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5 July 2006 : Column 283WH—continued

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, particularly about the ground-breaking work in Hull. She mentions the need for cultural change for children, but there is a need for cultural change for parents, too. Does she have a view on the impact of schemes such as Sure Start, which help to develop parents’ cooking skills? Will that not have an important impact on this serious issue, too?

Ms Johnson: My hon. Friend anticipates what I was going to say about the valuable role of Sure Start and children’s centres in promoting healthy eating and encouraging parents to try cooking if they have not been used to it before. They have provided some excellent courses and support for young parents, particularly in my constituency. I pay tribute to the Sure Start at the Lemon Tree and the Newland and Avenues Sure Start, which are doing some amazing work on that.

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I also wanted to comment on some of my personal experiences of school meals in Hull. Early on, children said that they did not think that they liked the healthy food. Hull took a good approach, packaging the healthy food in a way that made it exciting and interesting to children. I remember a child saying to me that he did not like the sound of a vegetable and meat stew, as he thought it sounded pretty dire. However, when that was described as cowboy pie, he was much more enthusiastic.

I was very impressed, when I was standing at some school gates last year, to see children coming out of school munching on carrots and apples. When I was at school, we left eating not fruit and vegetables, but chocolate bars and bags of crisps. I pay tribute to the work of the Parks primary school, which has embraced the issue of healthy school meals. I was impressed with the work done by the staff to encourage children to try different types of food. The head teacher in particular, Cathy Byrne, is an inspiration to local families and children when it comes to trying new things and being excited by different types of food. I invited the Minister with responsibility for public health, the Minister of State, Department of Health, to visit the school to see what was going on. I know that she was particularly struck by the school and the positive messages that were being given about healthy eating.

David Taylor: In my debate on this subject earlier in this Parliament, I pointed out that, although some schools have a good track record in promoting healthy eating and high-nutrition meals, others allow the presence of machines containing snacks with high-salt and high-sugar content. Would it not be futile if a child had a healthy midday meal, only to supplement it with such unhealthy food? Does my hon. Friend hope that the Minister will have something to say about that?

Ms Johnson: I look forward to what the Minister has to say about the provisions in the Education and Inspections Bill about the type of food that is available in schools.

Kingston upon Hull city council was awarded the Caroline Walker Trust award for improving the nutritional standards of food in the public sector. Earlier this year, we had an international conference in Hull to consider healthy school meals. Councillor Glew, who took forward the project, wanted to ensure that older people, too, could be included in the healthy eating pilot. Some of the meals on wheels provision in Hull is now linked to the primary schools, so that older people also benefit.

We cannot just say that food is the key. Exercise is also important. I am delighted that Hull has led the way in providing free swimming to our children. Not only is there a safety issue, but if we get children to exercise when they are young that will carry on into later life.

That all sounds good and positive, and I am proud of it. Unfortunately, the progress in Hull is threatened because our new Liberal Democrat administration has made it clear that it intends to have a managed withdrawal of universal free primary school meals from April 2007. Not only is that the wrong thing to
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do, but it is short-sighted, as the council is taking no notice of the final report and evaluation of the pilot scheme in Hull, which the university will produce next year.

Why are the Lib Dems doing that? Before the May local election, the leader of the Lib Dems told our local newspaper, the Hull Daily Mail, that they wanted to bring back charging to provide more revenue further to increase spending on ingredients. After the election, they claimed that the policy was unaffordable because of Hull’s budget position.

The flip-flopping Lib Dem administration has changed its tune about the policy in general. The leader of the Lib Dems has spent several months rubbishing the take-up figures for the free healthy schools meals and painting universal free school meals as a failure. He went on to our local BBC “Look North” programme to ask why, if the policy was such a good idea, no other council was doing it, clearly failing to accept that it was an innovative pilot scheme and involved a local authority deciding what solution was required for its area, and that Hull was, for once, taking the lead on an issue of national importance.

The Lib Dems have also said in the Yorkshire Post that the £3 million cost of the project has presented problems for social services and crime-related services in Hull. That concerns me greatly, because anyone with a passing understanding of budgets would know that the police budget is separate from the local authority budget. More recently, when protests about the council’s policy started to grow and people heard that the scheme would be withdrawn, Councillor Minns, the leader of the Lib Dems, told the Hull Daily Mail that he would carry on with universal free primary schools meals, provided that Hull received more money from Whitehall to fund it. That prompts the question of why the Lib Dems want public money for a policy that they think is such a failure.

Others object to free universal school meals because, in the words of Hull’s Tory group,

Many hon. Members have been victims of such right-wing political correctness, finding that, whenever they promote measures to discourage people from harming themselves or to allow them to make positive, healthy choices in their lives—for instance, with smoking bans or measures to prevent scalding in the bathroom—they are accused of a nanny-state mentality, big Government or state dependency. It seems to me that it is more about enabling people to make healthy, better decisions in their lives. I see the policy as an invest-to-save policy. The policy of free school meals has long-term scope, as we invest now to avoid larger bills for taxpayers in future years. Childhood obesity and the related educational underperformance can lead to spiralling costs in the NHS, more welfare dependency, and a reliance on a range of local government services that are related to ill health and incapacity.

One of the less publicised aspects of the Education and Inspections Bill is that it will make permanent the local discretion necessary to allow councils to follow Hull’s example of abolishing charges in the drive to promote healthy diets in schools. We know that the Bill contains provisions to improve nutritional standards—
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they have already been referred to—and we know that the Liberal Democrats voted against that part of the Bill.

There must be grave doubts in Hull about the Liberal Democrats’ decision to scrap that groundbreaking policy next year. There has been massive investment in educational funding from the Government, in Hull as in the rest of the country. It is possible for Hull to continue the “Eat Well, Do Well” policy beyond the initial pilot scheme, which ends next year, within the available budget. Hull Liberal Democrats set out their stall, alongside Hull’s two Conservative councillors, as being hostile to universal free school meals and in favour of means-testing—to the point of announcing, as I said earlier, that they will scrap the scheme from next year without considering the evaluation.

I shall now concentrate on the fact that Hull’s experience is valuable nationally. Although I understand and respect the sound reasons why the Child Poverty Action Group is campaigning for universal free school meals across the country, as a localist, I do not advocate imposing a detailed school dinner policy from Whitehall on Hull or any other local authority. However, I believe that providing universal free school meals is an effective option in improving children’s health in areas of greatest deprivation. Local situations deserve local solutions.

I was pleased that, within the health arena, spearhead primary care trusts allow the most deprived areas to innovate, and to find different ways of doing things in order to reach groups that were previously difficult to reach. For instance, we have health trainers in Hull who get alongside the community and work with people who have chronic conditions.

The success of Hull’s scheme should give every local authority, especially those in areas of greatest health inequality, the incentive to use the new powers of the Education and Inspections Bill, and to follow Hull’s previous Labour administration. I assume that a great many local authorities share the aspiration to improve the diets of school children. It is for democratically accountable local councils to set local priorities on how to achieve that. That applies especially to those that are taking what I believe to be a regressive step in Hull.

Which of the Liberal Democrats’ policies will allow them to address some of the fundamental public health issues that we face today, and to ensure that our children are healthier and eating better? I do not know what their policies are: nationally, they talk about being against means-testing; locally, they use it when it suits them.

What next? In Hull, we will be fighting a vigorous campaign with local schools, parents, teachers, groups such as CPAG and trade unions to try to get the Liberal Democrat administration to change its mind before taking that step. Rob Batty, the Unison branch secretary for Hull, said that it is regrettable that school meals have become a political football. He will be working hard with other unions to mount a joint campaign with parents. Les Dobbs, the regional officer of GMB, said that the union is committed to action with parents. We want to promote best practice in fighting childhood obesity, and all that that is storing up for the future. In Hull and similar places, it may
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mean not only keeping universal free school meals in primary and special schools, but extending it to secondary schools.

I want to make it clear that I do not seek additional funds from Westminster for Hull’s scheme to continue. As I have already said, Hull, like everywhere else in the United Kingdom, has received a massive investment in education and health since 1997, and it has the power to pursue local initiatives. I am much more interested in local councils and PCTs pooling budgets creatively, and considering local area agreements and other methods of dealing locally with the public health agenda. Hull already has a joint director of public health, and the PCTs and the local authority show that we can have an effective partnership at that level.

I invite hon. Members to support my early-day motion 2486 on childhood obesity and healthy school meals. Liberal Democrat Members have a choice: they can distance themselves from their administration in Hull, or they can support the council’s regressive, wasteful and confused policy, which is to the detriment of a whole generation of children in Hull.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. David Marshall (in the Chair): Order. As the Room does not have an adequate air conditioning system, Members may remove their jackets. It may help Members to know that I intend to start the winding-up speeches no later than 3.30 pm.

2.56 pm

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) on making a powerful and compelling case. I do not think that either side of the House would argue about the importance of public health. It is crucial to the future of our children—and, indeed, to the future of our country, particularly the most deprived areas.

I want to talk a little about my constituency in Swindon. Although everyone agrees on the general principles, when it comes to local decision making, local authorities all too often seem not to understand the importance of public health.

Before I go on to deal with junk food and healthy diets in Swindon, I shall pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North about free school meals. She made a good case for Hull’s visionary experiment, which pioneered innovation for universal free school meals—an attractive option. We have not been quite so visionary in Swindon, but my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) and I have been trying to work with Swindon borough council for nearly 18 months to get it to drive up the take-up of those entitled to free school meals. We all know that too few of those entitled to free school meals are taking them. A lot of information is held about entitlement, but data protection issues make it complicated to translate that information in a way that would allow us to encourage those entitled to free school meals to take them.

They are complex issues, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon and I have been engaged in dialogue with the council and Departments. Data
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protection is important in protecting the liberties of every citizen, but that is no reason not to do things that are in the public interest. Data protection is often used as an excuse by lethargic bureaucrats not to do things that are perfectly possible under data protection legislation, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look again at the matter and to get his officials to work with other Departments and local authorities to overcome those data protection impediments. Resolving that problem would drive up the take-up of free school meals by those entitled to them.

I want to talk about two issues in relation to healthy diets in Swindon. When the Conservative administration took over in Swindon, it rapidly came to the decision that it could no longer afford to subsidise hot school meals, and it asked schools to make alternative arrangements. Unfortunately, a number of primary schools were unable to make such arrangements, and as a result some primary school children no longer have the option of a hot school meal.

I was concerned about that, and I conducted a survey of primary school heads in my constituency. It is not a scientific result, but it is a reliable indication of the scale of the problem. The head teachers’ estimation was that in some schools, particularly those serving some of the more deprived areas, up to 25 per cent. of children received their only hot meal of the week at school. As a result of the council’s decision, even that is no longer possible. Swindon is a relatively prosperous constituency with areas of deprivation, but some primary school children receive no hot school meals.

There is some dispute about how essential a hot school meal is for nutrition; some people make the case that it is perfectly possible for someone who eats only cold school meals to have a healthy diet. I tend not to believe that, but for important social considerations it is important for children to sit together and have a hot school meal, or at least have the option of doing so. Having one is not possible in Swindon primary schools.

Fortunately, thanks to the Government’s new investment in school diet, Swindon borough council is to receive a significant sum of new money. It has told me that, as a result, it will consider reintroducing hot school meals by 2008. However, I am concerned by recent local newspaper reports suggesting that the council’s suddenly estimated costs for providing those hot school meals are way beyond what they used to be and way beyond the new investment that the Government are providing, and that the council is looking for a way not to provide the option of a universal hot school meal for primary school children in Swindon.

I am deeply concerned about that and would be grateful if the Minister gave some indication of his Department’s policy on hot school meals for primary school children; I know that it has been considering the issue. I would also be grateful if he did what he could to encourage local authorities, such as the one that I mentioned, to look much more constructively at the issue. We cannot take risks with the health of our young people, but I fear that that is at stake.

I turn to the issue of junk food in leisure centres. To its credit, Swindon borough council set up a working party to consider that issue, and it came forward with a number of recommendations. One seems important: to ban the sale of junk food in the council’s leisure centres.
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It seems pretty obvious to me that junk food on sale in a borough council leisure centre sends the message that such food is acceptable for the young people who enjoy the facilities. That message is unacceptable.

In looking at the issue and rejecting the recommendation of its own working party, the borough council said that the issue was one of freedom of choice and that it should not dictate what young people should eat. With all respect to the council, that slightly misses the point. Of course everyone believes in freedom of choice, but since the 19th century, elected representatives have placed constraints, on grounds of health and safety, on the freedom to sell absolutely any food to absolutely anyone. That is the issue here.

We should not send messages to young people or their parents that junk food is a viable healthy diet. It simply is not, although that does not mean that people should not enjoy it as part of a balanced diet. No elected body or borough council should send out that message, particularly to young people. Having junk food on sale in a leisure centre sends out precisely the wrong message.

I would be grateful if the Minister had a look at the issue. The Government have legislated to try to protect people from the consequences of all sorts of unhealthy options in their lives. Does he think that the practice of putting junk food on sale in borough council leisure centres should be encouraged?

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North on raising this very important subject. I have been glad to make my contribution just on what is happening in Swindon. The issue is crucial for our young people; anything that the Government and the Minister can say to encourage all local authorities to take a more visionary attitude, such as that adopted by the Labour administration in Hull, would be very welcome—on both sides of the House, I hope.

3.4 pm

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): I join my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) on securing this debate. I have also signed early-day motion 2486 and encourage all hon. Members on both sides of the House to do the same.

I am pleased to contribute to this vital and topical debate. The policies that we adopt to fight childhood obesity will be vital to ensuring that we limit the damage to our nation’s future health. I was pleased to hear that the pioneering free school meals pilot in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North will continue. It shows the folly of the Liberal Democrats’ attempt to scrap the scheme; they have now been forced into a U-turn.

There is an unbreakable bond between the two issues being discussed today. Although a focus on school meals can only ever be part of the solution to the growing problem of obesity in our society, I hope that by setting a strong, healthy example to our children, we can aim to tackle the problem at source.

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