[Jim Dobbin in the Chair] — School Food

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 19th July 2011.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Transport) 9:30 am, 19th July 2011

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dobbin. I thank Mr Speaker for allowing this debate on school meals, because it enables me to highlight some of the more regrettable decisions that the coalition Government have taken over the past year. Of course, our country faces a tough financial situation, but surely there is also a case to be made for the wider provision of and better quality of school meals.

If I may, I shall digress at the start of my contribution and refer to a piece of school work that I did back in 1982, when I was in year 4 at Russell Scott primary school. I dug out my old school work because Russell Scott is currently commemorating its future remodelling by having a display of historical artefacts celebrating the school’s history from 1882, when it was founded, through to the present day. Not many primary schools in Tameside can lay claim to an MP having attended the school, but Russell Scott can lay claim to two. The former Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Lord, and I are both former pupils of the school. Although we are from different political traditions, Russell Scott must have done something right.

One piece of my work was about people who do important jobs and included short pieces of writing on the importance of bin men, ambulance drivers and nurses. Perhaps in a nod to my future role as a shadow Transport Minister, I also mentioned train drivers and bus drivers. However, I also talked about the school cook, which relates to today’s debate. Here is an extract from what I wrote:

“Our school cook is Mrs Pomfret. She has a very important job. She has to cook a warm and wholesome nutritious meal for hundreds of pupils at the school every day and make sure it is ready for us all in time for dinner time.”

I pay tribute to the Mrs Pomfrets across the country who, day in and day out, make sure that children get a warm, nutritious, wholesome meal. That is the only warm meal many children are likely to get.

There have recently been positive changes in our attitudes to the healthiness of school meals, which is partly thanks to the high-profile campaign involving celebrities such as Jamie Oliver. Indeed, so successful was his campaign on nutritional standards that, in 2007, the Labour Government introduced regulations to ensure that the food and drink served in schools are of high nutritional quality. The changes since then have been very significant for the food served in our schools. The food provided to children who choose school meals is more often than not fresh, nutritious and locally sourced. That is a far cry from the profit-driven mentality that previously dominated school meal provision and that led to children eating some very poor meals indeed. So we did a great deal to improve the provision of school meals.

Let us not forget that investment in our school infrastructure also enabled a number of schools significantly to improve their catering facilities, which meant that the service could increasingly be brought back in house. However, perhaps the previous Labour Government’s most important initiative was the extension of eligibility for free school meals. We had committed to extend the eligibility of free school meals to children from households with an income below £16,190, which is considered to be the poverty line. If such a policy had been introduced, it would have benefited an estimated 500,000 children and lifted at least 50,000 out of child poverty.

We built on the work done in Kingston-upon-Hull as a first step and introduced pilots of universal free school meals in Durham and Newham. We extended eligibility in Wolverhampton and a further five pilots were planned for other local authorities across the country. That was all ended by the coalition Government, who have deprived those children living in poverty of the entitlement to what might be the only hot, healthy meal that they get each day.

From April 2011, the coalition Government also lifted the ring fence on the school lunch grant, rolling the funding into schools’ baseline allocations. The school lunch grant was introduced by Labour as a ring-fenced grant to increase the number of children eating healthy school meals by helping schools and councils keep down the price of a school lunch. Without the ring-fenced grant, prices are expected to increase as schools struggle to subsidise rising ingredient prices. Indeed, an investigation by The Independent on Sunday found that prices have already risen by 10% this year. Worse, research for the School Food Trust shows that a 10% increase in the price of school meals triggers a corresponding fall in the number of children having them of between 7% and 10%. By taking away the ring fence, the coalition Government have made it harder for schools to provide healthy and nutritious meals that take advantage of economies of scale.

It is clearly disappointing that the Government are choosing to limit free school meals, rather than widening their availability to all children. That is surely a step in the wrong direction, not only because of the health and educational benefits to pupils, but because it penalises the least well-off in society. We still have concerns about those most in need getting access to free school meals. What is happening with the Government’s plans to change eligibility for free school meals? We know that the Government have commissioned the Social Security Advisory Committee to review passported benefits such as free school meals under the proposed universal credit system, but the final decision is not expected until next year, which is creating uncertainty for the many families that currently benefit from free school meals.

What assessment have the Government carried out of the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms in the proceedings of the Welfare Reform Bill on Report that free school meals could be included as a separate element of universal credit and tapered off as family income increases? Instead of getting cash, families could receive support via an electronic card, which could be used only to pay for school meals. What assessment have they made of that initiative?

It is worth noting that take-up of free school meals by those who are entitled to them unfortunately remains low, because of stigma, complexity and the constant movement of some families in and out of entitlement. Indeed, it is a shame that one in five children who are eligible for free school meals does not receive them. Entitlement to free school meals usually ends when a family moves off benefits and into low-paid employment. That gives rise to an extra cost of approximately £300 a child per year just when families are trying to make themselves better off through work. It is shocking that the majority of children in poverty have at least one parent in work, so the majority of children who live in poverty do not benefit from free school meals. That is disappointing considering that the coalition’s stated aim is to decrease the number of people on benefits and increase the number of people in work. Yes, that is a worthwhile aim, but it will never be reached with their increasingly bad and ill thought-out policy decisions. How can increasing the number of children living in poverty in 2011 help the Government to meet their 2020 target for eradicating child poverty?

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

I am delighted to be able to speak in my hon. Friend’s debate. He is making some important points about the value of free school meals. Does he agree that free school meals are important not only for the alleviation of poverty, but for dealing with issues surrounding social mobility? If children have a good meal at school, it helps them to concentrate and to improve their social skills and their ability to function in the classroom. They can therefore benefit from the education that they are in school to receive.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Transport)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, that was the previous Labour Government’s conclusion, which was based on schemes such as those piloted in Hull by the former Labour council. That scheme was scrapped by the incoming Liberal Democrat council, which thankfully has been kicked out of office—and rightly so if those are its priorities. Such schemes were also piloted in the city of Durham. The previous Labour Government had also found my hon. Friend’s point, which is why we were going to extend the provision of free school meals.

Yes, the deficit is an issue. I sometimes wish that Government Members would change the stuck record on the deficit. We knew, back when we were in office, that there was a looming deficit, which is why we had a deficit reduction plan. My right hon. Friend Ed Balls, whom I had the great privilege of serving as Parliamentary Private Secretary when he was Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, probably knew better than anyone else the requirements of deficit reduction. The real issue is our priorities in dealing with deficit reduction. Of course, we had a credible plan to halve the deficit in this Parliament. Even with that deficit reduction plan, we were going to extend the entitlement to free school meals beyond the pilots.

At the general election, the Minister also had a plan to halve the deficit. However, her priorities changed when she entered the Government, because she has now signed up to a neo-conservative deficit reduction plan to eliminate the deficit. Of course, that raises issues of priorities in her Department. Eliminating the deficit means that those pilots for free school meals cannot now take place.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech this morning. Are we storing up trouble for the future by not investing in our young people now and making sure that they are eating healthy school meals, by not investing in the free school meals pilots and by not looking at the evidence? The long-term implications are that the health of the nation will not improve and that the educational achievement of some of our children will not improve. The Government have failed to address that issue, because of their narrow focus on deficit reduction.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Transport)

My hon. Friend is correct, which allows me to move neatly on to the next part of my contribution. As she has rightly said, showing and informing children about nutritious and healthy meals will clearly help in the battle against childhood obesity. Education and the health of our children are hugely important. It is estimated that obesity and associated conditions such as diabetes cost the NHS £3.5 billion a year, and that figure is set to rise. This is therefore a cost worth paying to save money in the long run. Even at a time when the deficit needs to be cut, we cannot forget the social implications of the Government’s decisions. If we want to reduce the attainment gap, as my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood has said, we must ensure that all children at school are given an equal chance. We know that free school meals contribute enormously to reducing attainment gaps, because they help children from low-income backgrounds, who may not have good nutrition, to concentrate more in the classroom.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this subject to the Chamber. He has clearly outlined the issue for those in the poverty trap, which is part of the cycle. Another issue is those of perhaps a different build, who are eating the wrong foods. He has indicated that education can address that issue. How does he see that balance being achieved between those who need that square meal every day and those who are, perhaps, eating the wrong food?

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Transport)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Education is the key here. People need to learn about nutrition, and what is right for one child is not necessarily right for another. I hope that one of the long-term benefits of a scheme such as Sure Start is that those families start to understand the nutritional value of different foods and the need to have a balanced diet, with the need for healthy eating as part of that balanced diet, alongside other factors such as physical education and physical activity. There is no magic wand. There is no answer to one aspect. I am really concerned about some of the cuts to Sure Start that we are starting to see, because some of those very early age healthy eating programmes are now being targeted by local authorities facing the squeeze on their budgets. Some of the work done with very early years, which would benefit through to school age and beyond, is starting to be scaled back, too.

One of the perks of this job, as I am sure that you are aware, Mr Dobbin, and as all hon. Members from both sides of the House will agree, is the chance to visit schools in our constituencies. I have spoken to not one head teacher or teacher in either the Tameside or Stockport part of my constituency who is not tremendously supportive of the free school meals programme, because they know just how much it benefits the children whom they teach.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

I wonder whether my hon. Friend faces a similar situation to the one that I have in my constituency, where schools often introduce breakfast clubs to encourage children to eat a healthy meal not only at lunchtime, but first thing in the morning. We have an excellent scheme in Nottingham, with support from Business in the Community alongside local businesses, that provides free food and delivery services. It is making a real difference in schools and is very much welcomed by teachers and head teachers.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Transport)

Absolutely. It is often said that breakfast is the most important meal. For many children, and for a variety of reasons—perhaps the parents are in a rush to get to work, so have to drop them off at school earlier than the starting time; or because of the lack of a family income, they do not necessarily have the money to pay for a breakfast for their child at home—breakfast clubs have been a welcome initiative not just in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but across the country. Teachers in my constituency tell me that breakfast clubs make a huge difference to concentration—the very thing that my hon. Friend talked about in an earlier intervention. Rather than pupils sitting in a classroom with a rumbling stomach and with their mind on other things, they are now satisfied, have had their first meal of the day and can concentrate on being taught.

The Tameside part of my constituency has taken the free school meals initiative one step further. It is recognised that parents, and often those most in need, feel a real stigma in applying for free school meals. Despite savage Government cuts to Tameside council, providing nutritional and healthy school meals remains an important priority for the council. In fact, given the economic situation and changes to the benefit system, more families in the borough are falling below the recognised poverty line. That often impacts directly on the quality of the meals that children get to eat at home.

More than 8,000 children are currently in receipt of free school meals in Tameside. The council is in the process of radically simplifying how the parents of children entitled to a free school meal can apply for the benefit. Three years ago, the council was the first in the country to introduce a fully online application and eligibility checking system for free schools meals. The system replaced the old paper-based process and led to savings in back office administration and savings in time for the parent. Using the online system, 98% of applications for free school meals made before 11 o’clock in the morning were approved and the child given a free meal the same lunchtime. The old paper process took a week to administer.

Tameside council now wants to improve the system further and, this September, will begin systematically contacting every family in the borough that is eligible but not yet claiming a free school meal and offering them that option for their children. More than 500 families are entitled to a free school meal for their child but are not yet claiming and, in the vast majority of cases, those are families living in the most deprived communities and on the lowest household incomes.

Another improvement to the free school meals process is being introduced. In future, entitlement to free school meals will remain in place for the duration of the time that the child is in school, until they are 16 years old, unless the parents’ circumstances change, in which case the entitlement will cease automatically. That means not having regular renewals, which take time to administer and are inconvenient for the parents. The council will use the information that it already holds to ensure that, when family circumstances change whether someone is entitled to a free school meal, it will automatically respond appropriately and contact the family to let them know.

Tameside free school meals are among the best quality in the country, with the primary school catering service retaining the Hospitality Assured quality award for the eighth successive year. I have to say that school meals were not bad back in 1982, when Mrs Pomfret cooked them. Anyone who knows me closely knows my love of food, and I probably owe a great debt to Mrs Pomfret for that as well.

The greatest advocates for the free school meals programme are the children. It encourages children to eat healthily and to develop social skills. Children like being able to sit down with their friends and teachers to have their lunch. We have also heard about the importance of the socialising and behavioural gains in schools when more children eat lunch together. Children learn to converse and to look out for one another, as well as good courtesy and table manners. Importantly, children who are having lunch in school are not hanging around the takeaway at the end of the road—something of particular significance for secondary schools.

We can do other things as well. Initiatives such as the breakfast clubs mentioned by my hon. Friend can make a huge difference. They help with children’s concentration and break down some of the barriers in schools.

I have further concerns about nutritional standards in schools. In a written reply to my hon. Friend Graeme Morrice, a Minister—not the Minister present today—confirmed that the new academies and free schools will not have to abide by the regulations brought in by the previous Labour Government, thus the food that they provide will not need to be of a high standard. I am, frankly, appalled. Another concern is that Ofsted will no longer be required to ensure that nutritional standards in schools still under local authority control are adhered to, which can only have a negative impact on nutritional standards in our schools.

It is also important to consider school lunches in the context of the broader curriculum. The previous Labour Government announced in 2008 that, by the start of 2011, every 11 to 14-year-old would have 12 hours of compulsory practical cookery lessons, with a £2.5 million fund to provide fresh ingredients for free school meals and to support schools to provide appropriate facilities and to recruit and train teachers. However, the commitment to have 12 hours of food and cookery lessons to start in September 2011 was scrapped by the coalition Government, and the future of food education in the key stage 3 curriculum is in doubt, given the Government’s review of the primary and secondary curriculum and the continued lack of commitment from Ministers. Even the Government’s own Back Benchers—some 20 or so Conservatives and Liberal Democrats—have signed early-day motion 1816, which was tabled by Zac Goldsmith and calls for

“the Department for Education to guarantee provision for every secondary school pupil to receive at least 24 hours of practical cooking lessons at Key Stage 3 in its review of the National Curriculum.”

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Labour, Scunthorpe

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate at such an appropriate time. I agree that young people need to be given the skills to prepare food and meals adequately and effectively. Does he agree that one of the effects of the national curriculum, when it was brought in under Mrs Thatcher’s Government, was the destruction of food education to the level of, basically, making pizza boxes, thus fuelling the disposable food culture, which has led to the obesity that we now see? It is time that we got back to the standards of giving people good home cooking skills, which can take them through their lives effectively.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Transport)

I agree absolutely. When I was a pupil not at Russell Scott primary school but at Egerton Park community high school in Denton—during the Government of the noble Baroness Thatcher—we did indeed make pizza in home economics. Those lessons were probably the only opportunity that a lot of my school colleagues had to cook. I was more fortunate because my mum and my gran, from an early age, taught me a lot of the cooking skills that I have today. I make a superb Victoria sponge cake, thanks to my gran, who was the best baker in the world, and my custard cream biscuits are to die for—perhaps, Mr Dobbin, I shall bring some in after the recess and we can all share them. It is absolutely important that children learn how to cook, not only cakes and biscuits but meals—my Scotch broth isn’t bad either, I have to say.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

The hon. Gentleman is trying to curry favour. [ Laughter. ]

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend talk about his culinary skills, but I wonder whether we should recognise in particular that being able to cook a nutritionally balanced meal is a basic life skill that everyone should have. School and education should instil such basic life skills in young people, as much as the ability to read, write and add up. Basic skills such as cooking should be on the curriculum.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Transport)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Children should learn not only about how to cook but about the nutritional value of the food being cooked and about where it comes from. That is not just from Morrisons in Denton—whether my Denton or the one in the constituency of my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell, which also has a Morrisons. Food comes not only from the supermarket but from the ground. In recent years, some brilliant work in schools has meant that children have learned exactly where the food that they eat comes from. My children know only too well that eggs come from chickens, because we have five chickens at home, so we have an abundance of eggs, which comes in handy for baking.

There is an opportunity to link lunch to education about diet, nutrition and cooking. Many schools have used the extension of the meals programme to bring more parents into school, so that they and their children can learn to enjoy cooking healthy meals together. However, there are concerns about the School Food Trust, which was established in September 2005 as a non-departmental public body—I know such bodies are not fashionable these days—to monitor school food standards, to drive the uptake of free and paid-for meals and to advise local and national Government on food policy. Under the Public Bodies Bill, the trust will be hived off into a charity and community interest company, and local authorities or schools that seek advice will have to buy in its services, as indeed will the Department for Education.

A significant concern is that big cuts to local authority budgets and pressure on individual school budgets will mean that they cannot afford to pay for ongoing guidance and advice, or that they will have to prioritise other schemes. That is another worrying development about the quality of food to be served in our schools.

Before I finish, I have a few questions for the Minister. How will the Government help parents back into work if they do not consider the need for free school meals and other such programmes? What will the Government do to improve health inequalities among children if they do not use free school meals and education to alter the behaviour of children and families? Why have the Government, who said that they are committed to fairness and to alleviating child poverty, started by attacking families on low incomes? Importantly, how do the Government propose to close the attainment gap and reduce inequality without considering nutrition in schools?

It is clear that the coalition Government are undermining the hard work done by the last Labour Government and campaigners to improve the take-up and quality of school meals. That is especially disappointing because they had previously pledged to lift children out of poverty by 2020, and little of what they have done so far has moved us closer to that pledge. I worry that that will result in long-term increases in obesity, and ever-increasing inequality in health and educational outcomes between the richest and poorest in society. Surely, no one wants that.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 10:01 am, 19th July 2011

I thank my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne for securing this debate, and for making a stunningly good speech. I want to concentrate on one aspect of school food: universal free school meals, particularly for primary school children. It is important, as my hon. Friend said, to keep the debate alive in the face of an uncaring Government, which is evidenced this morning by the complete absence of hon. Members on the Government Benches to engage in this debate. That is unfortunate, because the road that the Government are taking is likely to have an adverse impact on children’s health, particularly those from the poorest communities.

The Children’s Food Campaign notes that healthy school meals are vital to help to tackle the UK’s alarmingly high and rising levels of obesity and diet-related illness, and states clearly that good food habits are established in childhood. That is not rocket science. We know how to do that, and I draw the Minister’s attention to the experience of the universal free school meals pilot in Durham. During the two years of the pilot, 235 schools participated and, typically, around 30,000 free school meals were served daily. The average take-up against the roll was about 86%, but because of pupil absences on some days, it was actually much higher. Most schools reported 100% take-up at some stage in the process. The pilot was absolutely and hugely successful in terms of take-up.

It is interesting to consider how the pilot worked, and I want to say at the outset that Durham county council was fantastic in putting the scheme together. It committed £4 million of capital funding to upgrade the kitchens in every school so that meals were produced locally in the school. It also looked at its procurement practices so that it could source food locally, and achieved really high standards of healthy school meals because it could buy in bulk. Such aspects of universality in the provision of free school meals often do not receive much consideration. The county council did an excellent job, but so did the schools, which embraced the scheme wholeheartedly.

When my hon. Friend Diana Johnson was a Minister, she visited Durham, and saw with me the incredible effect that universal free school meals had on schools. It changed the whole culture of the school, not just how they felt about food. The really good schools managed to integrate what was happening with free school meals into the curriculum, and ran that alongside an active sports policy.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I remember fondly my visit with my hon. Friend. One thing that struck me was that to engage with parents and to encourage them to embrace free school meals, there were taster evenings and taster sessions when parents could come in and see what their children would be eating. There was a real sense of the whole community being involved and seeing that the idea was a good one. Will my hon. Friend comment on how things are going now, and whether those taster sessions are continuing?

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I will say something about how parents have been involved with the process, because obviously it was important initially to get parents signed up, which is why schools had taster sessions. As the pilot progressed, what schools felt was really important. When they sorted out with children how to have a balanced and healthy diet by choosing different things on different days, and ensured that salad or vegetables and a balanced meal were always available, they decided to get the parents to sign up to whatever meals the children were choosing. That was important, because parents across the board—given that the take-up was 100%, that meant all parents—had to engage with what their children were going to eat in school, and to talk to them about the importance of a balanced meal. That required the schools to undertake work with parents.

That is what we mean about changing the culture. We know how to do it, and the evidence exists. My hon. Friend and I were able to see that before our eyes, and indeed the schools managed to develop, probably inadvertently, evangelism in the children, who were able to explain carefully to us how the food system worked in their school.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

The United Kingdom is a multicultural society where ethnic groups introduce their own food ideas. In the pilot schemes, was the hon. Lady able to introduce some of the benefits of other foods to make food exciting?

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

That is an important point. Schools in Durham managed to do that, but perhaps not as effectively as schools in Newham, and it was an important aspect of the pilots, as the evidence suggests. That is what I mean when I say that schools that embraced the scheme were able to add the subject to the curriculum and use it to talk about other cultures, and so on.

I hope that I have made the point that the pilot was really successful. It had started to change the way in which schools, parents and young people think about food and exercise. I saw with very great sadness that the Government’s priorities meant that the first thing they did on taking office was cancel that pilot programme. The Minister has some questions to answer about that. We know that the Liberal Democrats have form on such matters because when they took over Hull city council, the first thing they did was to cancel the free school meals programme. That showed an extraordinary set of priorities, which I simply do not understand.

If the Minister wishes to find allies in the coalition Government, she might like to ask her fellow Ministers why it is that private schools ensure that their children have a healthy, usually hot, school meal at lunchtime. The coalition Government are good at emulating the private sector across the public sector, so how come that aspect of the private sector, which could easily be transplanted to public sector schools, is not on their list of priorities? Instead of concentrating on the needs of children and families, the Government—really quite staggeringly—lifted the ring fence on the school lunch grant from April this year. That money now has to compete with all the other priorities currently facing hard-pressed schools.

Such concerns lead me to ponder the fact that the Labour party has to make a tough call; we have got to win the argument about the importance not only of healthy school meals, but of universal free school meals at primary school level. There is no point in having healthy school meals if no one takes them up or if they are too expensive for most parents to afford, but unfortunately, that is the route down which the Government are taking us.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Solicitor General

My hon. Friend makes a strong argument. In Newcastle upon Tyne North, which is to the north-east of her constituency, figures have shown that the take-up of school meals has fallen over the past 12 months. That bucks the national trend and causes me anxiety about the educational attainment of those children in my constituency who require and depend on a decent hot meal during the day. Does my hon. Friend think that the Government’s policies will help or hinder that concern?

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point; it is clear that the Government’s policies will hinder any progress that has been made. When contributing to the evaluation, many head teachers in Durham schools made the point that a hot meal at lunch time meant that they saw improved levels of concentration in the afternoon. As my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood pointed out, that is essential for helping to narrow the attainment gap.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Labour, Scunthorpe

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the value of a hot meal for all primary school children and how that impacts on their attainment and success, and she draws attention to practices in the independent sector. The Government are fond of making international comparisons, particularly with countries in Scandinavia where there is a long-held tradition of free school meals in the primary sector. Does my hon. Friend believe that that adds further power to her argument?

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Indeed, my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull North and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) decided to embark again on a crusade for free school meals once they had visited Sweden and seen how the system worked. Teachers in Sweden scratched their heads in complete incredulity when we said that children at schools in the UK do not receive a free hot meal in the middle of the day. Those teachers also talked to us about the social skills that their children develop by having a meal in the middle of the day, and by sitting down with their teachers and having a chat about what is going on in their lives. It is an excellent source of information for students and teaches them important social skills. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North will know, we saw children in Durham learning in that way and the start of such a process, but alas, because of the policies of the coalition Government, that may not continue.

I will conclude by saying that it is a matter of some anxiety that the issue of school food is not higher up the political agenda. When I open magazines and see the rubbish and tittle-tattle about celebrities on which female journalists—and other journalists—seem to spend their time, I am staggered that they do not understand how important it is for the development of our children and their future to have good quality school meals that are available in primary schools at no cost. In addition to challenging the Minister, I wish to challenge those journalists to start writing about things that are important for families in our communities, and not spend their time on tittle-tattle.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 10:16 am, 19th July 2011

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne on his tour de force on school food. By the end of his contribution,

I felt as if I had been at primary and secondary school with him and knew Mrs Pomfret well. Listening to him talk about Victoria sponges and custard cream biscuits, it is clear that food is an important part of my hon. Friend’s life. We all recognise that a love of good food, and an understanding of how it helps us function well and do our best, is important.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). They have led the way in Parliament over the past few years in ensuring that Ministers, and the Labour party more generally, are made aware of the importance of good school food, and why that fits with our agenda for improving educational attainment and addressing health issues, such as obesity. I congratulate my hon. Friends on their work, and I thank them for coming to Hull a couple of years ago to see what happened there and to talk to head teachers. They also talked to Professor Colquhoun at Hull university, who is the academic who was tasked with evaluating the scheme in Hull. It was useful and helpful for my hon. Friends to have that time in the city. We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, and I am pleased that we will soon hear from the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West.

I want to say a few words about the Hull experience and about why, from the point of view of a constituency Member of Parliament, what happened there is instructive. One of my big concerns about the coalition Government is their failure to look at evidence and make policy on the back of that. I am also concerned about the renaming of the Department for Education. It used to be called the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which recognised that education does not stand on its own but is part of the whole experience that a baby, child or young person has in their family, their school and with education. The narrow approach to education taken by the Government is shown in their approach to school food. It is almost seen as something that does not have to be considered because all they are really bothered about is English, maths and the introduction of the English baccalaureate, which is a narrow approach to education. We should be concerned about that, because education is much more than just academic subjects. That is where I start from.

The reason why, in 2002-03, Hull started to look carefully at free school meals was that Hull’s children, who are as bright as children anywhere else in the country, were not achieving as much as they should have been at primary and secondary levels. The council took a far-sighted view about the measures that it could introduce to help to deal with some of the educational inequalities in the city and with health inequalities. Unfortunately, my constituents tend to suffer from diseases and medical conditions far earlier than people in other parts of the country. There is a tendency to suffer strokes and to develop obesity and cardiovascular disease much earlier than in other parts of the country. Hull made a real attempt to deal with some of those issues.

We should pay tribute to Councillor Inglis, the leader of the council at the time, who fought hard and used imaginatively the flexibilities that the Labour Government had introduced in relation to education. That allowed the council to introduce a pilot scheme in Hull to provide free school meals in all our primary schools and special schools. It was called the “Eat Well, Do Well” scheme. Young people would go into school and have a healthy breakfast and a healthy lunch. If they stayed for activities after school, healthy snacks were available then as well. The aim was to combine the whole day’s eating within a package of healthy eating and to encourage young people to see food as something positive and enjoyable.

The scheme was in place between 2004 and 2007. Of course, it was important to evaluate the scheme and find out whether it was delivering. Professor Derek Colquhoun of Hull university produced a superb report about what happened in Hull’s schools. We have heard in relation to the experience in Durham what teachers say about the willingness and readiness of young people to learn in the classroom, having had a healthy breakfast or lunch. We hear about parents being pestered when they go to the supermarket by their youngsters saying, “Oh, I tried broccoli at school today. Can we buy some broccoli at the supermarket?” Amazing stuff happened in Hull.

One effect was the development of social skills when children ate together around a table. That was especially the case when there was family service. The food was put in the centre and shared out among all the participants around the table. That facilitated interaction among the children, who talked and listened to one another, which helped them to develop good table manners as well.

Another effect was that gardening clubs were encouraged in schools. Those clubs enabled young people to see food being grown in the playground. Cooking clubs were also encouraged. I went to Thoresby school in my constituency just a few weeks ago. It has an active cooking club. The children like to cook, and they see the value in eating well and in enjoying their food. There have been positive spin-offs from the “Eat Well, Do Well” scheme.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has mentioned gardening clubs, because I have visited a number of schools in my constituency where there are community gardens or the school has a garden. I am referring to Southwold school, which is in Radford, and to Greenfields school and Riverside school, which are both in The Meadows. The children are involved in growing salads and vegetables, which they incorporate into school meals. That encourages them to try fresh produce. Perhaps they would never normally want to look at it, but because they have grown it themselves, they are excited about it and they are trying new things. I also want to mention the importance of introducing fresh fruit into nurseries, which was another thing that the Labour Government did. I know from going into school with my own daughter that children were trying fresh fruit that they had never tried before, which encouraged them to take a much healthier approach to eating.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend has made an important point. There was a proud history over the past 13 years of what was achieved in relation to food in schools and encouraging our young people to eat well.

I pay tribute to the trade unions. Unison and the GMB worked very hard to ensure that the pilot scheme that we ran in Hull worked well. Their members were involved as dinner ladies and cooks, and they were passionate about what the scheme was doing for children in Hull. The unions really embraced the scheme.

As my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham has said, when, unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats took control of the council in Hull in 2006, the first thing they did was to say, “Right. We’re not going to wait for the evaluation of the scheme; we’re just going to scrap it. We’re telling you that in 12 months’ time, it will just end.” That was very disappointing, and it was an act of political vandalism that will come back to haunt them. Having read today’s newspapers, I say to the Minister that that was a foretaste of the way in which the Liberal Democrats were to act in government, because we see today that the policy that they introduced on the education maintenance allowance—suddenly saying that they were scrapping EMA without looking properly at evidence and considering their options—is, unfortunately, the way in which the present Government seem to make policy.

That happened in Hull in 2006. It was very disappointing, but what came out of it, which was heartening, was the recognition by the Labour Government that what had happened in Hull was special and that further evidence was needed to see whether it would provide a basis for rolling out free school meals around the country. As a result, we had the pilots.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point about how decisions are being made by the Liberal Democrats in councils and in government without evidence being taken on board. Does that not show that what is happening is ideologically driven? They did not wait for the evidence in Hull or from the two pilots in Newham and Durham before deciding to scrap the whole scheme.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend has made an important point. The situation is very disappointing. I remember appearing before a Select Committee in the previous Parliament as a Minister and being heavily criticised for decisions having been made on policy development without evidence to back them up. I am passionate about getting the evidence and seeing where it leads us in making our policy. We are talking about what happened in Hull and in Durham and Newham. I was lucky enough to visit both those pilots as well to see what happened in those primary schools and to look at the evidence and the evaluation. It would be criminal not to consider that fully and to take a view about how the Government can best use that information and evidence for the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham talked about Durham, and I take my hat off to the people of Durham for the way in which they fully embraced the scheme. The same applies to the people of Newham, the mayor of Newham and my hon. Friend Lyn Brown, who was a keen advocate of free school meals in her constituency. Also relevant is Wolverhampton, where we were trying something different. As my hon. Friends have said, that was about raising the eligibility level so that more young people were eligible for free school meals.

I want to finish on what is happening in Hull now, because this is a little more positive. Unfortunately, there was the decision by the Lib-Dem council just to scrap the scheme. The Labour council that took control in May this year knew very well that the policy that it had from 2004 to 2006 was working and was delivering for local children. It came in on a manifesto promise that it wanted to reduce the school meal price to 50p. The aim is to get rid of any charge at all, but obviously we are in difficult financial circumstances and Hull has taken a major cut in the money coming from central Government. We have seen the ring-fencing come off the school lunch grant, and we see the coalition’s obsession with schools operating independently and not having a wider connection with the community and the local education authority. The previous Lib-Dem council administration decided to increase the price of school meals to £1.60 from the autumn; the price was £1.30. Labour came in and said that it wanted to reduce the price to 50p, but because of the funding issue that the coalition has introduced, it has not been possible. The council has been able to prioritise and make choices, and it has found some money to enable schools to stick at £1.30 for now, with the aim of reducing the price to £1 by Christmas.

We are, therefore, still taking a positive approach in Hull, because we recognise the scheme’s importance. We also recognise that the long-term aim is to have free school meals not only in Hull, but in other parts of the country, where our youngsters could benefit from the offer of universal free school meals. Such an offer would ensure that they achieve as much as they should in school and that the nation’s health improves.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Education) 10:30 am, 19th July 2011

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne on securing this important debate and on the clear and concise way in which he addressed a number of issues that are relevant to the wide topic of school food. It is no surprise that he has been so well supported by so many hon. Friends, even though, until yesterday, today was to be the last day of term.

I also congratulate and commend my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on their excellent speeches. They are two of the most knowledgeable Members in the House on this issue, and their contributions should be given the weight that they deserve. I thank them for their contributions.

The consensus among Opposition Members is clear: the Tory-led Government are in real danger of undoing all the good work that has gone into improving the quality and uptake of school meals. Not only do the Government not value children having healthy meals in schools, but they think children should not be given the skills to make healthy choices at home.

The craziest thing is that the Government, who are so clearly focused on dealing with the country’s balance sheet at the expense of almost everything else, do not realise that these policies will, in all likelihood, end up costing the country more in the long run in terms of unfulfilled potential and the treatment of obesity-related illnesses. It is estimated that the cost to the NHS of treating obesity-related conditions could reach £10 billion a year by 2050, when those starting school this year will be in their mid-40s and probably parents of school-age children themselves. It is estimated that the wider social and economic cost will be three or four times that amount. Surely, spending a little now to reduce that bill by even a fraction would be money well spent.

The Government, and the Minister’s Department in particular, are nothing if not consistent in their approach to long-term issues in their “cut now, pay later” approach. For example, the Minister yesterday published her thoughts on the future of early-years provision and early intervention without mentioning the fact that she has taken huge chunks out of the budget for those services.

As with nutritional standards in free schools and academies—let us not forget that that would mean every school if the Education Secretary gets his way—Ministers are taking a “let’s cross our fingers and hope for the best” approach. In a letter to the Local Authority Caterers Association last month, the Minister typified that attitude. When challenged about real concerns in the sector about the lack of a duty on free schools and academies to abide by the standards that other schools strive to work to, which were not always popular in the sector, as many of us know, the Minister said that

“schools converting to Academies will already have been providing healthy, balanced meals that meet the current standards. We have no reason to believe that they will stop doing so on conversion, or that new Free Schools will not do so either.”

Does the Minister have reason to believe that such schools will provide food that is up to standard, or does the Department not really care either way? Is consideration of catering arrangements part of the review process for applications to set up a free school? If not, is that not completely inconsistent with all the warm words that we will undoubtedly hear from the Minister about the value of a nutritious lunch?

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Transport)

My hon. Friend is making exactly the right point about the Government’s answer in respect of any changes. Is it not a concern that the Minister of State, Department for Education, Mr Gibb, in reply to my hon. Friend Grahame M. Morris, said:

“Free schools and academies, established since September 2010, are not required to comply with the school food standards, and are free to promote healthy eating and good nutrition as they see fit.”—[Hansard, 7 June 2011; Vol. 529, c. 50W.]

Is the concern not the words “as they see fit”, because many schools might not see fit to promote such things?

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Education)

That is exactly the point. There are plenty of switched-on head teachers who will understand the value of healthy meals. I met one at Hall Mead school in Upminster at the launch of national school meals week last year, and there are many like him. Many of them work at primary and secondary schools in my constituency in Sunderland, where I have had the opportunity to try some of the great healthy food on offer to children there, but not every school has that culture or a leadership team that sees the benefits of healthy lunches.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Government appear to have learned nothing from the past? The previous Conservative Government scrapped nutritional standards, and school meals really declined in quality over a long period. They also put schools under immense financial pressure and introduced compulsory competitive tendering, which decimated the school meals service and reduced it to producing fast food, instead of investing in staff who could cook proper meals from scratch. It is only in the past 13 years that there has been huge investment in rebuilding kitchens and in reintroducing opportunities for school meals workers to produce the meals that they want to.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Education)

I agree. The point of the debate is that we must learn the lessons of the past, not repeat them. We cannot just sit by and allow everything we have achieved in the past 13 years to be undone, which is what is happening at the moment.

To illustrate the point that not all leadership teams understand the benefits of school food, I want to cite a case that was in the news recently, although it does not fall within the Minister’s purview. Bridgend council considered constructing a pathway between Brynteg comprehensive school and a McDonald’s, which just shows that the argument about the value of ensuring that all our children, not just those on free school meals, have a nutritious lunch in school has not yet been won. It also shows why stay-on-site policies are so important for secondary schools.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Labour, Scunthorpe

I wholeheartedly agree that stay-on-site policies are important for secondary schools. They improve behaviour at lunch and in the classroom afterwards, so I fully endorse my hon. Friend’s comments.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Education)

Exactly. A school or a local authority spending money on a path to a fast-food joint, rather than on instigating a stay-on-site policy, is almost as baffling as bringing in a fast-food giant to write public health policy, although, as we know, that, too, has happened. However, there is a serious point: despite all the evidence of the benefits, it is clear that not all school leaders or local authorities place the value that the majority of us in this room would like on children eating healthy lunches.

Everything that the Government have done so far means that standards will start to slide. Why? What possible benefit can there be for our children in giving certain schools the power to throw the rulebook out the window? Perhaps the Minister can at least explain that today. Of course, it is not only in new academies and free schools that standards could slide, because Ofsted no longer has to assess a school’s compliance with the regulations, so how do Ministers expect them to be honoured?

According to the Minister’s letter to caterers, which I mentioned earlier, mums and dads will now have to keep an eye on things, although she does not explain quite how they are expected to do that. However, she promises that, if they tell the Secretary of State about a school, he will use one of his ever-increasing number of powers to direct the school to jolly well buck up its ideas. Unless schools literally go back to the bad old days of turkey twizzlers and chips, however, I cannot imagine that many parents would notice any changes—for example, if the spaghetti bolognese, which might have met the standards before, suddenly had more fat or less vegetable content. That is a meaningless thing for the Minister to say. All that I would ask her is what possible benefit there is to schools or pupils from removing that element of an Ofsted inspection—none that I can think of.

It will be little surprise if nutritional standards slip; after all, the cash that subsidises them has effectively gone. Ministers say that it is within the direct schools grant, but again that is meaningless, because many schools are struggling with their budgets. For many of them, subsidising school meals will be far down the list of priorities, behind staff, materials and many services for which they would previously not have had to pay, such as the broadband bill, to take one example. One more service that they will now have to buy on a commercial basis will be advice from the School Food Trust on how to meet the nutritional standards—not really an attractive option if they do not now have to meet those standards anyway.

As we have heard—it was highlighted in the media last week—school meal take-up is on the rise. I congratulate the Minister on using that for some positive media coverage. I cannot really blame her, I suppose, but there is evidence that that spike could be due to pupil premium-chasing, as reported in The Independent on Sunday. The test of her policies will lie in whether we can see the same rise in three years’ time, and unless there is a radical rethink, I do not think we will. If it should become clear that we are spiralling in the wrong direction, I hope that the Minister will rethink her approach.

My colleagues have spoken at length on the merits of free school meals as a way of closing the gaps in health and educational attainment between children living in poverty and those from better-off backgrounds. It was, as has been said, a cruel blow to hundreds of thousands of young children in working poverty when the Minister and her colleagues scrapped the extended eligibility.

At the Westminster Hall debate on free school meals that I led last June, I noted what my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham has pointed out—that the Liberal Democrats were conspicuous by their absence, as were the Conservatives. That was hardly surprising given their part in one of the most regressive decisions that we have seen from the Government. It is noted that the Minister is here today representing her Lib Dem colleagues as well as her Conservative friends and that she is alone in that task. As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish said in his excellent speech, the universal credit throws the whole system of free school meals into confusion, which will not be cleared up for some time.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

My hon. Friend is making a truly excellent speech. Does not the absence of coalition Members demonstrate that they do not understand the link between a healthy school meal in the middle of the day and narrowing the attainment gap? It demonstrates their narrow and blinkered thinking about education.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend will not be surprised that I agree.

The one thing that I ask the Minister is to ensure at least that least no one loses out because of universal credit. We never know; perhaps under the universal credit system the Government may be able to give a little something back to the half a million or so kids who lost out when the extended eligibility was scrapped last year. However, given the Government’s record so far, I do not think that many of us will be holding our breath.

We have a Government who pay lip service to the importance of school meals—both free and paid for—but whose actions are completely incongruous with that rhetoric. If that were not bad enough, they also do not think that cooking healthy meals is sufficient of a life skill to be taught to young teens. Just as a free school meal may be the only proper meal that some children get, there is a similar cohort for whom the only food skills that they get will be the ones that they learn at school. In fact, they are more than likely to be the same children. Given that fact, the Labour Government put together plans to ensure that all children get mandatory cookery lessons, in the hope that those skills would stay with the young people who received them for the rest of their lives and even transfer to their parents, too. There was evidence of that in the excellent work of Jamie Oliver, of which the Minister is no doubt aware. He has shown that children given knowledge of healthy food and how to cook it go home and influence the food choices made by their parents. In a letter to me, the Minister of State, Department for Education, Mr Gibb justifies the decision to scrap the commitment by saying that the Labour Government did not take any legislative steps to make it compulsory—a pathetic excuse if ever I heard one. However, that is not surprising: after all, it might be difficult for those setting up free schools in an old pub or office to accommodate first-rate food technology classrooms. The simple fact is that the Tory-led Government’s half-baked policies are a recipe for disaster for our children.

I want in closing to ask the Minister two quick questions. Will she fight her corner for free school meals when decisions are taken following the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee and try to extend at least some help to the families who were short-changed by her Government last year? If it becomes clear that the policies that we have been discussing today are resulting in a fall in nutritional standards and/or the take-up of school meals—whether in free schools, academies or other schools—will she step in and do something, or does the “hope and pray” or, as she calls it, localism approach to government prevent her from doing so?

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education 10:45 am, 19th July 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I think it might be the first time I have done so.

I congratulate Andrew Gwynne on securing this debate on a very important topic. I was delighted to hear about his cooking exploits, but I was not quite sure that the diet he described would constitute a healthy lifestyle. Sponge and custard creams are probably exactly what we are trying to get children to avoid snacking on; hopefully no children will be reading about his favourite foods.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Transport)

To be fair, I did also mention my Scotch broth, which is wholesome and nutritious; but when we talk about a balanced diet we do not want to be so restrictive that we cannot enjoy a slice of cake now and then.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education

Far be it from me ever to want to deny the hon. Gentleman a slice of cake. I stand corrected; he did of course mention the Scotch broth as well.

There is much in the hon. Gentleman’s commitment that I would agree with. School food is hugely important. What children eat affects their concentration and health, their tendency to pick up infections and the likelihood of their being absent from school. School food is vital support in that context; it is vital in supporting healthy eating habits, which, beginning from a young age, can continue throughout a life. Unhealthy habits embedded at a young age are also much more difficult to break. Similarly, free school meals play a critical role in addressing issues of poverty and inequality, particularly for young people who would otherwise not get a nutritious meal during the day. That is the reason for the Government’s commitment.

I was struck by comments that hon. Members made about the benefits of eating together, which affects socialisation and behaviour. Children can learn to interact around a meal table, and they may not have other opportunities to do that. I recognise also the previous Government’s achievements, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, on nutritional standards and the renovation of kitchens. On those points I agree with him.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister is being generous in giving way. If she recognises the achievements of the previous Government, particularly in relation to nutritional standards, why are the Government scrapping them?

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education

The Government are not scrapping them, and if the hon. Gentleman will now let me finish I shall deal with the points on which I disagree with him.

I just want to pick up a point made by Diana Johnson. I ask hon. Members to forgive me but I am still losing my voice; it has almost returned after last week’s Education questions, but it is coming in and out. The hon. Lady made a point about nursery education, and the realisation of the need to embed the relevant attitudes early is precisely why I have asked the School Food Trust to produce some nutritional guidance for nurseries and children’s centres. It is producing that at the moment and I hope it will help to embed some of those standards at an early age.

We are absolutely committed to driving up the take-up of school meals. It now stands at 44.1% in primary schools and 37.6% in secondary schools. However, Catherine McKinnell pointed out that, in her constituency, the take-up has gone down in some schools. The School Food Trust is looking into some schools that have had difficulties; although the average might have gone up, some secondary schools have seen striking decreases, and the trust is considering the details in order to understand why.

To help drive up the number who take school meals, we are encouraging schools to use more freedom in charging. We included measures in the Education Bill to allow schools to be more flexible in how they charge. For example, they can make offers if a family has two children or make introductory offers to encourage people to take up school meals. However, I disagree with Opposition Members on many points.

One of the consistent themes of the debate was our decision to remove the ring fence. I was struck by the contradictory nature of Opposition Members’ argument; they spoke about the commitment to school food that they see in their constituencies from schools and head teachers, yet they are unwilling to trust schools to deliver. It is not right to ring-fence everything. It is right to give schools the freedom to decide how to prioritise spending, depending on existing practices. None the less, I recognise what many Opposition Members said about the impact of rising prices. That is why we are working with Pro5, a partnership of the UK’s largest public-sector organisations; we want to drive down the price, encouraging better procurement by using centrally negotiated contracts. I hope that we will reap benefits from that.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Am I correct in thinking that the Government decided to ring-fence the music grant for at least one year to ensure that music was provided in schools? If they can do it for music, why can they not do it for school food?

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education

The hon. Lady would be the first to blow the trumpet if the Labour Government had done so, given the extent to which schools already offer healthy balanced meals. Is she honestly saying that we should always ring-fence everything for ever? I am sure that that is not her view.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education

I will give way to the hon. Lady, as I have not done so yet, but I shall then need to make some progress or I will not be able to answer any of the Opposition’s questions.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

The Minister speaks of removing ring-fencing, but we are in the process of changing the culture of school food and of the way in which schools consider healthy living. That is why it is vital that the Government give out the message that this tranche of money needs to be spent on school food. That is the point being made by Opposition Members; we are not saying that everything should be ring-fenced.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education

Culture has changed significantly, and I join with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish in paying tribute to Jamie Oliver for the work that he has done in changing attitudes.

I now turn to what Opposition Members said about free school meals. The rise in the number of pupils eating school meals inevitably means that there has been a rise in the number taking up their entitlement to free school meals. The latest figures show that 19.1% of pupils in maintained nursery and state-funded primary schools and 15.9% of pupils in state-funded secondary schools are registered for free school meals. However, for all sorts of reasons, not all children entitled to free school meals currently take up the offer—for instance, because of stigma or because they are unaware that they are entitled, a point made by a number of Opposition Members. Cash-free systems can help in driving down the stigma attached to free school meals. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned Tameside’s system for online checking. That is part of the Department’s award-winning free school meal eligibility checking system, which has had huge impact on encouraging parents to apply for free school meals by helping to remove that stigma. It is also significantly cheaper for local authorities to administer.

A number of Members spoke about the universal credit, with its automatic passporting of benefits. If we were to use that system, our way of dealing with free school meals would have to change. I understand that hon. Members want answers now, but I am sure they recognise that it is important that we get the detail right. That is why we are taking our time; we are examining how best to ensure that all those children eligible for free school meals can benefit. We are working through that now, and I shall update hon. Members as soon as I can.

I wish to correct a few misunderstandings on the pilot scheme. We did not cancel the pilots in Durham, Newham or Wolverhampton, but we had to cancel them elsewhere because, unfortunately, the programme was underfunded by £295 million. Being able to offer free school meals to every primary school child is certainly on my wish list; if money were to grow on the trees in the atrium at the Department for Education, that wish would be high up there.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education

I shall complete this point first. I have only four minutes left and I have barely answered any of the points raised in the debate.

Free school meals for every primary school child is definitely on our list of things that it would be nice to offer at some point in the future. The absolute need for evidence is precisely why those pilots were allowed to run; we can evaluate the evidence and see what impact it has at a later stage, when finances make it rather easier.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In the Chamber today are two former Ministers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and they both say that the Minister is wrong. It is a question of priorities: we prioritised it and she has not.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education

The problem is that Opposition Members have given no indication of what they would cut in order to fund free school meals. I suspect that the two former Ministers did not see the detailed budgets of their Department, but evidence makes it extremely clear that the previous Government underfunded their pledge by £295 million. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish said that the Labour party had a plan to halve the deficit, but they should make clear where those cuts would fall. It is simply not good enough to say that they have a plan to halve the deficit but not make clear where the cuts would fall. If we were to have honoured all of those pilots, we would have had to cut the best part of £300 million—

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education

No, I will not give way again. We would have had to cut the best part of £300 million from elsewhere in the Department’s budget. If hon. Members were to tell me which areas of the budget they would be willing to cut to the tune of £300 million, then it might be a little easier—[ Interruption. ]

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

Order. I ask hon. Members to quieten down a little.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education

Hon. Members also spoke about Ofsted. It had responsibility only for the healthy eating approach of schools. It did not engage nutritionists when doing those inspections, so it would be a fallacy to assume that the only thing that was driving compliance with standards was the Ofsted inspection.

On the School Food Trust, I think there have been some misunderstandings. All advice that the trust has made available with Government grant will continue to be made available free of charge. It will be able to charge for new advice that it prepares once it becomes a charity and no longer receives Government grant, but it will be a charity, a not-for-profit organisation, and will need only to cover its costs. I believe that the high quality of its advice means that local authorities and schools will want to use it. A great deal of the support that it has offered has proved useful.

Opposition Members raised the subject of including cooking in the national curriculum. They should wait until we have reviewed the national curriculum, and see the outcome. However, our internal review of what secondary schools are doing shows that most already provide practical cooking at key stage 3, and they are unlikely to stop doing so regardless of whether we legislate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish on securing the debate. I have tried to answer at least some of the questions raised this morning.