School Meals (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 20th June 2002.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 2:30 pm, 20th June 2002

I invite those members who are leaving the chamber to do so as quickly and quietly as possible. The debate is tight for time. We have motion S1M-3223, in the name of Tommy Sheridan, on the general principles of the School Meals (Scotland) Bill. I invite those members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now. I invite all members who are called to speak to do so as quickly as possible in the interests of allowing the participation of as many members as possible.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP 3:32 pm, 20th June 2002

The proposal now before the Parliament is to deliver a free, healthy and nutritious meal, including milk and water, to every child attending a local authority-managed school in Scotland. It is the most radical and potentially far-reaching anti-poverty and pro-health measure that the Parliament has discussed in its three-year history.

The School Meals (Scotland) Bill represents a significant, radical and visionary investment in the dietary health of all our children. It will eradicate once and for all the horrible stigma so visibly attached to our current free school meals service. Finland and Sweden are reaping the benefits of such an investment in relation to improved health and educational achievement.

The journey to today's debate has been long but very rewarding. Two years ago, the Child Poverty Action Group Scotland committed itself to sponsoring the measure: the delivery of a universal school meals service with high nutritional standards, which is designed to ensure that every child who lives in poverty receives at least one healthy meal per day. We have visited more than 20 schools in eight different local authority areas and organised more than 100 meetings.

The school meals service was butchered by the Thatcher Government, which was determined to destroy the ethos of collective provision and universal delivery, because it is associated with the ideology of socialism. Socialism is about many things, but the collective provision of essential services to all citizens lies at its heart. The School Meals (Scotland) Bill has generated huge support from many who are not socialists, but anyone who called himself or herself a socialist and votes against the bill is a hypocrite, a phoney or both.

We do not means test children to allow them access to schools. We do not means test children to allow them access to hospitals. We do not means test children to allow them access to libraries. It is a disgrace that we means test children in relation to school meals. From the age of five, we divide and label kids according to the income of their parents. The apologists for such divisive behaviour euphemistically call it targeting. Those who are able to think for themselves and who are not worried about their own political careers, are honest enough to call it what it is—means testing.

The CPAG has campaigned tenaciously for the bill. Danny Phillips, the group's policy director in Scotland, deserves appropriate recognition. Over recent weeks we have heard from new Labour MSPs about the shortcomings of the bill—how it will not end stigma or improve children's health, and how the continued use of means testing, under the guise of targeting, is the best approach.

Perhaps the supporters of the free school meals bill are isolated. Perhaps we should bow to the superior wisdom of the new Labour, Liberal and Tory benches. However, the current targeting is not just morally wrong, but practically inefficient. More than 120,000 poor Scottish children either do not qualify for or do not claim free school meals. Of those, 40,000 are in Glasgow. New Labour members from Glasgow who oppose the bill should be particularly ashamed.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

It is not the supporters of the free school meals bill who are isolated; it is the opponents. It is those who would willingly continue to condemn thousands of children to the stigma of the separate queues, the separate canteens, the different coloured tickets or the metal tokens, all of which are shameful badges of poverty. Instead of a radical and fundamental overhaul of the school meals service in Scotland to raise the nutritional content by law and deliver a healthy choice free to every child, the new Labour-Liberal Executive wants to offer platitudes and crumbs. The opponents of the free school meals bill are isolated and suffering from a severe lack of political vision.

"The bill can be seen as one practical way of addressing the scourge of child poverty ... There is little point in providing a free school meals service unless it is tasty, attractive and nutritious, but there is little benefit in enforcing such standards unless there is a mechanism of delivery which maximises the take up amongst children. That mechanism is universally free school meals. The free school meals bill is both visionary and achievable."

Those are the words of public health expert Dr David Player, the former director of the Health Education Board for Scotland and of the Health Education Council for England and Wales, a lifelong Labour party member who is disgusted at the Labour party's opposition to the bill.

Unison is the largest union in Scotland and its members currently deliver the free school meals service. They are 100 per cent behind the bill because it

"Tackles poverty and social exclusion ... Removes the stigma of free meals" and

"Establishes a child's right to a free, healthy and nutritious meal."

One Plus is the largest lone-parent organisation in the UK. Its support for the bill is based on working with low-income, lone-parent families and on research with parents and children. In its evidence it stated:

"One Plus supports free school meal provision for all children in Scotland ... We do so because it would end the poor-house stigma that those currently eligible feel, and also because we recognize the right of all children to be guaranteed at least one hot, nutritious meal a day."

NCH Scotland backs the bill because it believes it is visionary and practical. The British Medical Association has added its powerful voice in support of the free school meals bill:

"The British Medical Association is happy to support this bill which could have a considerable impact on public health by giving all children access to a health diet."

The teaching unions in Scotland—the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association—support the bill.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

The Scottish Low Pay Unit supports the bill. Shelter Scotland, the Scottish Local Government Forum Against Poverty, West Glasgow Against Poverty, Dundee Anti Poverty Forum, Edinburgh Community Food Initiative, Govan Law Centre, Irvine and District Poverty Action Group, Scottish Out of School Care Network, the Poverty Alliance, the Scottish Trades Union Congress youth committee, the Strathclyde After School Care Association, the UK Public Health Association and the STUC women's committee all support the bill. Indeed, the STUC women's committee presented a petition with 10,000 signatures from across Scotland in support of the bill.

The STUC discussed the bill at its conference in April and 47 trade union affiliates, with a combined membership of more than 625,000 Scottish workers, passed it unanimously. The STUC sees it as a way to

"improve child health and welfare in a holistic way. It will tackle poverty and social exclusion."

It went on to state that the principle of universality is essential.

Of course, not everyone is prepared to support the bill. The most recent organisations to sign up to it, only yesterday, were the church and nation committee of the Church of Scotland and Capability Scotland, which represents children with disabilities. However, Labour is not prepared to support the bill. Its contempt for the bill, and indeed for the parliamentary process itself, is now exposed for all to see in its own Labour party briefing for this debate.

New Labour's briefing for this debate reveals that new Labour decided to vote against the bill not yesterday, not last week, not last month, but last September. Labour decided to vote against the bill without hearing a shred of evidence. It decided to vote against the bill even before its own expert panel was established. It decided to vote against the bill even before hearing today's debate. That is why I refuse to give way to any Labour member in this debate. They have already made up their minds as far as the bill is concerned. [Applause.]

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Order. It is not appropriate for those in the public gallery to interrupt, to applaud or to call out in the course of debates. I ask those in the public gallery to respect the rule of this chamber that everyone is heard in silence. Mr Sheridan, you have a minute to conclude your speech.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I congratulate John McAllion and Alex Neil for the critical role that they have played in co-sponsoring the bill, and I thank Mike Dailly of the Govan Law Centre for writing it. I applaud the SNP and the Green party for backing the bill, and I thank Dennis Canavan, Donald Gorrie and Elaine Smith for their support. No Tory has backed the bill, but that is consistent with the Tories' opposition to collective provision and universality. They have lined up with new Labour to vote down the bill. Not so long ago, Labour would proudly have backed such an anti-poverty and pro-health measure as the School Meals (Scotland) Bill. Labour used to condemn Thatcher as the milk snatcher, but now it clings to the Thatcherite philosophy of means testing the children of Scotland.

The supporters of the bill see the annual cost of £174 million not as a burden but as an investment in the future health of our children. It represents less than 1 per cent of next year's £22,000 million budget. Is £1.60 per child in Scotland too much to ask? I ask members to listen to Dr David Player's powerful statement in support of the bill. He said:

"If the Parliament passes this bill, it will be a powerful statement of Scotland's confidence in its future and its determination to invest in our children. This is a chance our Parliament must not miss. We owe it to the health of our children and the future of our country."

I appeal to members to put the tackling of child poverty, stigma and poor diet before the instructions of their party bosses. This is a chance that our Parliament must not miss. We owe it to the health of our children and the future of our country.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the School Meals (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat 3:43 pm, 20th June 2002

I welcome the opportunity to debate the School Meals (Scotland) Bill this afternoon. I know that a great deal of hard work has already gone into it, not only by MSPs but by many others.

I sense that this afternoon's debate may not be totally consensual. In my view, however, there is a lot of common ground. We all want to improve the diet of children in Scotland, to ensure that every school meal is nutritious and well balanced, to increase the number of young people taking school meals and to take action to stamp out stigma. We all agree that the status quo is not good enough.

Scotland's health statistics too often make it the unhealthy person of Europe. That means that too many of our children are the unhealthy young people of Europe. To turn that around, we are taking action on more than one front. Two weeks ago, I helped Malcolm Chisholm to launch the report of the physical activity task force. The decline in physical activity among our young people, particularly from the age of nine or 10 and particularly among young girls, is alarming and has direct health consequences.

Improved nutrition is not simply about school lunches. The Scottish diet action plan is a far-reaching strategy to improve Scotland's diet and its main focus is on young people. A great deal of excellent work is being done to support breakfast clubs and provide fruit in schools, for example. We need to look at what works best. It is clear that diet is of central importance and school meals can play a vital role. Too often at present, the quality and quantity of school meals are inadequate.

Ministers' concerns on those matters led to the food in schools conference in May last year. In November, we announced an expert panel to consider the issue. An early copy of the expert panel's interim report was made available to MSPs and others on Tuesday. The report builds on the common ground that unites us. The expert panel and the bill aim to improve the health of Scotland's children by providing nutritional standards; identifying the need to provide milk and water in our schools; tackling the stigma that is attached to free school meals; and taking account of special dietary needs, whether medical, cultural or racial. We disagree not about ends but about means.

We need to find the best way of winning those benefits and that means judging how to invest to make the greatest improvements. That takes us to the core of the argument.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

The minister referred to finding the best way. Will he explain whether his objection to the way that was outlined by Tommy Sheridan is that, at £174 million per annum, it will cost too much money or that it is the wrong way to collect that money? I suggest to the minister that there is a simple way of doing that: the notional value of £1.60 could be put on each school meal that is provided and that could be reclaimed in tax from parents who can afford to pay it.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

Margo MacDonald suggests a novel scheme, which does not relate to the contents of the bill that we are discussing. However, we are always interested in considering new proposals.

The matter concerns judgment—that is the key to the right solution. The core of the argument and the reason that the Scottish ministers and the Education, Culture and Sport Committee recommend that the Parliament should not support the bill at stage 1 relate to the judgment that we want to focus resources to make certain that we do more to help children from the poorest families.

Around one in five children who are entitled to free school meals does not take them—that represents around 40,000 young people in Scotland, which is far too many. However, stigma is not the only reason, or even the main reason, why those young people turn their backs on free school meals. Research shows that the quality of food, the size of portions and the whole school meal experience are among the key factors. I say to Tommy Sheridan that, unless he seriously proposes compulsory universal provision with no pupil or parental choice, what he proposes would not reach all those pupils either.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

In the minister's evidence to the Education, Culture and Sport Committee, he said that there was no proof of any causal link between the take-up of school meals and whether they were universally available. Has the minister read the research by Dr David Player, which shows that in those parts of Sweden that have reverted to charges for school meals, uptake has fallen and the health of children has deteriorated? Will he study that evidence, as it provides proof that, despite his evidence, there is a clear correlation between the universality of free school meals and their impact on health?

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

I have little time left, but I am always prepared to consider research evidence. Indeed, the whole thrust of the Executive's approach is to consider what works best. I would be happy to consider any evidence.

It is the judgment of the Scottish ministers that the best way to move forward is to focus resources to make certain that we do more to help children from the poorest families. I am not going to argue against the principle of universality today. Some of the Parliament's most significant achievements—the abolition of tuition fees and the introduction of free personal care for the elderly, for example—have involved universal provision.

However, I intend to mention resources. Free school meals for all would cost roughly £170 million per year in extra revenue costs alone. We do not have that £170 million per year and if we did, I do not believe that many parents or pupils in Scotland's schools would want us to spend it all on free school meals above other health and education priorities. Most parents would want resources to be targeted on the children who need them most.

I accept that that is a judgment, but it is the sort of judgment that ministers and members of the Parliament must be honest and open about making. That is why I firmly believe that the expert panel's recommendations, which demand a fundamental overhaul of the current system of school meals, as well as targeted additional resources, offer the best way ahead.

The panel has made wide-ranging and substantial recommendations. I would like to thank its chairman, Michael O'Neill, and the other panel members for their hard work. The recommendations include: the introduction of Scottish nutritional standards for all school meals, which should be monitored locally and nationally; larger portion sizes; the provision of milk and water; the tackling of the problem of stigma through the use of technology and other initiatives; improvement in the presentation of school meals and the dining environment; and action to increase the uptake of all school meals. That represents a big agenda for action.

Scottish ministers welcome the report and have authorised the panel to proceed to consultation on the recommendations.

Photo of Nicol Stephen Nicol Stephen Liberal Democrat

No. I am about to close and I have already run over time.

We have already announced our commitment, through the modernising government fund, to a project for the development and use of smart cards in every local authority in Scotland. The initial application of the cards will be as young persons' cards and the use of smart cards for school meals across Scotland will become one of the development priorities. More needs to be done and, after consultation, ministers will consider the expert panel's final report in the autumn.

I finish with the simple pledge that ministers are determined to make radical improvements to school meals in Scotland. The bill's supporters have raised issues of major importance that the Scottish Executive and, I believe, the Parliament are determined to tackle, but the bill is not the way to do it.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 3:52 pm, 20th June 2002

We should say at the outset what the bill is about and what it is not about. It is about children's health, it is about eliminating poverty and it is about social progress in Scotland. It is not about the reputation of the Scottish Executive or Tommy Sheridan's wounded feelings. If we could take both of those out of the way, we might have a real debate.

I am sorry that Nicol Stephen is in the chamber not because I do not like him, but because members of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee know him as the minister for hopeless causes. Whenever there is a problem in the Executive or a difficulty to be overcome, he is the one who is sent out to bat.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Indeed, he is a Liberal Democrat and Liberal Democrats are, by definition, champions of hopeless causes and hopeless clauses.

The situation is serious. I am a member of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee, which considered the bill. I want to begin by paying tribute to members of that committee. I do not accept that there were closed minds on that committee, as Mr Sheridan claimed. There were issues to be discussed and considerable evidence was taken. The committee's eventual decision, from which I dissented, that the bill should not proceed was the wrong decision, but I do not attribute that to malice on the part of any member of the committee. We should make that clear at the outset.

The committee was presented with a badly flawed and badly drafted bill. The bill is not, as Mr Sheridan at times tried to make it during the committee's consideration of it, a battering ram for his views. It simply does not yet measure up to the standards of a piece of legislation that would require detailed implementation. I do not want to sound like Wittgenstein by just going in for linguistic analysis. However, the bill seeks to have a nutritious free meal served to all children in the middle of the day, but it fails to define nutrition, meals, children or free. The only binding definition that is to be found in the bill is of "the middle of the day". That means that if the bill were to be implemented, schools who served the meal one minute late would break the law. A bill that does that is a badly drafted bill. We should have had a better-drafted bill to debate in the Parliament.

No attempt was made to address some of the cost implications of the bill, a fact that was mentioned in all the evidence that was taken on the bill. The cost implications are there and they cannot be taken away by magic. The costs do not simply have revenue implications; capital implications are also involved. No one has talked about the capital implications, but people will realise, after thinking for even a moment on the subject, that it would be impossible to serve the number of meals that would be required in Scotland without very substantial changes to the infrastructure of Scotland's schools.

The Education, Culture and Sport Committee and the Health and Community Care Committee were presented with a bill that was difficult to take forward. I understand those who, at the end of the day, sympathetic as they are of the need to change Scotland's health and improve the health of its children, felt that they could not support the bill. However, my colleagues and I have reached a different decision. We have decided that it is possible to build on the bill to do some important things. I will list five of them, some of which are recommendations in the report that the Education, Culture and Sport Committee made to the Executive. We will need legislation to achieve them.

First, we need to do something about the provision of water and milk. Mr Sheridan has a strong point in that respect. His argument is that, when children cannot have access to free water in schools in the 21st century, we have to ask ourselves what sort of society we live in. Although some schools provide water, many do not. Secondly, the SNP has a long-standing policy of ensuring that fruit and berries are provided in schools. The policy is based on good practice elsewhere and it would be possible to build on it.

Thirdly, we are desperately in need of a definition of nutrition in schools. Scotland is vastly out of step with other European countries in failing to define nutrition. Fourthly, those who listened to "Good Morning Scotland" this morning would have heard that free school meals are provided in Finland partly because of the communal experience that they provide schools to sit down and eat together as a community. We can learn from that and it is something that we could put into legislation.

Finally, we could use the bill to ban some bad practices such as the reliance of schools on revenue from fizzy-drink machines to sponsor school cafeterias and canteens. I am sorry that the minister rejected that proposal on the radio this morning.

The bill could be used to move forward. The SNP has addressed the question in terms that are similar to those that the church and nation committee of the Church of Scotland addressed it. I assure the Presiding Officer that I am concluding on this point. The church—

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No. I am about to finish, otherwise I would take the member's point.

The church and nation committee wrote that it believes

"that the Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament is seeking laudable objectives and should be supported - and certainly it should be given the consideration that moving to Stage 2 would allow."

I ask the chamber to do just that. Let us do the job that Scotland sent us here to do. Let us consider in detail what we could do with the raw material of the bill. Let us move to stage 2. The SNP will support Mr Sheridan's motion in those terms.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative 3:58 pm, 20th June 2002

I congratulate Mr Sheridan on introducing the bill. I do not question his motives: I believe that he is sincere in seeking relief of poverty and trying to improve the nutrition of Scottish schoolchildren.

As some members may be able to guess, I enjoyed school meals. Despite my support for schoolchildren having good, nutritious school meals—or school dinners, as they are more appropriately called in Scotland—the Conservatives will not support Mr Sheridan's bill.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

It may not be a surprise, but our decision is the result of the evidence that has been taken. The Conservatives are not against universal benefits. Members in the chamber and those sitting in the public gallery will be well aware that the Conservative group in the Scottish Parliament has supported the introduction of universal benefits in Scotland and continues to do so. We reject the bill because it will not achieve its stated aims, and it will not do so because it is inherently patronising. This afternoon, I shall seek to explain why.

The bill sets out to ensure that Scotland's schoolchildren receive a nutritious meal that will be free of charge, to ensure universal take-up and the removal of stigma. On the basis of the evidence that the Education, Culture and Sport Committee has taken and the 20 or more visits that I have made to schools over the past three years, I believe that the balance of the argument is against the provision of free school meals.

As members have touched on finance, it is appropriate that I, too, should mention it. Although £175 million is no small amount, it would be worth spending if it enabled us to achieve our aims—but as well as current costs, there is a capital element to take into account.

It takes two sittings for McLaren High School, for example, which is under Stirling Council's control, to provide meals for only half the school. To provide everyone with a free meal, the school would have to double the time for sittings or enlarge the dining hall. In other words, either a capital cost would be incurred or the available learning time for schoolchildren at school would be affected. Moreover, if the time for break—which is now generally 40 minutes, not an hour—were extended, greater monitoring of school pupils would be required. That, too, would have cost implications.

There is a substantial lack of capacity in Scottish schools. Even if the mention of cost is thought flippant, we would need to work out how to apply the money if we committed ourselves to spending £175 million.

Although people are concerned about—and have made great play of—stigma, evidence of it is essentially hearsay. We received scant evidence about the form it takes and its prevalence. When the committee visited Leith Academy, we found that any stigma around school meals attached not to those who receive free meals, but to eating meals in general.

People have choices. Schoolchildren are customers; they are not just people who should be told what to do. They decide what to eat. If they do not want a particular meal, they will go elsewhere. One can take a horse to water, but one cannot make that horse drink. Despite the beautiful canteen and the nutritious food at Leith Academy, pupils choose to have chips and nothing else but grated cheese. Whether meals were free or not, the broccoli, spaghetti bolognese and salads were not touched.

The point is that children will make their own choices. Because of that, the application of additional costs and the state's intervention in order to provide free school meals will not meet the desired goal. As a result, I do not believe that the bill is worthy of support.

Photo of Cathy Peattie Cathy Peattie Labour 4:04 pm, 20th June 2002

I thank the bill's supporters for stimulating debate on this very important subject. I also want to thank organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group and Women's Scottish Trades Union Congress, which did so much to build support for action on school meals.

However, I disagree with the conclusion that has manifested itself in the bill and endorse the Education, Culture and Sport Committee's report. Approximately 20 per cent of school-age children in Scotland qualify for free school meals, but one in five do not take up the entitlement. In some areas, that figure rises to more than 50 per cent.

We need to tackle the problem of the stigma that is attached to free school meals, where it exists. There are other reasons why children do not take up free school meals: cultural and peer group pressure; poor quality of food and service; and overcrowding and queues. Notably, the uptake of free school meals is relatively high in primary schools and lower in secondary schools. Teenagers choose to go elsewhere. Even if free school meals were provided universally, many would still choose to go elsewhere, including those who currently refuse to take up their entitlement.

We must address choice and consider how we can improve nutritional standards—not just in school meals, but in all aspects of young people's diets. The status quo is not acceptable. The bill has started an important debate, but there are other means that are likely to be more successful in achieving the best from the resources that are available—for example breakfast clubs, making water free and readily available, providing access to milk and making cheap or free fruit available. The message from local authorities is clear: if more money is available, it should be spent on things to augment education and eating habits and to develop a whole-school approach to healthy eating. That should extend through new community schools in a cross-cutting approach, linking health services, local authorities and the voluntary sector and promoting healthy eating in the wider community.

The bill's objectives of improving nutrition and health are laudable. I want to see improvements in nutritional standards and the uptake of school meals, but the committee and I believe that the bill is not workable. It would be possible to pursue it—as Mike Russell said—and amend it at stage 2, but I do not believe that that would be the best way forward. The bill would not achieve what it seeks to achieve and it would probably be counterproductive. My fear is that the bill would undermine our ability to pursue other initiatives, which are embodied in the committee's recommendations. Free potable water should be available in all schools; free milk should be made available; the use of commercial soft drinks machines should be discouraged; the stigma of free school meals must be addressed and a system of adequately financed swipe cards should be investigated; nutritional standards should be set according to nutrient-based guidelines, rather than food group guidelines; and there should be robust monitoring of the system, including what the school meal consumers—the children themselves—think of the system.

Those recommendations are broadly in line with the interim recommendations of the expert panel on nutrition, which were published this week. The panel believes that the provision of milk is satisfactory, but the committee is asking it to re-examine that. We also want the expert panel to take account of our recommendations and we intend to scrutinise their progress and implementation.

Those recommendations are a better way forward. We should not let the simplistic appeal of free school meals get in the way of a more considered approach that is more likely to tackle the real problems that the bill's supporters say they are concerned about. If members really care, they will accept the conclusions of the report and reject the bill at this stage. That will allow us to get on with the job of tackling the problems that we all agree need to be addressed. [Interruption.]

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I remind members of the public that the rules governing their attendance here include a requirement that they respect their surroundings and behave in an orderly manner and that they are silent when proceedings are under way. I ask members of the public to respect our proceedings and allow the debate to continue.

We move to the open part of the debate. There are 24 minutes available and 12 members have requested to speak. I therefore apologise in advance. If members speak for three minutes, most of those who have asked to speak will be called.

Photo of Margaret Jamieson Margaret Jamieson Labour 4:09 pm, 20th June 2002

The debate on how young people can benefit from school meals is one to which I bring many years of experience. For a period in the 1970s, I was employed as a school meals cook in Irvine, Kilmarnock and Stewarton. For those who want to say it—yes, I was a dinner lady. I was therefore very interested when the Health and Community Care Committee, of which I am a member, took evidence as the secondary committee in the scrutiny of the bill.

The health of future generations is very important. Through the introduction of breakfast clubs and wrap-around care, we have an opportunity to provide different services to young people and their families. Community schools deliver a holistic approach to education and learning in an environment that encompasses health and well-being. The bill's pursuit of compulsory school meals bears no relationship to what we all want to achieve for young people: the opportunity to introduce them to foods that are nutritious and attractive, and that provide them with a basis for healthy eating in the future.

Our nursery schools have embraced healthy eating by using their snack time to develop the taste buds of the very young. Experimenting with taste and texture is part of those children's education. As many mothers will testify, children's expressions when they first encounter new foods can be a source of much pleasure. Such experimentation will provide the basis for building a healthier population, by establishing dietary behaviours for the future. Specific targeting achieves better results in the long term. A free school meal would provide only 12 per cent of a child's daily food intake: it would not provide the basis for changing habits.

The Health and Community Care Committee did not receive any evidence in support of the principles of the bill from public health and medical professionals. Ian Young of the Health Education Board for Scotland stated that there is no evidence that the universal provision of free school meals has a benefit to health. Gillian Kynoch stated:

"School meals ... have great potential to put into children's diets foods that are not present, or not present in adequate quantities. I refer specifically to fruit and vegetables."

She also said:

"school meals are the weakest link in that whole-school-day approach. ... sorting out school meals is a high priority of the Scottish Executive."—[Official Report, Health and Community Care Committee, 8 May 2002; c 2660-61.]

Labour members are serious in their desire to improve the health of Scotland. We have the opportunity to build on the initiatives that are already under way by investing in the recommendations that are made in the interim report of the expert panel on school meals. The scatter-gun approach that Mr Sheridan has taken in the bill would not allow us to do that.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party 4:12 pm, 20th June 2002

I am happy to speak in support of the bill. I do so as someone who was initially sceptical about it, because of the concerns that Mike Russell has articulated and because I had doubts that the bill would be anything other than a subsidy for the better-off. However, during several weeks of evidence to the Health and Community Care Committee—unlike Margaret Jamieson, I listened to all the evidence that the committee received—I was persuaded that the principles that underlie the bill are worthy of support.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Not at the moment—my time is limited.

We should not kill off the bill today, for three reasons. First, considerable stigma is still associated with the current system of free school meals. Believe it or not, some schools still operate systems that segregate children who are entitled to free school meals from children who are not. Others are more enlightened and have introduced advances such as swipe cards. However, the Health and Community Care Committee heard evidence that there is a cash limit on the cards of children who receive free school meals, so they can afford to buy only certain things while their friends have an unlimited choice. As we heard from young people who gave evidence to the Health and Community Care Committee, stigma is the biggest single reason that so many people who are currently entitled to free school meals do not take up that entitlement.

The second reason is very compelling. In Scotland today, 100,000 children whose parents are at work but on very low incomes are not entitled to free school meals. In many cases, the cost of meals is prohibitive for those families.

Finally, whether we like it or not, bad diet is a fact of Scottish life. People living in poverty do not have a choice—healthy food is often not affordable. However, many people who can afford the healthy option—including many in this chamber—choose not to take it.

If we are to change our culture, we must start with young people. If the Scottish Parliament were to give every child in Scotland access to a nutritious meal every day, regardless of ability to pay, that would be a statement of intent by the Parliament that it is serious about improving the health of tomorrow's generation. That approach has delivered some success in other countries.

As Mike Russell ably pointed out, the bill is far from perfect. It is not well drafted and it does not contain key definitions. For example, it does not define "nutritious".

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I am in my last minute.

We all know that unless the food that is delivered in schools is nutritious, of good quality and attractive to children, making food free will be pointless.

The defects in the bill can be rectified, if given a chance, at stage 2. Those defects are not reasons for rejecting the principle that underlies the bill—free universal access for all children to nutritious food every day. In 21st century Scotland, we should do more than aspire to that principle. In the Parliament, we should take steps to ensure that it is delivered.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour 4:16 pm, 20th June 2002

Like many members in the chamber, I have considerable sympathy with the aims of the bill. Tackling poverty, reducing the stigma that is associated with free school meals and improving nutritional standards are all principles that I support. The fundamental problem that the Education, Culture and Sport Committee had with the bill is not whether we agree about where we want to get to—we agree about that—but whether the bill is the best way of getting there. I will give practical and philosophical reasons for that view.

I paraphrase Aneurin Bevan, who once said that socialism is the language of priorities. Tackling poverty, and child poverty in particular, is a priority for the Parliament, the Executive and the First Minister. We know that a clear, causal link exists between poverty and ill health and that it can affect children's life chances and opportunities. The question, therefore, is whether we should target resources at those who are in most need, or whether we should spread the jam thinly.

The estimated cost of £174 million simply covers the cost of extending the existing school meals service to all children. It does not cover improvements to nutritional standards, so it would not make a significant difference to the health of our poorest children. The bill would simply extend a patchy, and sometimes bad, service to all children. Not one penny of that £174 million would go to those who are in receipt of free school meals and not one child in those circumstances would directly benefit. Is that really what we want? I believe that if we target the poorest, most disadvantaged children, we will achieve the best results in improving health and tackling poverty.

The committee heard, and received, substantial evidence on the bill. Although we did not agree that the bill should proceed to stage 2, we do not find the status quo acceptable. The committee highlighted several recommendations: nutritional standards should be improved for all our children; free milk should be reintroduced, particularly for our youngest children; the stigma of free school meals should be tackled; and drinking water should be made readily available. Those recommendations will, if taken together, make a difference to the nutrition of our young people.

The committee felt that the bill fails to address a number of practical problems. As I am running out of time, I will mention only one—the behaviour of children. The children to whom we spoke, and to whom others who support the bill spoke, tell us that they do not take school meals for a variety of reasons, such as long queues, the environment in which meals are taken, the attractiveness of the meals and the choice of foods.

I recall a conversation that I had with a schoolchild in Edinburgh. She said that she liked the idea of free school meals and that the Parliament should support free school meals, but when I asked her whether she would take free school meals her response was, "No way. I hate staying in school at lunch time." We may share the intentions behind the bill, but we do not agree about the way in which they should be achieved. If we want to tackle poverty—which is what the bill seeks to do—we must target our resources more effectively at those who are in most need.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 4:19 pm, 20th June 2002

I will first take up what Brian Monteith said about there being no evidence on the issue of stigma. That might be the case in Fettes College and George Heriot's School, but it is not the case throughout the education system. I suggest that Brian Monteith, before he speaks as an education spokesman—

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

No, sit down Mr Monteith. I have only three minutes.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Mr Monteith should read the bill's policy memorandum, which contains the research evidence from the education department that proves without any question that there is indeed major stigma relating to the current system of administration of school meals.

Secondly, I want to correct a word that I am sure that Margaret Jamieson used inadvertently. She described the bill as introducing "compulsory" school meals. They would not be compulsory. They would be free and it would be up to each child whether they wanted to accept the free school meal.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

Unfortunately, I have only three minutes.

Can I say also that the word "cost" has been used a lot. It is estimated, not by Tommy Sheridan, Alex Neil or John McAllion but by the Executive, that the cost of providing universal free school meals would be £174 million a year. The Education, Culture and Sport Committee made the point that that figure does not include capital costs. That is a fair point, but it would cost £23 million to introduce swipe-card technology. That money could be better spent on bigger and better school kitchens and bigger and better school dining facilities for children.

On the claim that there is no money to fund universal free school meals, the Executive last year had an end-of-year surplus of around £700 million—the money is there. Angus MacKay said at a press conference that there would be a surplus the following year of £1 billion. We have just had an additional windfall tax from oil of £7 billion. Why not use some of that money for the children of Scotland?

In any case, "cost" is the wrong word. The School Meals (Scotland) Bill represents an investment in the future. The Scottish Parliament information centre and others have published research that shows that the cost of obesity to the health system in Scotland is £150 million a year. If we introduce nutritious free school meals, as Scandinavian countries have done, we will make a major saving, reduce the level of obesity and, for those who are worried about the money, reduce the cost of obesity to the health service.

I must make my final point now. Unfortunately, three minutes is a nonsense for a debate of this kind. It is no wonder that Parliament's reputation is so poor outside.

Instead of worrying about stupid things such as high hedges bills, we should pass the School Meals (Scotland) Bill to prove that Parliament can begin to realise the dreams and expectations of the people of Scotland, who supported the creation of Parliament.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 4:23 pm, 20th June 2002

I will begin by addressing the shameful slur on colleagues that was made by Nicola Sturgeon. I testify to the fact that Nicola Sturgeon was not present to listen to all the evidence that was given to the Health and Community Care Committee. In fact, she was not present, to some extent, to hear the evidence of the bill's supporters. Unlike Ms Sturgeon today—she has left the chamber—and during the Health and Community Care Committee's evidence-taking sessions, the deputy convener of the committee was present throughout all the evidence. I do not think that any of us achieve anything by having a pot shot at colleagues.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I have just taken the opportunity to address what is a downright lie.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

As the secondary committee, the Health and Community Care Committee considered whether there was evidence that the implementation of universal free school meals would lead to health benefits. The Health Education Board for Scotland, the Public Health Institute of Scotland, the Food Standards Agency and others told us that there was no available research evidence that linked universal free school meals with improved health outcomes.

We heard from supporters of the bill of anecdotal evidence from Finland and other Scandinavian countries that health had improved there partly as a result of a free school meals component but that there had been improvements in overall health from several different health-improvement schemes. Indeed, Dr Player says in the report "The case for the School Meals (Scotland) Bill":

"No one would suggest that this is due entirely to free school meals. However, the health committee, in trying to get evidence on whether or not uptake would be increased by free school meals or indeed whether or not this was an effective health intervention policy, found that there was a paucity of evidence."

Partly as a result of that, the committee said that we would welcome a pilot scheme to look specifically at the evidence, which we believe to be lacking. On balance, we believe that the bill would result in an increase in uptake and, despite some of the evidence that we took, that it would be a positive health intervention. However, we also believe that many of the aspects that have been raised by members today, such as time constraints, individual choice and the quality of the eating environment and the food, would have a large part to play in uptake.

We agreed that there was a need to tackle obesity, which is a universal problem.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

No, I have to make progress.

We must bring in nutritional standards and monitor them. That is why we welcome the Executive's "Hungry for Success" interim report.

The committee is strongly opposed to the siting of vending machines selling fizzy drinks in schools and we make a plea for consistency from the Executive if we are to have an effective whole-school approach.

We were deeply angered by the evidence given by One Plus and others that demonstrated that, in this day and age, Scottish schools still operate systems that perpetuate stigma and have different canteens for people who are getting free school meals. That is totally unacceptable and repugnant to the committee.

We believe that, if the nutritional standards outlined in the expert panel's report become a reality in the next two years, that will go a long way towards increasing the uptake of school meals and will represent only part of a substantial overhaul of the school meals system, which we would welcome.

I call on the minister to think carefully about the Health and Community Care Committee's pilot scheme recommendation. Some people—not necessarily all of whom were in favour of the bill as it stood—told us that, particularly in primary schools, evidence of the sort that could be gathered by the pilot schemes could teach us something if we could get our hands on it, which we patently did not when we took evidence on this bill.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour 4:27 pm, 20th June 2002

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this serious debate.

It has been suggested that MSPs are lacking in courage and have been bullied by their party bosses. Sometimes, however, courage is about taking on the hard debates and looking beyond what are apparently easy answers. I tell Mr Sheridan that I am not intimidated by my party bosses and I will not be intimidated by the party boss of the SSP either.

This is a complex debate and those who support the bill do not have a monopoly of concern for young people—indeed, it is deeply insulting to suggest that that is the case.

We need to examine the issues of nutritional standards, the grounds on which people qualify for free school meals and what can be bought with free school meals tickets. That does not mean that we have to support the bill. The supporters of the bill have consistently conflated two separate issues: nutritious meals and the fostering of good eating habits; and the universal provision of nutritious food. The result is that the debate collapses into a position that states that, in order to provide nutritious meals, they have to be free and that those who do not support the universal provision of free school meals wish to deny children the right to improved nutrition. That is a false and unhelpful characterisation.

We are talking about significant costs. As a mother and an ex-school teacher, I believe that, even if we had an unlimited budget, I would always be able to argue that other areas of expenditure relating to schools and communities and the links between home and school have more of an impact on health, social inclusion and the range of issues that make school an unhappy place for too many of our children than school meals do. A conservative estimate of the cost of the proposal is £174 million, which would pay for about 6,000 teachers and not one brown penny of it would go to children who already get free school meals. It seems perverse to propose to direct that money away from the poorer areas of Glasgow and towards the better-off Glaswegians and away from the unhealthiest city in Scotland towards the healthier areas in Scotland.

The bill is predicated on universality, which is what the SNP must confront. In my 20 years in teaching—10 years of which were spent with some of the most marginalised, vulnerable and often ridiculed children—I heard children speaking frankly about their problems but was never told by a child that they did not come to school because they would get a free school dinner.

I accept that stigma might still be a problem. Many of my ex-pupils had to deal with differences that made life difficult for them and, along with supportive adults, strove to disguise those difficulties. However, the stigma of free school meals is easy to address and eradicate through swipe cards, through strict rules for staff strictly enforced and through considering what the value of a free school meal will buy. I do not accept that the level of funding that is proposed to go to the better off should be allocated to address a problem that, where it exists, can so easily be sorted.

There are those who, in seeking to present free school meals as a universal benefit, disregard the fact that they are not a universal need. I know that to my cost, as my own daughter will not eat a school meal. If I get £500 a year to give her a school meal, she will still not take it. Therefore, the bill will not address the question of stigma for her classmates and for her school.

We need to examine children's eating habits and choices. We should not ignore the fact that many families and children cannot cope with sitting in a dining room, which is often a place where bullying goes on.

It is possible to address nutritional standards and to consider thresholds for qualification and what can be brought about through that. It is also possible to allocate moneys to address the need to develop a school ethos according to which children are not stigmatised because of their family circumstances, proper home-school links are developed and youngsters are challenged to be more welcoming and open in their attitude to their schoolmates.

I urge members not to support the bill, but to carry on the fight to ensure that nutritional standards and the non-stigmatisation of children in our schools are priorities in the Parliament and elsewhere.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I call Elaine Smith and ask her to be brief so that I can also fit in a brief contribution from Mary Scanlon.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour 4:31 pm, 20th June 2002

We are debating a co-sponsored member's bill that has cross-party support. The ownership of it and responsibility for its future now lie with every MSP. The proposal to provide universal free nutritious school meals has attracted immense support throughout civic Scotland and from the wider Labour and trade union movement. Just this week, it has been supported in a report by Dr David Player. Unfortunately, the lead committee failed to recommend that the bill proceed to stage 2.

Some of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee's conclusions are questionable, for a number of reasons. One is that the Health and Community Care Committee, which fed in evidence to the process, concluded in its report that it

"would welcome a pilot scheme".

However, the Education, Culture and Sport Committee did not take that up in its recommendations. Neither the Health and Community Care Committee nor the Education, Culture and Sport Committee took formal oral evidence from children and young people. I think that natural justice should dictate that the bill must proceed to stage 2 to ensure that our children are heard on an issue that directly affects their rights as individual, valued members of our society.

The Education, Culture and Sport Committee's report also contains contradictions, although I do not have time to go into those. Of the witnesses who did not support the bill, two withdrew statements and one was supposedly representing Glasgow City Council. However, the council took a view on the matter only on 6 June. The council said that it was open to debate on the principle of free school meals. Its evidence could be crucial, given that it operates universal free breakfast clubs and the universal free provision of fruit. Unfortunately, if the bill is voted down today, the council will not be able to engage in the debate.

The Education, Culture and Sport Committee stated that there was no consensus as to whether the general principles of the bill should be supported, so how on earth could it recommend against it? The arguments in favour of the bill are decisive. The arguments against are centred around resources and an underlying move away from the socialist principle of universality to the new terminology of "targeting", which is designed to disguise what it really is: means testing.

Even if members believe that means testing is fundamentally right, they are only benefiting the poorest of the poor. Universal benefits that have been introduced in the Parliament include free nursery places and free personal care for the elderly. Why is giving universal free nursery places to better-off families and free personal care to better-off pensioners—which is paid for from taxation—okay, whereas investing in the future health and well-being of children via universal free school meals is not?

The universal provision of free school meals would take less than 1 per cent of the budget. We heard a statement today about the purchase of the Health Care International hospital, which is to be paid for out of end-year flexibility. I think that we can afford the bill. As a society, we should be collectively investing in our future, which is our children.

I finish with a quote from Dr David Player. He stated:

"We can afford to fund free school meals for every child. Millions of pounds could be saved every year by a healthier working population, which has benefited from healthy free school meals in the formative years. Universal benefits such as school meals for all are cost effective to administer. The cost in sickness and early death through bad diet is too high."

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative 4:34 pm, 20th June 2002

We can all agree that children should receive a nutritious meal, and we can all support the elimination of stigma. I am sure that we would all agree with the conventional wisdom that nutritious meals undoubtedly yield health benefits.

The point is that school meals are not always nutritious. The stigma associated with free schools meals that children experience could be overcome quite easily with better management of the system.

In evidence from the Public Health Institute of Scotland, we heard that there was no evidence that the universal provision of free school meals will benefit health. In their submissions to the Health and Community Care Committee, Glasgow City Council and Angus Council were not in favour of the bill. A survey from One Plus on why children do not take school meals found that 5 per cent of children go to the shops, 14 per cent go home, 30 per cent like packed lunches, 33 per cent dislike school meals and 16 per cent cannot afford them. Given the fact that 16 per cent of children said that their choice was related to cost, we may conclude that only 16 per cent may benefit from free school meals.

We welcome the underlying principles and the key and guiding recommendations of the expert panel. We welcome particularly the setting out of Scottish nutritional standards. We would welcome also the monitoring and implementation of those standards and the maximisation of anonymity for recipients of free school meals. It is also within the guidelines that schools should not overtly promote food or drink with a high fat and sugar content. We welcome the refurbishment of dining rooms and other recommendations.

Is it not sad that money has been spent to allow an expert panel to make recommendations with which we all agree, when all that was needed was for the Executive to heed the publication "Eating for Health: a Diet Action Plan for Scotland", which the then health minister, Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, issued in 1996? After five years of Labour, we have recommendations that that document contained six years ago.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Is it in order for Mary Scanlon to say that Glasgow City Council did not support the bill, when I have its minutes here, which outline what I said earlier on?

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

That is a matter of political dispute, not a matter for the Presiding Officer.

We come to the closing speeches. I apologise to the five members who wanted to speak but whom I did not call.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat 4:37 pm, 20th June 2002

The bill has focused attention on important issues that have been on the agenda in any case, but which have now been given more prominence. It is important that we are considering the bill in a week in which we have been discussing the report of the physical activity task force and have debated sport in schools and in which we now see the interim report of the expert group on school meals. Nicol Stephen listed other initiatives that have been introduced. In the education debate, we are asking ourselves whether we are doing properly for youngsters what we should be doing in our schools.

The bill, together with those other areas of discussion, deals with some of the biggest issues that we face. Those include huge health issues such as nutrition and the importance of exercise and issues of poverty, equal opportunities and social inclusion. There is no doubt that the sponsors of the bill have made us think and have helped us to see more clearly the pivotal role that the provision of food in schools can play in the shaping of our children's future.

We have to decide today whether we support the principles of the bill. Several principles are involved. The first aims to secure high nutritional standards and to increase the uptake of school meals. We support that and we welcome the report of the task force, which seems to advance that case.

A second strand of the bill asks us to examine the criteria for eligibility for free school meals. Further discussion of that might well be valuable and, although it might touch on reserved matters, there is a debate to be had about eligibility.

Thirdly, the bill seeks to work against the stigma that is attached to the uptake of free school meals. In the Education, Culture and Sport Committee we agreed unanimously that that must be attacked strongly by whatever means available, including smart cards. As the expert panel report outlined, there must be determined efforts on the part of local authorities to be much more sensitive to the problems that are associated with unsubtle and insensitive methods of issuing tickets or vouchers for free school meals to youngsters.

We come to the principle of universality. The committee has made recommendations on the free availability of drinking water and milk throughout the school day. However, we felt unable to go along with the proposals to give free meals to all school pupils in all local authority schools in Scotland. We fear that such a provision might be wasteful. We suspect that it might be ineffective in securing a proportionate uptake of free school meals, although it would result in some uptake. We feel that it would not provide best value for the amount of money that it would take to implement in both capital and revenue terms. The capital part is hugely important.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

I am sorry, but I do not have much time.

I am not against universal provision in service areas of this sort, but my view of this particular proposal is coloured by personal experience. I remember taking youngsters away on school trips and all of them being given free packed lunches. They used to open those lunches, not look at them properly, take the chicken leg and the cheese and then throw away the fruit. Every day we had to take piles and piles of fruit and bread back to the centre that we were working from. Such systems are not good value for money; they do not work.

I also remember, as a principal teacher of English, getting about £10 per pupil per year to run the English department; the bill would give £300 per year to people who can afford to pay for their school meals. The balance is wrong. The bill is not the only way to do things, and it is not the best way of using that amount of money.

Mike Russell's position seems to me to be dancing on the head of a pin. He is willing to skirt around the principle of universality, saying that we can tweak it later. If we all vote for the bill today, we will have accepted the principle of universality. Any later tweaking would be against the principles of the bill that we had passed. I do not believe that we can go in that direction. I will close with that—[Interruption.]

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Order. People have been warned before that we will not have interventions from the public gallery. That is not allowed under our rules.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 4:41 pm, 20th June 2002

Scottish Conservatives oppose this bill—not because we do not think that it is well-intentioned or because we think that the motivation behind it is anything other than genuine, but because we do not feel that providing free school meals to all pupils is the way to achieve the desired results.

I want to deal with the question of stigma. I have to correct Alex Neil, who would not take an intervention from Brian Monteith. Brian Monteith did not say that there was no evidence of stigma, but that there was scant evidence of stigma. Even if we—

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

No, thank you. Alex Neil had the chance to make a point and he got it wrong. Will he please sit down?

Even if we acknowledge the point that stigma can be attached to receiving free school meals, that can be dealt with by the use of swipe cards, as a number of members have said. A similar system operated when I was at school. Every Monday, we went to collect our dinner tickets at the school office. Only the school office knew whether we paid for them or got them free. Swipe cards are simply an update of that system.

In written evidence, SNP-controlled Angus Council said:

"Whether it is necessary to provide free school meals for all pupils in order to remove that possible stigma is highly debatable."

Many schools do not have the capacity to offer free school meals for all; there would not be the space in the canteens. There would be huge capital costs and horrendous queues that would put people off. I took school meals for many years, but I eventually gave up because I was fed up queuing for 25 minutes and seeing my whole lunch time taken up. Others around me had eaten their packed lunch before I had even sat down. The prospect of queuing will not make school meals attractive to pupils, which is the whole object.

It is all very well providing nutritious meals free, but what guarantee is there that kids will eat them? Near my office in Blairgowrie, I often see kids from the high school out and about at lunch time. The school canteen provides very affordable nutritious meals but, even so, the most popular destination at lunch time is the chippy and the most popular meals are chips on a roll, chips and cheese or chips and curry sauce, all with a can of juice. That is hardly a healthy option, but do the sponsors of the bill really think that, if they provide school meals free, all kids will eat them?

At lunch time, I met a party of kids from St Margaret's Primary School in Dunfermline and we talked about this debate. I asked them whether, if fruit were provided free at school, they would eat it. The answer was no. You can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink. We can provide free school meals, but how many kids will eat them? I suspect that the majority of kids would still get pocket money from their parents and go to the local takeaway or chippy, where they can buy the food that they like. Throughout this debate, we have heard from members that their own kids will not eat school meals.

The only way in which the plan would work would be if kids were forced to stay on the school premises at lunch time and were banned from bringing in any food with them. I do not see the sponsors of the bill proposing that—although, interestingly enough, independent boarding schools have that option.

The evidence from SNP-controlled Angus Council was against providing free school meals. I suggest that SNP members listen to Angus Council. It is far better to provide school meals in a competitive environment, in which pupils have choice, than in a monopolistic system where all are driven down the same road.

The Conservatives are committed to improving the health and social well-being of Scotland's young people. However, we seriously doubt that the bill will achieve those objectives. We agree with the findings of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee that providing a universal service is not the best use of limited resources. For the reasons that my colleagues and I have set out, we will not support the bill.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party 4:45 pm, 20th June 2002

For the record, the Health and Community Care Committee took evidence on 8 May and 15 May. Both Nicola Sturgeon and I were present for all the oral evidence during those meetings. Perhaps the convener of the Health and Community Care Committee would like to take the opportunity to withdraw her remarks.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I will not withdraw the remark, because I know for a fact that Nicola Sturgeon was not in her seat on that occasion.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I remember thinking at the time that she had been away long enough to send a press release. That is what I thought that she was doing—[ Interruption. ]

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

Perhaps Margaret Smith should check the Official Report before making such comments in the chamber. I have the Official Report here and it says that Nicola Sturgeon and I were present for all that evidence.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

On a point of order. As far as I am aware, the minutes of any meeting simply say that someone was present at a meeting. I did not say that Nicola Sturgeon was not present at the meeting. I said that Nicola Sturgeon was not there to hear all the evidence that was given. That is not the same thing.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I was there actually, apart from going to the toilet once. I did not say—[ Interruption. ]

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Order. I do not regard that as a point of order. I suggest that Ms Robison continues and talks to the substance of the issue that is before the Parliament.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

Unlike some, Nicola Sturgeon and I took on board the evidence that we heard. We did not make up our minds before hearing the evidence. Like many others, I was not totally convinced at first and needed to be persuaded. The weight of evidence that was presented to the Health and Community Care Committee has persuaded me to support the bill at stage 1, despite the reservations that I share with Michael Russell.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

No.

Nineteen organisations support the bill and the Health and Community Care Committee heard from several of them. For example, One Plus gave persuasive evidence about the stigma surrounding free school meals. Are we really to believe that all those organisations that gave evidence are wrong and that the Executive is right? That is not credible. Even those who gave evidence against the bill agreed, when pressed, that free school meals would have a health benefit. The question was whether that health benefit was proportionate to the cost. That is important, because if we accept that there would be a health benefit, the debate is about not the benefit, but whether it would be proportionate to the cost. That is a different matter, because it means that we must estimate how to put a value on our children's health. Perhaps we should have heard more about that this afternoon. How do we put a value on our children's health?

We all agree that Scotland's health record is appalling. We need look only at the rising levels of childhood obesity and diabetes—current estimates are that the rate of obesity could double by 2030. If we all accept that the diet of our children is appalling, we must prepare for the repercussions of heart disease and cancer in later life.

How do we change our appalling health record? We need to change eating habits fundamentally. The report by David Player studies the experience of Sweden and Finland, which had the same dietary and health problems as Scotland. He says that the provision of free school meals

"has provided an ideal vehicle for educating the Scandinavian palate in favour of healthy eating."

That is important, because we need to educate our children's palates away from unhealthy foods. The resulting uptake of free schools meals in those countries is high and the nutritional content is controlled, which is an important factor. The benefits can be seen in children from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

No one is arguing that, on their own, free school meals would transform Scotland's health record. However, there is strong evidence to suggest that it could contribute to doing just that. If we are serious about improving public health, we have to start somewhere, and I think that we should give the bill the benefit of our support at this stage so that we can improve on it.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 4:50 pm, 20th June 2002

During today's debate, we have heard much agreement. As Cathy Peattie and Jackie Baillie said, the status quo is not acceptable. The debate has emphasised a number of core issues that are important to everyone in the chamber. All of us have the health of our children at heart. All of us want to make certain that the children who are most in need receive the assistance to which they are entitled. All of us acknowledge the power of early intervention in children's lives to influence their health in later life and to establish good eating patterns. Along with the BMA, we endorse the idea that schools are central to influencing the eating habits of the next generation.

However, schools do not exist in a vacuum. We cannot concentrate solely on schools if we want to bring about a sea change in Scotland's culture as it applies to food. What happens outside of school, in our communities and workplaces, must reinforce the good work that is going on inside the school.

Although the Executive agrees with a number of the bill's objectives, we cannot support it because we disagree on some fundamental issues. We do not accept that the proposed legislation is necessary to address the health or poverty issues that are raised by Mr Sheridan and his colleagues. The provision of free school meals is only one of many measures that we are taking to abolish child poverty in Scotland.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

Will the member give me a minute to get going?

We also do not accept that universal provision of free school meals is an effective way in which to achieve our goals of improvements in the diet and health of Scottish children, and at the same time to target inequalities.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent

Any MSP can leave the debate and go to the wee room at the back of the chamber and get a free orange, apple, bottle of water, cup of tea or coffee, biscuit or a free banana. How on earth can we justify universal provision of food for MSPs and deny it to the schoolchildren of Scotland?

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

I should have known better.

It is simply not enough to throw free food at children and expect that to make a difference in their future health. Free school meals will not guarantee increased uptake. We need to provide a high-quality and attractive service that children and young people will actively choose in preference to the alternatives.

Many members have referred to stigma. We agree whole-heartedly that indiscreet or insensitive practices that draw attention to or stigmatise children who receive free school meals have no place in a modern society. We are already supporting the further development of cashless and card-based systems to continue to drive forward that change. Nicola Sturgeon mentioned the limits on smart cards in particular. That is something that we must continue to discuss with the schools and families involved.

However unacceptable stigma might be, it is not the main reason why children do not take free school meals. The plain fact is that in many cases the food is simply not attractive or sufficient. That is why we want to make improvements to the quality and quantity of school lunches. The expert panel has recommended nutrient-based standards, including the provision of milk and water, supported by robust local and national monitoring arrangements.

There are a number of other reasons why children do not take school meals. Children might have other things to do at lunch times, or the dining room environment might be uncomfortable, noisy or involve long queues. We want children to be able to choose for themselves. Again, I welcome the expert panel's considered thinking and recommendation on those issues. We owe it to our children to ensure that school lunches are an appealing prospect and, for as many as possible, part of everyday life at school. The bill as it stands does not address the multifaceted issues that currently keep school children out of the dining room at lunch time.

As Margo MacDonald said, the issue is not just cost—£170 million is a lot of money—but the fact that free school meals alone would not establish healthy eating patterns or improve health generally.

Mike Russell, in his usual fudging speech, mentioned water, fruit and berries, nutrition, communal experience and sponsorship. I agree that those are matters that we want to take forward, but they do not need legislation. Education in Scottish schools operates through guidance, not legislation.

The Scottish Executive remains committed to a fair society and improving health. Social justice is something to be built, not bought. The needy families of Scotland will not be best served by expensive gestures, but rather by effective targeted interventions set in the context of coherent national policies. Health improvements for all children need more than one expensive gesture. That is why the Scottish Executive does not support the bill. I urge the rest of Parliament not to support it either.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour 4:56 pm, 20th June 2002

There have been many fine speeches in this debate. I was delighted that Elaine Smith was called during the debate, because it means that there is at least one Labour speaker with whom I can agree in this wind-up speech. Despite the many fine contributions to the debate, the debate could never be worthy of its subject, because it has been truncated and squeezed into just one and a half hours, with just 24 minutes for back-bench speeches. It is unworthy of the bill to treat it in that way.

The bill has been described by many nutritionists and health experts as visionary, bold, radical and achievable. It has generated mass support across the country, as we have heard during the debate. It has sometimes been written off by its opponents as unimaginative but, in reality, it has captured the imagination and hearts of the Scottish people. The length of the debate is unworthy of the bill. It seems that the Parliament is sometimes embarrassed by what it is doing to kill off the bill. It wants to do so quickly and quietly and as unnoticed as possible. That should be a matter of deep regret for everyone in this Parliament.

I will deal with some of the speeches. Nicol Stephen argued that he does not disagree with our end; it is the means of getting to that end with which he disagrees. Sometimes the means matter. Take the issue of nutritional standards. Our bill would require Scottish ministers to define nutritional standards, and would require education authorities to provide school meals that meet those nutritional standards. The expert panel, which is the Executive's great white hope, recommended Scottish nutritional standards for school lunches, but they are just recommendations. The group said that education authorities should meet the standards, and that education authorities should have the standards in place by 2006. No "must", no requirement, no statutory effect. Like Pontius Pilate, the expert panel is washing its hands of any responsibility to ensure that the standards are applied in Scotland. That is not good enough for Scotland in the 21st century.

Others, such as Cathy Peattie, argued that we would be much better trying to achieve our ends through initiatives such as breakfast clubs. Gillian Kynoch, the Executive's food tsar, told the Health and Community Care Committee that breakfast clubs could only ever be a supplement to and never a substitute for the provision of a nutritious school lunch, which she described as the "cornerstone" and an "absolute priority" if we are to improve diet and children's health in this country.

In any case, we are not being offered free breakfast clubs in return for free school lunches. The reality is that the Executive is setting up a £0.25 million challenge fund, which will tell local authorities the concentration of the poor and deprived within their areas, so that they can compete with one another for a wholly inadequate sum of money, in the knowledge that some of them will get nothing at all. A challenge fund is not the way to target the poor.

Jackie Baillie quoted Nye Bevan. That is fine, but she did not quote Nye Bevan's lifelong detestation of the means test, which he fought all his life. Nye Bevan was once threatened with expulsion from the parliamentary Labour party for tabling amendments to end the means testing of old people. Were he here this afternoon, I have no doubt which side of the debate he would be arguing for.

Other members have said that we cannot legislate for children's behaviour. We have never claimed that universal benefits free at the point of use are compulsory. Nobody is compelled to use the national health service. Nobody is compelled to send their children to state schools. Nobody is compelled to take child benefit. However, when a benefit is made universal and free, it is surprising how many people take advantage of it. That is the way to help the poor—by making benefits universal and free, not by means testing. People should understand that.

Margaret Jamieson argued that Ian Young said that there is no evidence to support the principles of the bill. What Ian Young actually said is that nobody has been looking for any evidence. That is why there is no evidence to support the bill. No research has ever been conducted into what the bill aims to do.

Margaret Jamieson also argued that specific targeting will always, in the long run, be the best means of helping the poor. Well, in the long run we are all dead, but the targeting that goes on just now is not the best way of helping the poor. What about the 80,000 children from families of the working poor? Those who are in receipt of working families tax credit have no entitlement to free school meals. What about the 70 per cent of children living in families with disability, who, as Capability Scotland told us this morning, have no entitlement to free school meals? What about the 40,000 children in Scotland who are entitled but who, because of the stigma, do not go for free school meals? Do not tell me that targeting is the best way to help the poor, because it has never been the best way to help the poor and never will be. Targeting is means testing and there is nothing else to be said about it.

Why do we argue that the best way of ending stigma is to make something universal and free at the point of use? We argue for that because that is the best way. Nobody feels stigmatised when they go to hospital or to school or to pick up their child benefit, but there is every kind of stigma attached to being means tested to qualify for a benefit that is for the poor and the poor alone. That is the reality and members should ask the people who are at the rough end of means testing what they think about it. All the smart cards in the world will not change that reality. At £23 million, the cost of introducing smart cards must make them the most expensive fig leaves ever produced to cover the consciences of those who would like to delude themselves that there can be means testing without branding and humiliating the poor. That can never be achieved, and if socialists do not recognise that in the 21st century they will either never recognise it or they will never be socialists.

I turn to the cost. I know that £170 million is a lot of money. However, as others have argued, end-year flexibility covers that sum easily, so it is not a sum that the Parliament cannot afford. That cost should be seen not as a present burden, but as an investment in the future of our children's health and the future health of the nation. The Health and Community Care Committee took evidence from a series of health experts who warned of a tidal wave of health problems 10 to 15 years down the line, with obesity levels doubling over the next 10 years. In fact, Professor Phil Hanlon of the Public Health Institute of Scotland called for a dramatic shift in current policy because the status quo was not good enough. He described the bill as a bold attempt to bring about that shift. That is what the bill is. It is a brave and imaginative measure, which, in combination with other measures, will attempt to tackle head on the chronic dietary and health problems that Scotland has suffered from for far too long. In the process, it will make Scotland into a different kind of country in the 21st century to the one it was in the 20th century—a Scotland where the means test, like its predecessor, the poor law, has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

That is the vision. The means testers among us will never accept that, because they have swallowed whole the core Thatcherite nostrum of less taxes for the rich and means testing for the poor as two sides of the same coin. Every time we take a decision not to vary the rate of income tax in this Parliament, or to support the Government in Westminster not increasing the higher rate of income tax, we support a direct and massive subsidy to the best-off in this country, which does nothing for the poor. That is why the bill is so important. If the price of not taxing the rich is to means test the poor, that is a price that I am not prepared to pay.

Professor Hanlon told the Health and Community Care Committee that, at the end of the day, the universal provision of free school meals is not a decision for the experts. It is not something that the experts can tell us or advise us to do. It is a political judgment and it is down to the political judgment of everybody sitting in this Parliament this afternoon. Forty years ago, Sweden and Finland had the vision to make that political judgment. They are now reaping the rewards. Let us have the courage to do the same—future generations of Scots will thank us for doing so.