Sharon Hodgson

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Local Authority Caterers Association Conference 06.12.10

Sharon was asked to provide the keynote speech to the LACA Conference in West London, in her role as Shadow Minister for Education with responsibility for school meals.

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Thank you Spencer, and good morning everyone.

Some of you may remember that I attended and spoke from the floor at the LACA School Food Summit back in March 2009. I'm very pleased to be asked to give the keynote speech to this conference as Shadow Minister with responsibility for School food.

I was also extremely pleased to be invited to be part of the launch of National School Meals Week at the beginning of November at Hall Mead School in Upminster.

I think the kids were more interested in Papa Dolmio than me, but I suppose his spaghetti Bolognese was pretty good!

It was a great morning though, so well done to Vicki and everyone else involved in organising it, and to all the schools who took part across the country.

I'd like to use this opportunity to say ‘thank you'. Thank you to all of you who worked so hard with the last government to drive up the standard and take-up of school food over the last few years.

Those here today, and your colleagues across the country, know better than most the importance of school meals in improving the health and educational attainment of the children who receive them - particularly for those children for whom their school meal might be their only hot, nutritious meal of the day.

Quality food and quality education on food and nutrition are the blocks on which we can build a healthier future for our children.

LACA members are literally the front line of the fight to tackle the health problems posed by poor diets and lifestyles, and have been instrumental in delivering the previous government's programmes, and achieving a massive improvement in the quality of food.

I know it hasn't always been easy, and there have been concerns over funding and practicalities, as well as a drop in take-up while children get used to the lack of chips and their other favourite foods. I know that the mere mention of Jamie Oliver can turn the air blue in some kitchens!

But I know also that what we were doing together was right, that it was important, and that it will have long-lasting positive effects on the health of our children, so it is absolutely right that you get recognition for your key role in this.

I know that I don't have to recite all the achievements we have made over the last few years to the people here today, so I want to focus my remarks on the future.

Up until May, the future looked pretty rosy - people who had been campaigning for years for free school meals, myself included, had managed to achieve a commitment from the Government to extend eligibility to a further half million children who are living below the poverty line.

Of course, we wanted a universal entitlement, but this commitment - especially given the financial constraints - was a significant steps towards it.

But skip forwards a few months and the new Government have removed that new entitlement  - a massive slap in the face for caterers like yourselves, but a full-on kick for the poor children who would have received it.

Michael Gove's justification was so maddening - he said: "No one who's currently eligible for free school meals will lose out, but we believe that it is more important to use this money to support measures to raise attainment."

Really?

Let's leave aside for a moment the fact that this is something that is targeted on a group which typically under-achieves in school, and let's leave aside the fact that research has consistently proven that attainment can be improved by providing hot, healthy meals.

Nick Gibb, one of his own Ministers, even acknowledged this fact in a parliamentary answer to me back in October.

Let's also leave aside that Gove's Education Endowment Fund will pay out just £10m a year - a fraction of our National Challenge Programme, which was £400m over 3 years.  He says that's what he's using the money we'd put aside for our extension but what's he using it for the next year and the year after that?  As the money into the Endowment Fund was a one off sum?

Anyway, what he's effectively saying is that boosting grades in a few schools is more important than providing a benefit to all of the poorest children in the country which addresses a basic human need.

It's not really much good a child having a decent grade in Latin if they grow up with rickets.  Back to Victorian Britain again I suppose!  On both accounts!

It's a disgrace, quite frankly - part of a growing list of ridiculous decisions from a Secretary of State who is more interested in doing things his way than doing them the right way for children.

As you will also know, the Government has done with School Lunch Grants what it has done with other hugely successful schemes we introduced to improve the lives of children, such as School Sport Partnerships and Sure Start.

They call it removing ringfences, allowing people to make their own decisions.

In reality it is a naked political ploy - an attempt to shift the blame for inevitable and unpopular cuts onto other people - mainly local authorities.

Of course, there was the removal of funding for the School Food Trust, too.

It wasn't too much of a surprise, I know, and on its own it probably wouldn't have been too much of a problem, but as part of this package of changes to the landscape it could cause real difficulties.

In a parliamentary answer to me Sarah Teather said that although it wouldn't be getting support from the DfE, it would be free to sell its services to local authorities.

That's the same local authorities who are having to deal with front-loaded cuts to their future settlements, as well as all the in-year cuts they had to make this year.

Are they really going to have the money to buy in services like this, or for that matter to provide subsidies to schools that they have no obligation to do?

Of course they're not. The good councils will try, certainly, but that will inevitably mean cuts elsewhere.

We've already seen that some councils want to wash their hands of dealing with school catering - what Croydon (a Tory Council) announced a few months ago is particularly concerning, especially if we end up with no hot meals in those schools.

When you compare it to the great work that Islington are doing in providing Universal Free School Meals, I think it reflects extremely badly on the attitude of the Conservative Party to providing services for the young.

My real fear is that this is the way more councils could be going, or be forced to go - particularly those who want to be ‘Ryanair' councils.

Ryanair's food service is terrible, so that certainly wouldn't be a welcome move!

Coming back to the School Food Trust, though - what this will probably mean is that LACA members will be left on their own to maintain and improve standards.

I think that's probably welcomed by many members, and I think that you are up to it, but it is a serious responsibility to undertake.

When Spencer provided me with an outline of what you were looking for in this speech, he posed the question ‘Can we afford to fund school catering'?

I think the real question is: Can we afford not to fund school catering?

Like all money spent on children, the School Lunch Grant is an investment which bears only a limited amount of fruit instantly.

By this I mean the stability provided to meal providers, knowing that money is there and is ringfenced.

There's the trickle down to suppliers, and the financial benefit to parents of keeping meal prices low.

There's also the professional development of the workforce, something which has traditionally been almost non-existent.

But the real value of the School Lunch Grant will only become apparent in years to come.

In preparation for this speech I was leafing through the ‘Return of the Turkey Twizzler' report from the Food for Life Partnership.

It's tempting to make a Bernard Matthews joke at this point, but all the ones I've heard so far have been pretty foul.

There was one statistic in that report that really caught my eye - in the UK, we spend more on treating diabetes in just 3 days than we do on the annual School Lunch Grant.

So if by making the investment we have, by subsidising healthy food and developing good habits at an early age, we see a reduction in the incidence of diabetes by just 1%, the country has made a profit.

And this is just one saving, from just one cost of bad diets.

We know that nutritious food improves attainment, and that the earlier you start improving attainment the better the child does through the rest of their academic career.

So if by spending that money, particularly on primary schools, you remove a need for spending later in life to address attainment issues, and you increase the likelihood that those children will go on to get good jobs and contribute to the economy, then once again, it is a worthwhile investment which will continue to reap rewards.

The results from Greenwich back this up - attainment at the end of primary school shot up after the Feed Me Better campaign began, and absenteeism due to sickness fell.

So yet again, the Government are making cuts which they know to be a false economy, and the people who will suffer as a result of their choices - and remember despite their rhetoric these are their choices, their decisions, their cuts- and the ones who will suffer are the young and the poor.

And the bill for these choices will land at the feet of a different government, and so ultimately taxpayers - in a generation's time. That's right - those very same young people who are losing out now.

Sometimes I'm left wondering if Cameron and Co are attempting to parody the Tory party of the 80s. It would be laughable if it wasn't so serious.  But as I said earlier I think it's worse than 80's Britain they are going to take us back to- I fear it's more like Victorian Britain.

So what's the future for you as caterers, and for children as the beneficiaries?

Well, it's going to be pretty difficult.

As I said, removing the ringfence removes any kind of security for contractors, as squeezed budgets are juggled, and headteachers have to focus on the subjects in the new English baccalaureate to improve their league table standing.

Local authorities will struggle to provide support too - they'll be feeling the brunt of the cuts, and all but their core services will be under threat.

And there's not only budgetary pressures from that direction.

Many parents who don't qualify for free school meals may find that they can't afford to pay for them, especially with cuts to housing benefit, childcare tax credits and even child benefit, coupled with wage restraint and the possibility of shorter working hours.

I do think it would be a real tragedy if you as caterers are forced to put your prices up to compensate for these pressures.

I fully understand that you need to buy the ingredients and pay your staff. I even understand that some of you need to make a profit, or at least not make a loss.

But I also understand that we run a real risk of losing all the good work you have done over the last few years to encourage take-up if prices go up too much at a time when families are getting poorer due to what the government are doing.

But at the same time, there are opportunities, and I think that the investment that has gone in already has provided caterers with a pretty solid foundation on which to build in the coming years.

One of the biggest opportunities for you is also one of the saddest for the country.

Because of the Government's programme of cuts to the wider economy - shedding half a million public sector jobs and throttling growth in the private sector - there's going to be a lot more parents who find themselves out of work, and so a lot more children becoming eligible for Free School Meals, even without the extension to eligibility.

So assuming you can encourage take-up in that group, that's more mouths to feed which local authorities have a duty to fund.

And despite the loss of support for the School Fund Trust, I don't think we'll see the return to Turkey Twizzlers that we've been hearing about, even in the new free schools that may not have to abide by the tough standards we put in place.

Aside from the regulations that are in place, I think the argument that school meals should be as healthy as possible is won, and that most, if not all caterers are on board with doing all they can to promote healthy eating.

To be fair to the Government, I think most of them agree too. I say most, because I'm really not sure what Andrew Lansley thinks these days.  Neither does Jamie Oliver from what I read in the papers.

But just offering warm words is not good enough, it is actions that count, and we aren't seeing any positive steps being taken by this Government to protect the high standards they have inherited.

You can probably tell that you'll have my support in the Commons to raise these issues whenever I can.

There are other battles I have to fight, but few as important to me as ensuring that we do the best by our children. And to me, doing the best by them means ensuring that as many as possible are getting the fuel they need to develop, both physically and cognitively.

So thank you again for everything you have done in pursuit of this goal, and I look forward to meeting and working with you over the coming years to try and ensure that you, and our children, are not sold down the river by this government.

Thank you, and I welcome any questions you may have.

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