common with many children, is chips. Will the Secretary of State explain why oven chips, which contain less than 5 per cent. fat and qualify for three green traffic lights, are subject to the same restrictions as their deep-fried unhealthy alternative?

Ed Balls: I was at two schools on Friday, both of which were serving chips. There are restrictions on the serving of chips, but not an outright ban. As for the detail of the difference between deep-fried and oven chips, the matter has been gone through in detail by the School Food Trust over the past couple of years during consultation with the industry. There are fewer restrictions on certain products than on others, depending on the nutritional content of the food. I shall not go into the detail of the precise nutritional content of oven chips—that is something I shall leave to the experts.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Having last enjoyed a delicious Staffordshire school meal only two weeks ago, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the great improvement in the quality of meals over the past three years, which is leading to more locally sourced ingredients and healthier, fresher food? However, at this year’s Labour party conference, did my right hon. Friend note the concerns expressed about the affordability of school meals, and the calls for a broadening of the entitlement to free meals? Might the money that he has been given jointly with the Department of Health make it possible to offer all new entrants an initial free trial of school meals, so that they and their parents can become used to the quality that such meals now offer?

Ed Balls: A number of local authorities are already doing precisely that. A couple of weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I had lunch with a group of five-year-olds in a Bolton primary school that offered free meals throughout the first term of the reception year. We have put more than £240 million into subsidising ingredients over the next three years. We have also announced that we will conduct a £20 million pilot in two local authority areas to assess the impact that free school meals in primary schools for all children can have on health, discipline and learning. We will examine the results in detail, and then consider the next steps.

It is still of concern to me that slightly more than half our primary school children are not having a hot meal at lunch time. I should like to see the take-up increase, and I hope that the free school meal pilots will help us to work out how we can achieve that.

Topical Questions

T1. [225803] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): This afternoon I am publishing for Parliament our 14-to-19 implementation plan. I welcome recent endorsements from Ofsted and the Public Accounts Committee of our focus on quality rather than quantity. Consistent with that approach, the latest figures from local consortiums show that 12,000 young people started diploma courses this September. I am also announcing
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today plans for a world-class academy—the Joseph Cyril Bamford academy—in Staffordshire that will cater exclusively for diploma students. All the Russell and 1994 groups of universities are now accepting our diplomas, and Wellington college was the first major independent school to announce that it would offer the engineering diploma from next September.

Education maintenance allowances are vital to ensure that students from low-income families stay at school or college after the age of 16. Following processing delays in recent weeks, as of last Thursday 580,000 of the 682,000 applications received had been processed. The backlog has fallen from 155,000 a few weeks ago to 92,000 at the end of last week.

The Schools Minister has today written to all colleges to express his disappointment at the continuing delays, to assure them that the contractor and the Learning and Skills Council are doing all that they can to process the remaining applications as quickly as possible, and to inform them that he has agreed with the LSC that if any college has insufficient funds to cover the needs of students in hardship, it should contact the LSC to discuss the need for additional funds so that no learner loses out.

Mr. Hollobone: During the recess, the Secretary of State wrote to all secondary schools in the country encouraging them to participate in the Give and Let Live donor education programme for 14-to-16-year-olds. Given that the Northamptonshire-based Jeanette Crizzle Trust, of which I am pleased to be a trustee, recently commissioned independent research which demonstrated that only 3 per cent. of schools were taking part in that important programme, what level of take-up does the Secretary of State expect this year as a result of his letter?

Ed Balls: This subject has been close to my work and that of many other Members in recent months. I am sure that Members in all parts of the House will wish to send their condolences and sympathies to the parents of Adrian Sudbury, who sadly died in August. He had campaigned for more information and support in schools in regard to blood and bone marrow transplants. The memorial service for Adrian is on Friday, and I shall be meeting his parents tomorrow.

As part of the commitment that I made to Adrian in August, I said that the Secretary of State for Health and I would write to all secondary schools to ensure that they had information about the Give and Let Live programme, and also that we would update the pack of material that goes to secondary schools to encourage more young people to become donors. I know that the hon. Gentleman himself has campaigned on this issue for a number of years. The research commissioned by the Jeanette Crizzle Trust was conducted before the mailings in September, and revealed that the majority of schools surveyed were not aware of the details of the material.

We will push hard to ensure that all schools publicise the importance of the Give and Let Live campaign, and the importance of young people becoming donors through their curriculum and in other ways through their schools. We will do so informed by that research. As I have said,
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tomorrow I will be talking to Adrian Sudbury’s parents about how we can proceed with the campaign even after his death.

T4. [225806] Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): The Saturday before last, I joined four Labour Cabinet Ministers and thousands of others at the “keep the promise—end child poverty” rally in central London. Can the Secretary of State tell the House what assurances he gave to campaigners when he met them on that occasion? Does he share my concern that there is no way that the UK will meet its promise to abolish child poverty if we elect a Conservative Government at the next election?

Ed Balls: There were representatives from all political parties on the march the other week. I was pleased to be there, and to meet my hon. Friend's constituents and others as part of that march. It is very important that we reaffirm our commitment, goals and targets to halve child poverty—then double that—by the end of the next decade. The measures in the Budget that were introduced in spring this year will take hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty. The thing that concerns me is that the money that is needed to pay for the measures to reduce child poverty were all opposed by the Conservative party.

T2. [225804] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Will the Secretary of State investigate the plight of 16 to 19-year-old students in further education who are having problems accessing their maintenance grants as a result of failings by the contracting company Liberata? Why has that situation been allowed to arise? Is it not yet another example of his Department failing to manage important commercial contracts?

Ed Balls: I do not think that it is, but, as I have said, the Schools Minister has written today to all colleges throughout the country. An issue arose in August in that the contractor was unable to meet the demand at that time because of its IT processing and calls to its helpline. There has been active work by the contractor and the Learning and Skills Council to get those matters under control, which is being achieved. It is important that those problems are scrutinised and I was pleased that the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families announced that it is planning to consider them. It is important that we learn lessons. We regret what has happened but it has fundamentally been a failure of the contractor and its IT systems.

T3. [225805] Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Secretary of State accept that Essex county council has no mandate from the people of Colchester when it comes to academies? If he is looking for consensus as to the way forward, will he not accept that, where communities wish to have academies, let them have them, but where communities do not want academies, let them keep what they have, build on the federation but have the resources that would otherwise go to the academy?

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I have met the hon. Gentleman and debated that issue with him on more than one occasion. He knows that our priority is to ensure that all children, including his
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constituents in Colchester, get the education that they need in order to prosper. Frankly, the results in some of the schools in Colchester are not good enough. We will do whatever it takes, including establishing academies if that is what is appropriate, working with the county council, to ensure that the young people whom he represents get a high-quality education.

T6. [225808] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Office for Standards in Education has found on a number of occasions that Blackfordby St. Margaret’s Church of England primary school in North-West Leicestershire is a good school with outstanding features and is popular with the local community that it serves. As a result, it is bulging at the seams. Can the Secretary of State discuss with me why the standards and diversity fund bid from that school to undertake major capital works that are highly desirable has been bounced back? It seems to fit the bill as a successful and popular school, particularly in relation to the restoration of the primary age range. I would like to have an opportunity to see either the Secretary of State or the Schools Minister as urgently as possible.

Jim Knight: Naturally, I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend about the capital bid. We have been working on the primary capital programme in recent months to ensure that primary schools start to benefit from the sort of investment that we are seeing across our secondary school programme. We were delighted in September to be able to open 130 brand-new schools, some of which were primary schools, but I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to see whether more needs to be done in his constituency.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): In the Westminster Hall debate on Thursday on testing, the Schools Minister indicated that in 2010 key stage 2 and key stage 3 tests may not go ahead in their existing form. Is that also the view of the Secretary of State?

Ed Balls: I made it clear in my statement to the House back in July that the principle of externally marked national tests was very important and that it would be completely retrograde to go back to the old pre-test days when there was not proper information for parents on the performance of either their child or their primary school, but I said that the current system is not set in stone and that we were studying very carefully the Children, Schools and Families Committee report on testing and assessment, which we have been doing over the summer.

T7. [225809] John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): As chair of the all-party group on communications, I welcome the Government statement on home access grants. This will help families in the use of the internet, but, according to Ofcom, Glasgow has the lowest uptake of the internet in the whole country. Will my hon. Friend have a word with Ministers north of the border to ensure that the money they are given goes to the places where it is supposed to go, so that the children in my constituency can receive the same innovative resource as children in England?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of having home access to a computer. Currently, there are
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about 1 million children who have no access to a computer in the home, and they are disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds, which is reinforcing the attainment gaps. It is a great pity that the Scottish Executive have not yet followed our excellent example, and if they do not do so, I am sure that the voters of Glenrothes will take that into account on 6 November.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): More than 90,000 students are still waiting to receive their education maintenance allowance. I listened very carefully to what the Secretary of State has said during this Question Time, but Liberata, the company to which the Secretary of State awarded the £75 million contract, had a well known poor track record, just like the company the Government contracted to administer the standard assessment tests; the Financial Services Authority described Liberata’s record as reckless. Are not those 92,000 students owed an apology from the Secretary of State, and will he this afternoon commit the Government to an independent inquiry so that we can find out, yet again, what went wrong with the way in which his Department is administering its responsibilities?

Jim Knight: The company is a contractor to the Learning and Skills Council, so their relationship is a matter for them, but I am pleased, after the initial problems with the IT system and the helpline to which the Secretary of State referred, that the contractor has been able to apply resources so that the processing backlog, for example, has now decreased from 147,000 on 1 October to 111,000; that is making very significant progress in eating into what is a highly regrettable problem. The LSC, as the responsible agency, has apologised, and we welcome scrutiny of this, which is why we welcome the Select Committee’s inquiry.

T9. [225812] Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): The quality of schools depends primarily on the quality of teachers, and almost all of us remember one particularly good teacher who inspired us and gave us enthusiasm for a subject and self-confidence. Mark Barnett, the head of Westfield primary school in York, is that kind of teacher; he has just been declared the Yorkshire teacher of the year. Will the Secretary of State congratulate him, and will he tell the House what the Government are doing to train and incentivise more teachers to be as good as Mark Barnett?

Ed Balls: I am very happy to congratulate the head of Westfield primary school in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and to mark the fact that he is the Yorkshire teacher of the year, and to regret only that the national teacher of the year did not come from Yorkshire—although I met the excellent teacher from Bath who won that award, and she was also a truly inspirational leader. We are doing everything we can through pay, but also through our new master’s qualification and the expansion of Teach First, to encourage more of the best graduates to come into the teaching profession and also then to rise to headship. We will do everything we can, including through pay and incentives, to make sure that people such as my hon. Friend’s constituent continue to do a great job for the children of our country.

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T5. [225807] Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): Will the Secretary of State join with me in commending the work of children’s centres and early years centres across the country, and will he reassure the parents, staff and children who attend those centres that they will not be subject to cuts and closures because of the current economic situation, and does he accept that the vital work they do is crucial for our communities and the future well-being of all our children?

Ed Balls: These are obviously difficult times, but it will be crucial to ensure that the investment in our children’s future—in our schools and our children’s centres—is properly protected. However, given that it is not the Labour party that is proposing to cut the Sure Start programme, the best way for us to ensure that those cuts do not happen is to do everything that we can to prevent the election of a Conservative Government, and that is what we will do.

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T8. [225810] Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Is the Secretary of State aware of the concern of many parents of children with special needs that the new draft regulations covering the tribunal system are legalistic and lawyer-intensive, and will deter many people? Will he meet a delegation of concerned groups to discuss how the regulations could be improved?

Ed Balls: I am very happy to meet a delegation. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Ministry of Justice and myself have ensured that the regulations will not have those unintended consequences. Also, the Lamb review is considering how we can support parents of children with a special educational need more effectively in future. As well as a meeting with myself, I will organise for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents a meeting with Brian Lamb to discuss the work of his inquiry.

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Financial Markets

3.31 pm

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on this morning’s announcement about the implementation of the proposals that I announced to the House last week. Again, I hope that the House will understand that it was necessary for me to issue a market notice this morning ahead of the opening of the markets.

In my statement to the House last Wednesday, I outlined the principles of the Government’s proposals to restore confidence in the banking system and put banks on a stronger footing, which are essential steps in helping the people and businesses of the country and supporting the economy as a whole. Since then, there have been intensive discussions with UK banks and institutions, and I can today tell the House how the principles set out last Wednesday are now being applied.

I shall first remind the House of the three key elements of the measures that I outlined last week: first, to inject sufficient liquidity into the financial system now; secondly, to make available at least £50 billion of capital, should it be required, to recapitalise the UK banking system, and thirdly, to provide a guarantee on eligible new debt to support medium-term lending between banks. Those measures are aimed at unblocking the inter-bank lending system and strengthening UK institutions, so that banks can start lending to people again. That is necessary both to stabilise the banking system and to support the wider economy.

No country alone can solve this global problem. At the weekend, at both the G7 Finance Ministers meeting and the International Monetary Fund, it was clear that the three elements of last week’s proposals will be essential parts of a global recovery plan. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had discussions with European Union leaders, and they too agreed that this was the right way to stabilise and rebuild the banking system. Today—indeed, in the last hour or so—many European Union Governments have announced how they plan to support their financial systems. It is increasingly clear that the measures that I am announcing today form the basis of an international consensus on the right response to events.

I shall set out to the House the detail of today’s announcement, which covers both liquidity and capital. I turn first to the funding of the banking system, or liquidity. The Bank of England will continue to supply sufficient short-term funds, which from today will include unlimited dollar funds available to banks to be swapped for sterling funds, and continued loan operations through the special liquidity scheme.

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