Orders of the Day — School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:04 am on 4th August 1980.

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Photo of Dr Jim Marshall Dr Jim Marshall , Leicester South 1:04 am, 4th August 1980

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown) is to be congratulated on two grounds: first, on coming first in the ballot for a debate on school meals; and, secondly, on the way in which he has covered nearly all the ground. His speech makes further comment almost superfluous. I am sure that that will appeal to hon. Members from London constituencies, who are waiting to speak in the debate on London. Nevertheless, despite the way in which my hon. Friend covered the ground, I should like to put a few further points on the record, even though hon. Members will recognise them as being not too different from points already made.

We have discussed this issue many times in the past 12 months on the Floor of the House and, at length, in Committee. The central charge that we who opposed the Education (No. 2) Bill make is that it is the Government's deliberate intention, under the guise of increasing local authority freedom, to dismantle the school meals service. That is the charge to which the Minister addressed himself on 13 February when we considered the Report stage of the Bill. It remains our charge, and evidence indicates increasingly that that is the consequence of the changes made in the schools meals service by the Act, as it now is.

One can see two factors. Higher charges for school meals are leading directly to a reduction in the level of school meals provision. Second, as a consequence of that reduction, inevitably redundancies on the scale that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West indicated have occurred, are occurring and will continue to occur, probably at an accelerating rate.

Let us consider the changes that the local education authorities have made. Fifty-eight of 102 local education authorities have increased their prices, and all report a drop in the take-up. The reduction is particularly marked in those authorities that have imposed the largest price rises. They are Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Hampshire, Humberside, Northamptonshire—where there has been a reduction in demand of at least 50 per cent.—Northumberland, mentioned by my hon. Friend, and Solihull. They have increased their prices to between 50p and 55p per day. Not surprisingly, they cannot understand the reason for the fall. To Labour Members the reason is clear; parents cannot afford to pay those prices.

Local education authority chiefs are surprised to find that the price rises have not relieved the pressure on their budgets. It is hardly surprising that that has not happened. Perhaps I may quote here a comment in the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) to the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Brinton), who, perhaps not surprisingly, is not present. I apologise for the technical jargon. My hon. Friend said: If, there is a diminution in the marginal propensity to consume as a consequence of the rise in school meal prices how much of a loss is the county of Kent prepared to sustain on each school meal by under-charging for nutritious or even non-nutritious meals? Will the consequences not be that, even with higher charges on that scale, under the freedoms given in the Bill the cost of the schools meals service per unit to the providing county will be greater and thus defeat the hon. Gentleman's objective?"—[Official Report, 13 February 1980; Vol. 978, c. 1566.] Even taking account of the jargon, that explains succinctly what is happening in a great many local education authorities. They are increasing the price and as a result the demand is falling. That is proved beyond a shadow of doubt by what is happening in Dorset. Following price increases, demand has dropped by 50 per cent. As a consequence, the local education authority has wisely decided to phase out school meals for primary pupils, with the exception of its statutory obligation to provide meals for those children covered by the very mean free school meal provisions of this Government. We should note that it is a cold meal.

Devon is the first county to see the logic behind the Tory Government's policy. I believe that Dorset is the first in a long line of local education authorities that will reduce, if not stop, its school meal service. Dorset demonstrates that, as the price of school meals increases, demand decreases, and that ultimately the only option is to stop the service. In those authorities where prices have not been increased, which are mainly Labour-controlled, working-class areas, such as Barnsley, Bradford, Gateshead, North and South Tyneside, Sheffield, Sunderland and Manchester, there has been no fall in demand for traditional school meals. Rapidly rising charges lead to a dramatic drop in demand and place the service in jeopardy. Those areas that have not increased prices should not be forced to maintain the service at the expense of other parts of the education service.

The Minister claims to be compassionate. Even at this stage I appeal to him and his right hon. Friend to reverse their policy on school meals and maintain the grant for 1980–81 at the level of 1979–80. Their policy is placing an intolerable strain on many family budgets. Parents are faced with the invidious choice of deciding whether they can afford to pay for a school meal. Many are finding that they can no longer afford it. We shall not know for many years the consequences of the reduction in take-up of school meals for children's health and general well-being.

I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to insist to the Prime Minister on a reversal of the policy. Failing that, the right hon. Gentleman should do the honourable thing and resign.