Free School Meals

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:15 pm on 20th October 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools) 1:15 pm, 20th October 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr. Blackman-Woods on securing the debate. She mentioned that she visited my constituency a while ago to look at the experience in Hull after a far-sighted Labour council decided to have free school meals in its primary schools and special schools for three years, to be evaluated by Professor Colquhoun of Hull university. Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the pilot was cut short because of the short-sightedness of the Liberal Democrat council that came in and abandoned the project. It is unfortunate that we do not have that evidence to look at, but I will talk a little about the pilots we do have now, and hopefully we can draw evidence from their experience.

I, too, visited Sweden last month and spoke to school students about school meals. I concur with my hon. Friend's comments about school meals there-all children take them and the meal is a very natural part of the school day.

One of the most important lessons we can teach our young people is how to look after themselves and maintain a healthy lifestyle. A large part of that depends on eating a healthy diet, and the consequences of not having a healthy diet are evident. We know that an unbalanced diet directly affects not only children's school work, but their behaviour in the classroom and at home. Currently, 1.5 million children in the UK are overweight or obese, which means they are in danger of developing serious medical conditions later in life, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. We must ensure that our young people know the value of eating healthy food and choose to eat a sensible and balanced diet. My Department is taking steps to ensure that healthy school lunches are a cornerstone of our education system.

Generally, the Labour Government have recognised the importance of improving school food. That is why we have backed significant investment-£650 million between 2005 and 2011-to help support the cost of healthy school lunches, to help build or refurbish kitchens and dining facilities for the excellent catering staff around the country and to better support the development of training centres for the school food work force.

We recently introduced tougher nutritional standards for school food, which will ensure that all primary, secondary and special school pupils have access to a balanced meal, including lots of vegetables, salad and fruit. It is also worth mentioning that my Department, working with the Department of Health, has schemes to ensure that at key stage 1 we have fresh fruit in our primary schools, and many schools also operate breakfast clubs to help give children access to good, healthy food throughout the day.

With regard to the free school meals pilots, as my hon. Friend will know, this September my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families launched our two-year free school meals pilots in Durham, Wolverhampton and Newham. Those pilots, backed up by £20 million of funding from my Department and the Department of Health, offer free, nutritionally balanced meals to all primary students in Durham and Newham. In Wolverhampton we are testing extending the eligibility rules for pupils whose parents receive working tax credits and have an annual income of up to £16,040. I recognise what my hon. Friend says about the tax credit system, and I hope that the experience in Wolverhampton will let us make a decision at the end of the pilot to see whether there has been an effect on take-up.

When I visited the launch of the pilot in Newham with the Secretary of State in early September, it was clear what an impact the meals were already having on the children and their parents. Just yesterday, I was in Wolverhampton to see for myself a pilot scheme in a secondary school, and take-up there was increasing.

In both Newham and Wolverhampton, there are positive attitudes to the pilots and a keen interest in them. That interest is shared by many local authorities who applied to take part in the pilot projects, and it is important to note that local authorities already have the power to innovate and introduce free school meals in their area, if they so wish. I understand that under pressure from a Labour budget motion, Islington council is about to do that. I am extremely pleased that my hon. Friend's constituency of City of Durham is taking part, and I ask her to pass on my congratulations to everyone who has been involved in ensuring that the pilot started on time.