Orders of the Day — School Meals

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:13 am on 4th August 1980.

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Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , Berwick and East Lothian 1:13 am, 4th August 1980

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West (Mr. Brown) on his good fortune am: good judgment in initiating this debate, even at this time. I am only sorry that our colleagues with other debates will have a long wait.

This is not the first time that I have sought to draw the problems of the new legislation to the attention of the House. I raised an Adjournment debate on 23 May, when I dealt with the serious problems that I believed were developing in school meal services. That was two months ago, when there was still speculation about the issue. We know what is happening. More local authorities have made their decisions. There has been a spectacular drop in demand for school meals all over the United Kingdom.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), in reply to my Adjournment debate, spoke about the benefits of the new system and the increased freedom that the Government were giving to local authorities. In his closing sentence, he said: the school meals service has improved rather than deteriorated because of the variety that is now available".—[Official Report, 23 May 1980; Vol. 985, c. 1016.] "Variety" is indeed the word. Apart from the children of families in receipt of family income supplement or supplementary benefit who must have something to eat—goodness knows what—a fine old variety of alternative versions of Tory deprivation has been made available to our children.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) summed up the effect of the Education Act 1980 with uncharacteristic brevity when, on Second Reading of the Bill, he said that local authorities would have the power, the glory, but not the money. That is what it is all about. In Scotland, £18·2 million is missing from the school catering budgets of Scottish local authorities because the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not the councils, has taken advantage of the so-called discretion which is written into this nasty piece of legislation. Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that he has been able to make £.3·4 million available to privileged families who want to take advantage of the assisted places scheme. But that is another story.

Coming back to the variety of meals that the Under-Secretary said was being provided in schools as a result of the new legislation, essentially four different options are available to local authorities. We have heard about Dorset. That fine county, which gave us the Tolpuddle martyrs in 1834, is likely to give us the hungry children of 1981, because it has scrapped the school catering service altogether, except for those children of families on supplementary benefit or family income supplement—and heaven knows what they are getting. It is a pity that hon. Members representing Dorset constituencies are not present to tell us what is going on in that county. Perhaps they are ashamed of what the Tory Party is doing in that respect.

The second option is that of high rates, whereby the council covers the shortfall in the budget which has been caused by the cut in Government subsidy by increasing the rates. That is happening in the Lothian regional council, which covers the largest part of my constituency in East Lothian. The council found it necessary to increase the rates by 41 per cent., for this reason and other reasons, to maintain a reasonable standard of school meals and other services at the original price. It seems clear that the Lothian electorate is satisfied with what is going on there, because, if the results of the district elections in May are anything to go by, people are swinging to the Labour Party in no ordinary fashion.

The third option is to charge higher prices for the meals. That is happening just over the boundary from my constituency in Northumberland where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, West said, 55p is being charged for a meal. That obviously causes hardship for many families, particularly those who are caught in the new poverty trap which has been created, including single-parent families and other poor families who qualified for free school meals in the past but now no longer qualify because the number of free school meals provided in the United Kingdom has been halved as a result of this nasty piece of legislation. That, combined with the higher charges, in areas where they are taking effect, is obviously leading to a lower uptake of school meals, which inevitably means that the school meals service becomes that much less efficient and is subjected to much more in the way of further constraints.

The final option available to local authorities is any of a number of combinations of all those forms of cuts—higher chargese, dearer meals or a lower standard of meals. All of those inevitably lead to a lower uptake of school meals.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland waxed eloquent on 23 May about the benefits of the cafeteria system in schools. I agreed with him. It stands to reason that in secondary schools children would benefit from having a choice of what to eat. However, on that occasion the Minister conveniently overlooked the consequences of that sort of system in primary schools. I invite the House, and the Minister in particular, to speculate on the joys of 6 year-olds taking advantage of free choice in primary school cafeterias. It stands to reason that it would be chaotic and wasteful, and the Minister knows it. It is time that he faced up to that fact.

It seems to me that the cafeteria system is an interesting new development in secondary schools. I think that the House would welcome the fact that it provides more variety for secondary schoolchildren. But I am sure that we are all worried about the additional cost that it imposes on a lot of families. In addition, we must face up to the mounting crisis in primary schools, where children are most vulnerable to the problems of poor nutrition if they do not get proper meals.

I should like to refer at this stage to the former county of Berwickshire, which lies within my constituency. It is now within the territory of the Borders regional council. There the local authority is making the mistake of attempting to implement the Government's culinary logic, if I can call it that. There are three secondary schools in that part of my constituency where the cafeteria system seems to be functioning fairly well. Two of those school kitchens also provide a service for neighbouring primary schools. Presumably, therefore, those two are safe enough.

Besides that, I have within Berwickshire 23 primary schools which are on their own so far as the catering service is concerned. The number of children in those schools ranges right down to one school at which there are only 11 pupils. All those schools are in isolated rural communities. It stands to reason that the cafeteria system cannot work in that sort of situation. Therefore, Berwickshire is down to the one-course meal for primary children in those schools, at a cost of 35p per meal. I am sure that my hon. Friends would agree that in many cases that represents an inadequate meal at an excessive price. Once again, we must face up to the fact that the uptake of the meals has slumped seriously, particularly in the summer months.

I am concerned about the possibility that the schools meals service will not survive in any appreciable scale for the winter months, when the need will be greatest. That is because, in order to balance the books, the council has had to make several of its staff redundant. Apart from those who have been made redundant, literally all members of the school meals staff within that part of my constituency are being put on short time. It is interesting to note that the reason given on the official redundancy form is: Changes as a result of amendments to Education Act in respect of the statutory requirements to supply school meals. In other words, the Government are directly responsible for these redundancies.

Previously in that part of my constituency, 42 staff worked a total of 817 hours a week, at a cost to the council of £1,416 a week, to serve 1,200 meals a day for 1,500 pupils. Come September, when the new session starts, the remaining staff will have to work 560 hours a week, at a cost of £866 a week, to serve just over 1,000 meals to the same number of children; in other words, the saving will be only £550 a week. I wonder whether it is worth it. There will be a reduction of about 900 meals a week served to the children. We can only speculate on the harm that it will do to the children in that part of my constituency.

In addition to the question of hungry children, we have to ask whether the staff will consider it worth while to carry on working under this new regime. At present, the average gross earnings of people in that part of the service are £33·71 for a 191 hour week. After the cuts, their earnings will average £20·62 for 13 hours a week worked.

That average conceals some rather extreme circumstances. For instance, in my own local primary school in the village of Hutton—I hope that my son will go there eventually if the Tories have not closed it by then—the lady who looks after the school meals is at present working 10 hours a week to earn £13·61. That is two hours a day. She has been notified that her hours are to be cut to five hours a week—one hour a day—for £7·15 gross cost to the local authority. Is it really worth anyone's while to come out of the house to do a fairly tedious and unpleasant job for an hour a day to earn only that amount of money—£1·43 a day? We are clearly asking too much of some of these ladies.

We are therefore subjecting the whole system to impossible strain, particularly in primary schools and particularly in rural primary schools, where the need is greatest. When I drive through that part of my constituency at 8 am and see schoolchildren standing at farm road ends, in all weathers, waiting for transport to school, I often wonder how many of them have had a decent meal before they left the house. I am forced to reflect on the fact that many of them, in the next school session, may not get anything more than a sandwich or a packet of crisps until their parents get back from work after 5 pm. The service will have been strangled by then because of the cuts and because the people who run the service at present will not find it worth while working in it any longer.