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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 19 July 2011

[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

School Food

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

9.30 am

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dobbin. I thank Mr Speaker for allowing this debate on school meals, because it enables me to highlight some of the more regrettable decisions that the coalition Government have taken over the past year. Of course, our country faces a tough financial situation, but surely there is also a case to be made for the wider provision of and better quality school meals.

If I may, I shall digress at the start of my contribution and refer to a piece of school work that I did back in 1982, when I was in year 4 at Russell Scott primary school. I dug out my old school work because Russell Scott is currently commemorating its future remodelling by having a display of historical artefacts celebrating the school’s history from 1882, when it was founded, through to the present day. Not many primary schools in Tameside can lay claim to an MP having attended the school, but Russell Scott can lay claim to two. The former Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Lord, and I are both former pupils of the school. Although we are from different political traditions, Russell Scott must have done something right.

One piece of my work was about people who do important jobs and included short pieces of writing on the importance of bin men, ambulance drivers and nurses. Perhaps in a nod to my future role as a shadow Transport Minister, I also mentioned train drivers and bus drivers. However, I also talked about the school cook, which relates to today’s debate. Here is an extract from what I wrote:

“Our school cook is Mrs Pomfret. She has a very important job. She has to cook a warm and wholesome nutritious meal for hundreds of pupils at the school every day and make sure it is ready for us all in time for dinner time.”

I pay tribute to the Mrs Pomfrets across the country who, day in and day out, make sure that children get a warm, nutritious, wholesome meal. That is the only warm meal many children are likely to get.

There have recently been positive changes in our attitudes to the healthiness of school meals, which is partly thanks to the high-profile campaign involving celebrities such as Jamie Oliver. Indeed, so successful was his campaign on nutritional standards that, in 2007, the Labour Government introduced regulations to ensure that the food and drink served in schools are of high nutritional quality. The changes since then have been very significant for the food served in our schools. The food provided to children who choose school meals is more often than not fresh, nutritious and locally sourced. That is a far cry from the profit-driven mentality that previously dominated school meal provision and

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that led to children eating some very poor meals indeed. So we did a great deal to improve the provision of school meals.

Let us not forget that investment in our school infrastructure also enabled a number of schools significantly to improve their catering facilities, which meant that the service could increasingly be brought back in house. However, perhaps the previous Labour Government’s most important initiative was the extension of eligibility for free school meals. We had committed to extend the eligibility of free school meals to children from households with an income below £16,190, which is considered to be the poverty line. If such a policy had been introduced, it would have benefited an estimated 500,000 children and lifted at least 50,000 out of child poverty.

We built on the work done in Kingston-upon-Hull as a first step and introduced pilots of universal free school meals in Durham and Newham. We extended eligibility in Wolverhampton and a further five pilots were planned for other local authorities across the country. That was all ended by the coalition Government, who have deprived those children living in poverty of the entitlement to what might be the only hot, healthy meal that they get each day.

From April 2011, the coalition Government also lifted the ring fence on the school lunch grant, rolling the funding into schools’ baseline allocations. The school lunch grant was introduced by Labour as a ring-fenced grant to increase the number of children eating healthy school meals by helping schools and councils keep down the price of a school lunch. Without the ring-fenced grant, prices are expected to increase as schools struggle to subsidise rising ingredient prices. Indeed, an investigation by The Independent on Sunday found that prices have already risen by 10% this year. Worse, research for the School Food Trust shows that a 10% increase in the price of school meals triggers a corresponding fall in the number of children having them of between 7% and 10%. By taking away the ring fence, the coalition Government have made it harder for schools to provide healthy and nutritious meals that take advantage of economies of scale.

It is clearly disappointing that the Government are choosing to limit free school meals, rather than widening their availability to all children. That is surely a step in the wrong direction, not only because of the health and educational benefits to pupils, but because it penalises the least well-off in society. We still have concerns about those most in need getting access to free school meals. What is happening with the Government’s plans to change eligibility for free school meals? We know that the Government have commissioned the Social Security Advisory Committee to review passported benefits such as free school meals under the proposed universal credit system, but the final decision is not expected until next year, which is creating uncertainty for the many families that currently benefit from free school meals.

What assessment have the Government carried out of the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) in the proceedings of the Welfare Reform Bill on Report that free school meals could be included as a separate element of universal credit and tapered off as family income increases? Instead of getting cash, families could receive support via an

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electronic card, which could be used only to pay for school meals. What assessment have they made of that initiative?

It is worth noting that take-up of free school meals by those who are entitled to them unfortunately remains low, because of stigma, complexity and the constant movement of some families in and out of entitlement. Indeed, it is a shame that one in five children who are eligible for free school meals does not receive them. Entitlement to free school meals usually ends when a family moves off benefits and into low-paid employment. That gives rise to an extra cost of approximately £300 a child per year just when families are trying to make themselves better off through work. It is shocking that the majority of children in poverty have at least one parent in work, so the majority of children who live in poverty do not benefit from free school meals. That is disappointing considering that the coalition’s stated aim is to decrease the number of people on benefits and increase the number of people in work. Yes, that is a worthwhile aim, but it will never be reached with their increasingly bad and ill thought-out policy decisions. How can increasing the number of children living in poverty in 2011 help the Government to meet their 2020 target for eradicating child poverty?

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): I am delighted to be able to speak in my hon. Friend’s debate. He is making some important points about the value of free school meals. Does he agree that free school meals are important not only for the alleviation of poverty, but for dealing with issues surrounding social mobility? If children have a good meal at school, it helps them to concentrate and to improve their social skills and their ability to function in the classroom. They can therefore benefit from the education that they are in school to receive.

Andrew Gwynne: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, that was the previous Labour Government’s conclusion, which was based on schemes such as those piloted in Hull by the former Labour council. That scheme was scrapped by the incoming Liberal Democrat council, which thankfully has been kicked out of office—and rightly so if those are its priorities. Such schemes were also piloted in the city of Durham. The previous Labour Government had also found my hon. Friend’s point to be true, which is why we were going to extend the provision of free school meals.

Yes, the deficit is an issue. I sometimes wish that Government Members would change the stuck record on the deficit. We knew, back when we were in office, that there was a looming deficit, which is why we had a deficit reduction plan. My right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), whom I had the great privilege of serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary when he was Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, probably knew better than anyone else the requirements of deficit reduction. The real issue is our priorities in dealing with deficit reduction. Of course, we had a credible plan to halve the deficit in this Parliament. Even with that deficit reduction plan, we were going to extend the entitlement to free school meals beyond the pilots.

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At the general election, the Minister also had a plan to halve the deficit. However, her priorities changed when she entered the Government, because she has now signed up to a neo-conservative deficit reduction plan to eliminate the deficit. Of course, that raises issues of priorities in her Department. Eliminating the deficit means that those pilots for free school meals cannot now take place.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech this morning. Are we storing up trouble for the future by not investing in our young people now and making sure that they are eating healthy school meals, by not investing in the free school meals pilots and by not looking at the evidence? The long-term implications are that the health of the nation will not improve and that the educational achievement of some of our children will not improve. The Government have failed to address that issue, because of their narrow focus on deficit reduction.

Andrew Gwynne: My hon. Friend is correct, which allows me to move neatly on to the next part of my contribution. As she has rightly said, showing and informing children about nutritious and healthy meals will clearly help in the battle against childhood obesity. Education and the health of our children are hugely important. It is estimated that obesity and associated conditions such as diabetes cost the NHS £3.5 billion a year, and that figure is set to rise. This is therefore a cost worth paying to save money in the long run. Even at a time when the deficit needs to be cut, we cannot forget the social implications of the Government’s decisions. If we want to reduce the attainment gap, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) has said, we must ensure that all children at school are given an equal chance. We know that free school meals contribute enormously to reducing attainment gaps, because they help children from low-income backgrounds, who may not have good nutrition, to concentrate more in the classroom.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this subject to the Chamber. He has clearly outlined the issue for those in the poverty trap, which is part of the cycle. Another issue is those of perhaps a different build, who are eating the wrong foods. He has indicated that education can address that issue. How does he see that balance being achieved between those who need that square meal every day and those who are, perhaps, eating the wrong food?

Andrew Gwynne: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Education is the key here. People need to learn about nutrition, and what is right for one child is not necessarily right for another. I hope that one of the long-term benefits of a scheme such as Sure Start is that those families start to understand the nutritional value of different foods and the need to have a balanced diet, with the need for healthy eating as part of that balanced diet, alongside other factors such as physical education and physical activity. There is no magic wand. There is no answer to one aspect. I am really concerned about some of the cuts to Sure Start that we are starting to see, because some of those very early age healthy eating programmes are now being targeted by local authorities facing the squeeze on their budgets. Some of the work

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done with very early years, which would benefit through to school age and beyond, is starting to be scaled back, too.

One of the perks of this job, as I am sure that you are aware, Mr Dobbin, and as all hon. Members from both sides of the House will agree, is the chance to visit schools in our constituencies. I have spoken to not one head teacher or teacher in either the Tameside or Stockport part of my constituency who is not tremendously supportive of the free school meals programme, because they know just how much it benefits the children whom they teach.

Lilian Greenwood: I wonder whether my hon. Friend faces a similar situation to the one that I have in my constituency, where schools often introduce breakfast clubs to encourage children to eat a healthy meal not only at lunchtime, but first thing in the morning. We have an excellent scheme in Nottingham, with support from Business in the Community alongside local businesses, that provides free food and delivery services. It is making a real difference in schools and is very much welcomed by teachers and head teachers.

Andrew Gwynne: Absolutely. It is often said that breakfast is the most important meal. For many children, and for a variety of reasons—perhaps the parents are in a rush to get to work, so have to drop them off at school earlier than the starting time; or because of the lack of a family income, they do not necessarily have the money to pay for a breakfast for their child at home—breakfast clubs have been a welcome initiative not just in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but across the country. Teachers in my constituency tell me that breakfast clubs make a huge difference to concentration—the very thing that my hon. Friend talked about in an earlier intervention. Rather than pupils sitting in a classroom with a rumbling stomach and with their mind on other things, they are now satisfied, have had their first meal of the day and can concentrate on being taught.

The Tameside part of my constituency has taken the free school meals initiative one step further. It is recognised that parents, and often those most in need, feel a real stigma in applying for free school meals. Despite savage Government cuts to Tameside council, providing nutritional and healthy school meals remains an important priority for the council. In fact, given the economic situation and changes to the benefit system, more families in the borough are falling below the recognised poverty line. That often impacts directly on the quality of the meals that children get to eat at home.

More than 8,000 children are currently in receipt of free school meals in Tameside. The council is in the process of radically simplifying how the parents of children entitled to a free school meal can apply for the benefit. Three years ago, the council was the first in the country to introduce a fully online application and eligibility checking system for free schools meals. The system replaced the old paper-based process and led to savings in back office administration and savings in time for the parent. Using the online system, 98% of applications for free school meals made before 11 o’clock in the morning were approved and the child given a free meal the same lunchtime. The old paper process took a week to administer.

Tameside council now wants to improve the system further and, this September, will begin systematically contacting every family in the borough that is eligible

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but not yet claiming a free school meal and offering them that option for their children. More than 500 families are entitled to a free school meal for their child but are not yet claiming and, in the vast majority of cases, those are families living in the most deprived communities and on the lowest household incomes.

Another improvement to the free school meals process is being introduced. In future, entitlement to free school meals will remain in place for the duration of the time that the child is in school, until they are 16 years old, unless the parents’ circumstances change, in which case the entitlement will cease automatically. That means not having regular renewals, which take time to administer and are inconvenient for the parents. The council will use the information that it already holds to ensure that, when family circumstances change whether someone is entitled to a free school meal, it will automatically respond appropriately and contact the family to let them know.

Tameside free school meals are among the best quality in the country, with the primary school catering service retaining the Hospitality Assured quality award for the eighth successive year. I have to say that school meals were not bad back in 1982, when Mrs Pomfret cooked them. Anyone who knows me well knows my love of food, and I probably owe a great debt to Mrs Pomfret for that as well.

The greatest advocates for the free school meals programme are the children. It encourages children to eat healthily and to develop social skills. Children like being able to sit down with their friends and teachers to have their lunch. We have also heard about the importance of the socialising and behavioural gains in schools when more children eat lunch together. Children learn to converse and to look out for one another, as well as courtesy and table manners. Importantly, children who are having lunch in school are not hanging around the takeaway at the end of the road—something of particular significance for secondary schools.

We can do other things as well. Initiatives such as the breakfast clubs mentioned by my hon. Friend can make a huge difference. They help with children’s concentration and break down some of the barriers in schools.

I have further concerns about nutritional standards in schools. In a written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Graeme Morrice), a Minister—not the Minister present today—confirmed that the new academies and free schools will not have to abide by the regulations brought in by the previous Labour Government, thus the food that they provide will not need to be of a high standard. I am, frankly, appalled. Another concern is that Ofsted will no longer be required to ensure that nutritional standards in schools still under local authority control are adhered to, which can only have a negative impact on nutritional standards in our schools.

It is also important to consider school lunches in the context of the broader curriculum. The previous Labour Government announced in 2008 that, by the start of 2011, every 11 to 14-year-old would have 12 hours of compulsory practical cookery lessons, with a £2.5 million fund to provide fresh ingredients for free school meals and to support schools to provide appropriate facilities and to recruit and train teachers. However, the commitment to have 12 hours of food and cookery lessons to start in September 2011 was scrapped by the coalition Government, and the future of food education in the key stage 3

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curriculum is in doubt, given the Government’s review of the primary and secondary curriculum and the continued lack of commitment from Ministers. Even the Government’s own Back Benchers—some 20 or so Conservatives and Liberal Democrats—have signed early-day motion 1816, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and calls for

“the Department for Education to guarantee provision for every secondary school pupil to receive at least 24 hours of practical cooking lessons at Key Stage 3 in its review of the National Curriculum.”

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate at such an appropriate time. I agree that young people need to be given the skills to prepare food and meals adequately and effectively. Does he agree that one of the effects of the national curriculum, when it was brought in under Mrs Thatcher’s Government, was the destruction of food education to the level of, basically, making pizza boxes, thus fuelling the disposable food culture, which has led to the obesity that we now see? It is time that we got back to giving people good home cooking skills, which can take them through their lives effectively.

Andrew Gwynne: I agree absolutely. When I was a pupil not at Russell Scott primary school but at Egerton Park community high school in Denton—during the Government of the noble Baroness Thatcher—we did indeed make pizza in home economics. Those lessons were probably the only opportunity that a lot of my school colleagues had to cook. I was more fortunate because my mum and my gran, from an early age, taught me a lot of the cooking skills that I have today. I make a superb Victoria sponge cake, thanks to my gran, who was the best baker in the world, and my custard cream biscuits are to die for—perhaps, Mr Dobbin, I shall bring some in after the recess and we can all share them. It is absolutely important that children learn how to cook, not only cakes and biscuits but meals—my Scotch broth isn’t bad either, I have to say.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): The hon. Gentleman is trying to curry favour. [ Laughter. ]

Diana Johnson: I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend talk about his culinary skills, but I wonder whether we should recognise in particular that being able to cook a nutritionally balanced meal is a basic life skill that everyone should have. School and education should instil such basic life skills in young people, as much as the ability to read, write and add up. Basic skills such as cooking should be on the curriculum.

Andrew Gwynne: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Children should learn not only how to cook but about the nutritional value of the food being cooked and about where it comes from. That is not just from Morrisons in Denton—whether my Denton or the one in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), which also has a Morrisons. Food comes not only from the supermarket but from the ground. In recent years, some brilliant work in schools has meant that children have learned exactly where the food that they eat comes

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from. My children know only too well that eggs come from chickens, because we have five chickens at home, so we have an abundance of eggs, which comes in handy for baking.

There is an opportunity to link lunch to education about diet, nutrition and cooking. Many schools have used the extension of the meals programme to bring more parents into school, so that they and their children can learn to enjoy cooking healthy meals together. However, there are concerns about the School Food Trust, which was established in September 2005 as a non-departmental public body—I know such bodies are not fashionable these days—to monitor school food standards, to drive the uptake of free and paid-for meals and to advise local and national Government on food policy. Under the Public Bodies Bill, the trust will be hived off into a charity and community interest company, and local authorities or schools that seek advice will have to buy in its services, as indeed will the Department for Education.

A significant concern is that big cuts to local authority budgets and pressure on individual school budgets will mean that they cannot afford to pay for ongoing guidance and advice, or that they will have to prioritise other schemes. That is another worrying development about the quality of food to be served in our schools.

Before I finish, I have a few questions for the Minister. How will the Government help parents back into work if they do not consider the need for free school meals and other such programmes? What will the Government do to improve health inequalities among children if they do not use free school meals and education to alter the behaviour of children and families? Why have the Government, who said that they are committed to fairness and to alleviating child poverty, started by attacking families on low incomes? Importantly, how do the Government propose to close the attainment gap and reduce inequality without considering nutrition in schools?

It is clear that the coalition Government are undermining the hard work done by the last Labour Government and campaigners to improve the take-up and quality of school meals. That is especially disappointing because they had previously pledged to lift children out of poverty by 2020, and little of what they have done so far has moved us closer to that pledge. I worry that that will result in long-term increases in obesity, and ever-increasing inequality in health and educational outcomes between the richest and poorest in society. Surely, no one wants that.

10.1 am

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) for securing this debate, and for making a stunningly good speech. I want to concentrate on one aspect of school food: universal free school meals, particularly for primary school children. It is important, as my hon. Friend said, to keep the debate alive in the face of an uncaring Government, which is evidenced this morning by the complete absence of hon. Members on the Government Benches to engage in this debate. That is unfortunate, because the road that the Government are taking is likely to have an adverse impact on children’s health, particularly those from the poorest communities.

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The Children’s Food Campaign notes that healthy school meals are vital to help to tackle the UK’s alarmingly high and rising levels of obesity and diet-related illness, and states clearly that good food habits are established in childhood. That is not rocket science. We know how to do that, and I draw the Minister’s attention to the experience of the universal free school meals pilot in Durham. During the two years of the pilot, 235 schools participated and, typically, around 30,000 free school meals were served daily. The average take-up against the roll was about 86%, but because of pupil absences on some days, it was actually much higher. Most schools reported 100% take-up at some stage in the process. The pilot was absolutely and hugely successful in terms of take-up.

It is interesting to consider how the pilot worked, and I want to say at the outset that Durham county council was fantastic in putting the scheme together. It committed £4 million of capital funding to upgrade the kitchens in every school so that meals were produced locally in the school. It also looked at its procurement practices so that it could source food locally, and achieved really high standards of healthy school meals because it could buy in bulk. Such aspects of universality in the provision of free school meals often do not receive much consideration. The county council did an excellent job, but so did the schools, which embraced the scheme wholeheartedly.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) was a Minister, she visited Durham, and saw with me the incredible effect that universal free school meals had on schools. It changed the whole culture of the school, not just how they felt about food. The really good schools managed to integrate what was happening with free school meals into the curriculum, and ran that alongside an active sports policy.

Diana Johnson: I remember fondly my visit with my hon. Friend. One thing that struck me was that to engage with parents and to encourage them to embrace free school meals, there were taster evenings and taster sessions when parents could come in and see what their children would be eating. There was a real sense of the whole community being involved and seeing that the idea was a good one. Will my hon. Friend comment on how things are going now, and whether those taster sessions are continuing?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: Indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I will say something about how parents have been involved with the process, because obviously it was important initially to get parents signed up, which is why schools had taster sessions. As the pilot progressed, what schools felt was really important. When they sorted out with children how to have a balanced and healthy diet by choosing different things on different days, and ensured that salad or vegetables and a balanced meal were always available, they decided to get the parents to sign up to whatever meals the children were choosing. That was important, because parents across the board—given that the take-up was 100%, that meant all parents—had to engage with what their children were going to eat in school, and to talk to them about the importance of a balanced meal. That required the schools to undertake work with parents.

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That is what we mean about changing the culture. We know how to do it, and the evidence exists. My hon. Friend and I were able to see that before our eyes, and indeed the schools managed to develop, probably inadvertently, evangelism in the children, who were able to explain carefully to us how the food system worked in their school.

Jim Shannon: The United Kingdom is a multicultural society where ethnic groups introduce their own food ideas. In the pilot schemes, was the hon. Lady able to introduce some of the benefits of other foods to make food exciting?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: That is an important point. Schools in Durham managed to do that, but perhaps not as effectively as schools in Newham, and it was an important aspect of the pilots, as the evidence suggests. That is what I mean when I say that schools that embraced the scheme were able to add the subject to the curriculum and use it to talk about other cultures, and so on.

I hope that I have made the point that the pilot was really successful. It had started to change the way in which schools, parents and young people think about food and exercise. I saw with very great sadness that the Government’s priorities meant that the first thing they did on taking office was cancel that pilot programme. The Minister has some questions to answer about that. We know that the Liberal Democrats have form on such matters because when they took over Hull city council, the first thing they did was to cancel the free school meals programme. That showed an extraordinary set of priorities, which I simply do not understand.

If the Minister wishes to find allies in the coalition Government, she might like to ask her fellow Ministers why it is that private schools ensure that their children have a healthy, usually hot, school meal at lunchtime. The coalition Government are good at emulating the private sector across the public sector, so how come that aspect of the private sector, which could easily be transplanted to public sector schools, is not on their list of priorities? Instead of concentrating on the needs of children and families, the Government—really quite staggeringly—lifted the ring fence on the school lunch grant from April this year. That money now has to compete with all the other priorities currently facing hard-pressed schools.

Such concerns lead me to ponder the fact that the Labour party has to make a tough call; we have got to win the argument about the importance not only of healthy school meals, but of universal free school meals at primary school level. There is no point in having healthy school meals if no one takes them up or if they are too expensive for most parents to afford, but unfortunately, that is the route down which the Government are taking us.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes a strong argument. In Newcastle upon Tyne North, which is to the north-east of her constituency, figures have shown that the take-up of school meals has fallen over the past 12 months. That bucks the national trend and causes me anxiety about the educational attainment of those children in my

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constituency who require and depend on a decent hot meal during the day. Does my hon. Friend think that the Government’s policies will help or hinder that concern?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point; it is clear that the Government’s policies will hinder any progress that has been made. When contributing to the evaluation, many head teachers in Durham schools made the point that a hot meal at lunch time meant that they saw improved levels of concentration in the afternoon. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) pointed out, that is essential for helping to narrow the attainment gap.

Nic Dakin: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the value of a hot meal for all primary school children and how that impacts on their attainment and success, and she draws attention to practices in the independent sector. The Government are fond of making international comparisons, particularly with countries in Scandinavia where there is a long-held tradition of free school meals in the primary sector. Does my hon. Friend believe that that adds further power to her argument?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Indeed, my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull North and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) decided to embark again on a crusade for free school meals once they had visited Sweden and seen how the system worked. Teachers in Sweden scratched their heads in complete incredulity when we said that children at schools in the UK do not receive a free hot meal in the middle of the day. Those teachers also talked to us about the social skills that their children develop by having a meal in the middle of the day, and by sitting down with their teachers and having a chat about what is going on in their lives. It is an excellent source of information for students and teaches them important social skills. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North will know, we saw children in Durham learning in that way and the start of such a process, but alas, because of the policies of the coalition Government, that may not continue.

I will conclude by saying that it is a matter of some anxiety that the issue of school food is not higher up the political agenda. When I open magazines and see the rubbish and tittle-tattle about celebrities on which female journalists—and other journalists—seem to spend their time, I am staggered that they do not understand how important it is for the development of our children and their future to have good quality school meals that are available in primary schools at no cost. In addition to challenging the Minister, I wish to challenge those journalists to start writing about things that are important for families in our communities, and not spend their time on tittle-tattle.

10.16 am

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on his tour de force on school food. By the end of his contribution,

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I felt as if I had been at primary and secondary school with him and knew Mrs Pomfret well. Listening to him talk about Victoria sponges and custard cream biscuits, it is clear that food is an important part of my hon. Friend’s life. We all recognise that a love of good food, and an understanding of how it helps us function well and do our best, is important.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). They have led the way in Parliament over the past few years in ensuring that Ministers, and the Labour party more generally, are made aware of the importance of good school food, and why that fits with our agenda for improving educational attainment and addressing health issues, such as obesity. I congratulate my hon. Friends on their work, and I thank them for coming to Hull a couple of years ago to see what happened there and to talk to head teachers. They also talked to Professor Colquhoun at Hull university, who is the academic who was tasked with evaluating the scheme in Hull. It was useful and helpful for my hon. Friends to have that time in the city. We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, and I am pleased that we will soon hear from the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West.

I want to say a few words about the Hull experience and about why, from the point of view of a constituency Member of Parliament, what happened there is instructive. One of my big concerns about the coalition Government is their failure to look at evidence and make policy on the back of that. I am also concerned about the renaming of the Department for Education. It used to be called the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which recognised that education does not stand on its own but is part of the whole experience that a baby, child or young person has in their family, their school and with education. The narrow approach to education taken by the Government is shown in their approach to school food. It is almost seen as something that does not have to be considered because all they are really bothered about is English, maths and the introduction of the English baccalaureate, which is a narrow approach to education. We should be concerned about that, because education is much more than just academic subjects. That is where I start from.

The reason why, in 2002-03, Hull started to look carefully at free school meals was that Hull’s children, who are as bright as children anywhere else in the country, were not achieving as much as they should have been at primary and secondary levels. The council took a far-sighted view about the measures that it could introduce to help to deal with some of the educational inequalities in the city and with health inequalities. Unfortunately, my constituents tend to suffer from diseases and medical conditions far earlier than people in other parts of the country. There is a tendency to suffer strokes and to develop obesity and cardiovascular disease much earlier than in other parts of the country. Hull made a real attempt to deal with some of those issues.

We should pay tribute to Councillor Inglis, the leader of the council at the time, who fought hard and used imaginatively the flexibilities that the Labour Government had introduced in relation to education. That allowed the council to introduce a pilot scheme in Hull to

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provide free school meals in all our primary schools and special schools. It was called the “Eat Well, Do Well” scheme. Young people would go into school and have a healthy breakfast and a healthy lunch. If they stayed for activities after school, healthy snacks were available then as well. The aim was to combine the whole day’s eating within a package of healthy eating and to encourage young people to see food as something positive and enjoyable.

The scheme was in place between 2004 and 2007. Of course, it was important to evaluate the scheme and find out whether it was delivering. Professor Derek Colquhoun of Hull university produced a superb report about what happened in Hull’s schools. We have heard in relation to the experience in Durham what teachers say about the willingness and readiness of young people to learn in the classroom, having had a healthy breakfast or lunch. We hear about parents being pestered when they go to the supermarket by their youngsters saying, “Oh, I tried broccoli at school today. Can we buy some broccoli at the supermarket?” Amazing stuff happened in Hull.

One effect was the development of social skills when children ate together around a table. That was especially the case when there was family service. The food was put in the centre and shared out among all the participants around the table. That facilitated interaction among the children, who talked and listened to one another, which helped them to develop good table manners as well.

Another effect was that gardening clubs were encouraged in schools. Those clubs enabled young people to see food being grown in the playground. Cooking clubs were also encouraged. I went to Thoresby school in my constituency just a few weeks ago. It has an active cooking club. The children like to cook, and they see the value in eating well and in enjoying their food. There have been positive spin-offs from the “Eat Well, Do Well” scheme.

Lilian Greenwood: I am delighted that my hon. Friend has mentioned gardening clubs, because I have visited a number of schools in my constituency where there are community gardens or the school has a garden. I am referring to Southwold school, which is in Radford, and to Greenfields school and Riverside school, which are both in The Meadows. The children are involved in growing salads and vegetables, which they incorporate into school meals. That encourages them to try fresh produce. Perhaps they would never normally want to look at it, but because they have grown it themselves, they are excited about it and they are trying new things. I also want to mention the importance of introducing fresh fruit into nurseries, which was another thing that the Labour Government did. I know from going into school with my own daughter that children were trying fresh fruit that they had never tried before, which encouraged them to take a much healthier approach to eating.

Diana Johnson: My hon. Friend has made an important point. There was a proud history over the past 13 years of what was achieved in relation to food in schools and encouraging our young people to eat well.

I pay tribute to the trade unions. Unison and the GMB worked very hard to ensure that the pilot scheme that we ran in Hull worked well. Their members were

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involved as dinner ladies and cooks, and they were passionate about what the scheme was doing for children in Hull. The unions really embraced the scheme.

As my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham has said, when, unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats took control of the council in Hull in 2006, the first thing they did was to say, “Right. We’re not going to wait for the evaluation of the scheme; we’re just going to scrap it. We’re telling you that in 12 months’ time, it will just end.” That was very disappointing, and it was an act of political vandalism that will come back to haunt them. Having read today’s newspapers, I say to the Minister that that was a foretaste of the way in which the Liberal Democrats were to act in government, because we see today that the policy that they introduced on the education maintenance allowance—suddenly saying that they were scrapping EMA without looking properly at evidence and considering their options—is, unfortunately, the way in which the present Government seem to make policy.

That happened in Hull in 2006. It was very disappointing, but what came out of it, which was heartening, was the recognition by the Labour Government that what had happened in Hull was special and that further evidence was needed to see whether it would provide a basis for rolling out free school meals around the country. As a result, we had the pilots.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend is making an excellent point about how decisions are being made by the Liberal Democrats in councils and in government without evidence being taken on board. Does that not show that what is happening is ideologically driven? They did not wait for the evidence in Hull or from the two pilots in Newham and Durham before deciding to scrap the whole scheme.

Diana Johnson: My hon. Friend has made an important point. The situation is very disappointing. I remember appearing before a Select Committee in the previous Parliament as a Minister and being heavily criticised for decisions having been made on policy development without evidence to back them up. I am passionate about getting the evidence and seeing where it leads us in making our policy. We are talking about what happened in Hull and in Durham and Newham. I was lucky enough to visit both those pilots as well to see what happened in those primary schools and to look at the evidence and the evaluation. It would be criminal not to consider that fully and to take a view about how the Government can best use that information and evidence for the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham talked about Durham, and I take my hat off to the people of Durham for the way in which they fully embraced the scheme. The same applies to the people of Newham, the mayor of Newham and my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who was a keen advocate of free school meals in her constituency. Also relevant is Wolverhampton, where we were trying something different. As my hon. Friends have said, that was about raising the eligibility level so that more young people were eligible for free school meals.

I want to finish on what is happening in Hull now, because this is a little more positive. Unfortunately, there was the decision by the Lib-Dem council just to

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scrap the scheme. The Labour council that took control in May this year knew very well that the policy that it had from 2004 to 2006 was working and was delivering for local children. It came in on a manifesto promise that it wanted to reduce the school meal price to 50p. The aim is to get rid of any charge at all, but obviously we are in difficult financial circumstances and Hull has taken a major cut in the money coming from central Government. We have seen the ring-fencing come off the school lunch grant, and we see the coalition’s obsession with schools operating independently and not having a wider connection with the community and the local education authority. The previous Lib-Dem council administration decided to increase the price of school meals to £1.60 from the autumn; the price was £1.30. Labour came in and said that it wanted to reduce the price to 50p, but because of the funding issue that the coalition has introduced, it has not been possible. The council has been able to prioritise and make choices, and it has found some money to enable schools to stick at £1.30 for now, with the aim of reducing the price to £1 by Christmas.

We are, therefore, still taking a positive approach in Hull, because we recognise the scheme’s importance. We also recognise that the long-term aim is to have free school meals not only in Hull, but in other parts of the country where our youngsters could benefit from the offer of universal free school meals. Such an offer would ensure that they achieve as much as they should in school and that the nation’s health improves.

10.30 am

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing this important debate and on the clear and concise way in which he addressed a number of issues that are relevant to the wide topic of school food. It is no surprise that he has been so well supported by so many hon. Friends, even though, until yesterday, today was to be the last day of term.

I also congratulate and commend my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on their excellent speeches. They are two of the most knowledgeable Members in the House on this issue, and their contributions should be given the weight that they deserve. I thank them for their contributions.

The consensus among Opposition Members is clear: the Tory-led Government are in real danger of undoing all the good work that has gone into improving the quality and uptake of school meals. Not only do the Government not value children having healthy meals in schools, but they think children should not be given the skills to make healthy choices at home.

The craziest thing is that the Government, who are so clearly focused on dealing with the country’s balance sheet at the expense of almost everything else, do not realise that these policies will, in all likelihood, end up costing the country more in the long run in terms of unfulfilled potential and the treatment of obesity-related

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illnesses. It is estimated that the cost to the NHS of treating obesity-related conditions could reach £10 billion a year by 2050, when those starting school this year will be in their mid-40s and probably parents of school-age children themselves. It is estimated that the wider social and economic cost will be three or four times that amount. Surely, spending a little now to reduce that bill by even a fraction would be money well spent.

The Government, and the Minister’s Department in particular, are nothing if not consistent in their approach to long-term issues in their “cut now, pay later” approach. For example, the Minister yesterday published her thoughts on the future of early-years provision and early intervention without mentioning the fact that she has taken huge chunks out of the budget for those services.

As with nutritional standards in free schools and academies—let us not forget that that would mean every school if the Education Secretary gets his way—Ministers are taking a “let’s cross our fingers and hope for the best” approach. In a letter to the Local Authority Caterers Association last month, the Minister typified that attitude. When challenged about real concerns in the sector about the lack of a duty on free schools and academies to abide by the standards that other schools strive to work to, which were not always popular in the sector, as many of us know, the Minister said that

“schools converting to Academies will already have been providing healthy, balanced meals that meet the current standards. We have no reason to believe that they will stop doing so on conversion, or that new Free Schools will not do so either.”

Does the Minister have reason to believe that such schools will provide food that is up to standard, or does the Department not really care either way? Is consideration of catering arrangements part of the review process for applications to set up a free school? If not, is that not completely inconsistent with all the warm words that we will undoubtedly hear from the Minister about the value of a nutritious lunch?

Andrew Gwynne: My hon. Friend is making exactly the right point about the Government’s answer in respect of any changes. Is it not a concern that the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), said:

“Free schools and academies, established since September 2010, are not required to comply with the school food standards, and are free to promote healthy eating and good nutrition as they see fit.”—[Official Report, 7 June 2011; Vol. 529, c. 50W.]

Is the concern not the words “as they see fit”, because many schools might not see fit to promote such things?

Mrs Hodgson: That is exactly the point. There are plenty of switched-on head teachers who will understand the value of healthy meals. I met one at Hall Mead school in Upminster at the launch of national school meals week last year, and there are many like him. Many of them work at primary and secondary schools in my constituency in Sunderland, where I have had the opportunity to try some of the great healthy food on offer to children there, but not every school has that culture or a leadership team that sees the benefits of healthy lunches.

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Lilian Greenwood: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Government appear to have learned nothing from the past? The previous Conservative Government scrapped nutritional standards, and school meals really declined in quality over a long period. They also put schools under immense financial pressure and introduced compulsory competitive tendering, which decimated the school meals service and reduced it to producing fast food, instead of investing in staff who could cook proper meals from scratch. It is only in the past 13 years that there has been huge investment in rebuilding kitchens and in reintroducing opportunities for school meals workers to produce the meals that they want to.

Mrs Hodgson: I agree. The point of the debate is that we must learn the lessons of the past, not repeat them. We cannot just sit by and allow everything we have achieved in the past 13 years to be undone, which is what is happening at the moment.

To illustrate the point that not all leadership teams understand the benefits of school food, I want to cite a case that was in the news recently, although it does not fall within the Minister’s purview. Bridgend council considered constructing a pathway between Brynteg comprehensive school and a McDonald’s, which just shows that the argument about the value of ensuring that all our children, not just those on free school meals, have a nutritious lunch in school has not yet been won. It also shows why stay-on-site policies are so important for secondary schools.

Nic Dakin: I wholeheartedly agree that stay-on-site policies are important for secondary schools. They improve behaviour at lunch and in the classroom afterwards, so I fully endorse my hon. Friend’s comments.

Mrs Hodgson: Exactly. A school or a local authority spending money on a path to a fast-food joint, rather than on instigating a stay-on-site policy, is almost as baffling as bringing in a fast-food giant to write public health policy, although, as we know, that, too, has happened. However, there is a serious point: despite all the evidence of the benefits, it is clear that not all school leaders or local authorities place the value that the majority of us in this room would like on children eating healthy lunches.

Everything that the Government have done so far means that standards will start to slide. Why? What possible benefit can there be for our children in giving certain schools the power to throw the rulebook out the window? Perhaps the Minister can at least explain that today. Of course, it is not only in new academies and free schools that standards could slide, because Ofsted no longer has to assess a school’s compliance with the regulations, so how do Ministers expect them to be honoured?

According to the Minister’s letter to caterers, which I mentioned earlier, mums and dads will now have to keep an eye on things, although she does not explain quite how they are expected to do that. However, she promises that, if they tell the Secretary of State about a school, he will use one of his ever-increasing number of powers to direct the school to jolly well buck up its ideas. Unless schools literally go back to the bad old days of turkey twizzlers and chips, however, I cannot imagine that many parents would notice any changes—for

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example, if the spaghetti bolognese, which might have met the standards before, suddenly had more fat or less vegetable content. That is a meaningless thing for the Minister to say. All that I would ask her is what possible benefit there is to schools or pupils in removing that element of an Ofsted inspection—none that I can think of.

It will be little surprise if nutritional standards slip; after all, the cash that subsidises them has effectively gone. Ministers say that it is within the direct schools grant, but again that is meaningless, because many schools are struggling with their budgets. For many of them, subsidising school meals will be far down the list of priorities, behind staff, materials and many services for which they would previously not have had to pay, such as the broadband bill, to take one example. One more service that they will now have to buy on a commercial basis will be advice from the School Food Trust on how to meet the nutritional standards—not really an attractive option if they do not now have to meet those standards anyway.

As we have heard—it was highlighted in the media last week—school meal take-up is on the rise. I congratulate the Minister on using that for some positive media coverage. I cannot really blame her, I suppose, but there is evidence that that spike could be due to pupil premium-chasing, as reported in The Independent on Sunday. The test of her policies will lie in whether we can see the same rise in three years’ time, and unless there is a radical rethink, I do not think we will. If it should become clear that we are spiralling in the wrong direction, I hope that the Minister will rethink her approach.

My colleagues have spoken at length on the merits of free school meals as a way of closing the gaps in health and educational attainment between children living in poverty and those from better-off backgrounds. It was, as has been said, a cruel blow to hundreds of thousands of young children in working poverty when the Minister and her colleagues scrapped the extended eligibility.

In the Westminster Hall debate on free school meals that I led last June, I noted what my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham has pointed out—that the Liberal Democrats were conspicuous by their absence, as were the Conservatives. That was hardly surprising given their part in one of the most regressive decisions that we have seen from the Government. It is noted that the Minister is here today representing her Lib Dem colleagues as well as her Conservative friends and that she is alone in that task. As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish said in his excellent speech, the universal credit throws the whole system of free school meals into confusion, which will not be cleared up for some time.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: My hon. Friend is making a truly excellent speech. Does not the absence of coalition Members demonstrate that they do not understand the link between a healthy school meal in the middle of the day and narrowing the attainment gap? It demonstrates their narrow and blinkered thinking about education.

Mrs Hodgson: My hon. Friend will not be surprised that I agree.

The one thing that I ask the Minister is to ensure at least that least no one loses out because of universal credit. We never know; perhaps under the universal

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credit system the Government may be able to give a little something back to the half a million or so kids who lost out when the extended eligibility was scrapped last year. However, given the Government’s record so far, I do not think that many of us will be holding our breath.

We have a Government who pay lip service to the importance of school meals—both free and paid for—but whose actions are completely incongruous with that rhetoric. If that were not bad enough, they also do not think that cooking healthy meals is sufficient of a life skill to be taught to young teens. Just as a free school meal may be the only proper meal that some children get, there is a similar cohort for whom the only food skills that they get will be the ones that they learn at school. In fact, they are more than likely to be the same children. Given that fact, the Labour Government put together plans to ensure that all children get mandatory cookery lessons, in the hope that those skills would stay with the young people who received them for the rest of their lives and even transfer to their parents, too. There was evidence of that in the excellent work of Jamie Oliver, of which the Minister is no doubt aware. He has shown that children given knowledge of healthy food and how to cook it go home and influence the food choices made by their parents. In a letter to me, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) justifies the decision to scrap the commitment by saying that the Labour Government did not take any legislative steps to make it compulsory—a pathetic excuse if ever I heard one. However, that is not surprising: after all, it might be difficult for those setting up free schools in an old pub or office to accommodate first-rate food technology classrooms. The simple fact is that the Tory-led Government’s half-baked policies are a recipe for disaster for our children.

I want in closing to ask the Minister two quick questions. Will she fight her corner for free school meals when decisions are taken following the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee and try to extend at least some help to the families who were short-changed by her Government last year? If it becomes clear that the policies that we have been discussing today are resulting in a fall in nutritional standards and/or the take-up of school meals—whether in free schools, academies or other schools—will she step in and do something, or does the “hope and pray” or, as she calls it, localism approach to government prevent her from doing so?

10.45 am

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I think it might be the first time I have done so.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing this debate on a very important topic. I was delighted to hear about his cooking exploits, but I was not quite sure that the diet he described would constitute a healthy lifestyle. Sponge and custard creams are probably exactly what we are trying to get children to avoid snacking on; hopefully no children will be reading about his favourite foods.

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Andrew Gwynne: To be fair, I did also mention my Scotch broth, which is wholesome and nutritious; but when we talk about a balanced diet we do not want to be so restrictive that we cannot enjoy a slice of cake now and then.

Sarah Teather: Far be it from me ever to want to deny the hon. Gentleman a slice of cake. I stand corrected; he did of course mention the Scotch broth as well.

There is much in the hon. Gentleman’s commitment that I would agree with. School food is hugely important. What children eat affects their concentration and health, their tendency to pick up infections and the likelihood of their being absent from school. School food is vital support in that context; it is vital in supporting healthy eating habits, which, beginning from a young age, can continue throughout a life. Unhealthy habits embedded at a young age are also much more difficult to break. Similarly, free school meals play a critical role in addressing issues of poverty and inequality, particularly for young people who would otherwise not get a nutritious meal during the day. That is the reason for the Government’s commitment.

I was struck by comments that hon. Members made about the benefits of eating together, which affects socialisation and behaviour. Children can learn to interact around a meal table, and they may not have other opportunities to do that. I recognise also the previous Government’s achievements, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, on nutritional standards and the renovation of kitchens. On those points I agree with him.

Andrew Gwynne: The Minister is being generous in giving way. If she recognises the achievements of the previous Government, particularly in relation to nutritional standards, why are the Government scrapping them?

Sarah Teather: The Government are not scrapping them, and if the hon. Gentleman will now let me finish I shall deal with the points on which I disagree with him.

I just want to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). I ask hon. Members to forgive me but I am still losing my voice; it has almost returned after last week’s Education questions, but it is coming in and out. The hon. Lady made a point about nursery education, and the realisation of the need to embed the relevant attitudes early is precisely why I have asked the School Food Trust to produce some nutritional guidance for nurseries and children’s centres. It is producing that at the moment and I hope it will help to embed some of those standards at an early age.

We are absolutely committed to driving up the take-up of school meals. It now stands at 44.1% in primary schools and 37.6% in secondary schools. However, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) pointed out that, in her constituency, the take-up has gone down in some schools. The School Food Trust is looking into some schools that have had difficulties; although the average might have gone up, some secondary schools have seen striking decreases, and the trust is considering the details in order to understand why.

To help drive up the number who take school meals, we are encouraging schools to use more freedom in charging. We included measures in the Education Bill to

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allow schools to be more flexible in how they charge. For example, they can make offers if a family has two children or make introductory offers to encourage people to take up school meals. However, I disagree with Opposition Members on many points.

One of the consistent themes of the debate was our decision to remove the ring fence. I was struck by the contradictory nature of Opposition Members’ argument; they spoke about the commitment to school food that they see in their constituencies from schools and head teachers, yet they are unwilling to trust schools to deliver. It is not right to ring-fence everything. It is right to give schools the freedom to decide how to prioritise spending, depending on existing practices. None the less, I recognise what many Opposition Members said about the impact of rising prices. That is why we are working with Pro5, a partnership of the UK’s largest public sector organisations; we want to drive down the price, encouraging better procurement by using centrally negotiated contracts. I hope that we will reap benefits from that.

Diana Johnson: Am I correct in thinking that the Government decided to ring-fence the music grant for at least one year to ensure that music was provided in schools? If they can do it for music, why can they not do it for school food?

Sarah Teather: The hon. Lady would be the first to blow the trumpet if the Labour Government had done so, given the extent to which schools already offer healthy balanced meals. Is she honestly saying that we should always ring-fence everything for ever? I am sure that that is not her view.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: Will the Minister give way?

Sarah Teather: I will give way to the hon. Lady, as I have not done so yet, but I shall then need to make some progress or I will not be able to answer any of the Opposition’s questions.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: The Minister speaks of removing ring-fencing, but we are in the process of changing the culture of school food and of the way in which schools consider healthy living. That is why it is vital that the Government give out the message that this tranche of money needs to be spent on school food. That is the point being made by Opposition Members; we are not saying that everything should be ring-fenced.

Sarah Teather: Culture has changed significantly, and I join with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish in paying tribute to Jamie Oliver for the work that he has done in changing attitudes.

I now turn to what Opposition Members said about free school meals. The rise in the number of pupils eating school meals inevitably means that there has been a rise in the number taking up their entitlement to free school meals. The latest figures show that 19.1% of pupils in maintained nursery and state-funded primary schools and 15.9% of pupils in state-funded secondary schools are registered for free school meals. However, for all sorts of reasons, not all children entitled to free school meals currently take up the offer—for instance, because of stigma or because they are unaware that

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they are entitled, a point made by a number of Opposition Members. Cash-free systems can help in driving down the stigma attached to free school meals. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned Tameside’s system for online checking. That is part of the Department’s award-winning free school meal eligibility checking system, which has had a huge impact on encouraging parents to apply for free school meals by helping to remove that stigma. It is also significantly cheaper for local authorities to administer.

A number of Members spoke about the universal credit, with its automatic passporting of benefits. If we were to use that system, our way of dealing with free school meals would have to change. I understand that hon. Members want answers now, but I am sure they recognise that it is important that we get the detail right. That is why we are taking our time; we are examining how best to ensure that all those children eligible for free school meals can benefit. We are working through that now, and I shall update hon. Members as soon as I can.

I wish to correct a few misunderstandings on the pilot scheme. We did not cancel the pilots in Durham, Newham or Wolverhampton, but we had to cancel them elsewhere because, unfortunately, the programme was underfunded by £295 million. Being able to offer free school meals to every primary school child is certainly on my wish list; if money were to grow on the trees in the atrium at the Department for Education, that wish would be high up there.

Andrew Gwynne: Will the Minister give way?

Sarah Teather: I shall complete this point first. I have only four minutes left and I have barely answered any of the points raised in the debate.

Free school meals for every primary school child is definitely on our list of things that it would be nice to offer at some point in the future. The absolute need for evidence is precisely why those pilots were allowed to run; we can evaluate the evidence and see what impact it has at a later stage, when finances make it rather easier.

Andrew Gwynne: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In the Chamber today are two former Ministers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and they both say that the Minister is wrong. It is a question of priorities: we prioritised it and she has not.

Sarah Teather: The problem is that Opposition Members have given no indication of what they would cut in order to fund free school meals. I suspect that the two former Ministers did not see the detailed budgets of their Department, but evidence makes it extremely clear that the previous Government underfunded their pledge by £295 million. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said that the Labour party had a plan to halve the deficit, but they should make clear where those cuts would fall. It is simply not good enough to say that they have a plan to halve the deficit but not make it clear where the cuts would fall. If we were to have honoured all of those pilots, we would have had to cut the best part of £300 million—

Roberta Blackman-Woods rose—

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Sarah Teather: No, I will not give way again. We would have had to cut the best part of £300 million from elsewhere in the Department’s budget. If hon. Members were to tell me which areas of the budget they would be willing to cut to the tune of £300 million, then it might be a little easier—[ Interruption. ]

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Order. I ask hon. Members to quieten down a little.

Sarah Teather: Hon. Members also spoke about Ofsted. It had responsibility only for the healthy eating approach of schools. It did not engage nutritionists when doing those inspections, so it would be a fallacy to assume that the only thing that was driving compliance with standards was the Ofsted inspection.

On the School Food Trust, I think there have been some misunderstandings. All advice that the trust has made available with Government grant will continue to be made available free of charge. It will be able to charge for new advice that it prepares once it becomes a charity and no longer receives Government grant, but it will be a charity, a not-for-profit organisation, and will need only to cover its costs. I believe that the high quality of its advice means that local authorities and schools will want to use it. A great deal of the support that it has offered has proved useful.

Opposition Members raised the subject of including cooking in the national curriculum. They should wait until we have reviewed the national curriculum, and see the outcome. However, our internal review of what secondary schools are doing shows that most already provide practical cooking at key stage 3, and they are unlikely to stop doing so regardless of whether we legislate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish on securing the debate. I have tried to answer at least some of the questions raised this morning.

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Office of the Public Guardian

11 am

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am sure that you are aware of “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens in which many of the characters’ lives are ruined by the court case Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which never gets resolved. The case rumbles on for years and then for decades until no one can remember what it was all about in the first place. In the meantime, it provides a tidy living for lawyers and others, while an indifferent legal system looks on with complacency. Over the past three years, I have had the misfortune of having to take up a case on behalf of my constituent, whom, for the purpose of this debate, I shall call Mrs F. Our dealings with the Office of the Public Guardian have left me feeling that we are perhaps caught up in the same thick miasma, both literal and metaphorical, of Charles Dickens’s novel.

I do not have time to explore all the nooks and crannies of the case, but I fear that my constituent and I are not alone—I see that other hon. Members are present today—in being frustrated by the obfuscation, delay and lack of action by the Office of the Public Guardian in discharging its duties.

In this case, my constituent and her ex-husband are divorced. The only outstanding matter in relation to the divorce is a flat they jointly own in Spain. Sadly, Mr F suffers from dementia, which deteriorated after the couple’s separation, and is unable to attend to his own affairs. As a result, the court appointed one of his relatives as deputy to attend to his affairs.

I have the file of correspondence that I have accumulated in trying to assist my constituent since she came to see me in September 2008. As a constituency Member of Parliament yourself, Mr Dobbin, you will appreciate that the matter had been in train for some time before my constituent took the major step of approaching me as her Member of Parliament to assist. Mrs F was frustrated by the lack of effort from the Office of the Public Guardian in ensuring that the apartment was sold, given that buyers were available and that it was in the interest of both parties that the property should be sold. My constituent was paying all the service charges and taxes associated with the property and having little or no success in recovering the other half from the appointed deputy.

At that point, the Office of the Public Guardian told me that the Public Guardian was gathering evidence and would consider what further action would be necessary. That was nearly three years ago. In March 2009, I received a letter from Monica Ogle of the compliance and regulations department at the Office of the Public Guardian saying that my constituent’s complaint had been rejected. She blamed the Spanish authorities for the lack of progress and said that that those problems had now been resolved.

On 30 March 2009, I wrote again to the Office of the Public Guardian complaining about the deputy’s lack of oversight, the mounting cost to my constituent and the lack of response from the deputy’s solicitor to correspondence. I received a reply, dated 16 April 2009 which promised additional assistance to the deputy in selling the property. However, by July nothing seemed

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to have been done, so I wrote again to the Public Guardian. In his reply of 30 July 2009, he said that he would consider whether the deputy was best suited to act in this case, ensure that the deputy arranged for payment of service charges so as not to jeopardise ownership of the property concerned and work towards a “swift resolution” to the property sale. That was two years ago.

Three months later, in October 2009, my office spoke to a representative from the Office of the Public Guardian and was given an assurance that that representative would speak to all concerned about any outstanding matters preventing the sale of the property.

In January 2010, I again wrote to the Public Guardian and explained that no progress had been made. At this stage, with a general election approaching and in the forlorn hope that I might be able to conclude this case before my potential imminent demise at the ballot box, I took the step of writing to the then Minister, Bridget Prentice, asking her to intervene given that this case was causing such distress to my constituent.

On 12 February 2010, the Office of the Public Guardian replied, suggesting that the problem was the lack of a buyer. For the first time, it suggested that my constituent could, at her own expense, apply to the court to discharge the deputy. It did not indicate, however, that the Office of the Public Guardian could do that itself.

Mrs Siân C. James (Swansea East) (Lab): Many elderly people face these difficult issues. There has been a case in my constituency in which theft and forgery took place and an elderly person was cheated out of money. Does my hon. Friend think that there is a lack of confidence and awareness in the Office of the Public Guardian? The people to whom I spoke were not aware that they could go to such a place.

Kevin Brennan: I am not sure, Mr Dobbin, whether you think that there is a lack of confidence or awareness at the Office of the Public Guardian, but I certainly think that that is the case. My awareness has been considerably increased by having to deal with the Office of the Public Guardian over the past three years on behalf of my constituent.

My constituent is clear that the property in her case could have been sold on a number of occasions and has supplied documentary evidence to that effect. She believes that those sales were prevented by the lack of action from the deputy and from the Office of the Public Guardian.

I received a similarly disappointing answer from the then Minister, which parroted a lot of what the Office of the Public Guardian itself had said. Throughout this period, my constituent was active in trying to resolve matters both through her solicitors and in corresponding directly with the Public Guardian. In the meantime, she was bearing all the expense of the property, which amounted to a considerable sum.

On 18 March, I again wrote to Martin John, the Public Guardian, emphasising that the sale was being prevented by the lack of authority being provided on Mr F’s behalf and that my constituent was concerned that the property could be placed under embargo to recover charges that she could not afford to pay, which would certainly not be in the interest of either party.

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The Public Guardian replied. For the first time—we are talking about one and a half years on into this correspondence— he indicated that the deputy was being advised not to pay any of the share of the charges by their solicitor and that the Public Guardian could apply to the court to discharge the deputy, but did not consider it appropriate “at present.”

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this serious issue. People often feel completely helpless in these situations, especially when a deputy is imposed on them. I do not know whether he knows this, but a constituent of mine—I will call him “Mr Able”—used to have his deputy visited on an almost annual basis by the authorities about 12 years ago. In the period between 2003 and 2006, however, there was a cosy consensus between the Office of the Public Guardian and the solicitors appointed to act as Mr Able’s deputy that there would be no such visits, because they did not find them fruitful. And yet throughout that period, there was no action in response to Mr Able’s demands to have his deputy discharged. Surely there needs to be regular oversight of deputies whose role is being challenged by those whom they are supposed to be caring for?

Kevin Brennan: Yes, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Of course, there have been reforms since the period that he has referred to. I am afraid to say, however, that those reforms were introduced by the previous Government—I accept that—and as far as I can see they are not bringing genuine change and genuine service to the public. The Office of the Public Guardian should offer genuine service to the public, but from the evidence of my dealings with it, I must say that it has certainly not done that.

It is significant that, in previously advising my constituent that she could apply to the court at her own expense, the Public Guardian did not advise her that it was also within his power to do so. Eight months after the promise of “a swift resolution”, the Public Guardian advised for the first time that the deputy was not accepting responsibility for the shared costs and that he himself was not prepared to act to remove the deputy.

In a separate letter of the same date, the Public Guardian said that he had considered the appointment of a panel deputy, but he also said that that would be too costly and—unbelievably—that it would delay the sale of the flat, after all the delay that there had already been.

Another 16 months on, we are no further forward. My constituent is considerably out of pocket. Seasons change and Governments come and go; regimes fall; media empires crumble; but still the “swift” progress promised by the Office of the Public Guardian has been slower than the progress of a glacier.

By February 2011, as the Minister well knows, we had a new Government in place; in fact, it had been in office by then for a period of nine months. In this new era, I wrote again to the Public Guardian. My constituent had had to shell out a few more thousand pounds in the meantime to prevent the property being embargoed. I asked the Public Guardian how it could possibly be in the interests of Mr F to allow this situation to continue. I pointed out that another buyer from the UK had been lost because they were not prepared to wait for all the

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paperwork issues to be resolved. I suggested that the inaction of the Office of the Public Guardian was tantamount to maladministration. I understand that the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) may already have taken a case to the ombudsman or that he has a case in progress with the ombudsman.

Duncan Hames indicated assent.

Kevin Brennan: I suggested that in the case that I am discussing a referral to the ombudsman might be required. I had a reply on 17 February 2011 from the Public Guardian, in which he raised new issues in relation to the case. For the first time, the Public Guardian said that my constituent had the only set of keys to the property and that he did not think it right that her ex-husband should be liable for any of the service charges on the property. That issue had never been raised in the previous two and a half years of correspondence in relation to the case. The Public Guardian once again blamed the lack of a buyer for the lack of progress, but he admitted in that letter of 17 February 2011 that, despite all of the correspondence that we had had:

“I accept that updates may not have been pursued as frequently as they might and my head of operations has instructions to ensure regular engagement with”—

he names the deputy in the letter, but I will not give the name now—

“and her solicitor with regards to any progress in the sale of the property.”

At the end of that letter, he said this about the deputy:

“I am content with the way she is discharging her duties”.

My constituent wrote to me on 28 February 2011 stating how appalled she was by the Public Guardian’s reply. She made it clear that both parties involved in the case had had keys to the property; that her keys were with the Spanish estate agents and had been all along; that her flat had not been visited for five years and that it was only visited then to deal with a leak; and that she had paid more than £15,000 in charges in the meantime. She went on to rebut the Public Guardian’s position and to express her shock at his reference to a visit to her ex-husband, whose Alzheimer’s meant that he had not been able to communicate on a cognitive level for a number of years.

I wrote again to Martin John, the Public Guardian, on 16 March 2011, enclosing my constituent’s letter to me and saying that I would apply for an Adjournment debate if no progress was made. I have received no reply to that letter, although staff in my office made inquiries about it yesterday and were told that the Office of the Public Guardian had no record of the letter.

I am determined to get this case resolved before I retire, but preferably much sooner. I understand that this is a complex and sensitive area of law, but I have no doubt at all in my mind that if the Office of the Public Guardian had lived up to half of the fine words on its website and a quarter of the promises made to me, this matter would have been resolved some time ago. In the meantime, my constituent has lost thousands; lawyers have pocketed thousands; the Office of the Public Guardian has cost millions; and the fortunes of the person whose interest the office is supposed to defend have undoubtedly

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been diminished. I do not know why the deputy in this case has not acted more decisively; I do not know why a solicitor who does not even reply to correspondence has been engaged; but I do know that the fact that this matter is unresolved is a disgrace.

I know that this matter is not in the Minister’s brief, but will he commit to ask his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), to undertake a full ministerial review of this case, with a view to galvanising the Office of the Public Guardian out of its “Bleak House” mentality and into a proactive mindset that genuinely serves the public interest?

11.16 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Dobbin.

May I start by offering the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) my apologies for not being the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), in whose brief the Office of the Public Guardian directly sits? However, as we speak my hon. Friend is debating amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill upstairs in Committee. So I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be happy to make do with me—well, he will have to make do with me.

As I said to the hon. Gentleman privately last week before this debate, I myself have had some unhappy constituency cases in the past 14 years of people who have fallen into the clutches of state-overseen administration of the affairs of a loved one. We have heard about another example of that from the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames). If one finds oneself in circumstances where professional administrators are taking a very substantial sum out of the case, one can then see the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce parallel that was adduced by the hon. Gentleman coming to fruition awfully for individual constituents. However, I do not think that that is actually the case here, because obviously the deputy at hand is not a professional administrator. She is a relative of one of the parties, which in cases such as this one is more common than the appointment of professional administrators.

At the beginning of my response to this debate, I want to say that the work of the Public Guardian and his role in safeguarding the interests of people who lack capacity is very important, and that it is entirely right and proper that we should consider the effective functioning of the Office of the Public Guardian and how well it is able to support the Public Guardian in fulfilling his statutory duties. However, I also want to say at the outset that I am not entirely clear whether the particular aspects of this case offer the best evidence to test how effectively the Office of the Public Guardian is operating or indeed to show up a particular fault on behalf of the office. It appears to me that the issues are essentially private matters, which could and should have been resolved by the parties themselves rather than with significant intervention by the state, in the form of the Office of the Public Guardian. I will come back to the individual cases that have been mentioned in the debate in the latter half of my remarks.

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Let me provide some context by explaining the role of the Public Guardian, because there is a degree of misunderstanding about what precisely are the duties and responsibilities of the Office of the Public Guardian, and that gets to the heart of the case that the hon. Gentleman has discussed.

The statutory role of the Public Guardian was created by the Mental Capacity Act 2005. Among other things, he is responsible for maintaining a register of deputies appointed by the courts; supervising such deputies on an ongoing basis; and investigating any concerns raised with him about a deputy’s potential misconduct or abuse. I want to make it clear that the Public Guardian himself does not have any role in managing the affairs of a person lacking capacity and nor does he have powers to step in and take over the management of a person’s affairs if a deputy is deemed to be unable or unwilling to manage those affairs. Furthermore, it is not within the jurisdiction of the Public Guardian to remove a deputy once appointed, or to place limits on the way in which a deputy exercises his or her powers.

Mrs Siân C. James: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Blunt: If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not, otherwise I will not be able fully to respond to the debate.

The Public Guardian’s role is essentially supervisory and investigatory, and if he believes that a deputy is unable or unwilling to fulfil his or her functions effectively, he can make an application to the Court of Protection seeking the deputy’s removal and replacement. The hon. Member for Cardiff West made that clear in his remarks, but his constituent was obviously not aware of the situation until rather late in the day. Since coming into force in October 2007, the Office of the Public Guardian has worked hard to raise awareness of its role and function, and I hope this debate will make a small contribution to that.

Mrs Siân C. James: Will the Minister give way? I have a short intervention.

Mr Blunt: I am sorry. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I want to be able to put the role of the office on the record and deal with the case presented by the hon. Member for Cardiff West. If I then have time, I will of course take the hon. Lady’s intervention.

Once a deputy has been appointed by the Court of Protection, the Public Guardian assigns him or her to an appropriate level of supervision. That process follows a risk-based assessment that ensures that all deputies receive adequate and proportionate oversight and support. An annual supervision fee is payable to the Office of the Public Guardian, which is proportionate to the degree of support or scrutiny required. In most cases, the supervisory regime requires the deputy to report to the Public Guardian on at least an annual basis. It can also result in further contact from the office throughout the year, to confirm that the deputy is carrying out his or her duties properly and to identify any need for additional support. In certain cases, it also involves a visit from an independent Court of Protection visitor, who reports their findings to the Public Guardian.

If a third party has concerns that a deputy has abused his or her position, that they are not acting in the person’s best interests, or that the person who lacks

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capacity is otherwise at risk, they can raise such issues with the Public Guardian. That can be done in confidence, as the office has a well-established whistleblowing procedure. In this case, the third party has plainly consistently been in touch with the Office of the Public Guardian, not least in the past three years through the hon. Member for Cardiff West.

After an initial assessment, if the concerns warrant further investigation the case is passed to the dedicated compliance team, which has responsibility for investigating allegations or concerns brought to the Public Guardian’s attention. The issues raised vary considerably, from relatively simple matters to extremely complex ones. An investigation often uncovers a number of different views as to what is in a person’s best interests, and those views can differ radically.

When considering allegations or concerns, the Public Guardian always considers first and foremost the impact on the person who lacks capacity. He considers to what extent their best interests are being met by the deputy and whether or not, in his view, the person’s interests might better be met by alternative arrangements. If there are significant concerns about how the deputyship is operating, the Public Guardian might make an application to the Court of Protection to seek either the removal of the deputy or limits on his or her powers. If there is evidence of a criminal offence or if serious issues are uncovered, the Public Guardian passes the details to the police. If no major concerns are uncovered but some residual issues bear greater scrutiny, the Public Guardian can allocate the deputy to a higher category of supervision, which enables his office to keep a closer eye on the situation or to provide a higher degree of support to the deputy. Finally, it is entirely possible that he might find the complaint unwarranted, or that there is insufficient evidence to pursue it.

It is always open to a third party to make an application of their own volition to the Court of Protection, seeking an order in relation to the management of a person’s affairs. For example, were a third party unhappy about the outcome of an investigation carried out by the Public Guardian, they would be entirely at liberty to make an application to the court to seek a deputy’s removal. That is the situation with the case that has been presented today.

This case concerns a dispute about the sale and maintenance of a foreign property in which two parties have a shared interest. One of the parties lacks capacity and has a deputy appointed to manage his affairs. The second party is of the view that the deputy has failed to do what is required from her side in order that the sale of the shared property can be progressed. I also understand that there are ongoing issues concerning the appropriate level of contributions to the maintenance of, and the shared service fees relating to, the property.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a significant interest in the case and has written on a number of occasions to raise concerns. As we have heard, he wrote most recently to the Public Guardian in March 2011, but the office has no record of that letter, which is why the hon. Gentleman has not received an answer. I regret that that has happened. I obviously have no idea why, but I hope that today I can provide the hon. Gentleman with appropriate assurance on the issues that he has raised.

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I am aware that there is a view that the Public Guardian could, and indeed should, take over active management of the case—as implied by the hon. Gentleman’s remarks today—and that his office should progress the sale of the property. However, that is not one of the functions of the Public Guardian, nor does it fall within the scope of his powers. Indeed, even if the Public Guardian had such powers and responsibilities, I am not convinced that this case merits such an intervention. On the face of it, it seems to be a dispute between two private parties, albeit complicated by the lack of capacity of one of the parties and the fact that the property is located abroad.

I have sought advice on the case, and it has become evident that it is not even wholly clear whose responsibility it is to advance the sale of the property. When the parties where divorced, Cardiff county court ordered, on 20 December 2000, that Mrs F’s solicitors shall have conduct of the sale of the property. I am not certain whether the property referred to in that direction is the property under debate; if it is, it is absolutely clear that it is Mrs F who should be progressing the sale. Since Mrs F has the keys to the property, I would want to see more evidence of obstruction by the deputy of a process that she should be progressing.

Kevin Brennan: I just wish to put on the record that, from my observations, Mrs F has made every effort to progress the sale of the property. The Minister is right that the sale is being held up by a lack of action on the part of the deputy and the lack of use of such powers as the Office of the Public Guardian has to ensure that the deputy progresses the matter. I think everyone agrees that it is in the interests of the person without capacity that the property be sold. In the meantime, a vast fortune has been lost.

Mr Blunt: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but that is where the dispute lies. It lies on whether the deputy has obstructed a sale that should have been progressed and led by Mrs F, who has full possession of the property. There is then the issue of service charges

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and everything else, and the hon. Gentleman knows that the deputy received legal advice that she should not be paying those charges as she had no access to the property. That could have led to another circumstance in which some of the service charges and costs could have been reduced by the property being rented out for 50% of the time when it was, in effect, being shared. I have seen no evidence of any sensible discussion between the deputy and Mrs F to try to progress the matter, nor have I, and more importantly nor has the Office of the Public Guardian, seen evidence of obstruction by the deputy.

Kevin Brennan: I will ensure that the Minister gets a copy of my latest letter, which the office says it has not received. Will the Minister undertake to respond to the issues raised in that letter, which refer to some of the points that he has made?

Mr Blunt: The Office of the Public Guardian has undertaken a number of reviews of the case, including a full investigation and a number of visits to the deputy by the independent Court of Protection visitors, and his office continues to maintain contact with the deputy and to liaise with her over the shared property and the progress of its sale.

In conclusion, if the hon. Gentleman’s constituent remains unhappy, she has the opportunity to go to the Court of Protection. That is what the hon. Gentleman has been asking the state to do through the Office of the Public Guardian. The office has investigated the case and does not think that that is justified, but it is entirely open to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent to go to the Court of Protection to seek the replacement of the deputy if the evidence and circumstances warrant it. That is the safeguard. However, I fear that on the basis of the evidence that I have seen—I am happy to see further evidence from the hon. Gentleman—I do not think that the case has been made out that the Office of the Public Guardian has failed his constituent.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Hospital Finances

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

2.30 pm

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I could not help thinking on my way here, as I passed the scrum of photographers and reporters, “There are an awful lot of people. They can’t all be coming for the debate on hospital finances, however important it might be.” I apologise in advance to the Members present, who I know debated such themes extensively in the Committee that considered the Health and Social Care Bill. I can only say that I did not anticipate that today would turn out as it has. I wanted to flag up an important issue that I think will dominate next year’s headlines and to put some of my thoughts and concerns on record. I will not suggest that we could all go off quietly, have a cup of tea and discuss it in a genteel way, but if the Minister and the Opposition spokesman give adequate responses, we might curtail this debate before an hour and a half.

When I arrived in this place in 2001, one of the first people whom I met was another new MP, Dr Richard Taylor, a distinguished Member who had just won the Wyre Forest constituency somewhat unexpectedly. David Lock, an unfortunate colleague of yours, Mr Betts, had lost half his votes in the election simply by virtue of his stance on hospital reconfiguration. Since then, an axiom in this place has gone something like this: “If you back hospital changes and any sort of configuration, you lose; if you oppose hospital changes and any sort of configuration, you ordinarily win.” I certainly sat through many debates, somewhat better attended than this, on hospital configuration in many parts of England when I was part of the Liberal Democrat health team, and generally speaking, that has been the invariable subtext to the debate.

Offstage, away from the Commons arena, many groups were set up during the previous Parliament to defend their local hospitals in a variety of ways. An all-party group was set up on community hospitals, and another, of which I was a founding member, was set up on small hospitals. It is recognised that reconfiguration and change in the acute sector is ordinarily political dynamite. Understandably, this and previous Governments have wanted to keep the issue at arm’s length.

One way to do so is to suggest that it is all a matter of local decision making, although somehow it always comes back to the Secretary of State’s desk. Another way is to refer such matters to a reconfiguration panel, a device set up expressly to keep things off the Secretary of State’s desk. A third way is to claim that whatever change is in the offing is the result of extensive work by consultants—McKinsey is often involved. I have never found them particularly helpful myself, as ordinarily they suggest that hospitals solve their financial problems by simply doing less, meaning closing wards and so on. However the technique favoured by most Governments hitherto has been deferral: putting off the agony in the expectation that some other Secretary of State will have to pick up the ball and run with it. The current Secretary of State is a veteran of many hospital configuration debates, having been a health spokesman for his party for a long time.

That is the background to the issue. However, I suggest that the landscape is changing dramatically. First, there is a widely accepted view that more services

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should be delivered in the community, and, presumably, that fewer services should be delivered in the acute hospital sector. Many of the effects of the “any willing provider” policy and patient choice are already working their way through the system, leading to an increase in the deficit on the acute hospital side. Since the 2010 Budget, there is clearly a need across the health sector to find substantial savings, amounting in national terms to £20 billion.

Added to that is the chronic effect of private finance initiatives, which appear to be crippling many in the hospital sector. An investigation conducted by The Daily Telegraph found, for example, that one fifth of hospital trusts with active PFIs have closed casualty departments, while during the same period only 4% of hospitals without PFIs closed or proposed to close casualty departments. We can clearly see from the cases of some individual hospitals—I shall not name them here—that severe problems have been brought about chiefly, if not exclusively, by long-standing PFI debts. The Daily Telegraph investigation—we do not need to believe The Daily Telegraph, but this is what it says—found that

“Some PFI hospitals—built and run by private firms and effectively rented back to the state—will end up costing taxpayers more than 10 times their capital value.”

Much of that cost, of course, is picked up by the acute sector.

In addition, constant deferral has sometimes made problems more acute, which is particularly true in London. Further grief is generated, to some extent, by adjustments, not uninfluenced by the Department of Health, to the tariff for many acute services. Not long ago, primary care trusts were strapped for cash and acute hospitals were okay; to some extent, intervention in the tariff has changed that, and the acute sector could do absolutely nothing except remonstrate.

Some trusts are in serious trouble, and their problems cannot be eternally deferred. The problems of the South London Healthcare NHS Trust, for example, are critical. The other day—I am sure that the Minister will be familiar with this issue—I picked up a brochure distributed around Merseyside saying, “Save Whiston and St Helens hospital”. He might be surprised to know that it says that

“local politicians have been informed by Ministers in the Department of Health that plans are in place to privatise”

Whiston and St Helens hospitals.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): As the hon. Gentleman is not an MP for that area, I will explain a bit of the background. One or two hon. Members are scaremongering among the local population. Despite repeated assurances from me and others, they will not accept that there is no intention, in any shape or form, to privatise Whiston or any other hospital.

John Pugh: To be fair to the Minister, I was using that case as an illustration not of what is afoot but of how such things become inflamed and distorted and how emotion tends to dominate, rather than facts.

Mr Burns: I certainly accept that, but will he join me in saying that hon. Members have a responsibility to be accurate about the true situation? Some hon. Members are prepared to put grubby party politics ahead of accuracy in their public accusations.

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John Pugh: I was handed this leaflet during a meeting on Sunday in Southport. A number of inaccuracies were expressed within the room, but I do not know how they were generated or who is chiefly responsible.

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that the Minister could clear up today any uncertainty on the question whether failing trusts might be dealt with by privatising or franchising through privatisation? The Minister could tell us what Matthew Kershaw at the Department of Health meant the other day when he told the Health Service Journal that private franchises might be one way to consider dealing with failing trusts.

John Pugh: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can ask his own questions when the time comes. The point that I am making, which could be made about several hospitals, is that financial trouble is not necessarily coupled with clinical trouble, as it is in the case of the hospital that I am discussing. Sometimes they go hand in hand, but in this particular case there is a clear pattern of good clinical delivery, which we all want to see sustained. However, most of us know, even if we do not want to name individual hospitals, that about 20 hospitals—17, 18 or 19 of them—will not be in good shape for foundation trust status, largely because of the financial problems that they currently face.

The issue is how we address these problems without the kind of collateral political damage that we saw in Kidderminster. The solution is not obvious. Mergers between different trusts do not always work well. Nigel Edwards, the previous chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said that no merger has ever done the trick of resolving the problem—not by itself anyway. Neither is it possible to do things and get away with it by shepherding other NHS custom in the direction of those hospitals that are financially challenged. I believe that that is the concern of hon. Members in Warrington apropos what may happen at Whiston. If the facility is PFI and expensive, there is an argument that that will be the one that is maintained. Indeed, the previous Government were accused of doing precisely that in connection with Burnley hospital, where Blackburn was the more expensive proposition in capital terms. I do not think that that is the way to do it.

I do not think we can go back to what used to be called brokerage, whereby basically some hospitals do well, some do badly and the strategic health authority comes along at the end of the year and masks the whole procedure by handing out money. That is a discredited tool that has long been dropped. Plenty of loans are available, however, which hospitals are sitting on and which they have to repay. A few years ago, under the previous Government, if a deficit was incurred, an equivalent amount was taken off the following year’s allowance, but, happily, that scenario no longer exists. This is not a situation in which immediate and obvious solutions exist.

To some extent, the modern view of the NHS—namely, that we need to encourage private autonomy to allow the strong to merge with or to acquire the weak, or to allow the weak to simply fail via a variety of different market adjustments—has some appreciable weaknesses, which I would like to discuss. If we let a hospital’s culture or ecology sort itself out as best it can in any

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particular area, we may find that at some point in time there will be a conflict with the Secretary of State’s duty to secure a comprehensive health service, because how it turns out might not actually do that. In crude terms, there are many situations in which we would take the view that we cannot let an acute hospital or a district general hospital fail.

The problem, however, persists and our failure as politicians to address it in a mature, sensible way has been subject to a fair amount of criticism. I refer hon. Members to an article in The Times initiated by comments made by Dr Peter Carter of the Royal College of Nursing, who said:

“In our metropolitan areas we have far too many acute hospitals. That’s a drain on the system and it has got to change”.

Dr Carter, of course, represents the nurses. He went on:

“People are going to have to be brave to make these decisions. Some of those hospitals that we have known and loved, and which were performing appropriately in their day, are no longer appropriate.”

In the same article in The Times on 17 June, Chris Ham from the King’s Fund—we know him well—said:

“For too long politicians have not been willing to show the leadership that the health service needs.”

That is a kind of allegation of almost wilful political inertia, which in the view of those experts seems to be compounding the problem.

Politicians are subject to a twofold accusation. The first is of being inert, cowardly and fearful, and the other is that they agree to certain things in private, but take a completely different stance in public. Under the previous Government, we saw the spectacle of one Minister proposing and supporting radical upheaval in the NHS, while another, the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), opposed it. Similar points are made by many think-tanks, which do not need to get their hands dirty with the business of reconfiguration.

Owen Smith: In a similar vein, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, before the last election, it was less than helpful to see the current Secretary of State standing outside various hospitals with a placard protesting that they would not close on his watch?

John Pugh: I have direct experience of the Secretary of State coming to my constituency to support his own party’s candidate and taking the same stance as me on the local configuration issue. He has ample experience of that. To be fair, the Secretary of State has told me that doctors are not necessarily completely blameless. Apparently, some doctors say privately that certain things need to be done, but they are not prepared to attend public meetings to say so, which is understandable. Certainly, some people in the clinical community will propose a reconfiguration, while others will oppose it—often citing differing clinical evidence.

To pull things together, the reality is that this is a tricky problem and solving it by central diktat or dirigisme is attractive only to think-tanks, never to politicians or people who have to work in real time in the NHS. It is probably also insufficient to simply set tests or parameters and let the thing unfold, if we want to end up with a comprehensive service in all areas. The Government are never quite out of the equation, however much they might wish to exit and leave it to the health economy to

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sort itself out. They are not a bit player in any sense. Hitherto, but maybe not henceforward, they have influenced the tariff, which has an immediate effect on the viability of hospitals. They have subsidised acute sector competition and opened access to alternative providers, all of which impact directly on the acute sector.

More importantly, the Government’s drive—this is accepted as the drive of not only this Government, but the previous Government—to make NHS providers autonomous has reduced opportunities to cut costs across the whole acute sector. I will give three straightforward examples. A lot of NHS property is essentially dormant and not needed at present, and companies would manage it to better revenue and capital effect on the budget. These companies, however, deal in property portfolios, not in isolated plots of land held by an individual hospital. Properly managing the dormant and surplus estates of the NHS is an extraordinarily good way of benefiting the acute sector, but it is difficult to progress when the acute sector is divided into specific, autonomous and relatively small units.

Similarly, we would all regard savings in procurement in the acute sector as relatively painless. If we can, it would be far easier to make savings in procurement rather than in staffing or in actual services, which are more painful to progress.

The recent National Audit Office report established that the autonomy that hospitals individually possess militates to some extent against them making some of the savings that we clearly would wish them to find. I shall read briefly a couple of sections from the NAO report:

“The local control of procurement decisions and budgets in the NHS contrasts with the direction that is being taken for central government procurement.”

It points out that Sir Philip Green has saved appreciable amounts of money across central Government by achieving large-scale efficiencies in procurement. The report goes on to state that

“this approach does not apply to the NHS which operates as a discrete sector, increasingly driven by a regulated market approach, in which the government does not control providers such as hospital trusts. Central government, by contrast, operates as a single body of departments where consistent and collaborative procurement arrangements can be pursued.”

If we read the report and analyse the net effect of that, we realise that NHS hospital trusts pay widely varying prices for the same thing. The NAO report gives examples of hugely different procurement exercises that have resulted in very strange outcomes. It states that

“the 61 trusts in our dataset issued more than 1,000 orders each per year for A4 paper alone.”

It points out that procuring on a scale greater than individual trusts will have benefits. I know that there are procurement hubs and so on, but essentially, as the NAO analyses the problem, it thinks that the current NHS structure means that we are missing out on across-the-board savings within the acute sector. It concludes by saying:

“We estimate that if hospital trusts were to amalgamate small, ad-hoc orders into larger, less frequent ones, rationalise and standardise product choices and strike committed volume deals across multiple trusts, they could make overall savings of at least £500 million, around 10 per cent of the total NHS consumables expenditure”.

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Owen Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that having listened to or sat through, as I did, 40-odd sittings on the Health and Social Care Bill, it is precisely such fragmentation that we are worried will get worse and will be compounded by the Bill’s measures? Is he concerned that the sort of centrally planned savings that he describes as being achieved through procurement will be forgone?

John Pugh: The scenario that the NAO and I have described was actually created by the advent of foundation trusts and the architecture put in the place by the previous Government as much as by anything that the Bill might do. The Bill will not substantially worsen the opportunities for savings. However, we might wish to consider the following issue in the context of the Bill. The NAO states:

“Given the scale of the potential savings which the NHS is currently failing to capture, we believe it is important to find effective ways to hold trusts directly to account to Parliament for their procurement practices.”

That is a perfectly valid point. It is not a political point; if anything, it is a housekeeping point.

The NAO has produced another recent report entitled “Managing High Value Equipment in the NHS in England”. We are talking here about things such as MRI scanners that cost millions of pounds. The NAO points out that, in reducing the costs of high-value equipment and maintenance, it is far preferable if the whole exercise is strategically planned, rather than planned within each individual trust. It concludes that

“the planning, procurement, and use of high value equipment is not achieving value for money across all NHS trusts.”

In other words, NHS trusts are looking after themselves, rather than considering whether there is spare capacity in the equipment of a neighbouring trust, simply because they are, by and large, poised in a competitive relationship. Already the drive to secure quality, innovation, productivity and prevention savings and the rationalisation that follows from that is being hampered—if not blocked—by a degree of obduracy from the foundation trusts, who are looking after themselves rather than the whole health economy. The drive to secure such savings is also being hampered to some extent by the need to satisfy competition requirements, which I should say, in case the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) is going to intervene, were already in place.

I have given the example of Merseyside where centralising pathology, which is a wholly sensible thing to do, has had to get over the hurdle of impressing the co-operation and collaboration panel. It was apparently satisfied when it discovered that pathology could be obtained in Wigan. That was enough competition and was okay. However, the fact that those involved had to get over that hurdle delayed the savings and some of their impact. I pause for a second to ask hon. Members to speculate about something. If Marks & Spencer behaved in exactly the same way with regard to all its separate stores, we would consider that to be an imbecilic business practice. There is no reason why we should not query it when we see it within the NHS.

Owen Smith: I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but does he not agree that it is slightly ironic that he should be making this argument now, given that Opposition Members consistently argued

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throughout the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill that the sort of fragmentation he is talking about will get worse once we get rid of all strategic planning at a regional and national level? If we get rid of strategic health authorities and primary care trusts, that will be a major problem and will compound the issues he is talking about.

John Pugh: I am not wholly convinced that we will get rid of that level of planning. Instead, it will go through another avatar or incarnation and reappear as a subset of the national commissioning board’s activities. That organisation is rapidly developing regional tentacles, some of which look very similar to parts of the strategic health authorities. Yes, there is the need for some strategic look at how savings are to be achieved if we are going to make savings across the acute sectors; otherwise, we are missing some very soft savings in times of severe financial restraint. It is not me saying that; it is those people who have looked at the matter in the greatest depth—in this case, the NAO.

However, one cannot roll back the clock; we are where we are. I suspect that there will be a fair amount of merging among trusts so, perhaps with the evolution of super-trusts, we will get real economies of scale. The key question I ask and the reason behind this debate is: what can the Government actually do to manage this process of change, given that all the financial information coming our way now and next year will illustrate that there will be change and that significant problems need to be addressed in London and other parts of the country? The way I see it is this. There is a yawning gap between what the public would like to see and what hospital administrators consider to be financially expedient or workable, and what doctors see as clinically desirable. There is sometimes a tendency to confound the two. I have seen many cases for change based on financial expediency that are represented as cases about promoting a clinically desirable framework. That has always created a degree of cynicism on the part of the public, who see the money rather than the clinical needs of the services driving change.

Financial expediency and clinical desirability are different. None the less, they are both forces that we can do nothing specific about as they stand. Those forces are driving change even though the public, particularly in London, are probably reluctant to accommodate that. One very bad way of resolving such a dilemma—and it will be a difficult dilemma for whoever has to deal with it—is simply to do the politically expedient thing and work out which option loses fewest votes. That does not necessarily produce anything like a desirable situation and it creates a lot of bitterness, particularly if political leverage is used to benefit candidates of one or another party, however tempting that may be.

To make a positive suggestion for a way forward, I accept that this is a very difficult environment, and one that is only going to get more difficult, but I would like to draw attention to what I have picked up in most of the debates I have had, in this Chamber and elsewhere, on reconfiguration, often in parts of the world that I was not directly informed about. In those debates—I remember a well-attended debate, with many Conservative hon. Members, about reconfiguration in the Watford

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area—the fundamental issue that crops up time and again is access. People spend far more time talking about the way to the service than about the shape of the service—far more time talking about traffic than about clinical processes. We have to draw a lesson from that.

It seems fairly straightforward that people who have serious life-threatening diseases have one primary consideration, which is to get the best conceivable service they can to save their life. Recognising that, they will go to where that best service is. For example, in my constituency of Southport people who contract cancer often have to travel to Clatterbridge hospital in the Wirral for some of the specialist cancer services that are not available in Southport. Although they would rather have those services on the doorstep, they would sooner have the best conceivable service. On the other hand, asking people who are travelling for very complex, life-critical services to also travel in order to get triage should they have some mishap, or to travel if they want to do something very ordinary like give birth to a baby, or if they want to attend a clinic, or if they want to get their chronic condition attended to or assessed, or if they want some sort of initial diagnosis of their symptoms, or if they want a routine stay in hospital, then to suggest that they should not go local, that they should travel further, creates uproar. Frankly, if they are asked to travel further than other people and prolong an anxious journey, or encounter some tortuous route, that will enrage them significantly.

A lot of debates about hospital reconfiguration in this place have been about the fears of one community about the basic, simple services for which they will unfairly be made to travel further than other people—fears that, in a sense, they have been rejected and that some other community has been selected to have services on its doorstep. The tendency of many people in the health service is to think that that is an issue, but not a health issue—the Department of Health does not do highways.

I can give a classic example of that in my constituency. There are two hospitals in my local trust—one in Southport and one in Ormskirk. The services were configured, I think largely for political reasons, in a rather strange pattern. A and E for adults is in one hospital, and A and E for children is in another. Theoretically, if there is a car crash with both parents and children involved, they would go off in different directions. That strikes many people as almost perverse. When people in Southport, complain very vocally and emphatically, as they still do, about having to traipse over to Ormskirk even for the most minor ailment affecting a child, they have a legitimate grievance. I have to say that that appeared to be a grievance that was shared by the Secretary of State. When he was campaigning for the Conservative candidate in my constituency, he agreed with me on precisely that point. If one reads the fine print of the Shields report, which did that configuration, one finds a very short sentence saying, in effect, “this is a fine configuration which I, Professor Shields, medical man, wish to stand by.” He treats the weakness—that there is a long and tortuous road between the two communities—as though that really was outwith the particular suggestions that were being made.

I recall similar issues with regard to the debate that we had about hospitals in the Watford area. People said that the configuration had not recognised the fact, unbeknownst to the health authorities, that it may have

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been possible to get from one part of the community to another at 10 o’clock or mid-afternoon, but not at peak time. That would not work or be satisfactory for the people who would have to negotiate dense traffic and no direct road. I looked at the Secretary of State’s four tests for acceptable configuration. They show progress in the right direction, but the one thing that they did not mention was physical access and time taken in access to health services.

In conclusion, I would like to make a positive suggestion. When we think about configuration, we need to lay down access standards that offer some kind of basis of what people can rationally, reasonably expect: to test proposals coming forward against access standards; to ensure that access is, as far as we can get it, fair for all; to have goals for access that allow for variations in people’s condition, whether life-critical or standard; to allow to some extent for differences in rural and urban environments; and to allow even for factors such as population density. People in London would be flattered, to some extent, by the picture they see of access arrangements in London. They probably feel that they are not as good as they might be, but in comparison with rural environments they are markedly different.

If the Department of Health could take access seriously, then the huge political problems that are on the horizon, and not very far on the horizon, can be resolved in a less politically contentious way. We could then convince people that some of the reconfiguration that may have to be done is fair, if not welcome. Until we do that, we are going to get into precisely the same territory as Dr Taylor and David Lock in Kidderminster. It is the failure on the part of the NHS, I guess, to talk to the department of highways and the Department for Transport effectively. It is a failure to take into account what it means for the ordinary patient, and how it looks from the ordinary patient’s point of view, that really makes these difficult issues absolutely explosive.

3.7 pm

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing the debate, albeit at an hour and on a day when there is a little competition for the attention of the House and perhaps of the media, too. Maybe the media are watching, but I have my doubts.

I will start on a note of agreement with the hon. Gentleman, and, I am sure, the Minister, on the need to make savings in the NHS. There was widespread agreement before and after the general election that the NHS needs to make significant savings of £15 billion or maybe £20 billion in the spending period, which is vital. Equally, the NHS needs to find ways to achieve those efficiencies to achieve productivities that will allow those savings to be sustained over a longer period. There is also widespread agreement that there is a massive challenge in achieving those savings, and addressing perennial problems that have persisted in the NHS under successive Administrations.

Some trusts, as the hon. Gentleman has said, are consistently in the red and have been for a while. They seem to have persistent and perhaps insurmountable problems with their finances. There has been an evolving but still too opaque process of dealing with that, with

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bail-outs or loans from the SHA or the PCT to trusts that have struggled. Despite the efforts of successive Governments, and particularly the previous Labour Government, there remains too much variability in the quality of service offered and prices paid across the NHS. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that there have been persistent political obstacles in the way of achieving the reconfiguration of services, which we all recognise may be required to deliver some of the proposed savings.

Since the Government came to office more than a year ago, they have been right to try—rhetorically, at least—to address those issues and to spell out some of the challenges and potential solutions. First, we all agree that there needs to be greater transparency on accounting, on design decisions about services and, in particular, on reconfigurations of acute services. Secondly, there has been widespread agreement over a long period that clinicians need to take greater responsibility for redesigns and, as the Government would put it, to be at the heart of decision making in ways that force them to take account of issues and be responsible about engaging in the ongoing debate. Finally, there is agreement that we need a more effective means of dealing with failing trusts, so that we have a failure regime that allows whichever party is in government to reconfigure vital services in a way that protects them.

The Government want to do all those things, and they are right to want to do them, while increasing quality at the same time, but the problem is that their prescription for achieving them is entirely inappropriate. It is the wrong prescription for the NHS, and it will not achieve what the Government want; in fact, it will compound the problem. The past year has been a wasted year, in which many of the decisions that the Government say they want to take and that they want the NHS to take have been put off. The health service has had to deal with the chaos of having to wait and wonder what the future will hold for individuals and institutions across the NHS, as the Government’s shambolic Health and Social Care Bill passes slowly and tardily through the Commons.

The principal reason why the Government have introduced the Bill is that they still have an entirely misguided belief that competition in the NHS between providers will result in a more efficient allocation of resources, drive productivity and lead to innovation in the NHS, which is not the case. The planning that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned is vital in the NHS, and that is particularly true of planning that militates against injudicious decisions being taken by parts of the NHS that are more autonomous than they were previously.

Ultimately, the chaos we have seen over the past year has been worse than not allowing the NHS to take the necessary financial decisions and steps towards reconfiguration to achieve better financial outcomes. Worse still, it is compromising patient care. The quality agenda that the Government profess to support and pursue above all else, even in respect of competition, is not letting the NHS improve as quickly as it has done in the past. The Minister is looking quizzical, but I would point to the fact that the figures for 18-week waiting times, for four-hour waits at A and E and for the time people wait to receive vital diagnostic tests are all increasing.

Mr Simon Burns indicated dissent.