MP hails "sensible" Hull Council decision on free school food

Hull North MP Diana Johnson has welcomed Hull City Council's backing today of a Labour motion reaffirming support for the authority's pioneering universal free healthy primary school meals policy.

The motion from Labour Councillor Daren Hale was passed by 29 votes to 25, with the Lib Dems and Tories voting jointly against.

Hull City Council's new Lib Dem leadership, supported by Hull Tory councillors, recently announced a "managed withdrawal" of Hull's award-winning 'Eat Well, Do Well' initiative. The pioneering scheme, introduced by Hull's previous Labour administration, had increased spending on healthier school meal ingredients, while making free school meals universal for Hull's 24,000 primary school pupils.

The Hull initiative is seen as a national pilot scheme and is being evaluated by Hull University with a final report in 2007. Interim results showed that the take-up of school meals in Hull from 36 per cent to 64 per cent under the policy. With the latest official figures showing that more than a quarter of English secondary schoolchildren are clinically obese - almost double the proportion of a decade ago - the 'Eat Well, Do Well' policy has been central to Hull's progress in improving primary school children's diets and their readiness to learn.

In today's council debate, Lib Dem Lead Member for Education Mike Ross joined the Tories in attacking the universal free school meals policy as "encouraging a dependency culture".

Diana Johnson MP said: "It is welcome that Hull City Council has made the sensible decision to await the results of Hull's pilot scheme before thinking of changes to the universal free primary school meals policy.

"However, the position taken by the Lib Dems means that this key public health policy will remain under threat as long as Hull has a Lib Dem administration.

"With the massive extra Labour Government investment in education since 1997, Hull can afford to continue the 'Eat Well, Do Well' scheme after the three year pilot has been completed. The previous Labour administration in Hull could afford the policy. The current Lib Dem regime can afford it as well if the health of Hull's school-children was a sufficiently high priority for the Lib Dems.

"Sadly, Hull's Lib Dems and Tories seem to think of this debate as a welfare issue rather than a public health one. For the Lib Dems and Tories, the public health problem of childhood obesity is confined to those eligible for means-tested benefits.

"Hull's Lib Dems seem to misunderstand what a pilot scheme is, are inconsistent in their attitude to means-testing and oblivious to the long term savings to tax-payers of improving the take-up of healthy food in schools.

"Bringing back charging would reverse the improved take-up of healthy school meals in Hull that we have seen under the 'Eat Well Do Well' policy. It would contribute to a public health time-bomb ticking in a generation of Hull children and impose major future costs on the NHS, welfare benefits and those council services related to illness and incapacity.

"The campaign for free healthy school meals in Hull will continue."

Meanwhile, 74 MPs have so far backed a Commons motion from Diana Johnson MP urging Hull City Council to delay a final decision on the future of the free primary school meals policy until the final results of Hull University's assessment of Hull's three year pilot scheme is known in 2007.