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"one of the most successful initiatives of its kind"
with the only reservation being mine-that it did not cover more children. The scheme has strong support from horticultural interests, which could be a reason for the EU's enthusiasm, as agricultural interests are much more closely aligned with the political process in the EU. Yet the English scheme lies within the budget of the Department of Health, which inherited it from the lottery. I sense a policy orphan-a policy not invented here and not fitting precisely the strategies defined by the Department's team.
I have found a similar attitude locally: "It is a nice scheme which we are happy to see continue, but we are rather more enthusiastic about other strategies for dealing with child nutrition and obesity." Some of the examples in Derbyshire are focused on the extremity of need in children-on the very obese and those with severe problems with the nutritional content of their food. Those are highly expensive and focused programmes that are needed in many ways but cannot be seen as comparable to the universal fruit and vegetable scheme.
I would not argue that the school fruit and vegetable scheme is more than a part of a strategy for addressing the health of our primary-age children. Better school meals, stronger advice and labelling-I support a more aggressive approach to that for children's food-the promotion of physical activity, and support for parents through initiatives such as Sure Start which help build solid foundations for feeding children appropriately, all play an important part.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend add to his list two potentially very worthwhile initiatives: much tighter controls over advertising food, especially to children, and the reintroduction of free school milk to certain areas and certain groups of children?
On the first, I agree entirely. There are still examples of entirely inappropriate advertising, even with the tougher voluntary codes that have been adopted. Some of the links to merchandising have been broken.
My son is big enough to be beyond this now-in fact he is bigger than me-but he used to link a lot of his eating patterns to merchandising for food products. Clearly that is very unhelpful to parents.
On the second element, I can remember having free school milk as a child. I thought it valuable and it was. It was focused on a particular requirement at the time-the poor calcium content in diets, which may well have been remedied in a rather more affluent age. I support my hon. Friend in giving some further thought to making that a part of our strategy.
The research to date gives a strong indication of where the scheme might help. Fruit and vegetable consumption falls sharply in school year 3, where the scheme ends. I will be utterly fair: the research suggests that there is a more complicated pattern than simply the termination of the school fruit scheme. It is not the case that because we stop giving out free fruit in year 3, all of a sudden the consumption of fruit and vegetables declines. It is not as simple as that, but that does appear to be part of the picture, and if we extend the scheme there is a reasonable chance that we can defer at least some of the change in the pattern of consumption among young people.
Nutrition is an increasingly large part of the curriculum in junior years. The scheme would be a powerful practical tool for reinforcing key nutritional messages, and for ensuring that fruit and vegetables are seen not as a supplement to a poor diet but as replacements for excessive consumption of less useful foods. As the school curriculum rolls on to later years, the important elements of this scheme could be utilised still more as an educational tool, and be linked in with the science curriculum in a school, so teachers could say, for instance, "By consuming more apples, you'll get more fibre. Why is fibre important?" That would carry through some of the key educational messages, many of which cannot be taught nearly so readily to very young children. Habits are more likely to stick in an older child.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address some of the questions that I have raised. I have referred to the complexity of this subject; it engages a remit wider than that of the Department of Health. Indeed, to some extent, the Department is an uneasy parent of the scheme. I would therefore like, first, to know what consultations have taken place with other interested Departments, such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Secondly, what were the pilots my hon. Friend the Minister referred to in one of her parliamentary answers? Thirdly, what is happening to the European Union money being offered to this country? I agree that just over €11 million is not going to solve our Government's problems at a stroke, but it is nevertheless a material sum when contributed towards a key objective of this kind.
I am also interested in the age point, and the change in consumption that occurs then. What researched basis is there for favouring a scheme provided only to infants? I have talked about the year 3 impact-the drop in consumption of fruit and vegetables. We need to know more about this, and relate it to the scheme, which is a tool to address it. Is there any research that shows what changes happen at this point in a child's life, and how we can blunt them or, more optimistically, stop them happening, and thereby sustain the consumption of
fruit and vegetables over a much longer period? If there is some doubt about the application of this scheme to older children, would it not be sensible to trial an extension to a broader age range to see what the effect is?
As I illustrated earlier in my speech, we have been used to trials on this subject. We did valuable work in testing how things worked, how effectively we could distribute the food, and what impact it really had on children and schools. We could readily trial this beyond the current age group. I very much look forward to hearing the response of my hon. Friend the Minister.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I shall be brief. I am delighted to be able to support my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) in this very worthy debate, which has now been allocated three hours. That is not quite what he expected, and my contribution will certainly not fill those three hours-but I want to make a couple of points that I believe are pertinent. They follow on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) about free school milk.
Some of us remember the politics of free school milk, and also recall who took it away. I shall pass on from that, however, and instead say that one of the disappointing consequences of the removal of that service from younger children was its irreparably damaging impact on the milk industry. For a long time dairy farmers bore a grudge, because it was through them that we used to guarantee the supply of free school milk to primary school children. As someone who benefited from that, I can say with conviction that I think it was a sad day when that service was removed.
Instead of discussing that, however, I want to look at the advantages of extending the current five-a-day fruit scheme into schools, and especially the supply side advantages of that. I say that as someone who has initiated a number of debates about the advantages of local supply chains. Much though I want children to eat fruit, I also want local farmers and landowners to have the opportunity to supply that fruit, particularly where there are county farm estates so that there is a natural circle to be joined, in that the children take the advantage of having that fruit, and it is supplied by county council smallholdings. That would provide a real kick-start.
The only advantage of global warming is that we will be able to grow some things naturally in this country that previously we could not grow naturally. Much as I do not want global warming, we would be somewhat silly if we turned down this opportunity. Therefore, I want to hear from the Minister that there is some work going on with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to see how we can secure such local food chains.
If we can do that for schools, we can do it for all manner of other local facilities. I am not calling for all that produce to be made freely available; I am just saying that this would be a wonderful way to kick-start the British horticultural industry, because it has a lot of potential, and at present too much of our fruit is imported from abroad when it does not need to be. If we get children accustomed to eating fruit, the demand that was initially satisfied through free provision might continue into later life, and other members of their family might also be tempted to go for five a day.
More importantly, this would encourage local suppliers. I am a great believer in farmers markets. Stroud farmers market is a great success because much of its produce comes from local suppliers of fruit and vegetables. This scheme would be another way of encouraging the industry to grow by allowing it to meet, in different ways, an important need.
David Taylor: This certainly would be a boost to the horticultural industry, and it would also enable it to save some species-species of apples and pears, for instance-that are in danger of dying out, as orchards are being grubbed up. The expansion of the scheme would allow for a variety and range of products to be maintained, and would help local horticulture.
Mr. Drew: I entirely agree. I have tried to keep local Gloucestershire produce going, and I think it is only right and fair that we should consider carefully how such endeavours might fit in with this scheme. I am merely asking for thought to be given to how we can not only expand the free food scheme into schools, but supply the free fruit. This has to come from DEFRA as well as the Department of Health. Although it is not the Minister's responsibility, it is the responsibility of the Government. As I have said, such an approach would do an enormous amount of good in encouraging the horticultural industry. As my colleagues know from their work on the various incarnations of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that industry has been under an awful lot of pressure. This would be the greatest fillip. Whether the money comes from the EU or directly from our Government does not matter. What does matter is that we build on this success and ensure that we can take it forward.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Gillian Merron): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing this debate on the important matter of the Government's provision of free fruit and vegetables in schools. I share the interest and passion that he showed for free fruit and vegetables in schools. He generously describes this Government scheme as a "shining star", and I welcome his support for it. On his recent visit to a school in Shardlow in his constituency, he saw exactly what I saw on a recent visit to Mount Street school in my constituency; we were both struck by the enthusiasm that the staff, children, parents and governors all shared for the school fruit and vegetables scheme. I am sure that it is why he has been joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who have also shown enthusiasm and support for the scheme.
We all know that a healthy and balanced diet is critical to health and well-being. Only last week, I was glad to see the figures suggesting that childhood obesity is levelling off, and I am sure that my hon. Friends were, too. That is an impressive new trend but, as always, the challenge remains for us to help people of all ages to make the right choices and to make further progress, and that we will do. The five a day programme to raise awareness and promote the consumption of at least five 80-gram portions of fruit and vegetables was developed based on a recommendation from the World Health Organisation. That followed evidence that consuming
at least 400 grams of fruit and vegetables each day could reduce the number of deaths from chronic diseases by up to a fifth-what a prize that is. It is also estimated that diet may contribute to the development of a third of all cancers, and that increasing fruit and vegetable consumption is the second most important cancer prevention strategy that we have to hand, after cutting out smoking-we have just discussed that issue in the House.
Under the Government-funded school fruit and vegetable scheme, children aged four to six at local authority maintained infant, primary and special schools are given a free portion of fruit or vegetables on each school day. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire rightly said, since April 2004 the scheme has been funded by the Department of Health. To use his terminology, we regard ourselves as an easy parent to the scheme and are very committed to it, not least because 2 million children throughout England receive a free portion of fruit or vegetables every day.
The scheme sits closely alongside a number of other actions that the Government are taking to improve children's health, including the following: the five a day programme, which continues to raise awareness to improve the level of consumption of fruit and vegetables among people in England and, thus, promote health and well-being; and the Change4Life scheme, which aims to raise awareness about diet and physical activity and to create what I would describe as a mass movement for change to help reduce obesity by helping to put across to people the need to eat well, move more and live longer-fruit and veg consumption is one of the key messages. There is also the free school meal pilot, which is a joint project-my hon. Friend is obviously interested in the work that we do across Departments-involving the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department of Health, who have jointly allocated £20 million over the next two years, and participating local authorities and primary care trusts, who are contributing the same in match funding
In addition, we have Healthy Start, which is a UK-wide statutory scheme providing vouchers to low-income families to spend on milk, fresh fruit, fresh veg and infant formula milk, and access to vitamin supplements via the NHS. There is also the national healthy schools programme, which is a joint initiative between the DCSF and the Department of Health that promotes a "whole school, whole child" approach to health. On nutritional standards in schools, the Government recently introduced very welcome standards for school food in all local authority maintained primary, secondary, special and boarding schools, and pupil referral units in England. The new standards will cover all food sold or served in schools. Each of those programmes-and other work that we do across government-supports children in increasing their fruit and vegetable consumption and in making the very necessary healthy choices.
I heard my hon. Friend's request for clarification about existing pilot schemes and about the extension of the scheme beyond infants. I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for any confusion over answers to parliamentary questions, and I am grateful to him for bringing this to my attention. For complete clarity, the written answer that he has mentioned referred to free school meals,
while the evaluation that he referred to relates to the school fruit and vegetable scheme. I am sure that he will be pleased to learn that the popularity of the school fruit and veg scheme has prompted some local education authorities and PCTs in England to take a local decision to fund its extension to seven to 10-year-olds. Those areas include Hull, where the scheme is funded by the city council; Liverpool, where it is funded by the PCT; and North Tyneside, where it is funded by the council. In addition, Sheffield PCT is also funding three schools in its area in respect of pupils aged 11 to 13, and I understand that it hopes to extend that to a further five schools in January 2010 and then to an additional five schools in April 2010.
Furthermore, one way in which we are planning to extend the scheme to more children and their families is by using the existing distribution network to promote child-friendly recipe cards, not only to four to six-year-olds, but to children up to the age of 10. We have already started doing this kind of work by using this scheme to distribute Change4Life information, which has secured an impressive response from families with young children. The school fruit and veg scheme, like other Government programmes, provides a firm foundation, which can be built on by local authorities and local health services, should they so wish.
I want to mention the comments made by my three hon. Friends. I heard their points, which were well made, about supporting British agriculture and the farming community. I assure my hon. Friends and the House that I have recently held discussions with the relevant Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about how we can do that still further.
Mr. Todd: My hon. Friend has referred to quite large-scale extensions of the schemes in various parts of the country, and I am very interested in their results, as I am sure she is. The test that I set was the extent to which we can reverse the problem of the drop-off in the consumption of fruit and vegetables in year 3, but in my constituency a number of schools have voluntarily extended the schemes to all their children. They have done so partly to make the schemes more inclusive and less divisive-these are popular schemes that are denied to older children-and partly because of the perceived benefits of the scheme to all children within the school.
Gillian Merron: My hon. Friend makes my point well for me. Of course, the scheme is a foundation on which others can build should they feel that it is appropriate, should they feel able to and should they wish to.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire rightly pointed out that decisions must be made on the basis of proper evaluation. As we have heard, the National Foundation for Educational Research, in conjunction with the university of Leeds, has recently undertaken an evaluation of the school fruit and vegetable scheme, focusing on consumption levels and the dietary impact of the scheme. The next report is due to be published soon, and I look forward to sharing it with my hon. Friend and the House. Together with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, we are evaluating the pilot of the free school meals programme.
Let me now turn to the European school fruit scheme, which forms the substance of our discussions. The school fruit and vegetable scheme for England is a
leader in Europe, and other member states seek to emulate it. No other EU country does what we do so extensively. I might say that we are at the top of the class when it comes to providing free fruit and vegetables to children every day of every school week.
I want to reassure my hon. Friend that the Government have not opted out of the scheme, which operates annually. This is just the first year of operation. Perhaps it will be helpful if I give a small amount of detail. Member states need to inform the Commission by 31 May each year whether they intend to submit a bid to take part in the scheme for the following school year. It is the EU's intention that the scheme can commence as early as the start of the academic year in September, although it recognises that that is a very tight timetable in which to get the schemes in place.
The situation is challenging, as agreement has only just been reached on the Commission's implementing rules, which were published on 7 April 2009. The Commission's accompanying guidance notes have only just been published in draft form. Furthermore, as this would be a UK-wide decision, it is important to note that the devolved Administrations have taken a similar view to England and have not submitted an expression of interest for this year's round.
It is also important to note that any EU funding will be time limited. We want to ensure that any proposal to the EU to extend or complement our school fruit and vegetable scheme is sustainable in the long term and fully integrated into the Government's policies to continue to support increased fruit and vegetable consumption and the promotion of healthy eating.
The school fruit and vegetables scheme is one of a number of measures the Government take to improve the nation's health. I appreciate the arguments in favour of extending the scheme-my hon. Friend expressed them effectively and clearly-but I hope that my hon. Friend appreciates that it is not possible for me to make a commitment to any extended programme, whether that involves match funding with the EU scheme or a stand-alone scheme, at this time. As I stated in answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend last month, we have "no plans to extend" the scheme. I realise that that is not the response that my hon. Friend was hoping for, but I hope that I have reassured him that his speech has been well received, well made and well heard.