HC Deb 06 May 1971 vol 816 cc1615-7
3. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what figures are available showing the change in the number of school dinners taken in the last month consequent on the increased prices.

5. Mr. Carter

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what estimate she has made of the percentage of all school children who eat school meals.

38. Mrs. Doris Fisher

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what statistics she has received from local education authorities as to the reduction in the number of children taking school meals since increased charges have been levied.

Mrs. Thatcher

I have asked local education authorities to make a special return of meals on a day during the week beginning 17th May. This will provide reliable information about changes in demand for school meals following the introduction of the new charges and remission arrangements last month.

Mr. Hamilton

Is it not the case that estimates have been made that half a million school children will be, or rather are now being, denied these school meals? Does the right hon. Lady not regard this as a disgraceful state of affairs? Does she not recognise that if this policy is not changed she will go down in educational history as the Mrs. Scrooge with the painted face?

Mrs. Thatcher

The take-up of meals always falls off after increased charges. It did so after the last Government increased charges as well.

Mr. Carter

Is the Secretary of State aware that her rather insensitive and somewhat banal remarks on television about how children can appear to pay for free school meals has caused a great deal of distress and dismay in education circles? Second, is she aware that, in spite of her Circular 3/71, many local authorities, of which Birmingham is one, have many schools which are not allowing children to eat sandwiches instead of a school meal and that in some cases this means that children will go all day with no food at all?

Mrs. Thatcher

If the hon. Gentleman has a specific case which he wishes to put to us, we will, of course, take it up. On my previous remarks, my anxiety—I believe it is shared by every hon. Member—is that children who take free school meals should not be identifiable by their fellows.

Mr. Marks

Will the right hon. Lady spare a thought for the dinner ladies, who cook and serve the meals? Their hours of work and pay are based on the number of dinners taken. Since many put in additional work on the crockery and whatever is needed for sandwich meals, they find that their work is just as hard but is paid less well.

Mrs. Thatcher

Yes, of course I will spare a thought for them, but I am not sure of the precise import of the hon. Member's question, apart from that.

Mr. Lane

But is it not a fact, as my right hon. Friend has said, that, although the number of children taking meals fell after the Labour Government introduced the charge, they rose again, so that last year the percentage of children taking meals at school was considerably higher than five years before, in spite of two increases by the Labour Party in the meantime?

Mrs. Thatcher

That is correct. In spite of increases in school meal charges over the years, both the numbers and the proportion of children taking school meals have risen.

Miss Lestor

When the right hon. Lady has collected the statistics, which, as she has said, will show a drop in the number of children taking school meals who have to pay for them, what does she intend to do if there is general concern, as we feel there will be, over that state of affairs? On her comments about trying to avoid embarrassing children who take free school meals, what further consideration is she giving to schemes and suggestions which have been put forward for alternative methods of collecting dinner money?

Mrs. Thatcher

As the hon. Lady knows, the precise schemes are for local education authorities within the terms of the circulars which we and previous Governments have sent out. I do not think we can go further by laying down specific schemes. When the census results come in on 17th May I shall have reliable information. The hon. Lady will know that the remission scales are now higher than they have ever been before, and that in August there will be a family income supplement which will entitle many children to free meals automatically, without special application.

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