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Child Poverty

Clause 2 – in the House of Commons at 6:46 pm on 18th March 1997.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Carrington.]

Photo of Miss Joan Lestor Miss Joan Lestor , Eccles 6:47 pm, 18th March 1997

I have served as a Member of Parliament for 26 years, having entered the House 30 years ago, been rejected for four years by Slough but then been embraced in a love affair with Eccles. During that time I have done many things and had many interests as a parliamentarian, but the issue that has dominated my life has been that of children both here and abroad, and I wanted to go out on a note that highlighted that interest.

Next month, the Save the Children Fund will launch a national campaign concerning child poverty and nutrition. Later this week, the Child Poverty Action Group and the King's Fund will publish a report documenting for the first time the wide range of health problems associated with poverty among young people, including accidents, depression, drug abuse and suicide. The report also reveals that poorer young people run a four times higher risk of early death than those who are better off.

Those facts cannot be ignored; they describe our society today. Many Conservative Members might prefer to deny them, but there are appalling levels of poverty and inequality in this country.

I am sure that many people must have been shocked when Oxfam announced that it was to extend its poverty work to the United Kingdom, a full five years after the Conservative Government signed the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which specifically called on states to take appropriate measures to combat disease and malnutrition through the provision of adequate nutritious foods, and to ensure that all segments of society were informed, had access to education and were supported in the use of basic knowledge of child health and nutrition.

What is the Government's record on these issues? The Prime Minister, in what I thought was a breathtakingly complacent written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) last October, claimed: The United Kingdom has extensive social protection and assistance arrangements, among the most comprehensive in the world. It is by working to maintain and improve living standards through economic and social policies that we will fulfil the aspirations of the United Nations Year for the Eradication of Poverty, and in a way that is relevant to our society."—[Official Report, 14 October 1996; Vol. 282, c. 650.] That statement should be considered in the context of the 3 million families on income support, or the 14.1 million people living in households with an income that is less than half the average. Of those people, 4.3 million are children—one in three children in the United Kingdom. The work of the family budget unit at York university shows the inadequacy of income support levels to provide minimum acceptable standards of living, including nutritional standards, for children.

If the Government are unwilling to acknowledge the existence of poverty, it follows that they will not be too keen to acknowledge the link between poverty and poor health. I pay tribute to health visitors: the professionals in the front line of defence against disease, ignorance and social inequalities. They are well equipped to report back on the nation's changing health profile. They are concerned about the mounting problems associated with poverty and poor nutrition among our children, and yet the health visitor service is being cut again.

Cambridge and Huntingdon district health authorities agreed on 26 February to cut the funding of health visiting and the school nursing service by £300,000. Buckinghamshire health authority and South Buckinghamshire NHS trust are proposing a 60 per cent. cut in school nursing. South and West Devon health authority is planning to reduce the number of school nurses by up to 50. I could go on. At least one national health service trust, the Mid-Anglia NHS trust in Bury St. Edmunds, has tried to take a do-it-yourself approach to health care by advising parents of rising two-year-olds to carry out their own developmental assessment of their children.

When the Health Visitors Association's report was mentioned in the House in January, the Deputy Prime Minister dismissed it out of hand and said that he did not accept its findings. I have not heard of any other research that has contradicted that report. It was a nationwide survey of social conditions at the end of the 20th century. It uncovered disturbing new evidence of widespread child malnutrition. Families live in overcrowded and inadequate accommodation, and suffer as a result of fuel debt and disconnections.

The Government must have a twinge of conscience about the return of rickets and tuberculosis among the child population. The report's conclusions were not the generalisations of a politician or political party, but based on first-hand information provided by concerned professionals who have had to pick up the pieces after almost 20 years of Tory government and, in the process, have discovered the return of the diseases and social conditions of the 19th century. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head, but that was in the report. If it is wrong, I hope that he will explain the position.

Jackie Carnell, director of the Health Visitors Association, said that great strides have been made in public health, due in no small part to the work of health visitors in preventing ill health. It is a tragedy that, as we approach the end of the 20th century, the many improvements in health and welfare are being undermined by the effects of desperate poverty on a national scale. Health visitors are uniquely placed to tackle many of those problems, so the service should be strengthened and expanded, not watered down and dismissed in the cold climate of Scrooge-style economics.

The survey found that almost one third of health visitors had had cases of tuberculosis in the previous 12 months, 61 per cent. had come across iron deficiency and 83 had had cases of failure to thrive. Those findings are more than backed up by an inner-city area report by Wendy Doyle for the British Medical Association. It shows that one third of 12 to 13-year-old girls in Hackney are calcium-deficient, one quarter are deficient in magnesium, and a quarter are deficient in zinc. Two thirds of health visitors have cases of families whose gas or electricity supply has been disconnected. Of the more than 5,600 families in the sample, 5 per cent. had had their water cut off.

Findings from the survey give an insight into the number of families suffering from disease and nutritional defects that are made worse by poor living conditions. Health visitors are frequently asked to help families who live in unsuitable, overcrowded and inadequate accommodation, with poor facilities for preparing food. Half the health visitors in the United Kingdom deal with families living in unfit buildings with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities, which seriously hampers the hygienic preparation of food.

The "Milk for Schools" campaign produced a report last year called "The Hunger Within", which showed that the Government have given nutritional provision for children a low profile. Poor diet and poverty in childhood have long-term implications. Some of the effects are immediate, such as children falling asleep in their classrooms because they have had no proper food or breakfast. I know one teacher who keeps a supply of biscuits and fruit juice in the cupboard, which he gives to children whom he feels are undernourished.

The Minister may try to dismiss my comments as hearsay, but can he deny the evidence of a ward sister in a hospital in Romford in Essex, who yesterday wrote to me that tonsil operations were being delayed because a significant number of children were too anaemic to take the anaesthetic? A dental clinic in Leeds could not extract children's teeth, for the same reason.

Since the 1980s, the National Heart Forum has been concerned about the poor quality of children's diets, and the diet-related ill health that often begins in childhood. The poorest 20 per cent. of families spend on average £12.82 per person per week on food, and many spend far less. The effect of such low nutritional standards is appalling. Until 1980, school meals had to provide one third of a child's daily intake of energy and nutrients. It was a Tory Government who removed the obligation on local education authorities to meet nutritional standards.

More than 1 million school meals that are served daily are free, but the number of children in need of nutritional support is far greater. For example, children from families who do not qualify for income support but receive other benefits are not currently eligible. According to several surveys, 5 per cent. of children do not have a breakfast, and more than one quarter of them have no cooked meal, often because they are in accommodation that does not provide the wherewithal, so the school lunch is probably their most important meal of the day. We must ensure that it contains the essential nutrients for good health in both the short and the long term.

Several studies show that school meals play an important role for children from low-income families. Children from poorer families receive a significantly higher proportion of the day's nutritional intake from school meals than from any other source. It has been a cause of concern that the only meal provided at lunchtime is a sandwich.

Today's children are physically less active, but they still need a nutritionally dense diet. What they are currently offered is a diet that is high in fat, high in sugar, low in non-starch and low in iron and calcium. Research has found that an average school meal contains 46 per cent. fat, which exceeds the Government's recommendation of 35 per cent. A poor diet will affect children's general level of activity and their academic performance.

Without a proper nutritional base in childhood, people may suffer heart disease later on. That, as we know, is one of the major causes of death in the United Kingdom. An estimated 30 per cent. of such deaths are attributed to a wrong or poor diet. The disease process begins in childhood: thickening of the arteries has been seen in children under the age of 10. Obesity is on the increase. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition estimated that the number of obese children doubled between 1980 and 1990. A change in school meal cooking methods and content could make a significant difference.

Dental decay is one of the most common diseases of childhood, with more than half of all children having dental decay before their second set of teeth. That is one reason why I am appalled by the widespread introduction of sweet-laden fizzy drinks and snack dispensers in schools—it is doing the children no favours. Iron deficiency—the main cause of anaemia—is three times more common in girls than in boys, for obvious reasons. As well as affecting tissue growth, it can lead to adverse effects on intellectual performance and behaviour.

I know that the Government are not entirely unaware of this problem, which is partly of their own making. Just as the Education Act 1980 abolished nutritional standards in school meals, so the Local Government Act 1988 introduced compulsory competitive tendering to the school meals service. Very few school meals contracts have mandatory standards for nutrients built into them— often, the cheapest bid wins the contract, with no compulsory nutritional base line. Caterers often opt for a cafeteria system, providing burgers and chips. Much of the monitoring of school meals contracts focuses on hygiene and health and safety, rather than on nutrition.

Last night—after intensive lobbying by trade unions such as Unison and health professionals—the Government issued guidelines for school meals which were welcomed by, among others, Professor Tim Lang, chair of the School Meals Campaign, but he added: We look forward to the guidelines becoming compulsory rather than voluntary. Ofsted could be given the power to ensure that school food providers are complying with the guidelines, highlighting the school meals service in the same way as they do educational performance.

The shadow Education Minister has pledged our determination to address the problem of inadequate nutrition in school meals and to introduce national nutritional standards. Some 4 million United Kingdom children eat just one meal a day, and the Government have a duty to ensure that that meal is a good one.

The poorest 25 per cent. of society spend £1.64 a day on food—that is a fact. Official food consumption statistics, according to Suzi Leather's excellent book "The Making of Modern Malnutrition", show that the people in the largest poor families eat, on average, the equivalent in nutritional terms of a couple of Brussels sprouts per person per day for their nutritional value. The fresh food consumption of the largest poor families is the equivalent of one quarter of an apple a day. In large poorer families, the consumption of fresh green vegetables has dropped to one third of the amount eaten in 1980.

The growth of out-of-town shopping has had an enormous impact on the diets of the poorest. In a six-year period, 30 per cent. of greengrocers closed. As one mother of two put it: It costs money to go to the shops. It costs us £7 to get to the shops and back—and we are only spending £30 a week on food for all four of us. A recent study carried out by the London school of economics compared the shopping basket prices of small shops and supermarket chains, and the price difference could amount to between 10 per cent. and 30 per cent., depending on the food bought.

We underestimate the considerable psychological stress that results from food poverty on parents, who feel that they are failing their children by not providing the right food, and on children, who see their parents going without to feed them. In the words of one mother of two with a husband on a low wage: I don't always eat. I sometimes have breakfast, about four times a week. I always go without lunch, just a cup of tea, and very often without an evening meal. I might eat up what the kids leave. Saturday evening is the only good meal of the week. That is happening in 1997.

As we approach the millennium, official concern about child nutrition and poverty seems to be reaching an all-time low. As Suzi Leather so effectively points out, the last decade and a half has seen the systematic reduction in state support for the diets of the most vulnerable— especially our children. Let us look at the details. In 1971, Thatcher's milk legislation abolished free school meals. In 1980, school meals were deregulated and nutritional standards abolished. The Social Security Act 1986 cut the number of children entitled to free school meals by one third, and made the provision of schools milk discretionary.

In 1988, special dietary additions were abolished, compulsory competitive tendering was introduced to the school meals service, and single payment grants for items such as cookers and fridges were replaced with social fund loans. In 1992, further social security changes took away from 35,000 of our children entitlement to free school meals, and removed the educational entitlement of all secondary school children to education in nutrition and cooking skills under the national curriculum. Finally, the 1995 Budget saw the Government opt out of the EU scheme which subsidises the use of milk as an ingredient in school meals and the provision of milk for drinking in secondary schools.

As we approach the millennium, these facts are affecting a large number of our children. We tend to look at the children of successful people and those who come from homes and families which can afford proper food, but there are thousands of children who do not eat proper food and who are deficient in a variety of ways. Child poverty, poor nutrition and ill health—both short and long-term—are linked. To ensure healthy children, society must help their parents by achieving improvements in income and living standards. We need access to healthy diets in schools and we need to help parents.

I believe that the Government have failed our children, and have neglected to see what is taking place in schools and the poverty being experienced by many of our children. The Government have a duty to ensure that proper investment in our children should include a substantial nutritional element. I am sure that the next Labour Government will do that.

Photo of Mr Michael Colvin Mr Michael Colvin , Romsey and Waterside 7:06 pm, 18th March 1997

I should like to pay tribute to the speech we have just heard from the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), in which she displayed the social conscience that she has shown whenever she has spoken in the House. The subject of her speech is dear to her heart, and has a local bearing, but during her time on the Opposition Front Bench she has spoken robustly in favour of assistance for countries overseas that are not as well provided for as we are. In doing so, she has displayed her social conscience and fought her corner with a robustness which sometimes has not received the recognition it deserves. I am sure that the House will be much diminished following her departure, and I wish to use this opportunity on behalf of Conservative Members to pay tribute to the work that she has done as an honourable Member of this House.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills) 7:07 pm, 18th March 1997

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Eccles. She said that she wanted to go out on a high note because of her continued commitment to children, both in this country and overseas. I would like to pay tribute to her for her work over the past 20 years, and for the passion of her views. Obviously, she will not be surprised to learn that I do not share her concluding views, and she was unduly harsh on the Government. As she has wide experience in this House, she would not expect me to necessarily agree with everything that she said in a well thought out, detailed and knowledgeable speech.

The vast majority of households are better off as a result of the Government's policies: average income has risen by more than a third—by 37 per cent.—between 1979 and 1993–94, and those rises are not confined to a few top earners. Average income is up for all family types throughout the country.

It is a fallacy to claim that there are more children living below the poverty line than ever before. Such a claim, which rests on equating the poverty line with the income support level, would imply that any increase in benefit levels brings about an apparent increase in poverty, and that, conversely, by cutting benefit levels we could reduce the numbers on low incomes.

The facts are that those usually thought of as poor have also seen their income increased in the past 18 years. For example, a typical unemployed couple with two children, receiving income support, is 20 per cent. per week better off in real terms than in 1979. The less well-off, the bottom 10 per cent., now possess more consumer durables. The possession of such items as telephones and central heating is up by more than a half, and half those people now have cars and video recorders.

We have continued to concentrate help where it is most needed, on low-income families, less well-off pensioners and sick and disabled people on low incomes. Extra help is available to low-income families through income-related benefits worth about £1.4 billion a year more, in real terms, than in 1988. More than 706,000 families benefit every week from family credit payments.

Family credit, a benefit introduced by the Government, plays an important part in helping families with children to break out of the poverty trap, making easier the jump from the state benefit system back into work by raising their incomes through the early stages of their return to work. That is an important help, which has enabled 706,000 families to get back into work and enhance their standard of living.

The biggest cause of low income is unemployment, which has fallen by 1.1 million since December 1992. We are building on that, as recent unemployment figures have shown. I cannot anticipate what the figures will show tomorrow, but I have no reason to doubt the continuing economic recovery of this country. We have an economy that is the envy of our European partners, and that should continue to develop and strengthen in a stable and excellent way, bringing benefits to both individuals and their families, and to manufacturing, the retail sector and others.

About 750,000 people a year will benefit from a range of innovative measures announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor in his 1994 Budget to help people to move into and stay in work. From April this year, the parent plus initiative will offer help to up to 100,000 lone parents on income support to get back to work: £20 million will be invested in the scheme and supporting initiatives. It will be piloted for three years in 12 Benefits Agency districts, covering almost one tenth of Britain.

Of course we acknowledge that there is an association between health and socio-economic status: that is not unique to this country, but is seen throughout the developed world. There are also variations in health between different areas and social and ethnic groups, and between men and women. The experts agree that there are likely to be many factors at work: living and working conditions, resources, individual preferences and social relationships.

The Government are determined to work towards improving the health of the nation and breaking down the barriers between the different factors that can have an adverse impact on individuals' health, be they adults or children. Through the "Health of the Nation" initiative, we have set targets for improving health. We are the first Government to do so. Within those targets, we have asked health authorities to work with others to concentrate efforts on those whose needs are greatest. That means that we can focus on those who face poorer health than others, whether because of low income, gender, ethnicity or geography.

I want now to concentrate on the more narrow and focused area of children's health and nutritional requirements. The hon. Member for Eccles mentioned a number of issues relating to children's health, on which I am afraid that I cannot agree with her conclusions.

We know that children of all ages and in all population groups are taller and heavier than before. No group shows the signs of faltering growth that could result from under-nutrition. Indeed, Government surveys of food, nutrition and diet over the past 20 years have shown consistently that there is no evidence of malnutrition in British children. The average intake of nutrients for all groups surveyed is above the appropriate dietary reference value. The exceptions are for iron in women and girls, and calcium in some adolescent girls, but those exceptions cut across all socio-economic groups.

It is important at this stage to define a healthy diet, because I believe that there is a great deal of confusion on the subject among too many people. A healthy diet, as the hon. Member for Eccles will know, is a well-balanced and varied diet. It should consist of foods in the following groups: bread, other cereals, potatoes, fruit and vegetables, milk and dairy foods, meat, fish and alternatives.

It is important for people to understand the fundamental basis of a healthy diet. The diet of British schoolchildren is important. The growth of primary school children between the ages of five and 11 in England and Scotland was monitored between 1972 and 1994 by the national study of health and growth, which was funded by the old Department of Health and Social Security and the current Department of Health.

In 1995, the health survey for England took over that responsibility. The NSHG has demonstrated consistently over the years that children of all ages, in all population groups, including low-income, inner-city and ethnic-minority groups, are growing taller and heavier than before. That is significant, because it suggests that there is no evidence of under-nutrition among young people and children in this country.

A summary of the results of the survey, "Trends in Growth in England and Scotland", was published in a scientific journal on 11 March and generated much media attention, as it claimed to show that, although children in all groups studied had grown on average taller and heavier year on year, that was not wholly good news, because fatness among the children had also increased markedly. It was speculated that that was due to increasingly inactive life styles over the period.

The heights and weights of children were measured by the national diet and nutrition survey, which was published in 1995. It showed that children in all groups had heights and weights at or above the national standard—again, no sign of the faltering growth that may be due to under-nutrition. It is important to have that on the record, so that people do not misunderstand the results of the expert research.

There is no recent representative study of children in secondary school, but the Department of Health and Social Security survey of the diets of British schoolchildren carried out in 1982–83 found that both 10 to 11-year-olds and 14 to 15-year-olds were growing taller and heavier than ever before. That reflected the evidence of the research I mentioned earlier, on the younger age group. The field work suggests that there is no evidence of under-nutrition. A survey of the diets of more than 3,000 children aged 10 to 11 and 14 to 15 carried out in 1982–83 showed that, for intakes of all nutrients, children were above recommended levels. That adds weight to the argument that there is no under-nutrition.

Some recent surveys claim to show that a significant proportion of women on income support are seriously deficient in several essential vitamins and minerals, causing low birth weights and a high rate of infant mortality. However, our records show that infant deaths— deaths of babies under one year—which is accepted internationally as an indicator of general health, are at their lowest rate ever.

In social classes IV and V, infant death rates have fallen by more than half over the past 15 years. Infant death rates in social class V are better than those of social class I only 15 years ago. The trend is towards steadily improving health. I am sure that the hon. Lady welcomes that, because it is a great step forward for the infant mortality rate to drop so dramatically over a relatively short period.

The hon. Lady mentioned reports on nutrition-related diseases. The claim that children are living in poverty on inadequate diets concerns us all and cannot be lightly dismissed, even if we are not prepared to agree that there is evidence from proper research to back up that claim. In recent years, several reports have claimed exactly that. As she said—they are her words, not mine—they claim that we are returning to 19th-century levels of illness, with rickets and iron deficiency on the increase. Those claims are not borne out by the facts. I repeat that, because it is important: the claims are not borne out by the facts.

Let us take, for example, rickets. There is no reliable evidence that rickets, which is caused by vitamin D deficiency, is on the increase. In fact, there is good evidence that rickets, which used to be especially prevalent among Asian communities, is no longer a significant problem for those groups.

We know of occasional cases of rickets associated with extreme diets. Every effort is being made to identify their causes, with a view to reducing even those isolated cases by, for example, making available vitamin drops containing vitamin D for pregnant and lactating women, and for children under five. They are available free to families on income support, income-related jobseeker's allowance or family credit. They are available at low cost through child health clinics to the rest of population.

I caution against relying on anecdotal reports of rickets in the medical literature on extreme diets. As I have said, there is no reliable evidence that rickets is on the increase, and we have evidence to show that it is declining. The Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy has established an expert working group to consider the nutritional aspects of bone health in the UK population. A report from the group is expected in 1998.

On 2 January, field work for the national diet and nutritional survey of young people aged four to 18 years started. That will measure all aspects of the diet and nutritional status of young people, and will be an important enhancement of our knowledge and understanding, based on scientific and medical research.

The hon. Lady mentioned tuberculosis, which is also worrying. I agree that no one should downgrade or dismiss the problems, suffering and misery associated with it. However, the UK has an excellent record of TB control, and we are determined that that should continue. TB notification in England and Wales has reached the low level of fewer than 6,000 cases a year, compared with around 50,000 a year in 1950, only 47 years ago. She will agree that that is a dramatic drop over a relatively short period in the history of medical science.

Our success has been achieved against the background of a worldwide resurgence of TB, which is having a small but important impact on UK trends. The Government are responding positively to adverse developments abroad by strengthening our policies to protect the health of the nation against TB. Notifications of TB tend to be higher in more deprived, inner-city areas, but that does not mean that poverty and TB go hand in hand. That is down to the co-existence of some key risk factors, including a high proportion of ethnic minority groups, higher levels of HIV infection, and homelessness. We are working to deal with the specific needs of those groups by the following measures.

We are considering how to improve screening procedures for immigrants from countries with a high incidence of TB, which will allow us to treat them more effectively. A working group on TB set up by the Department of Health to recommend further improvements in TB prevention and control published two reports last summer. One, entitled, "Tuberculosis and Homeless People", considers in detail the special needs of homeless people. We are acting on its recommendations.

Finally, and most importantly, our BCG immunisation programme to protect against TB is continuing. BCG immunisation is routinely recommended for all schoolchildren aged between 10 and 14. In addition, immunisation of high-risk groups and babies continues. That wide-ranging package should allow us to continue our proud record of TB control. I hope that the hon. Lady is reassured by those Government actions.

I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive for me dealing with anaemia, which is an important problem associated with children, but one that she did not mention. Anaemia is the clinical manifestation of iron deficiency. Its prevalence among young children has been monitored by the national diet and nutrition survey of children aged one and a half to four and a half years, which was published 1995. Seven per cent. of males and 9 per cent. of females in that age group had haemoglobin levels below the 11 g/dl World Health Organisation level which is considered indicative of anaemia.

On 2 January 1997, field work for the national diet and nutrition survey of young people aged four to 18 years started. It will include measures of iron status. The joint Department of Health/Medical Research Council nutrition research programme will fund research to help develop better measures of iron status. The Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy has agreed to convene an expert group to assess the iron status of the population. Although the group has not yet started work, it will do in due course.

Related to anaemia and iron deficiency is the question of healthy eating, which is important for everyone. Research shows that many young people could eat a better balanced diet that was less rich in fat. The hon. Lady devoted a significant proportion of her speech to the problems associated with the quality of the diet given to children by their parents. With the advent of fast food, that is a problem, because young children and teenagers are attracted to hamburgers, beefburgers and fried chicken rather than to what nutritionists consider a more responsible, sensible and healthy diet.

May I briefly explain the background to school food? As the hon. Lady will know, under sections 512 and 534 of the Education Act 1996, local education authorities and grant-maintained schools were given the responsibility for the presentation, content and cost of school meals. They must provide free meals to children whose parents receive income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance. They are not obliged to provide meals for other pupils, but in practice most schools do. The price of meals can be subsidised by LEAs and schools.

The development of practical national guidance for the school catering sector was taken on by the nutrition task force's catering working group, which set up a sub-group consisting of representatives from the catering world, the health education world, school meals providers and local authorities. The guidance is based on detailed nutritional guidelines for school meals, drawn up by the Caroline Walker Trust.

The project team has developed voluntary guidance in three parts. The first is aimed at head teachers and governors; the second at LEAs and grant-maintained schools; and the third at school caterers. There are no plans to introduce compulsory nutritional guidelines, and the guidance makes no reference to recent food scares, but it provides guidance which should have a positive and beneficial effect on the balance of the diet of school children.

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I shall stray into controversial politics, briefly and in narrow terms. I do not want to let pass one of her comments. She said that, in 1971, my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven withdrew free school milk. The hon. Lady is factually correct, but, if my memory serves me right, there was a Labour Government between February 1974 and May 1979, and they made no attempt to reintroduce school milk.

My memory is now getting better. I think that the hon. Lady was a junior Education Minister during part of that period. I should be interested to know why the policy was not reversed, especially given the hon. Lady's ministerial capacity. Did she passionately believe in reintroducing school milk? Did she fight her corner vigorously and discreetly outside the glare of the media? Was she, unfortunately from her point of view, unsuccessful?

Photo of Miss Joan Lestor Miss Joan Lestor , Eccles

I will not go out on a note of discord. All that I will say is that it was wrong to abolish free school milk, because milk is essential to the diet of all our children.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady.

To get off controversial political issues, I turn to food and the national curriculum, which the hon. Lady mentioned. Food is now a compulsory part of the design and technology curriculum up to key stage 2. It is a voluntary topic in key stage 3. Nutrition is already a specified part of the science curriculum, so children are now assured of a better grounding in nutrition than ever before.

As in so many other things in life—such as the age-old problem of litter and the problem of drink-driving—good nutrition requires a process of education. A lost generation of parents in their 20s and 30s are not interested in nutritional balance in the diet, so they are not the people best qualified to provide guidance to their children at home on a properly balanced diet.

As the hon. Lady rightly said about the school education system, we may have to educate people from the bottom up through their children. That is important. The nutrition components of the curriculum at key stages 2 and 3 are a way of seeking to undo some of the damage that has happened, because a lost generation of parents all too often take the easy option. Now Kentucky fried chicken and Big Macs and other hamburgers are popular. When I was a teenager, the less glamorous fish and chip shop provided almost the only source of fast food.

When I was at school, school food was notorious for its poor quality and variety. Although life has probably improved, I suppose that it has not done so all that dramatically. At my school, if it was Monday it was Irish stew. If it was Tuesday, it was minced beef. If it was Wednesday, it was Irish stew with a pastry top. If it was Thursday, it was shepherd's pie. If it was Friday, it was fish fingers. If it was Saturday, it was something cold, such as spam or ham. If it was Sunday, we got roast beef, roast lamb or sometimes roast chicken, depending which Sunday of the month it was. The quality was appalling. The variety was non-existent, because there was no choice.

Most children will vote with their feet if they do not like the food that is put before them. They refuse to eat it. They go out and spend their money on fast food, or badger their parents to buy it for them. It is easier for some parents to take that option than to go through all the trouble of preparing and cooking vegetables and meat, or whatever, at home, then sitting down and eating it and clearing up afterwards. It is easier to go to a fast food outlet and buy meals with few nutritional benefits for children or adults.

Photo of Mr Michael Colvin Mr Michael Colvin , Romsey and Waterside

I am interested in what my hon. Friend is saying about fast food and the importance of school meals. I happen to represent a constituency—or rather, I hope to represent the constituency after the election— in which one of the largest apple farms in the country, run by the John Lewis Partnership, is situated. We produce Cox's orange pippins.

There is a good case to be made for ensuring that an apple a day is on the menu of every child in school. It is an old adage, I know, that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but it is true. It is also important that the apples distributed in schools are British, not apples drawn in from continental suppliers, under whatever name. There is nothing like an apple a day, and it ought to be a Cox's orange pippin.

Photo of Mr Michael Colvin Mr Michael Colvin , Romsey and Waterside

Constituency-to-be. We have had a boundary change.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am sorry. I am about two weeks ahead of my time—or six weeks.

I am sure that the owners of the orchard will have heard his comments today. I was brought up on an apple a day to keep the doctor away. I agree that there is a great deal to be said for it.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) had to say about apples. I must first declare an interest, in that my father-in-law was an apple grower, and some of my wife's family are still apple growers.

My hon. Friend said that all apples served in British schools should be English apples. Although that is clearly preferable, is my hon. Friend aware that a Cox can only keep for about eight months, and that there is therefore always a window in which one cannot supply the market with English apples? It is one of the great tragedies of the British apple industry that, from April to August, there can be no English apples on the market. Will he bear that in mind when considering the issue?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that highly technical information. It is wonderful what one can learn from one's colleagues while standing at the Dispatch Box, and I shall certainly bear his remarks in mind. A British apple would be best, but, given the problem of the window in which, for seasonal reasons, one cannot find or buy British apples, we are fortunate to be living in a society that can import apples, so that people are not be deprived of their daily apple, even if it is not their daily British apple.

Returning to the question of food and nutritional benefits to children and young people, it is appropriate to mention the welfare food scheme, which provides a nutritional benefit in kind, rather than in cash, for pregnant and breast-feeding mothers, and for children under five in low-income families.

As the hon. Member for Eccles is probably aware, the main provision of the scheme is that expectant and breast-feeding mothers and children under five in families in receipt of income support or an income-based jobseeker's allowance receive the following free of charge. Welfare milk beneficiaries receive a milk token per week, which may be exchanged for seven pints or eight half-litres of liquid milk. Infants under one year who are being bottle-fed may receive instead 900 g per week of a range of specified brands of infant formula. Vitamin supplements beneficiaries receive either vitamin drops or tablets containing vitamins A, D and C.

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister—having only just come into the Chamber, it is rather impertinent of me to intervene in his speech. He has been talking about a range of benefits, but is there not some rumour that, dependent on the election results, there might be some risk to child benefit and related allowances? May I take it that the Conservative party is committed to the existing position, and that, along with the benefits about which he has been speaking, those benefits will be maintained? If, perchance and by severe misadventure, there should be a change of Government, is it not true that some of those benefits might be at risk?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's perspicacious views. As he rightly points out, the Conservative Government pledged—and have honoured the pledge throughout the life time of this Parliament—to maintain child benefit for all mothers with children under a certain age. I do not know how much the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) and his spin doctors have been arguing with the shadow Cabinet, but there have indeed been rumours and announcements that the shadow Chancellor was going to get tough and cut off child benefit for 16 to 19-year-olds who are still in school.

That would have an impact on the financial position of many families. If a universal benefit paid to all mothers with children of the qualifying age was cut off, those on low incomes would suffer, as well as those in middle or high income brackets. I know that any such proposal would be ring-fenced, so that anyone in receipt of a state benefit such as income support would not have their child benefit cut off, but there are many families who are above income support level but are not rich or well-off, and their family income would be cut. That tax-free sum would be taken from them, and they would have less money to spend on good-quality food to help to give their children a proper balanced diet.

Photo of Miss Joan Lestor Miss Joan Lestor , Eccles

The hon. Gentleman is being rather unfair, and is taking advantage of a situation. As I understand it, what has been discussed or said is that there is a problem whereby the children of the rich stay on at school, such as those at Eton college which is in my old constituency, and their parents, who can well afford to keep them at school, receive child benefit for them; whereas children of poorer families would often like to stay on at school if the benefits made if possible for them to do so, but they cannot.

The proposition that was discussed—there has been no policy announcement—was how resources could be switched away from those who do not need them towards those who need them most, and thus encourage them to stay on at school because it is in their interests to do so. That is what the argument was about; it was not about removing child benefit from poor families, and the Minister knows that.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that clarification. As a member of the Labour party, she may be better equipped to know exactly what was going on in the internecine wars of the shadow Cabinet. One of the problems currently facing the country is that, all too often, the Labour party does not tell us what its policies are, whether on child benefit or a windfall tax.

From the announcements on child benefit, which might affect the diet and the nutritional value of meals for teenagers, my understanding was that the benefit was going to be cut for all 16, 17 and 18-year-olds in this country except those whose families were on benefit. That would hit the less well-off who are above benefit level as much as it would hit the families mentioned by the hon. Lady whose children are at Eton college. Poorer families would be hit far harder than rich families, and it could adversely affect not only their diets but the quality of the food in their homes.

Photo of Mr Michael Colvin Mr Michael Colvin , Romsey and Waterside

I very much doubt whether any families with children at my old school actually claim child benefit, but, were they to do so, a fair way of solving the problem would be to tax the benefit. I cannot understand why either party cannot have a policy stating that that sort of benefit should be taxed, because that would ensure that no one had an unfair advantage.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I shall not stray into taxation policy, because I may incur your displeasure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which is the last thing I want to do.

I should like to say to my hon. Friend that there are assisted places at Eton for young boys—as far as I know, Eton college is not co-educational—so many families benefit under the assisted places scheme. As he knows, the Labour party plans to phase out that scheme and reinvest the money in health education. That will affect the psychological health of a child who previously thought that, because of his academic achievement, he would benefit from an assisted place, but then found that he would not be able to do so, because some future Labour Government had phased it out.

That raises another interesting point, which puzzles me. I do not know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you saw Mr. Jeremy Paxman in a razor-sharp interview of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) on "Newsnight" last night. If not, I strongly suggest that you go to the House of Commons Library and get a video of it. It was an eye-opener. The right hon. Member for Sedgefield did not seem to be very persuasive about the money that would come from the assisted places scheme, which would be phased out and would therefore not provide a lot of money at once. I also do not think that he has considered the psychological effects of Labour's pernicious policy of depriving bright people of the opportunity to attend a school to which their parents could not otherwise afford to send them.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

My hon. Friend said that there were one or two things that he did not know about Labour party policy. He should get a copy of tonight's Evening Standard, which says that there are 50 things we do not know about Labour party policy. To return to the issue of food and nutrition—

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Order. The hon. Gentleman is right to do so.

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was about to deal with the subject of food, nutrition and young children.

Does my hon. Friend agree that income is one of the factors determining the amount of nutrition that parents can afford to give their young children, and that that income is very much a function of whether they are in employment? Does he not therefore agree that there are very real risks to young children's nutritional standards from certain proposals that will be made in the United Kingdom?

Does my hon. Friend agree that a national minimum wage would affect young children, because their parents will become unemployed? Does he also agree that the social chapter would affect them? On food and nutrition, is he aware that the Brewers Society has suggested that the minimum wage would add 7p to a pint of beer?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that interventions are almost becoming tedious repetition. I hope that it will not be necessary for me to pull up him or any other hon. Member on that point again.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will certainly do my best not to be tedious or repetitive.

I was explaining to the hon. Member for Eccles the important welfare food scheme. I should like to return to one point—not for the purpose of repetition but because, due to the enthusiasm of my hon. Friends, I suspect that the hon. Lady would like me to jog her memory. I was saying that welfare milk beneficiaries receive one milk token per week, which may be exchanged for seven pints or eight half litres of liquid milk. Infants under one year who are being bottle-fed may receive 900 g per week of a range of specified brands of infant formula. Vitamin supplement beneficiaries receive either vitamin drops or droplets containing vitamins A, D and C.

Parents of children aged under one in families in receipt of family credit are entitled to purchase at a reduced price—currently £3.65–900 g of infant formula per week from clinics.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I should like to finish the section on welfare food schemes. I shall then be delighted to give way.

Liquid milk means whole or semi-skimmed liquid cows' milk, including long-life or UHT milk but not fully skimmed milk. I am sure that the hon. Member for Eccles will agree that that is a wide range, in a time when consumers want choice and shop around for the different types of milk that they think is particularly suitable for their family. The scheme has embraced that principle.

Several hon. Members:

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Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid

Does my hon. Friend think that it is not consistent or logical to say that children's nutrition and their family's wealth necessarily go together, and that there is not necessarily such a correlation? Cannot people spend large sums on food that is not nutritious? Does he not agree that it is fundamentally important that schools across the United Kingdom should have programmes to educate people on family nutrition?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid and important point, which is similar to the one about the person who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Any individual can spend a considerable sum on food, but merely because the food is expensive does not mean that it is good food with nutritional value, or that it has as much nutritional value as other types of food that might be infinitely cheaper. As he said, the important factors are knowledge of the type of food one buys, why one should buy good food, and how one's family and oneself can benefit to the maximum extent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) has rightly said that education is fundamentally important. As he will be aware, key stages 2 and 3 of the national curriculum provide for such information and knowledge to be provided to young children. As I told the hon. Member for Eccles—to avoid being out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will not elaborate in detail—we may well have a lost generation of parents, who are aged in their 20s and 30s, who never received such education. They do not understand the problems, and think that they can put any type of food in front of a child. That is why we may have to educate those parents through their children.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid

My hon. Friend almost anticipated my supplementary question. What about that lost generation of parents who do not know how best to feed their children? What about that lost generation of parents who spend disposable income on Haagen-Dazs ice cream, which may taste nice but is not nutritious? What is his Department doing to educate parents who did not benefit from current educational programmes?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Department of Health is extremely concerned about educating individuals—whether they are children, teenagers, young adults, adults or the elderly—on all health matters, such as nutrition, preventative medicine and looking after themselves. It is also concerned about ensuring that we improve, through "The Health of the Nation" targets, the health of the nation; it is as simple as that. One method is through diet.

Several hon. Members:

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Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith , Chingford

Notwithstanding Haagen-Dazs ice cream and its nutritional qualities, and the states in which some people eat it—I gather that some people like to eat it in various states of undress—does not the matter have some bearing on a slightly attached but distant subject: how people are educated about food in schools, such as in domestic science? We know that that is not a specific part of the national curriculum. Does my hon. Friend not think that perhaps we should be thinking of pushing people down that road in the future, when we return from the general election?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; education has a key role to play, as I was saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire. As I said, part of the national curriculum, in key stages 2 and 3, deals with nutrition, food and dietary requirements. It is an important function of the national curriculum.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash , Stafford

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Was not there a little bleeping just now in the Chamber?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

There has been a little bleeping going on for quite a while. I did not hear the latest one.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because there is a bleeping, and it puts me in a rather difficult position. I am not being paged by a spin doctor, and I have set my pager to vibrate rather than to bleep. Unfortunately, however, the battery in my pager has run down. If you will allow me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will turn it off.

I should now like to make some progress.

Photo of Mr Hartley Booth Mr Hartley Booth , Finchley

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, because I know that there have been many interventions in his reply to this important debate. On the subject of education, would he say that his Department is in constant correspondence and linking with special needs education in the Department of Education and Employment, with which I am involved?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

My hon. Friend has raised an important subject. The Department of Health is in constant touch with all Government Departments and, through the Children's Services Strategy Group with local authorities, discussing children's issues—special needs, diet and nutrition, and many other important areas that affect the lives of children.

Healthy eating is important for everyone. A balanced, sensible diet is critical. Education is needed; we must make sure that everyone is aware of the best nutritional foods, so as to enhance and maintain the health of families and the community at large.

If this was the hon. Lady's swan song, she certainly went out on the high she hoped to reach when she began her speech, on which I congratulate her. Given her commitment and interest, she will be sorely missed by hon. Members, who have never once questioned the sincerity of her commitment to improving the lives of children, in this country and around the world. She will indeed be greatly missed.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at Eight o 'clock.