I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill is about providing an environment and regime for healthy eating in schools to enable our children to have healthy eating habits for life. It is the Government's responsibility to protect future generations from obesity and bad health, and the Bill is part of that process.
Today, I shall briefly set out the background to the problem of obesity in terms of child and adult health, and mention my involvement with the issue in the run-up to the health White Paper and the recent statement on school meals, both of which represent excellent progress towards a comprehensive strategy on general nutrition and healthy choices in schools. Then I shall run through the elements of my Bill, which contains a menu of practical steps to tighten the school regime in favour of better children's nutrition. In the first place, a food-based approach will be used to screen out many bad meals, but the Bill heads towards a nutrient-based approach, where children will eventually face choices between healthy meals rather than between healthy and unhealthy meals, which is the case at the moment.
I have not completely got to grips with the Bill. When I dealt with school meals several years ago, it was suggested that I should try to ban—or at least reduce the amount of—chips in school meals. I took advice from schools, which said that when they banned chips or unhealthy food from the menu, private enterprise stepped in and parked a chip van down the road from the schools and the children patronised it daily. Will anything in the Bill prevent children from having that freedom?
Elements in the Bill confront that problem. The basic idea is to enable head teachers to keep children in school and not to institute a comprehensive ban on chips from all meals and all schools immediately, but to take a gradual approach to improving health. I welcomed the Government's reintroduction of nutritional standards after the Conservative Government had removed them altogether 20 years previously.
We want a realistic strategy for health through school meals, but there is a debate about the speed with which we can do that. Many people want an immediate nutritional approach so that, from day one, all school meals are healthy. That is difficult to sustain for reasons that have been given. The other approach is more gradualist but accelerates later, and I advocate that. I am all in favour of only healthy meal choices if that is practically possible. I believe that that will happen in the future, but it cannot happen on day one.
Let us consider the problem that confronts us. Two thirds of the population are overweight or obese. The figure has increased fourfold in the past 25 years. Obese people are expected to live nine years less than average-weight people, which means that the current generation of children are expected to have shorter lives than their parents. Obesity is therefore a public health issue that has taken on the same proportions as smoking, which is why it is important to grasp the nettle and confront it. The White Paper and my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary's recent statement show that the Government are moving towards a comprehensive approach to tackling the problem. The Bill would accelerate the changes to protect our children's health.
Some 30,000 people a year die from obesity-related conditions. The conditions include arthritis, heart problems, kidney problems, diabetes and various cancers. Since 1991, diabetes has increased by 65 per cent. in men and 25 per cent. in women, and cancer deaths that are specifically related to obesity have increased by 14 per cent. in men and 20 per cent. in women. The problems are therefore enormous.
The economy is also affected, not only by premature deaths but by the 11 million days of work that are lost through back pain, exacerbated or caused by obesity. The cost to the economy and the health service runs into billions of pounds. Our record on obesity is sadly the worst in Europe.
Children face diminished longevity. In the past 10 years, obesity in two to four-year-olds has doubled, and in six to 15-year-olds it has tripled to 16 per cent. Those children have a 50 per cent. likelihood of becoming obese adults and thus dying nine years earlier. Type 2 diabetes is emerging in children—it was previously found almost exclusively in adults. Obesity-related conditions are therefore affecting children. Overweight children suffer other disorders such as psychological problems, which are sometimes linked to bullying, low self-esteem or depression. That undermines their achievement and attainment.
An increasing number of studies show that better nutrients and meals lead to better concentration and attainment and less antisocial behaviour. Those issues are critical. The nutrient balance of children's food—whether it is impregnated with fats, salt and sugar or good and healthy, as well as the overall calorific intake—is going in the wrong direction. The House might be interested to learn that a king-sized Snickers bar contains more calories than a sirloin steak with potatoes and broccoli—I know which I would prefer. It is quite frightening to realise the amount of calories that we can take in without any valuable nutrients.
The national diet and nutrition survey revealed the obvious fact that too much of the wrong food—fat, sugar and salt—was being eaten by adults and, particularly, by children. We need to confront this problem, and it is not enough simply to say, "Oh, well, we'll give children a bit more exercise." Commentators in the industry have said that children's calorific intake is no more than it used to be, and that the problem is a lack of exercise. However, those studies conveniently omit to mention the intake of snacks between meals—chocolate, crisps, Coca Cola or whatever—so they should not be relied on.
I respect the fact that exercise has a role to play. The recommended amount of moderate exercise each day for children is 60 minutes. Some 30 per cent. of boys and 40 per cent. of girls do not achieve that, and people take less exercise as they grow older. The standard of physical education in our schools is lower than that of our European colleagues, and the Government are investigating that and tightening it up. There is also a trend towards people staying at home and watching television or playing on their computer, rather than being out and about. These are important issues to take into account as part of a comprehensive plan.
My focus, however, is on nutrition in schools. Today's schoolchildren represent the first generation in 100 years whose life expectancy is falling. A study in Leeds has shown that children now wear trousers two sizes larger than they did 20 years ago. The obesity rate is predicted to rise to 50 per cent. by 2020, although I am cautious about such extrapolations. In reality, however, the incidence of obesity is going up too fast, and to a dangerous level.
The Food Standards Agency has stated that children are now eating half the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables, and that the vast majority are consuming more than the maximum amount of fat, salt and sugar prescribed for adults. We also have a new generation of adults living on convenience foods rather than handing on food preparation skills to their children. This creates a new challenge for our schools to teach children to prepare food properly—and even to help parents to do so.
The advertising industry tends to focus on where the money is. If I were to say, "Here's a potato. How can I make some money out of it?", I would not be advised simply to sell it. I would probably be told to mash it up with fat, salt and sugar, shape it into a dinosaur and put it into a package, before composing a jingle that would sell it. Obviously, more money could be made that way. It is therefore not surprising that the top 10 food brands spend about £450 million a year on advertising. The top four are McDonald's, Coke, KFC—which used to be known as Kentucky Fried Chicken—and Burger King. They use toys to gain the loyalty of children and to try to build brand awareness among pre-school children so that they will become brand loyalists who will spend their lifetime consuming their products, which could possibly lead to an early death.
What is the hon. Gentleman's view of large corporations such as McDonald's sponsoring sports kits or donating money to schools? That clearly influences the choice of products that children will buy in the future.
That is an important point. I am not against large corporations per se sponsoring events in schools, but we must think carefully about which organisations do it. There would be a big difference between sponsorship in a school by McDonald's and by a non-food product such as a toothpaste brand, for example—perhaps I should not mention names—if one could show that the toothpaste helped to prevent decay. Head teachers and governors should be careful about this, but I certainly do not think that it is a good idea for corporations promoting a lifetime's loyalty to consuming high fat, salt and sugar products to be allowed to sponsor schools. My approach is therefore slightly mixed, but I hope that it is clear.
The issue of protecting children has been raised. Another issue is whether children should be protected from being bombarded in pre-school television schedules with imagery suggesting that eating unhealthy food is "cool". I am glad that the Government are now considering that.
These problems have been known, and the Government are beginning to address them through the health White Paper, to which I was pleased to contribute on issues of advertising, targets for salt, sugar and fat and controlling clarity of labelling so that consumers know what they are eating. A great deal of labelling lacks clarity, and the highest consumers of low-nutrient products are least likely to look at labels and make such judgments. We need to make it easy for people to know what is good or not good for them, or what should be eaten in moderation.
During the emergence of the health White Paper, I put forward a number of other ideas: making certain types of food, such as chips, unavailable in schools at certain times; controlling vending, which is a sort of Trojan horse of fat, sugar and salt to people who are trying to introduce a healthy food regime in schools; and keeping children in at lunchtime to increase participation in a healthy food regime. I have now compressed those ideas into the Bill, which I put out just before the Secretary of State made her welcome statement on raising school meal standards. I was also a supporter of the children's food Bill put forward by my hon. Friend Ms Shipley.
The Secretary of State has issued minimum health specifications for processed foods such as burgers, sausages and cakes in terms of salt, fat and sugar, which I welcome, on the way towards tougher nutrient-based standards in 2006. She has introduced the idea of a schools food trust, giving independent support and advice for parents and schools, which the Bill specifically mentions. I shall refer later to my desire for a more pushy, comprehensive approach from that schools food trust to deliver standards rather than simply giving advice. She also mentioned the need for parents to have a greater role in terms of empowering parents to examine menus. I shall deal with that later in terms of the need to give parents the tools to bring about a healthy regime rather than talk about it without the knowledge needed to deliver that change.
In November 2004, the health White Paper introduced vocational qualifications for school caterers. In July, local education authorities were given specifications for catering contracts to help get nutrition on to the agenda, as previously many LEAs were simply buying to a price as low as 37p per child, so the nutrient value of those meals was increasingly small. There is an argument for including nutritional value as well as cost in that tendering process. From September 2006, tougher minimum standards for meals and nutrient-based standards will be considered, of which I am also in favour. In the first instance, my Bill mentions food-based standards, with the aim of not having chips or deep-fried products on certain days. I welcome the aspiration, however, to move to a more scientifically driven, nutrient-based analysis, which is implicit in clause 7 in terms of nutritional standards and my recommendation that Ofsted should play a role in nutritional standards and measurement.
Legislation is needed at some point, partly due to the extended school days. At the moment, education legislation does not cover the new breakfast clubs, after-school activities and so on. There is a new opportunity to make progress on some of these ideas. I hope that some of those contained in the Bill will be embraced in that process. Indeed, that is the Bill's purpose.
Vending, which the Government have been looking at, is also addressed. The health White Paper showed that there was a demand among parents for a whole-school approach to healthy eating, including vending. It is refreshing to learn when we ask the public that they are in many respects ahead of the Government in pushing for such an approach.
My proposals are about not a nanny state, but a public duty of care. In my view, the public agree with me that any Government should protect our children in the school environment in which they are educated and prepared for life. School is not a social club where people can choose whether to learn or to loaf about, so nor should they be able to choose to consume untold amounts of unhealthy food. A regime should be in place through which they can learn about eating healthily—and, hopefully, they in turn pass on that knowledge to their children.
The Government have made other progress, but I will not refer to it all because if I did we would be here all day. However, I welcome the provision of free fruit or vegetables for four to six-year-olds who attend nursery. I hope that that will be extended because children need four or five portions of fruit or vegetables a day. According to one standard, at least one of the starchy foods—bread, potato, rice and pasta—should not be cooked in oil or fat. That is a fairly minimalist standard to adopt, but only 83 per cent. of schools deliver on it. In other words, the remaining 17 per cent. do not offer an option that is not completely immersed in fat or oil.
One of the Bill's innovations is the concept of unavailability. Instead of simply requiring that a certain amount of healthy food be available, it requires that certain foods shall not be available on certain days, especially deep-fat fried vegetables and the like. It prescribes that, in the first instance, two days be fat-free, but the head or board of governors of a school could choose to provide healthy meals for the entire week, as Jamie Oliver wants. I support that idea as well, but this provision is a more modest approach to meeting that ambition.
The Bill requires the unavailability of food low in nutritional standards for a minimum of two days, but as I said, that can be extended. Interestingly, the Health Committee found that many schools offered a cafeteria-style approach, and the Consumers Association said that the majority of school lunch menus read like a fast-food menu. That is cause for alarm and a reason to make certain types of food unavailable.
The aim is to improve food standards with a move towards a nutrient-standard approach. I hope that the Government will accept such a system by September 2006; currently, they are prepared to look at doing so. I commend what Jamie Oliver is doing. He wants all meals to be healthy, which is the ideal, but as the Opposition mentioned earlier, a problem arose in a school in Hull in that regard. It provided healthy meals free to everybody, but unfortunately the children and/or their parents boycotted them. They simply did not consume them and took lunchboxes to school instead. That underlines that we must be realistic in making the transition from unhealthy to healthy food.There is also the question of how tasty healthy foods are. My guess is that the healthy food in Hull was not cooked by Jamie Oliver and that it was not as attractive as it might have been. We need support in that regard.
I understand that, initially, Jamie Oliver experienced a problem with take-up of his healthy food—until it poured with rain. The kids could not be bothered to leave the school and to go to the local chip shop, so they ate his food. After that, the participation rate started to improve.
That brings me to another central feature of the Bill: the power of head teachers to stop children leaving school at lunchtime. Obviously, I cannot impose rain—even I cannot do that—but children could be gated. If parents and governors allowed it, the school could keep the children in, which would make more of them eat school meals and would spread the fixed costs over more meals so that more could be invested in catering facilities and training. The Local Authorities Catering Association and its head Neil Porter have been going on about the need for more investment to raise nutritional standards. I do not for a moment rule out more investment, but by keeping children in we would cover the overheads in time.
Such a move would also be welcomed by local communities, as antisocial behaviour often takes place outside schools at lunchtime. It should be encouraged by the Government and local authorities and embraced by schools. It would be up to individual governors and heads to deliver it, but I am sure that it would be supported by parents and local communities.
Jamie Oliver says that he is spending just 37p per school meal. The average investment is 45p. The largest private sector provider, Compass, tenders for only 55p. If we add labour costs of about 65p, a margin of about 8p and administrative costs of about 15p, we end up with a price of £1.30 or £1.40 per meal. If raising the food cost from 40p to 50p would make a massive difference to the nutrient content, that would be an investment worth making. Incidentally, public schools spend twice as much on ingredients. I am not saying we should necessarily do the same, but Mr. Oliver is clearly finding it difficult to deliver on 37p, so we should consider such action if we want better nutrition.
We have a long way to go. A number of local education authorities, including Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Kingston, do not even have facilities for preparing hot meals, which is disgraceful. We need more investment in training, equipment, eating space and better food. Local authorities that have "died" in terms of delivering any meals at all, let alone nutritious meals, may need support, but we should adopt a targeted approach rather than just saying, "Here's the money, chaps" and bailing them out. Over time, participation rates should pay for higher fixed costs.
I support the nutrition-based approach that is being considered for September 2006, and the Bill is consistent with that. I also support the children's food Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge, and I support what Jamie Oliver is aspiring to do—get junk food out of schools. As well as being consistent with those ideas, however, my Bill allows the gradual elimination of chips, although not necessarily an immediate ban in all schools, which could lead to boycotts and an exodus. It also provides for minimum standards accredited by Ofsted, so that parents know that those standards are being delivered rather than just seeing plates of food.
There has been a move towards power for parents and schools to choose to keep children in at lunchtime, and in some schools that is already happening. I think the Government should encourage it, although I realise that some schools will have limited space and a limited number of teachers available at lunchtime. However, we and parents should encourage that change. Local education authorities should facilitate it. Parents want it and we should encourage them to demand it.
The Secretary of State has pressed for greater parental control. I am all in favour of that. Under clause 7, Ofsted could provide parents with the objective reality of the nutritional standards being delivered at the school, so that they can put pressure on caterers to deliver better standards. Unless the parents have a clear measurement of nutritional standards in the Ofsted report, they cannot enforce better, healthier standards for their children.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. Many parents, myself included, would like to see higher standards of nutrition and healthy eating in schools, but does he agree that children, particularly if they can be attracted to the healthy eating habit, may expect higher standards of nutrition in the home? One of the problems is that, with too many parents, if they were handed a leek they would not know what to do with it. [Interruption.] Even though there are few Members in the House, I was sure that would provoke some interest. In educating schools and education authorities, we also need to educate parents as to the benefits of a healthy diet. A major task needs to be undertaken. I hope that that point will find some sympathy with my hon. Friend.
I agree—it is a key point. The delivery of nutritional standards at home is a central problem. Indeed, some parents call for the nutritional standards at home to be available in school. They think, "Why should Johnny not eat this pre-prepared convenience meal at school? That is what we eat at home." The question is, what should be done about that? My focus has been on delivering nutritious meals in school, but the Government should go further than that in their relationship with the parents. Now that Jamie Oliver has delivered this menu of nutritious meals at affordable prices, there are many opportunities for such menus to be available to everyday families, including mine and possibly my hon. Friend's.
A lot of families are on a budget and face time constraints. They think that the easiest thing to do is to bung the meal in the microwave. If they know that a tasty, nutritious and attractive meal within budget has been designed to be prepared on-site in a school and can be prepared in a limited time, say 20 minutes, they may want to offer that sort of menu option to their children and family over a period of weeks. There is hope. We can now begin to go to families to enable them to provide more nutrition, rather than to take the easy route of low cost, high salt, high fat and sugar impregnated convenience food. It is a great challenge and a central point. I agree with what has been said.
There is a role for the Government and schools to reach out in the community as well.That being said, this is not about a top-down nanny state—it is an empowerment of families, parents, pupils and governors to enable them to have the tools to deliver nutritional benefits which, down stream, will mean less obesity and fewer health problems associated with bad nutrients and bad meals.
The Secretary of State has announced the new school food trust, which is mentioned in the Bill. The idea of that is to provide independent support to schools and parents. It will comprise a collection of people from food industries, caterers and nutritionists. I agree that it is a valuable body to set up. The Bill, I hope, makes it clear that it should have some teeth. Clause 4 says that its purpose should be not just to provide advice, but to
"improve the standards of school meals."
There is an issue about delivery of standards, rather than hoping for the best. That organisation should be accountable and expected to deliver, alongside Ofsted, on school nutritional standards, with pressure coming from parents, too.
We have a duty to act to ensure that the changes that parents want take place. One of those relates to vending, which can be the Trojan horse that delivers products of bad nutritional value into schools. Obviously, many schools rely on vending machines—£10 million of revenue comes from them. A survey commissioned by The Guardian found that 70 per cent. of parents wanted vending machines taken out of schools. Vending is an important issue. The net calorific increase for children during the day is from in-between snacking, which is central to the problem.
Some vending can provide nutritious, tasty and healthy food. I spoke to the biggest non-branded vending caterer, Compass, which pointed out that its machines, which are healthy, would deliver as much revenue as branded and less healthy machines. In my view, nutritious products can be delivered through vending, but we should not have a free-for-all of chocolate, crisps and fizzy drinks impregnated with sugar freely available throughout the school day to our children. The Government have moved forward with the idea of best practice. The healthy schools programme will give accreditation to healthy schools, but not if the vending facilities are not appropriate. We can see how that goes, but we should ensure that there is no unhealthy vending in schools.
On the question of schools that provide breakfast, lunch and after-school meals—allowing parents to participate in the labour market—parents want an assurance that their children will be looked after under a regime of nutritious, healthy food, rather than what is provided now. That is why we need legislation to help to deliver nutritional standards. We await that and I hope that the Government will incorporate some of these ideas in that legislation. In the meantime, we must encourage and support parents in meeting the challenges and put pressure on schools to drive up participation in school meals and the nutritional standards thereof.
I have welcomed the changes that the Government have made so far in terms of exercise, the health White Paper and school meals. I am glad, like other hon. Members, to be part of that drive towards a healthy change. I believe fundamentally that we should keep our eye on the prize—that, over time, we can deliver better nutrition, health, behaviour, attainment and a better future for healthier children who live longer and achieve more. That is worth all our efforts. After all, Britain's future is our children's future; let us make that future a brighter and healthier future for all.
I congratulate Geraint Davies on his good fortune in gaining a high position in the ballot and on proposing this important debate and Bill. The Bill is laudable in its aims and Liberal Democrats would not oppose it at this stage, although we would like to see amendments tabled if it progresses. The subject is too often overlooked.
As a parent myself, I know that there is often a sense of frustration. We expect our children in school to receive the best quality education and the best quality food. Too often, as the hon. Gentleman said, one sees vending machines supplying some of the worst possible foods and clearly sub-standard food is provided in canteens—assuming the school has a canteen. He rightly pointed out that some schools cannot even serve hot food and I hope that the Minister will explain what is being done about that. We want schools and local education authorities to have autonomy to make their own decisions, but surely children in Britain in the 21st century should be able to look forward to hot, decent food.
Overall, the Bill is laudable, but I foresee complications in trying to stop children from going to certain places. I would have thought that legislation already provides powers to ensure that children do not stray off site without permission from their parents or teachers and unless they are supposed to be elsewhere. It is difficult during lunch breaks to specify where children should be. I would also be concerned if children were told to stay indoors at lunchtime because, as the hon. Gentleman said, we want them to take more exercise and to be involved in more sporting activities, so we want to encourage them to do other things.
The point is that, with the authorisation of the governors and the head, the children would be kept within the school perimeters during the lunchtime break. The idea is not to keep them indoors. Like the hon. Gentleman, I want exercise to be encouraged at lunchtime as part of a good health regime.
I am grateful for that clarification, but I stress that we must consider the matter in the round. The hon. Gentleman has been at the forefront of the campaign for better nutritional standards and it is to his great credit that what he is doing today and what he has previously done will, I hope, push it up the Government's agenda.
The standard of food available to children in schools is a postcode lottery. My two young sons attend a primary school in Shropshire and I sometimes wonder what they are being fed. Their meals cost £1.45 each with options that vary daily. I know that the catering staff do their level best with what is available, but the nutritional standards do not seem to be the highest. No doubt I shall receive letters after that comment, but I stand by it.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about vending machines, to which clause 5 refers. It is significant that large corporations can have great power and influence. I am thinking particularly of McDonald's because, only a few weeks ago, my 6-year-old was running around during football training wearing a jacket with the McDonald's logo on it. McDonald's had obviously sponsored the kit and, afterwards, my son, perhaps coincidentally, asked to go to McDonald's. I worry about such creeping influence in schools. They want more resources and extra income and may be forced to accept sponsorship and donations from companies that I deem not to be totally responsible nor the best sponsors because they may have an unfavourable influence over children, particularly concerning food and its nutritional standard.
Overall, the Bill is welcome and its principle is good. I may disagree with some aspects of it, but I hope that it will progress well.
I, too, congratulate Geraint Davies on the Bill and for giving us the opportunity to discuss an important subject. I suppose that I should declare an interest as someone who visibly likes good food.
My mother was a school meals organiser for the late-lamented Middlesex county council at the end of the war and immediately afterwards when there was a lot of deprivation and difficulty in ensuring that children received proper nutrition.
Peter Bradley made the important point that we need to foster a culture of good nutrition, not only at school but at home. I pay tribute to my wife who has worked hard so that our children now actually enjoy nutritious meals. That makes everything a lot easier.
As a parent, I am irritated when we go out somewhere to eat and the children's meals offered include some of the most ghastly options, such as chicken nuggets that have not seen a chicken for some years. We need to tackle the problem everywhere, and that is why it is difficult to achieve change only in schools. As other hon. Members have said, if it is only at school that nutritious meals are force-fed to children, they will be put off even more. Nor would that endear school to children.
The idea behind the Bill is to take one step at a time, and to do something rather than nothing. I could have introduced a Bill to ban chicken nuggets, but the idea is to take one step at a time—not to force feed anyone.
Well, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman in that I do not think that it is possible to legislate good intentions. I agree with the aspirations behind his Bill, but I have seen from other legislation that it is not always that easy just to say that things must be done.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Gillan mentioned earlier the problem of children going down the road from school to the fish and chip shop, and the same applies to the vending machines. If children cannot get chocolate out of the vending machines in schools, they could go to the shop down the road, although I accept that the hon. Gentleman would try to restrict children's ability to leave school to do that. I have some sympathy with that view, but I am not sure how easy it would be to put into practice.
I, too, welcome some of the initiatives by the Government, especially the free fruit and vegetables for four to six-year-olds. That has been used effectively in my constituency and, if possible, I would like to see the scheme widened. It is a question of getting the children used to such items, because some of them have not come across some of the fruits and vegetables before. I also welcome the initiatives on physical activity in schools, although more could be done. I know that the issue is being considered.
I have an example from my constituency of the problems involved. At Longmead primary school in West Drayton, the caterers decided to try to follow the guidance on introducing more nutritious food. Unfortunately they found that the children did not find the meals as appetising. Demand fell, and the caterers faced insolvency. The then chairman of governors of the school, Mr. Frank Manning, requested some help from the local education authority, because the school was very keen to increase the nutritional value of the meals. The LEA thought about it for a while and came up with an inflatable broccoli, which was its answer to promoting nutritional values. If we are to take such matters seriously, we need a serious commitment to help those who are trying to increase the nutritional value of school meals.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what follows from that is not that we cannot deliver nutritional standards, but that we face a challenge to provide tasty meals that children will eat? That is the very challenge being confronted by Jamie Oliver. Surely it should be our ambition to square that circle, if it can be done.
I would agree with that, but my problem—it is probably connected with cynicism—is that I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's Bill would achieve that because it is too prescriptive. In my seven or eight years in the House, I have seen many attempts to regulate people's lives through legislation. As in this case, the legislation may be well intentioned and have a desirable outcome, but it may not represent the best way forward. Conservative Members accept that there is a big problem with the nutritional value of school food and we are in favour of improving it. However, we believe that the best way to achieve that is to provide more money directly to schools and grant them the freedom to spend it themselves.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Geraint Davies on his presentation of the Bill. It deals with an issue that has, quite rightly, aroused considerable attention from the press and elsewhere. It is the fourth private Member's Bill related to school food in just over a year. On Wednesday, we saw the start of a new TV series on school dinners presented by a famous chef and I understand that dinner ladies play a major role in the series. I realise what an outstanding job they do because my mother was a school dinner lady when I was at school in the 1970s. The press have been hot on this story, producing articles with titles such as "Cool dinners", "Please, sir, can I have some more?" and "Junk the fatty school dinners". Clearly, it is a high-profile issue at the moment.
While I welcome the debate and the interest generated in this topic, I believe that the legislation is unnecessary. The Government have a good record in taking steps to deal with the problem and we will continue to take action on it. Our approach is based on wide consultation to establish consensus on the best way forward, rather than issuing central directives. We are empowering schools, pupils, parents and communities to lead the way forward from the bottom up according to local circumstances, rather than through a top-down approach that tries to make one size fit all.
What are the Government doing at the moment? In association with the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills has invested £2.5 million in the food in schools programme. In the recently published White Paper "Choosing Health: Making Healthier Choices Easier", we made a commitment to improve the food and drink available in schools. As part of the food in schools programme, we have been running healthy eating and drinking pilots to look at good practice in terms of the food available in schools outside of school meals, such as drinking water, and that supplied by tuck shops and cooking clubs. The results of the pilots will be available very soon.
In 2001, the Government set minimum nutritional standards for school lunches for first time in 20 years. We monitored standards in secondary schools last year and the results were poor. Even where healthy options were available, pupils were not making healthy choices, so we placed a duty on local education authorities to provide guidance for parents on catering standards.
To address those shortcomings, we announced a raft of measures. Our aim is to make every school a healthy school by 2009. In April, a new vocational qualification for school catering staff was introduced to help them promote and deliver healthy food. Like teachers and classroom assistants, high-status school cooks are a fundamental part of the whole school team.
By July this year, we will have provided more help for schools and LEAs in drawing up catering contracts to provide healthy school meals services and offer healthy food in vending machines, tuck shops and breakfast clubs. From September 2005, healthy eating is to be part of the Ofsted school inspection process. There will also be a revision of primary and secondary school meals standards—focused on reducing fat, salt and sugar and increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables—leading towards tougher minimum standards from September 2006. We are developing standards relating to processed foods used in school lunches, and they will be implemented this year. We shall also extend school lunch standards to cover all the food on school premises.
Mr. Marsden referred to hot food, but it is not necessarily more nutritious than cold food, and it is for LEAs to take the decision on the food supplied.
The Minister mentioned introducing a pilot on cooking in schools. Is he referring to teaching all youngsters in schools the skills required? I cannot cook for the life of me and never did cooking at school. It would be useful if skills were available to all children, irrespective of academic ability.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should spread cooking skills in schools. I did not have any great cooking skills then and still do not. I do not know whether his have improved since then.
The involvement of parents is important. They have a right to expect a good education for their child, but play a crucial role in that themselves. They must accept that they have responsibility for ensuring that a child behaves well and attends school, but parents can expect schools to promote healthy eating and living to complement what parents are increasingly emphasising at home. All that is part of increased parental involvement in ensuring the quality of everything that happens within the school gates. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said a couple of weeks ago, parents will be in the front line of a new drive to improve the quality of school dinners.
On improving quality, one area has not been touched on. Local procurement of fresh produce is terribly important, but the mire of Government regulation on procurement, a lot of which comes from the European Union, makes it incredibly difficult for many schools to buy locally the produce that they want rather than having to go through lots of ridiculous tendering processes. Will the Government do anything to cut that red tape, allowing schools actively to discriminate in favour of fresh local produce?
I understand that there are examples in various parts of the country where local food is brought in. There is a good one in Gloucestershire.
Parents are demanding healthier food throughout the school day, not only at lunchtime but at breakfast clubs and breaks. That means vending machines and tuck shops, and schools are responding by limiting consumption of high-sugar carbonated drinks and high-sugar snacks with high levels of additives. The development of the parents' website, the toolkit and the school fund trust will give more information and help persuade parents that they can make a difference. Good schools already look to involve their parents as much as possible. That is a two-way relationship: parents can help the schools to drive up food standards, which will make it easier to make sure that their children eat healthily at school.
The process has to be two-way. A health visitor told me that she would be delighted if some parents in one part of my constituency, where coronary heart disease and cancer are extraordinarily high, not least because of the lack of a balanced diet, would, once a week, buy just a packet of frozen peas from their local food store. That tells us the challenge that is before us. It is not just about parents demanding higher standards at school but about all of us trying through public education, Sure Start and other initiatives to build a culture in which there is a place for convenience food but the link is properly established between a balanced healthy diet, which will support local growers and producers and contribute to the health of local communities, both among children and their parents.
I completely agree. It is important to promote healthier eating throughout the community and that is a two-way process in terms of the involvement of parents in schools. In my own constituency, good projects have brought in parents, particularly from disadvantaged communities, to get good advice that has been used to achieve better and healthier eating.
In that context, parents can also benefit from increased support and guidance. Children are more likely to be aware of the importance of healthy eating and living if their parents are. One strand of food in schools will provide advice on healthier packed lunches. According to the Food Standards Agency, three quarters of an estimated 5.5 billion packed lunches brought to school every year fail to meet basic nutritional standards.
What, if anything, is my hon. Friend going to do about the school lunchbox problem? He said when he began that he was against my Bill because it is a top-down approach, yet I agree with everything that he has said. What I am saying seems to be consistent with what he is saying, so will he say specifically what in the Bill is a top-down approach with which he does not agree? The Ofsted approach, to enable parents to have the power to measure the success of schools and put pressure on them through, for example, gating and participation, should be encouraged now by the Government under existing legislation.
My hon. Friend pre-empts me. I shall refer to those specific points later.
Our new policies on children's centres and extended schools have provided scope for schools to take a lead in helping families with children to prepare and cook better. The number of growing and cooking clubs is increasing. Together with increased visits to city farms and the countryside, those clubs are making a huge contribution to helping children to understand better where food comes from and the benefits of fresh or locally sourced food.
We welcome the debate because we want to engage the wider community. The food industry, caterers, nutritionists and food interest groups can have a major role to play in setting up a new independent school fund trust. That would enable the industry to make a valuable contribution to improving food and drink provision in schools. Working together in that way, we can set the agenda. The trust will be in an ideal position to give independent advice and support to schools and parents to improve the standards of school meals.
Yesterday, we issued a consultation letter to the food industry, caterers, nutritionists and many others who can make a difference to school food. The letter covered many of the issues that I have just described, but it also asked for their views on the new charitable school fund trust. We want the trust to drive through reform with the help and support of a full range of stakeholders as part of the drive to emphasise the key importance of consultation as we work together to set the future agenda, and I want to spend a little time talking about the importance of that to pupils.
Taken together, the measures will ensure what we all want: a better meal and a better deal for school children. We are already building on what is there. Every four to six-year-old—nearly 2 million children—is eligible for a free portion of fruit or vegetables every school day. Current minimum nutrition standards in secondary schools ensure that at least two items from food groups such as fruit and vegetables, and sources of protein, are always available during lunch service. There is education on healthy living and eating during personal, social and health education, science and sport lessons. Sport is particularly important to the overall improvement of the health of young people and children. The Government have allocated some £1.5 billion to improve sport and PE in school.
The aim is that schools will offer healthier food to their pupils throughout the school day. Parents will play a bigger part in ensuring the highest standards for school meals. The food industry will be able to play its part in setting a healthy food agenda. All in all, pupils will be able to choose healthier food and have the support that they need to make the right choices. The aim must be for them to be able to do that at any time, inside or outside the school gates.
I now come to the specifics of why the Government will oppose the Bill. I welcome the debate and the interest that my hon. Friend Bill has generated. We feel that, although we should of course back a lot of the issues that he wants to raise, we cannot back the Bill and the Government are already doing quite a lot. We are already moving forward with improvements to school food and nutrition and, at this stage, we do not need unnecessary legislation to sustain that progress.
I want to give a number of reasons why we should oppose the Bill. First, we are already considering ways to educate children in healthy eating habits and to help every school ensure the highest nutritional standards for the food that it serves up. There is a lively debate about whether we should adopt nutritional standards based on food groups, as the Bill advocates, or standards based on nutrient intake, as advocated by the Caroline Walker Trust and the Scottish Executive. We have commissioned an expert group to advise us on the way forward—a way that is nutritionally robust, but also manageable for schools. We hope that Members will agree that that aspect of the Bill is premature, as the expert group will not report until the end of the year. When it does, we already have legislation that we can and will use to introduce tougher standards that schools are willing and able to implement.
Introducing legislation that puts the onus on the local education authorities to ensure minimal standards is not the way to go. Two of the principles of the new relationship with schools are that we reduce bureaucracy and encourage both independence and collaboration where required, because each school is best placed to make the most appropriate decisions for its pupils.
I note that the Bill envisages putting the school food trust on a statutory footing. In my view, that is unnecessary. We are drawing up the necessary legal documents at present and believe that the trust can operate effectively in the normal framework of charitable and company law.
We cannot persist with a culture in which a central directive tells schools everything that they can and cannot do, such as exactly what a vending machine can and cannot sell. One size does not fit all. We are committed to giving schools the flexibility, autonomy and support that they need to make the day-to-day decisions for themselves. They know the needs, interests and attitudes of their pupils and what needs to be done to secure the best education for every child. Our role must be to provide a framework, guidance and support that they need to make those decisions. I want to make it clear that we do not support the sale of food and drink in vending machines if it has a poor nutritional content, particularly if it is high in salt, fat and sugar.
We are producing guidance for schools through the food in schools programme and that will be available soon. I know that major suppliers of vending products and catering services are re-examining their approach to vending, in consultation with schools. The important thing is that schools take a holistic view of the full range of provision to ensure that vending sits comfortably with that broader policy.
It is up to schools to determine the lunchtime policy that works best for them. That is not a matter for legislation. Schools that require learners to remain on site at lunchtime and offer constructive activities and appropriate supervision during the lunch hour find that learning behaviour and attendance are better as a result. Supporters of the Bill have a valid point in that too many secondary school pupils are consuming unhealthy food purchased from premises around the school at lunchtime and we know that some pupils eligible for free school meals opt to do that rather than eat in school. But lunchtime management is up to individual head teachers, and heads must consider cover arrangements carefully to keep them in line with the school work force agreement.
Lunchtime activities can be part of extended services, which are essential to the drive to give every pupil the opportunity, provision and support to fulfil their potential and make the best choices for themselves in school and beyond. School leaders know best where they have the capacity and resources to offer high quality and enjoyable activities in a secure and stimulating environment.
I understand that we do not want to introduce unnecessary regulation, but given the patchy and sometimes appalling quality of food in schools, how will the Government monitor the situation with the aim of improving it nationwide, without incurring extra bureaucracy for individual schools?
I am not sure about that.
We have a healthy eating project together with the Department of Health, we have issued strict guidance to schools and we are working with them to ensure that those standards are reached. We also have the schools food trust. Those measures should help to achieve the major improvement that we want to bring about.
We must have a smarter accountability system, where intervention is in inverse proportion to success. A key component of that smarter accountability system is greater emphasis on self-assessment, getting schools themselves to identify the areas where they need to improve.
On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central, Ofsted inspections will be shorter and sharper. The new inspection regime that we are introducing will mean that Ofsted captures pupils' well-being and health in its reports. We are working out the detail and will announce in due course the approach that will be taken, but we are certain that it must be in the broader context of food in schools, not focused solely on school lunches. We cannot take unwanted bureaucracy away from schools with one hand, and give it back with the other.
We cannot rely on Ofsted alone. Children eat a meal at school each day. We need parents and schools together to ensure that there is good food every day and that food provision is kept under continuous review. After all, the school meal is only one aspect of provision and it is vital that we get vending, snacking policies and packed lunches right as well. Schools are accountable to parents. That is where real pressure can come from and we are empowering parents to exert that pressure.
We need to take action and we are already responding. We must maintain our confidence in our school leaders to make the right decisions. They are doing an excellent job. Heads and governors know what is best for their school. They see their pupils daily, know their backgrounds and are aware of local circumstances. We are giving them the appropriate framework, tools and support to make the necessary decisions. We have to remove unnecessary burdens, so that they have the time and space to make the key decisions that result in a good school. Unnecessary legislation makes everyone's job harder.
We are involving parents, because they have a key dual role to play, demanding and helping to provide high standards. We are engaging the food industry, because its experience and expertise can make a valuable and vital contribution. The result that we all want is to provide every child not just with the opportunity to eat well and live a healthy lifestyle, but with the support and self-knowledge to make healthy choices in school and for the rest of their life. I ask the House to oppose the Bill.