Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament at 11:30 am on 14th March 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 11:30 am, 14th March 2007

The next item of business is a debate on motion S2M-5695, in the name of Hugh Henry, that the Parliament agrees that the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour 11:52 am, 14th March 2007

One marked feature of this country is our poor health record. Our citizens die earlier than do citizens in other parts of the United Kingdom and of the world and our health is generally poorer. Much of that is self-inflicted. It starts from childhood and relates to how our children are brought up, what they eat and a lack of exercise and fitness.

In a broad range of matters, we have tried to address that chronic and appalling health record. We took the bold but correct decision to ban smoking in public places, which will contribute significantly. We are considering raising the age at which our young people can buy cigarettes. We are encouraging more exercise and physical activity in our schools. We are encouraging a healthier lifestyle from childhood through to adulthood. As has been suggested, it is clear that the problem starts in the home, but we need to reflect on the significant contribution that schools make to the way in which our children develop.

In this country, we are criticised if we do something and criticised if we do not, so in a sense we can never win. Some ask what the point of the bill is, whereas others ask why it does not go further. The bill marks a significant milestone in the approach that we are taking to improving our citizens' health and well-being. Yes, we still need to do something profound with adults and with people who are in their late teens but, while we consider that, it is right to take the first steps to tackle the problem at the earliest age. The bill will do that.

Improving the health of people in Scotland is a key priority. In debate on the bill, we have outlined the action that we want to take on several fronts. We can reflect with some pride on what we have done in the past few years—I have outlined some of that. We have set a target of all schools becoming health promoting by the end of the year and the hungry for success initiative has revolutionised school meals.

We know that there is more to good health than simply good nutrition. I have spoken about the contribution that sport and physical activity make, which is why our active schools programme provides for that.

I was delighted that, in its stage 1 report, the Communities Committee agreed that the bill was a necessary next step, but not a final step, in our wider health improvement agenda. During the passage of the bill, we have considered carefully the committee's opinion and tried to acknowledge its concerns about the bill as introduced. I thank committee members for scrutinising the bill and for their contribution. I also thank all the people who helped to shape the bill through the parliamentary process.

I found invaluable the contribution of the many outside organisations that have good food and good health at the core of their objectives. It was fascinating to learn that, notwithstanding our desire to have the bill passed, good things are happening in parts of Scotland. Our bill is stronger for the work of the committee, its clerks, outside organisations and others.

The bill will ensure that schools understand their central role in helping children and young people to make healthy choices through a range of actions and activities. It will make health promotion a central required purpose of schooling rather than an add-on or an aspiration. A school will need to consider health promotion in all its activities and take a whole-school approach to that. The bill will also place a duty on education authorities to ensure that nutritious and balanced food and drink are provided in schools. That is our priority for school food and drink.

One of the committee's recommendations in its stage 1 report was that the Executive should more proactively encourage local authorities to consider sustainable development criteria when procuring food or catering services. We heeded the committee's call and lodged a stage 2 amendment that, along with the amendments in the name of John Home Robertson today, has strengthened the bill to reflect the commitment of the Parliament and the Executive to sustainable development and fair and ethical trading. It is to their credit that some local authorities, of which East Ayrshire Council is but one, are already taking those steps. Several external agencies, such as the Soil Association and Oxfam, are also deeply committed to sustainable development and to fair and ethical trading. I welcome the changes to the bill. First and foremost, the bill will ensure that healthy food is served in our schools. It will also ensure that, while that happens, local authorities take account of other sustainability objectives.

We understand that improving school food is not enough by itself and that we need to promote healthy eating and school meals actively to pupils. The bill provides for that. In particular, we want to encourage all families who are entitled to free school meals to take advantage of their entitlement and to do so without the fear of stigma. The bill will require education authorities to protect the identity of those who are eligible.

The promotion by schools of healthy eating for their pupils provides the opportunity for lifestyle changes. We have heard anecdotal evidence that some youngsters who have attended primary schools that promote health eating continue healthy eating habits at secondary school. I hope that we have made changes that they will continue with for the rest of their lives.

I hope that some of our school pupils will become ambassadors for the message and will take it back into the home to encourage their parents. We have anecdotal evidence that children are placing pressure on their parents as a result of the measures.

All of us and our country will benefit from the bill and from the other measures that we are taking. The bill is an important step not only in giving education authorities the flexibility to address local priorities but in helping young people to make life-forming and life-changing decisions that I hope will lead to a healthy Scotland and will change our appalling health record once and for all. I commend the bill to Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 12:00 pm, 14th March 2007

The Scottish National Party will support the bill at decision time, but it is interesting to reflect on our long and perhaps tortuous journey to reach where we are now. I agree with the minister that this is not the end of the journey; there is a long way to go. Members will make different policy pronouncements on where the bill takes us, but we must all recognise that the nation must address our eating habits. From a health perspective, if we want to save health service money, it is essential that we change people's behaviour now.

As I have done previously, I acknowledge the work of Shona Robison, who has kick-started consideration of issues such as the advertising of junk food and fizzy drinks in schools, but things have gone beyond that. Our debate in the first parliamentary session focused on the content of free school meals and so on, but the word "nutrition" is essential. We must address not only the poverty agenda but the nutrition agenda.

We should recognise the good work that is already being done in schools. There is a question about whether we need to legislate to ensure that schools take the responsibility of promoting themselves as health-promoting schools. In my visits to schools, I have seen the extremely good work that is already being done without the bill having been passed, and I want to put on record that good examples have been developed throughout the country. In particular, I recall from the stage 1 debate the good example of Hurlford primary school, which members of the Communities Committee visited. When we discussed the final amendments to the bill, we talked about global education and understanding where our food comes from internationally, but it is just as important to know where food comes from locally. We must understand the choices that we have. At the end of the day, this is a lifestyle issue, and lifestyle is about our behaviour and personal choices. The more informed young people are about where their food comes from, the more they will be able to make informed choices.

Progress is being made. After a health promotion week at my children's school last week, I saw my daughter putting raw spinach into her sandwiches. That is certainly progress. Such things are happening in homes throughout Scotland—things that people might not have expected to happen are happening. We should recognise the good work that is being done in schools.

Obviously, I am disappointed that the ministers have not progressed the school meals agenda, as doing so could make a huge difference to the lives of many people. I respect those who argued for universal free school meals in both primary and secondary schools, but the most pragmatic way forward would have been to allow regulations to be produced that would allow ministers to pilot a scheme before rolling it out. Commencement orders would still have been needed for universal free school meals, as schools do not yet have the capacity to deliver in that respect, but they will have under an SNP Government.

We should ensure that the right palates are created in the early years. The provision of meals in nurseries is important, but we must remember that many youngsters are not in nursery schools for long enough to get the benefits of meals there. Extending children's hours at nurseries to ensure that that provision exists is an issue.

Socialisation is also an issue. Encouraging people to eat and break bread together is one of the best ways of tackling behavioural issues. We should reflect on the lessons from Finland and elsewhere about the socialisation aspects of food and what we should do to encourage such socialisation.

The bill is based on the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, which states that an education authority "must charge" for anything that is provided under section 53(1)(a) of the act. Under the bill, it will still be illegal for councils or authorities to provide free school meals if they choose to do so. That is clearly wrong. The Executive has been flexible about everything else: it has been flexible about milk, fruit and school breakfasts. Surely to goodness, even if it did not want to fund free school meals, the Executive should have provided local authorities with flexibility and the choice to deliver such meals if it believes that local authorities should have the flexibility to deliver health-promoting education in their areas. That is a disappointment. Ministers have missed a great opportunity to move forward.

Many pupils who started at secondary school when Labour came to power have gone right through their secondary education in poverty without an opportunity to get free school meals because the Executive set its face against the idea. We will remind the Executive that in the Parliament today, Jack McConnell, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats voted against extending the provision of free school meals to those whose parents receive working tax credit. People will judge the Executive by what it has done. It has had opportunities aplenty to bridge the gap between those who receive school meals and those who live in poverty. The Government has failed to bridge that gap, but the next Government will ensure that it is bridged.

Photo of Dave Petrie Dave Petrie Conservative 12:05 pm, 14th March 2007

We on this side of the chamber welcome the bill, which in partnership with parents and schools can only be of immense benefit to the health and well-being of future generations. I thank the clerks and the bill team for their support in preparing the bill.

We all know the background to the bill. We have rising levels of dietary problems in Scotland, with obvious health and social consequences. There is no doubt that healthier children are generally more focused and better behaved and perform well academically. If we tackle diet and health in schools, that is more likely to be taken forward into later life.

As others did, I congratulate the Soil Association on its food for life campaign, which sets a positive example to us all, and I am delighted to see that the amendments in the name of John Home Robertson were accepted by all.

I know from personal experience that, as Fiona Hyslop said, things are changing. We see children in the classroom drinking water rather than fizzy drinks, which is encouraging. It is also encouraging that children who go out of school—mainly fifth and sixth-years—do not all head to the chip vans. Chip vans are a problem, but if children who have reached fifth and sixth year want to go out of school, we cannot force them to take school lunches. They enjoy going out of school and they eat sensibly. Our party supports greater autonomy for schools and a lesser role for the Government, but the needs of the child must always come first.

It is important that we address promoting healthy lifestyles in a joined-up way. Improved diet must be promoted at home as well as in school and that is where parents and guardians have a valuable role to play. As is the case for education in general, a positive partnership between pupils, parents and schools has traditionally proved to be in the best interests of the child.

Healthy living is not just about diet but about lifestyle. That is where sport plays a vital role. We need extra-curricular activities, more encouragement of sport in schools and more support for sport-based voluntary organisations. If we had more activities in schools at lunch time, whether sport or clubs, that would be an incentive for children to stay in school at lunch time and take school lunches.

We obviously need to promote the take-up of school meals. Despite the honourable aims of the hungry for success campaign, the majority of pupils, including a significant number of those entitled to free school meals, do not take school lunches. A focus on having more lunchtime activities might act as an incentive. I remain to be convinced that free entitlement would increase uptake, but I emphasise the importance of appropriate anonymised systems.

I disagree with the minister regarding school resources. I have taught on the east coast, up north and on the west coast, and I believe that there are major inconsistencies between our schools. It disappoints me that the Minister for Education and Young People is unaware of that. Some schools have whiteboards and some do not; some schools have textbooks that are falling apart and some have textbooks in good condition. There are major problems but, unfortunately, the minister does not seem to recognise that.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

The member is in his last minute.

Photo of Dave Petrie Dave Petrie Conservative

It seems illogical to me that parents who can afford to pay for school lunches should be relieved of that requirement when there are significant resource issues in schools.

We fully support the bill and look forward to its early implementation.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Please keep speeches to four minutes.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 12:09 pm, 14th March 2007

As colleagues will be aware, I joined the Communities Committee only recently, so I came to the bill and the debate surrounding it comparatively late. I express my thanks to the convener and committee members, who have been a great support. I also thank those who gave evidence to the committee and, indeed, the excellent team of clerks who backed us up. I am grateful for their help and advice.

I want to touch on two of the amendments that we debated. The first is the interesting amendment proposed late in the day by Patrick Harvie on the code of conduct. Fiona Hyslop made a useful point when she said that parent forums could discuss that issue. That is precisely the right approach and the right sort of work for such forums for the months and years ahead. However, I was and am persuaded by the minister's argument that the decision about how the issue should be dealt with should be left to local education authorities and schools. I have been an elected member of two local authorities and am a great believer in letting such decisions be taken by the council.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SG

Can the member inform us whether, over the past six years, it is indeed the Liberal Democrats in the Executive who have been resisting the extension of free school meals to all those who are entitled to them because of the level of poverty in which they live, or whether the Liberal Democrats, too, have now come round to the view that free school meals should be extended?

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

I do not know whether it is because of the proximity of the election but, this morning, I have becoming increasingly bemused by Mr Sheridan's comments. I do not understand where he is coming from and I am not sure that he does, either. He may laugh, but there is nothing in his suggestion, which was a matter of pure fiction. If I were him, I would concentrate on the debate instead of inventing points.

On the provision of free school meals, I am persuaded by what David Petrie has said. However, I take issue with his point about schools in the Highlands. I have never seen the schools in my constituency and across the Highlands in a better state than they are today. Any teacher and any pupil will say the same thing. The state of those schools is light years beyond what I and, perhaps, Dave Petrie knew in years gone by.

Photo of Dave Petrie Dave Petrie Conservative

I am happy to speak to the member about the matter at length at a later stage, but I can assure him, briefly, that there are schools in the Highlands that are not particularly well resourced.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

On the issue of free school meals, we should remember that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has sent us a document saying that it does not support the notion of the universal provision of free school meals.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

I want to continue to make my point. Highland Council, which is a rainbow council—the chair, one of the most able councillors in the Highlands, is Andy Anderson, who is a member of the SNP—considered the issue and decided, on balance, that the complexities arising from agreeing with the introduction of universal free school meals were too great. The council felt that its resources would be better directed towards the issues that Dave Petrie was talking about a moment ago. That is the actuality of delivery on the ground and one cannot say it more strongly than that.

As the minister said, Scotland has an unenviably bad health record, which is closely associated with poverty and diet. In the closing weeks of this session of Parliament, it is right that we pass the bill. It is a mighty move forward. I believe that it is a little acorn from which mighty oaks will grow, in terms of the health of our children and the generations to come.

We should be proud of the bill and I have no hesitation in offering my party's support for it.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 12:13 pm, 14th March 2007

I thank my colleagues on the Communities Committee, the clerks to the committee and the witnesses who came to the committee to give evidence, particularly the young people. I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate because I was one of the members of the committee who had serious doubts about whether we needed legislation to underpin some of the successes of the hungry for success scheme. As we considered the bill, however, I realised that that legislative underpinning was necessary.

We have a huge problem in Scotland. Our health record is appalling and we will have to cope with an obesity time bomb. It is extremely important that we encourage children to get into healthy eating habits at the earliest possible stage. Having said that, I cannot see any possibility that I could ever eat raw spinach on a sandwich and I congratulate Fiona Hyslop's young one for being so adventurous—she is obviously like her mother.

The bill represents only the first stage of our attempts to tackle the issues relating to health and obesity. For example, we need far greater sports facilities for our young people than we have at the moment. In many areas, sports facilities are simply lacking.

There is a particular issue in Fife that I hope that the minister will take up—although not today, as I realise that I am springing it on him. I understand that Fife Council is writing to some of the schools that offer breakfast clubs, as there is a threat to cut the number of staff that the council supplies to those breakfast clubs. Will the minister examine that? We do not want the work of the bill to be undermined by local authorities.

On the subject of local authorities, I return to the question of flexibility. Throughout the passage of the bill, I have never had an answer to this question: why do local authorities have the flexibility to provide free breakfasts but not free lunches?

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Tricia Marwick and others in the SNP have made great play of giving local authorities flexibility. Had Parliament agreed to give them that flexibility, how would they be able to pay for it under the SNP proposals for a local income tax? The SNP is proposing to cap local authority expenditure, which would result in a cut in local authority budgets. How would the SNP pay for that flexibility?

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

The SNP would provide funding centrally, so there would be no impact on the local council tax payers, who would get a far better deal under local income tax than under anything that the Executive is prepared to do.

I will move on from flexibility, because we have never had an answer to the question that I asked and the minister is clearly not going to answer it now.

Let me say to the Labour members, who I see are almost all absent from the chamber, to the Liberal DemocratsJamie Stone is walking out of the chamber—and to the Conservatives that today every single one of them queued up to vote against extending free school meals to the poorest children in Scotland. Today, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories voted against extending free school meals to the children of people who are in receipt of council tax benefits.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

No, the member is over time.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories voted against giving free school meals to the children of people in receipt of lone parent benefit.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Today, the Labour Party, the Liberals and the Tories voted against extending free meals to the children of those on housing benefits, those on local housing allowance and those on working tax credit. It is an appalling and shameful day for them.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour 12:17 pm, 14th March 2007

We had an interesting debate this morning on the amendments to the bill, but I start by saying that the bill is a good, progressive piece of legislation, which deserves support. The Executive should be commended for it. Thanks should go to the committee, the clerks and the many groups and organisations that have promoted the agenda of nutritious school meals for a number of years—particularly the Child Poverty Action Group.

Credit should also go to Frances Curran, whose member's bill on free school meals was, unfortunately, not considered by Parliament. Like me and some other members, Frances Curran has consistently promoted the benefits of universal free nutritious school meals. I will come back to that subject later because it was the most controversial aspect of the bill, and I want to make some positive comments first.

The nutritional quality—or perhaps the lack of nutritional quality—of school meals was identified as a problem during consideration of the first proposals on free school meals. Indeed, the title of the book edited by Usha Brown and Danny Phillips in support of a free nutritious midday meal was "Even the tatties have batter!" That name came from a comment made by a child about school meals. Other comments were that the food served was "not nice", "disgusting" and "Yuck!", and children complained of being served pink meat, hard pears and green bananas.

The hungry for success programme was initiated to help to tackle that issue, among other things. It is now clear that outcomes vary across Scotland, and the bill will therefore ensure uniformly high standards throughout the country. It should mean that all children in the state sector can enjoy nutritionally balanced food and drink if they are provided for them in school.

The cashless system helps to reduce stigma, which definitely needs to be addressed. I am pleased to note that North Lanarkshire Council is currently rolling out such a system in its schools. It also makes sense to include health promotion duties in the remit of schools and to ask local authorities to account annually for what they have done. That can only assist with changing the culture and habits of our children with regard to nutrition. It is vital that we achieve that for their future health.

I wonder whether the minister would consider the results of the initiative in Rosehall high school in Coatbridge, which is changing attitudes to breastfeeding via education. That is an interesting piece of work and I point the minister in that direction.

Increasingly, our children are becoming obese, which affects their quality of life and life expectancy. Obesity has been described as a modern-day epidemic, which requires to be recognised as a medical and not just a lifestyle issue. When speaking in response to my members' business debate on that subject a year ago, the Deputy Minister for Health and Community Care said:

"There are no short-term fixes ... Instead, there is a long-term agenda, which calls for concerted and sustained action. That action has already started, and it must continue."—[Official Report, 2 February 2006; c 23110.]

The bill is part of that process.

The evaluation of the initiative to provide free fruit in schools found that it was a positive initiative, and it highlighted the potential to increase the consumption of fruit and improve healthy practices among children; the fruit is given to all children, and that is right. The fact that children have better-off parents does not necessarily mean that they eat well or nutritiously.

I also urge the minister to encourage local authorities to provide breakfast clubs. That is important.

Given the impact of the free fruit initiative, and considering the scale of the challenge that we now face, Parliament during the next session should look more favourably at the setting up of pilot schemes to examine the possible impact that a similarly large-scale initiative, such as free school lunches, could have. I support the proposal for free school meals, but I am not against pilot schemes because they could help to persuade others.

I am pleased that my party has signalled its intention to expand entitlement to free school meals and, if I am returned to Parliament, I will certainly pledge to ensure that that intention is pursued. I remain convinced that the provision of universal free school meals is the best way to ensure a healthier population for the future, although I have no doubt that the Scottish Executive takes the issue of child health and nutrition seriously. The bill shows that.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green 12:21 pm, 14th March 2007

I echo the comments of others who have congratulated and thanked the other members of the committee, the clerks and all our witnesses. The process has been relatively enjoyable, particularly all the free school lunches that we got to eat during our scrutiny. The process has also been relatively free of open warfare—at least, it has been no worse than most bills that the Communities Committee has considered.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I found the topic to be interesting once I got my teeth into it, so to speak.

The bill merits a pass mark but, as with other Executive legislation, handwritten underneath that should be the phrase, "Could do better". Most of us would not disagree with what is in the bill, although one or two of us would perhaps like to make one or two tweaks. In general, the disagreement is over what is not in the bill; what is in the bill gets broad support.

Certainly, the issue of health promotion has had less attention, perhaps because there are fewer contentious issues in the bill. However, ensuring that all schools are health-promoting environments is a huge step. As someone with a background in sexual health promotion, I will watch with interest to see how all schools, including those that are run by organisations with views about sexual health that are quite at odds with the science, take on that important responsibility.

The bill misses some opportunities. The nutritional requirements' narrow focus on nutrient levels alone and the absence of anything about fresh or unprocessed food, or about additives, is to be regretted.

We can clearly identify nutritional requirements and ensure that the food and drink that are provided or on sale in schools meet those requirements. However, I am not sure that we are doing enough on food culture in schools, which is difficult to address. The Soil Association, which is grappling with that issue, is not just helping people to understand where food comes from and how it relates to health, but is working in schools in East Ayrshire on the environment and the atmosphere in which food should be eaten at a more human and slower pace. Some of the principles of the slow food movement would be valuable if applied in schools.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

Does the member think that education on the benefits of breastfeeding is also important?

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I agree that a school that is health promoting should promote the benefits of healthy eating for children of all ages and I congratulate the member on her past work on breastfeeding.

In his remarks on universal provision, the minister comprehensively failed to address the targeting of resources. I have yet to be given any explanation of why school meals are the only aspect of the educational experience that must be paid for individually rather than collectively. I hope that the bill will succeed in getting food in schools conceived of as an educational issue rather than as simply an issue of fuel.

I close by expressing my qualms about my mishearing of an earlier remark about whether raw spinach was tasty. I am afraid that I thought that Ross Finnie was being discussed. Personally, I am a big fan of raw spinach.

Photo of Frances Curran Frances Curran SSP 12:25 pm, 14th March 2007

Some people in the gallery wanted to know where MSPs were running in from for the votes. There is a room next door to the chamber, where we can have free tea and coffee, free fruit and free shortbread. After that, we can go downstairs to have a dinner in the canteen, which is subsidised to the tune of £600,000 every 18 months.

Patrick Harvie mentioned targeting. It is interesting that MSPs are constantly targeted for free dinners. I have with me a small selection of invitations to free dinners that I have received in the past few weeks. We have been targeted for free dinners by the University of Strathclyde; the University of Glasgow; the lord provost of Glasgow—for a civic reception; the Scottish Grocers Federation; Cardinal O'Brien; the Food Standards Agency; the lord provost of Edinburgh; the Irish consulate in Edinburgh—for St Patrick's day; the United Kingdom offshore oil and gas industry; and the Freight Transport Association, among many other organisations. Grant's invited me to a haggis breakfast, which would have been accompanied by words from the bard and, no doubt, a glass of champagne or a little whisky. I also received an invitation from Sainsbury's.

MSPs obviously do not do irony. Why are we targeted? We have no problem with having a subsidised canteen, with getting free food and drink in the Parliament or with being targeted for free dinners. Why we are targeted for free dinners—it is not just food; we get free drink as well—is a serious political issue. The reason is that the organisations, the names of which I have just read out, want to influence policy; they want the Parliament to pass legislation that will benefit them and, on the whole, they get it. Most of the measures that the Parliament approves benefit big business and the section of society that such companies inhabit.

What is lacking is legislation that benefits people who live in poverty, legislation that benefits young people and their health and legislation that benefits health service and other workers. There needs to be a shift in the legislation that the Parliament passes. How do people who do not offer us free food and glasses of wine get access to ensure that the laws that they want to be passed get on the agenda? How does the head of education services at East Renfrewshire Council, who supports free school meals, the director of education at Midlothian Council, the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association or the senior dietician at Ayrshire central hospital get such access? They are all too busy working to give us free dinners, to wine and dine us or to lobby us.

I am talking about people such as the head of public health at the University of Dundee and organisations such as Children in Scotland, NCH Scotland, One Plus, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Poverty Alliance. When will the Parliament take seriously their arguments in the debate on free school meals? They deserve access to the Parliament and to the votes of MSPs for free school meal provisions, which are supported across the board.

Every measure that the Parliament has taken to improve the health of young people has failed. The bill is a lost opportunity. The First Minister went to the poverty conference the other week, but the fact that we even have child poverty is an abomination, given that we are in the fifth-richest country in the world. We get mealy-mouthed words and piecemeal promises, such as, "If we get elected, we might give some of the poorer children a free school meal." That is not good enough; it is too little, too late.

I say to the minister that the bill is great to the extent that it will put healthy food on children's plates, but a majority of young people and children will not get those healthy meals every day because the take-up is only 48 per cent. Hull City Council has pointed the way forward.

I joined other MSPs at a session at Haldane primary school in Alexandria—an area with a poor health record—where the children had chosen the topic of free, healthy school meals. I could not put it better than the children put it at the end of the session:

"I thought that the Scottish Parliament was supposed to treat all children as equal. We should be equally entitled to a free healthy lunch."

Photo of Ms Rosemary Byrne Ms Rosemary Byrne SG 12:30 pm, 14th March 2007

Solidarity welcomes the encouragement of healthy eating and the introduction of the bill. However, like other members, we are disappointed at the bill's limitations. The extension of free school meals to all those who are in receipt of tax credits was denied for six years until Jack McConnell's announcement last Friday. That is, to say the least, blatant electioneering. We now hear that that extension could have been introduced at any time—it is shameful that 100,000 kids have been denied their rightful entitlement in that way. I do not know what part of that Jamie Stone did not understand. I think that it is perfectly clear.

The minister says that the bill is not about free school meals, but he should understand that, as evidenced by numerous organisations, means testing is not the way forward. Children are being denied their right—it should be a right—to a nutritious meal. We will have better food in schools but, as Frances Curran said, we will not have the uptake. Many improvements are needed in the environment for school dinners. I will come back to that in a moment.

The minister talked about real improvements in Scottish education. I touched on that when I spoke to my amendment 8 on breakfast clubs. The real improvements will come only through equality, and equality means universality. That is the crux of the matter. Unless we have universality, we will not have the uptake and we will not give those children who fall outwith all the means-tested systems the opportunity. Indeed, as I said earlier, many parents will not fill in the forms.

It is good that local authorities may be able to offer free fruit and milk, but that does not provide equality. I would like every child to have free fruit and milk right the way through primary school. Two years ago, the Big Lottery Fund gave money to some of the schools in my area to provide free fruit. At the beginning, the children struggled to enjoy the fruit, but by the time the funding ended they were enjoying it greatly. However, as soon as the funding ended we reverted to only the younger children getting the free fruit. I had a phone call from the chair of the school board in one of the schools, who said that the situation was ridiculous. The teachers had worked with the children to give them a taste for the fruit; the children had developed a taste for it, they were enjoying it and then it was withdrawn.

I do not know why all our children cannot have free milk and fruit. It would help our fruit growers and our dairy farmers. Over the past six years, one in four Scottish dairy farmers has gone out of business. Let us promote locally produced food, but providing all children with free milk and fruit would boost those industries as well.

I finish on the environment for school dinners and why many children decide to go to the unhealthy cafe or shop down the road and buy a pie or chips. In the school canteen, children often have to queue and the environment is not conducive to their wanting to be there. We should encourage clubs and activities around lunch time to make children stay in school. Universality would, over time, encourage children to stay in school at lunch time. There needs to be a better environment and a better system in our school dinner halls, so that young people want to stay there rather than going into the community to litter the streets and eat rubbish.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour 12:34 pm, 14th March 2007

As convener of the Communities Committee, I thank all those who helped the committee at stages 1 and 2 of the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill.

I begin by thanking those who gave evidence to the committee at stage 1. Our visits to schools were invaluable, because they enabled members to witness the range of good practice that exists throughout Scotland. In particular, I thank all the pupils who gave us their views on school food, both as it is and as they would like it to be.

It is nonsense to suggest, as Frances Curran did, that MSPs listen only to those who are willing to give them a free lunch or breakfast. The Communities Committee goes out of its way to ensure that the people who will be most affected by the legislation that it considers get every opportunity to have access to the committee. That is why I extend my special thanks to the pupils of Hurlford primary school, Drumchapel high school and the Janet Courtney halls of residence, who played their part by allowing us to visit them and engaging with us so that we understood things from their perspective. I was particularly impressed by Hurlford primary school, which uses fresh, local produce to an extent to which other schools should aspire.

I thank the staff of the @Home Centre in Airdrie and the pupils of Rosehall and Caldervale high schools for their evidence to the committee. It is worth noting that, when we took evidence in Airdrie, many high schools from throughout Lanarkshire were represented. That is an example of the Parliament's going out into the community and taking its work to people rather than their having to come to us. I also thank all the local authorities and other organisations that responded to the committee's call for written evidence. Frances Curran said that we did not want to listen to those people, but that is not true. The fact that we do not always agree with people does not mean that we do not listen to them and take their views into account.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

Does the member agree that, in Airdrie, we heard from school pupils evidence that contradicts the point that Frances Curran made?

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

Indeed we did, but I am afraid that if one does not listen to everybody and agree with Ms Curran, one's views do not count. [Interruption.]

Finally, I thank the clerks to the committee. Steve Farrell and his team helped to ensure that the committee's work, both in the Parliament and during our external visits, was done efficiently.

Dave Petrie's comments were helpful. He is right to suggest that the bill cannot be implemented in isolation. It is important that pupils get active. However, I do not agree with his point that there are insufficient resources. His experience in teaching is different from my experience in North Lanarkshire, where we have several new primary and secondary schools and resources that teachers tell me they have never seen before.

We heard much from the SNP today. Fiona Hyslop said that everything will be fine after 3 May. She said that there is a capacity problem at present but there will not be one after 3 May. I am not sure what will change at that point. [Interruption.] We also heard that it is important that we do something about the matter right now. The debate should not be about political posturing. The bill is not about the universal provision of free school meals. It is about improving nutritional standards in schools, which will make a real difference to the health of Scotland as a nation.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Members must not call to each other across the well of the chamber and disturb the speeches.

Photo of Nanette Milne Nanette Milne Conservative 12:39 pm, 14th March 2007

I hope that the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill will underpin the drive to improve Scotland's health by promoting healthy lifestyles from an early age. Habits that are acquired in early childhood are carried through into adult life. By taking forward the health-promoting schools concept that the World Health Organization has championed since the 1990s, the bill should help in the battle against obesity, which is increasingly crippling even young adults in Scotland with complications such as type 2 diabetes and its consequences.

By requiring all education authorities, schools, nurseries and grant-aided schools to be health promoting; by providing for the introduction by regulation of minimum nutrition standards in schools; by allowing education authorities, if they so wish, to provide free food and drink other than lunch; and by promoting an increased uptake of school meals, the bill will put healthy living at the heart of education from an early age and will help to instil in pupils the healthy lifestyle habits that should benefit them throughout their lives.

The Scottish Conservatives are not in favour of the state taking over our lives. As far as we are concerned, personal responsibility is the key to healthy living, and there can be a fine line between legislation of the sort that is proposed in the bill and nanny-state intervention. However, such is the current state of our nation's health that the provisions of the bill are an acceptable means of tackling the public health hurdles that we have to overcome. As Dave Petrie said, we do not see the universal availability of free school meals as either necessary or the best use of public money. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the need to ensure the anonymity of pupils who receive free school meals—an issue that Elaine Smith highlighted—so that they are not stigmatised.

We think that more children should be encouraged to eat meals in school. Apart from the good nutritional value of school meals, if children have the time to enjoy their meal times as an opportunity to relax and interact with their peers, that will benefit their social development alongside the academic development that they achieve in class. I have seen the hungry for success programme in action in schools across the north-east. Although some of the school cooks to whom I have spoken think that it is overprescriptive, it seems to be encouraging pupils to eat more healthily while they are in school.

There needs, however, to be real engagement with parents, too. In an age when fast food is becoming the norm, we should try to involve parents as much as possible in the promotion and provision of healthy food to their children. As the minister has said, it is hoped that children will increasingly demand healthy food from their parents. My grandchildren seem to thrive on olives, raw spinach and various things that I had probably never heard of when I was a child. However, there seems little point in schools giving pupils healthy food and promoting the benefits of a healthy lifestyle if they go home and stuff themselves with junk food and spend their leisure time in front of the television instead of taking physical activity.

As Dave Petrie said, we believe that more investment needs to be made in physical education teachers and that more time should be made available in schools for physical activity. We also support the promotion of extracurricular sporting activity, which not only helps physical development but encourages social interaction and team play.

We welcome John Home Robertson's amendments to encourage, under guidance, the use of local produce in the preparation of food for schoolchildren, and I am delighted that the whole Parliament accepted them. Not only will they help to ensure that the benefits of fresh produce are enjoyed by our children but they will benefit the environment and local food producers.

We are happy to support the bill and will vote for it at decision time. Its provisions, on their own, will not solve the nation's health problems, but it is a step in the right direction.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 12:43 pm, 14th March 2007

I have already quoted the figure provided by Save the Children that 240,000 children in Scotland live in poverty. The 11 th hour proposal by the current First Minister to extend eligibility for free school meals to children in families that are receiving the maximum working tax credit will, by his own admission, lift only 100,000 children out of that trap. That will leave 140,000 children—more than 50 per cent—still in poverty and not eligible for free school meals.

Furthermore, a briefing that I received from Capability Scotland addresses the specific issue of families in which there are people with a disability. Seventy per cent of those families rely on benefits, but they are not the benefits that qualify the children for free school meals. If I can put down a marker for Parliament in the next session, I think that the Education Committee, the Health Committee or the Communities Committee should investigate that specific pocket of people who are being deprived.

I will speak to five issues. The first is the need to ensure that children have at least one decent meal a day. That is a basic right. We all know what it is to have at least one decent meal a day. Extending the eligibility criteria for free school meals is crucial, and the SNP's amendments would have done that. Widening the criteria so that there was universal access to free school meals in primary 1 to primary 3 would have let us test out what difference universal provision made not just to the physical well-being of children, but to their social and mental well-being. The Scottish National Party will be happy to discuss the matter with COSLA when we are in power, as COSLA has said that it wants the criteria to be extended.

The second issue is the quality of the food that is provided. It is essential that meals are of good quality if we are to encourage children to take up provision. Attention should also be given to the size of the portions. It is not appropriate for primary 1 children and primary 7 children to receive the same portions of food, which is what happens in some of our schools. In addition, bad eating habits among our children mean that type 2 diabetes is now rampant, and the number of such diabetics is set to explode. That will have permanent health consequences for those who are affected.

Thirdly, in so far as is practicable, school food should be prepared in-house and eating should become a social experience. We need to consider that issue when we are building schools, given the concerns that have been raised about schools that are built by public-private partnerships and under the private finance initiative. In one of the Communities Committee's evidence sessions on the bill, a representative of the Educational Institute of Scotland said that contracts are so tight that schools cannot even move a socket. What are the prospects of developing the size of the school kitchen if the contract does not allow food to be cooked on the school premises? That issue needs to be considered.

Fourthly, the use of local produce is key. Having chased this issue for years, I am glad that the minister has recognised that by agreeing to review and reissue the guidance to education authorities. Some authorities seem to be terrified of the European Union and do not realise that they can comply with the rules while using issues such as social inclusion to develop contracts that mean that produce is bought from local people.

Fifthly, we need to recognise that, if we want to encourage children to take up the free provision to which they are entitled, we must not only address the quality of the food, the size of the portions and the wider social experience but tackle the issues of identification. The SNP shares the concerns that Patrick Harvie raised about developments in technology. In particular, we are concerned that it seems—from what we have heard today—that consent from a parent or guardian is not always obtained. I cannot see why the minister did not issue a code of conduct to ensure standard practice across Scotland. That is absolutely basic.

I was delighted by Donald Gorrie's speech. I am not usually delighted by his speeches—I will get a set of all his speeches for when I have a sleepless night—but today he gave us a delightful journey through Donald Gorrie logic. If it is right to have universal provision of breakfasts, snacks and milk, what makes the provision of lunch different? The answer is Greenwich mean time. I also hope that some head teacher challenges that provision in the bill by having lunch start at 11 o'clock.

It is a further testimony to the Toryisation of new Labour and its Liberal Democrat partners in crime—who take credit for the good things and take the blame for nothing—that they voted down our amendments, which would have brought our poorest and most vulnerable children into the ambit of free school meals provision. The Executive's end-of-term report card—I know that the Tories keep such report cards hidden—will show "failed" next to the 240,000 Scottish children who live in poverty but who do not get free school meals.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 12:47 pm, 14th March 2007

The Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill is the last bill on education in the current parliamentary session. It is fair to say that our desire as a Parliament to focus on the nurture, welfare and education of young people has rightly been central to much of our legislative, administrative and funding efforts over the past eight years.

I thank the Communities Committee and those who gave evidence on the bill. I also thank our bill team for its support during the bill's passage through Parliament. I concentrated mainly on the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill during that period, so the bulk of the bill has been taken through the Parliament by the Minister for Education and Young People.

Much of the debate on the bill has been focused on, and dominated by, the issue of free school meals. It was right that we had that important debate, but Parliament has not been persuaded by the principle of universal provision of free school meals. Even the SNP has not been persuaded by that. In some ways, the debate on that issue has been a diversion from the vital issues that the bill deals with. I suggest to the SNP that the extent of its outrage on such matters ought to be in a rather more direct relationship to the prescience and consistency of its previous policies. Hugh Henry made that point in the excellent speech that he made earlier.

On the business of local authority flexibility, a very interesting response from Tricia Marwick earlier confirmed that such local flexibility would be paid for centrally under the SNP's proposals for local government funding. That is a bizarre method of local flexibility, given that the flexibility would be dependent directly on central Government and against the background of a cap on funding.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Does the minister not find it most bizarre that although the Executive is prepared to give flexibility with regard to the provision of free breakfasts, free fruit and free snacks, it is simply not prepared to give any flexibility with regard to school meals?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

There are two points to make about that. First, if local flexibility is paid for centrally, we will not be able to keep control of the budget. Secondly, decisions have to be made about the best use of public funding. If it were ever to form a Government, the SNP would very soon find out that the cost of extending universal free school meals provision is, depending on the take-up, estimated at between £99 million and £182 million a year. However we look at it, we are talking about a lot of money, and we have to weigh up the value of spending that money on free school meal provision rather than on other measures. In any case, no one can argue about the direction of travel that is being taken.

The debate on free school meals has not really focused on some of the key underlying issues, one of which is take-up—although in fairness to Christine Grahame I should point out that she touched on the issue in her closing speech. No matter whether we are debating the merits of free school meal provision or the issue of stigma—and I think that, with the measures in the bill, we have certainly tried to go further in finding ways of avoiding stigma—the point is that we still need to encourage young people to take up school meals, free or not.

That brings us back to the wider purposes of the bill, which, after all, is not just about nutrition, important though that is to a healthy lifestyle. Some interesting points were made in that respect during the debate. For example, Fiona Hyslop was right to suggest that we need to improve young people's understanding of where food actually comes from, and that important point was echoed by Patrick Harvie. Dave Petrie talked about lunchtime activities at school, and that matter, which has been mentioned before, is certainly linked to take-up of school meals. Although many schools provide many good lunchtime activities, I agree that there needs to be more focus on that aspect.

In one of the best speeches in the debate, Nanette Milne rightly highlighted the balance between family and state responsibility; the importance of home life; and the need to link what happens at school with what happens in the home. Of course, that raises the question of the extent to which schools and local authorities should assume parental responsibilities. Many parents already give their children a healthy breakfast before they head off to school, and many young people prefer to make their own breakfast at home rather than receive it at school. We should give that point a bit more prominence than it has been given in the debate.

The bill amends the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act 2000 to place a duty on education authorities to set out strategies for health-promoting schools. Besides promoting healthy eating, such schools, which have been widely praised and are seen as the way forward on this matter, must address pupils' physical, mental and social well-being. I realise that the terms sound trite, but such an approach will help to produce confident and healthy individuals who are able to develop their full potential and maximise the benefits from the investment that has been made in education. Improving Scotland's health is very closely linked—indeed, is fundamental—not only to the happiness and prosperity of families and communities throughout Scotland but to the education system's success.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

As I asked Patrick Harvie when he kindly accepted my intervention, would health promotion in our schools include the promotion of breastfeeding as the best start for babies? After all, young children need to understand the benefits of that kind of nutrition.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I bow to Elaine Smith's expertise and good work in that area. As I was about to point out, we need to take a holistic approach to such matters.

The concept of health-promoting schools, the drive provided by hungry for success and the Executive's measured and practical approach to this matter have all laid a solid foundation on which the proposed legislation can build. In many schools, it will be entirely right to provide children with breakfast, snacks and fruit, and the provision of water in schools has been very successful already.

However, the essence of our approach is to bring about lifelong improvements in diet, exercise and lifestyle that will lead to better choices outside the school environment—at home, at college or university or at work. Parents and families are central to that work; indeed, as Jamie Stone pointed out, the innovations made possible by the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006 might help in that regard.

This bill is good, and, notwithstanding the debate on school meals, will command fairly universal support. I commend its principles to Parliament and ask members to support the motion that the bill be passed.

Meeting suspended until 14:30.

On resuming—