Parliamentary Bureau Motion

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:19 pm on 27th November 2008.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 4:19 pm, 27th November 2008

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-2958, in the name of Bruce Crawford, on the draft Provision of School Lunches (Disapplication of the Requirement to Charge) (Scotland) Order 2008. Following Parliament's agreement yesterday to motion S3M-2961, standing orders will be suspended to allow members up to 30 minutes to debate motion S3M-2958. Members must ensure that their speeches are kept to the time that is allocated to them, as the debate must finish within 30 minutes. If they fail to do so, I will have no option but to cut off their microphones. I will give a one-minute warning, but members must finish on time. The suspension of standing orders will start at the moment the minister rises to move the motion.

Motion moved,

That the Parliament agrees that the draft Provision of School Lunches (Disapplication of the Requirement to Charge) (Scotland) Order 2008 be approved.—[Bruce Crawford.]

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 4:30 pm, 27th November 2008

As a nation, we must improve our diet. Providing free, nutritious school meals to pupils in primary 1 to primary 3 will get our children off to a solid start by establishing healthy eating habits at an early age. There is broad consensus that a healthier diet leads to longer-term health benefits. I quote the well-named Professor Mike Lean, the head of human nutrition at the University of Glasgow, who said:

"Children who have nutritionally balanced school meals will be in better health, will be able to grow and function and do a lot better."

That was the basis for hungry for success, which has brought significant benefits. However, if we are to achieve maximum impact, many more pupils need to access those benefits.

We want to offer healthy school lunches to our youngest pupils for free, so that they will benefit from the transformation in food quality that hungry for success has brought about. A universal approach is required, because obesity is a growing problem across the population. The policy needs to be inclusive; we need peer support and peer pressures to apply to bring about the culture change in eating habits that we seek. It is our duty to look after all children, regardless of their background or income. We know that not just children from the poorest families are nutritionally challenged.

During the past school year, we conducted a trial to see what impact the policy could have. I am delighted to report that the trial was a great success. Uptake among P1 to P3 pupils increased dramatically. Teachers, council staff and catering staff were all positive about the trial. Importantly, there is encouraging evidence that pupils were trying and enjoying new foods, asking for healthier options at home and talking to their parents about food more often. The trial was extremely popular with parents, not just because it eased pressures on the family budget but because it made it easier for some parents to serve healthier food at home and gave them new ideas for healthy recipes.

Some members have queried whether there is enough evidence of the policy's long-term health benefits to justify it. However, if we wait any longer, we run the risk of doing nothing. I believe that the evidence from the trial is compelling. Rolling out the policy will mean that children throughout the country will reap the health benefits in the future. Although we will extend entitlement to free school meals to more families in need next August, the policy will also help to alleviate poverty. Often poverty is hidden from view—people are not eligible or have not registered for free school meals. The initiative will help to tackle that problem.

One of the main aims of the trial was to assess the practicalities of a national roll-out. I am pleased that the evaluation found that implementation was relatively straightforward. The trial councils had anticipated possible capacity and accommodation issues, but in reality those did not arise or were relatively easy to overcome. I ask members to trust—as we do—that councils will learn lessons from the trial, find solutions to the potential challenges and implement the policy successfully. The local government settlement provides sufficient funding for councils to fulfil this concordat commitment. The all-party Convention of Scottish Local Authorities leadership group has confirmed that the resources are available.

The trial of free school meals for primary 1 to 3 pupils was a great success. The order that is before Parliament will enable councils to use their power to advance wellbeing to roll out the policy. Conversely, failure to support the order will deny councils that opportunity. I urge Parliament to support the order.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour 4:35 pm, 27th November 2008

In moving the reasoned amendment in my name, I wish to make it clear that Labour is not opposed to providing more free school meals for children in primary schools. Let us be clear about the draft order before us, however: it will not deliver a single extra meal, and it is incumbent on the Scottish National Party to say how the free school meals will be paid for. There is a fundamental dishonesty in announcing a policy that is not adequately resourced, and today's vote in Parliament will give councils the power to provide free school meals, but not adequate resources to pay for them. My amendment seeks to ensure that funding will not be diverted from existing education services in order to implement the Scottish Government's free school meals policy.

As I said, Labour is not against providing more free school meals for children in primary schools, but we are against councils being forced to cut other education services to pay for those meals. The debate is not about ring fencing; we just want to know where the money will come from.

This morning, my colleague Karen Whitefield visited a well-established breakfast club at St Dominic's primary school in Airdrie, and she heard about the important contribution that breakfast clubs make to the learning experience of the children at that school. North Lanarkshire Council has stated:

"it is anticipated that the breakfast service currently provided in selected schools may be affected and perhaps reduced. This service is focussed on schools in the most deprived areas and aims to support children who may not have a breakfast at home."

I would be grateful if the minister could address that specific point in his closing remarks.

The concerns are not confined to North Lanarkshire. The minister says that the money is available, so why are councils throughout Scotland speaking about their concerns? Around the country, local authorities are speaking out, saying that they do not have the resources to deliver the policy. Glasgow City Council has said:

"concern does exist with regard to funding ... at this stage, under the current economic climate, Glasgow City Council cannot commit to implementation for the year 2010/11."

Falkirk Council has said:

"our calculations show that the level of funding currently provided is less than we would need to meet our ongoing additional day to day operational costs."

Midlothian Council, too, will have problems.

If the Scottish Government was to put its money where its mouth is on the issue, Fiona Hyslop would be telling us that she was funding a capital programme to upgrade dining halls around Scotland to cope with the increased demand. We will not hold our breath, however.

Today's vote will not be the end of the matter, because the SNP will have to come up with the money to pay for the policy eventually. In the interests of holding the SNP Government accountable, and requiring it to fund its policies adequately, I urge Parliament to vote for the amendment in my name.

I move amendment S3M-2958.2, to insert at end:

"but in doing so, recognises that this measure in itself will not deliver one free school meal and that it is the responsibility of the Scottish Government to fully fund the SNP's manifesto commitments; therefore calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that funding is not diverted from vulnerable groups or teaching provision in order to implement the policy of free school meals for all pupils in primaries 1 to 3, and further calls on the Scottish Government to bring forward to the Parliament early in the New Year detailed up-to-date costings for implementing its free school meals proposal."

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 4:38 pm, 27th November 2008

Throughout this entire debate, I have been persuaded of two compelling pieces of evidence. First, there is absolutely no doubt that a substantial number of children in Scotland receive neither regular nor sufficiently nourishing daily meals. For that group, where there is a clear link between poverty and unhealthy eating, it goes without saying that there should be proper financial help.

Secondly, despite the evidence that has been presented by local councils being very varied in its content, there was one common theme: councils want a pragmatic approach. They want to have the freedom to use their own limited resources as they deem appropriate in their own local areas. That is very much in keeping with allowing local authorities to decide on their own priorities.

At the same time, the Government is trumpeting a universal policy approach, because it says that there will be a level playing field approach to all pupils in primary 1 to 3. Let us pursue that theme. The Scottish Government assures us of three facts. It says that there is £40 million, signed, sealed and delivered, for the policy to be rolled out in Scotland; that there are 118,000 additional pupils who will be helped by the policy; and that a quarter of Scottish schoolchildren are in poverty. The minister did not seem to get his sums right, but even simple arithmetic—and perhaps even logic—tells us that the substantial proportion of those 118,000 additional pupils are not in poverty.

Is spending precious resources, perhaps up to £30 million, really the fairest and most efficient way forward? I think not, and I would not mind betting that parents across Scotland would rather see the money going to more deserving cases. For example, £4 million could be spent on building a new primary school, and there would not have to be any arguments about using private finance initiative, public-private partnership or Scottish Futures Trust funding sources. It would be an easy option.

Whether we like it or not, one of the given laws of economics is that choices must be made on how best to spend limited resources. The SNP proposal promised faithfully that it would deliver free school meals to all P1 to P3 pupils. Incidentally, that is despite much of the dietary evidence suggesting that the money would be better spent on the under-fives. The historic concordat clearly says:

"Assuming the legislation is passed, local authorities will provide free school meals to all P1 to P3 pupils".

The truth is that that promise is based on a false premise. In relation to the Scottish statutory instrument, we are debating councils being given powers, not an obligation, to provide free school meals across the board. If this is such a flagship policy, why was the Scottish Government not prepared to legislate? Is not the real truth that it knows that this policy, just like the policy on class sizes, cannot be delivered?

I move amendment S3M-2958.1, to insert at end:

"but in doing so, calls on the Scottish Government not to impose any financial penalty, directly or indirectly, on any local authority that exercises its discretion not to provide school meals free of charge to all pupils in primaries 1 to 3."

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 4:40 pm, 27th November 2008

We believe that there is merit in providing free school meals for the poorest of Scotland's children. We have supported that policy in the past, and we have made it clear that we support the roll-out of the policy next autumn to a further 44,000 children whose parents are in receipt of full tax credits. When in government, we supported a number of healthy eating initiatives in our schools to improve diet, including the hungry for success campaign and the introduction of new nutritional standards. However, the free school meals policy that is proposed has never been our policy either in government or in opposition. We have always had fundamental problems with the policy in relation to available research and whether it represents best value for money.

The Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee heard a mixed bag of evidence on the proposal. I find it concerning that so many councils raised the issue of their ability to deliver the policy, concordat or no concordat. Some have said that, in delivering the policy, they may have to cut back on services elsewhere, including breakfast clubs, as we have heard. However, despite the fact that the concordat allows for further discussions to take place and despite councils facing new financial pressures, we heard from the minister that no more money will be available.

Many councils will struggle to fund the policy, and many will do so only by cutting other services. The Labour amendment alludes to that. Ultimately, the only way to ensure that that does not happen is by voting against the SSI. The Tory amendment may give some comfort to councils, but we know from experience that the SNP Government does not always listen to the will of the Parliament. Again, the only way to stop the measure is by voting against the SSI.

We remain unconvinced that the policy will deliver the benefits that the Government believes that it will, and we are not alone in that. The Aberlour Child Care Trust told the committee that it was not sure whether the policy represented best value for money. It said:

"Whether the scheme is the best use of £30 million to £46 million is an issue on which the jury is still out".

The Government claims in justification of the policy that it takes a whole-population approach. However, the policy applies only to P1 to P3.

There was a 4 per cent increase in uptake among those who were previously eligible for free lunches, but those who are most likely to benefit are the children who were not entitled to free school meals before. Overwhelmingly, those are children of parents like me, who can afford to pay. Much of the talk about the value of the policy is focused on its long-term benefits, but that aspect was not part of the pilot or the evaluation. The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland said:

"there was insufficient time to evaluate the long-term health impacts".

In addition, Barnardo's Scotland said:

"we need better evidence if the scheme is to be rolled out."—[Official Report, Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee, 5 November 2008; c 1628, 1615 and 1627.]

Yesterday, the Minister for Finance and Sustainable Growth gave members dire warnings that he was about to run out of money. We do not believe that this is the time to pay out £30 million of taxpayers' money for the free school meals policy.

The extension of eligibility next year at a cost of £10 million will bring the poorest children into the scheme. Our policies on income tax cuts would give thousands more parents the chance to make their own decisions about their children's breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Income tax cuts would go further and directly stimulate the Scottish economy, which is just what is needed right now.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 4:43 pm, 27th November 2008

Last session, I was part of the committee that considered the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Bill. We heard evidence on the need to improve the health of all our children and on how school meals are an essential part of that. We received evidence on the stigma that is attached to receiving free school meals, and we heard about the success of the three-year pilot project in Hull that provided free school meals. We also received evidence about the low uptake of school meals generally.

I tried in vain at stages 2 and 3 of that bill to convince the Lab-Lib Executive to support a pilot project for free school meals in Scotland. That is why I was delighted that the SNP Government decided to pilot free school meals. I was doubly delighted that the whole of Fife was chosen for the pilot—and what a success it has been. Throughout the trial period, the uptake of school meals rose from 50 to 77 per cent. From speaking to parents in Glenrothes and Levenmouth, I know of their support for the nutritious school lunches that their children are now provided with. I was lucky enough to be invited for lunch at Aberhill primary school in Methil—school dinners have certainly improved a lot since my school days.

The order allows local authorities to provide free school meals. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Government are clear that funding is in place for that as part of the local government settlement. I expect Fife Council to implement free school meals for all children in primary 1 to 3. We need to tackle poverty, obesity and the stigma that is attached to free school meals. Why has the pilot been such a success in Fife? Parents whose children were previously entitled to free school meals did not take them up because of the stigma that was attached to doing so, but they took up free school meals when they were free for all children. Many so-called middle-class parents are struggling to make ends meet. They cannot afford to pay for school meals but are not entitled to free school provision. It is the children in those families whom we need to look after.

Most children's organisations and practically every organisation that is concerned about nutrition and health hope that the order will be agreed to today. I urge members of all parties to agree to the motion. If they do, it will be one of the most important things that the Parliament has ever done for the children of Scotland.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 4:46 pm, 27th November 2008

The issue is inextricably linked to the so-called historic concordat between the Scottish Government and local authorities. It raises profound questions about that relationship and the commitments that are set out in that document. For example, when is a ring fence not a ring fence, and when is a discretion not a discretion?

The terms of the concordat indicated that legislation would be introduced to allow the extension of free school meals to all pupils in primary 1 to 3, but it went on to say that, on the assumption that it is passed, local authorities will provide free school meals to such pupils from August 2010. As we know, the SSI does not create a positive requirement on councils to provide such meals but merely gives them a discretion to do so. However, the concordat that was signed by the COSLA leadership purports to commit all its member councils to providing such meals, although many have subsequently said that they do not have the resources to do so and/or that it is not a priority for them when they are faced with other demands on their education budget, such as the building of new schools, the employment of teachers and classroom assistants and the provision of teaching materials. In that, they are right. Why should we provide free meals for the benefit of parents who can well afford to feed their own children and are happy to do so?

It would be wrong for any financial penalty to be levied on a council that decides, as a matter of local priority, not to provide free school meals. At the Local Government and Communities Committee, we tried to obtain information from COSLA and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth on whether any such penalty would apply in the event that a council decided not to go down this road. To say that the responses to our questions lacked clarity would be an understatement. It is typical of the obfuscation that surrounds any questions that are put to COSLA about what the concordat means and what obligations it places on councils. It adds to the growing volume of evidence that the historic concordat is an historic con, and that the dupes in the leadership group of COSLA are well out of step with its members, who have now rudely awakened to the financial realities.

Be that as it may, today the Parliament can save COSLA from itself by insisting that councils be given the genuine freedom to exercise discretion on the issue and make decisions for themselves, free from the fear of financial sanctions imposed directly or indirectly by the Scottish Government. That is why members of all parties, including the Government party, should support the Conservatives' amendment, if they believe that they are genuinely conferring a discretion and not a mandatory requirement.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour 4:49 pm, 27th November 2008

My colleagues and I welcome any steps to improve health or lift out of poverty any Scottish child. These are serious issues, but the delivery of free school meals for children in primary 1 to 3 will, alone, not do that. We all know that the Government promised to provide free school meals for children in primary 1 to 3, but that will not be delivered tonight by the order. Let us be clear: the order will give councils the power not to charge for school lunches. It is all very well giving councils the power to provide free school meals, but it will be a meaningless gesture if the funds to provide the meals are not also provided. That is what lies at the heart of this debate.

The Government's report on the pilot says:

"The estimated costs of the trial varied widely from £1.79 per additional meal in Fife to £4.65 in Scottish Borders."

Given that variation in costs, how can the Government possibly know how much the roll-out of free school meals will cost? If it does not know the true cost, how can it possibly claim to have provided sufficient funding to Scottish councils? Can the minister assure us that the cost has been completely met within the local government settlement? Does he think that councils should have to axe breakfast clubs?

As my colleague Rhona Brankin mentioned, I visited the breakfast club at St Dominic's primary school this morning. The breakfast club provides a healthy and nutritious start to the day for children from one of the poorest areas in my constituency. It ensures that children do not go into their classes hungry, and it helps them to learn. However, senior education officers in the council have told me that they simply do not have the money to pay for free school meals. They have said that they will be forced to consider closing the breakfast club. That would be a detrimental step. The Government should guarantee that it will not happen. Will the minister guarantee that no breakfast club in Scotland will close as a result of the introduction of this policy?

Today's debate is not about the policy of free school meals; it is about the affordability of free school meals for our councils. We all want the best for Scotland's children. We want them to eat healthily and to prosper at school. However, that cannot be at the expense of other aspects of their education. We cannot simply ignore the voices of local councils up and down the country. If the minister's claim is that the school meal policy is fully costed and fully funded, he should have no difficulty in providing assurances to the chamber and no problem in supporting both of the reasoned amendments to the motion.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 4:52 pm, 27th November 2008

Let me deal with the Labour and Conservative amendments. I dare say that the Government should be gratified that, through the amendments, both those parties have found a way to support the order that the motion asks us to approve today.

The measure will help hard-pressed families during a time of economic recession and, over time, it will significantly improve the health of our children. We have an opportunity to enable our local authorities, many of which are enthusiastic supporters of free school meals for our youngest children, to get ahead and plan the implementation of the policy in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

Might I remind the chamber of the long list of supporters of the policy among civic Scotland? The list includes John Dickie and the Child Poverty Action Group; the Church of Scotland; the Educational Institute of Scotland; the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland; One Parent Families Scotland; the Poverty Alliance; Children in Scotland; Barnardo's; Save the Children; Unison; Oxfam; and the Scottish Women's Convention. And let us not forget the admirers from beyond our borders, such as Jamie Oliver.

Let me welcome Labour and Conservative members to the fold. At the same time, let me make it clear that I find the terms of the amendments somewhat puzzling. To the Tories, I say that they misunderstand the nature of our historic concordat with local government. It is an agreement based on mutual trust and partnership. Sanctions are not the issue; improving the health of our youngest primary school children is.

The Labour amendment rather states the obvious when it says that the order does not deliver school meals. That is quite right; the order simply makes it legal for councils to deliver school meals. Might I also remind Labour members that COSLA agrees with us that the policy has been fully funded? [Interruption.]

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

The Government does not support the amendments. The Scottish Government recognises that we have a duty to put the interests of Scotland's children first. I appeal to members to do likewise this evening.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I thank all members for the assiduous way in which they have ensured that we are not in danger of breaching the time that is available to us under the suspension of standing orders. So assiduous have they been that I must now suspend the meeting until 5 o'clock.

Meeting suspended.

On resuming—