Sharon responded to a debate on School Food called by Andrew Gwynne MP on behalf of the Opposition.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (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?
Andrew Gwynne: 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, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (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."-[Official Report, 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?
Mrs Hodgson: 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.
Lilian Greenwood: 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.
Mrs Hodgson: 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.
Nic Dakin: 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.
Mrs Hodgson: 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.
Roberta Blackman-Woods: 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.
Mrs Hodgson: 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, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (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?