asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is her latest estimate of the income from school meal charges in 1977–78 after allowing for free meals and the administrative costs of collection and how this compares with the figure for 1976–77.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that very small saving hardly justifies the hardship which the price increase has imposed on family budgets and the deprivation which it has caused to the many children who have been forced to give up school meals? In view of that, will she give the House an assurance that the Government have no intention of introducing further increases in the price of school meals, that, indeed, they will recognise the value of school meals in bringing direct help to children in the greatest need, and that they will work towards the elimination of charges?
I cannot give my hon. Friend the last assurance for which he asked, because it is the Government's policy to work towards the reduction of the subsidy on school meals. However, I can certainly give him an assurance that we recognise the value of the school meals system and intend to sustain it. The talk in the newspapers about further increases was purely speculative, based on the fact that it is known that it is the Government's policy to reduce the subsidy. I can assure my hon. Friend that no such decision has been taken.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is alarming that the cost of school meals should have been going up when the level of family support has been going down? Will she please convey to her right hon. Friend that we on the Labour Benches would consider it an outrage if there were to be a further increase in school meal charges offsetting any improvements that might be made in the level of family support through child benefits?
I have already told my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Ovenden) that it is not our intention to increase the charge as has been suggested. We in fact made substantial improvements in the remission terms for school meals when we were forced to increase the charge, and it will always be our hope to protect the worst-off from the effects of such an increase.
Does my hon. Friend remember that the last time school meal prices were increased, from 15p to 25p, there was a fall-off of about 20 per cent. in the number of children taking school meals? If there is a further increase, this school welfare service, which has been built up over two generations, could well be destroyed. Will she accept from me that the introduction of a larger contingent qualifying for free meals is no answer, because the fact that children are poorer is revealed through their taking free meals, and many children simply will not have free meals in that way?
Immediately after an increase in the charge for school meals the number of children taking the meals always falls off, but as time elapses it normally rises again to the previous number. On this occasion there has been a substantial increase in the number actually taking free meals. My hon. Friend will know that we are most anxious to see that no system exists which stigmatises or singles out children, but I cannot accept that in the present circumstances that is a reason for not giving help to such children.