With Liberal Democrat controlled Hull City Council meeting on Thursday (20 July) to discuss its policy of reintroducing primary school meal charges, 70 MPs have so far backed a Commons motion urging Hull councillors to think again.
The Early Day Motion (EDM) tabled by Hull North MP Diana Johnson has been supported by MPs from five political parties, including two Lib Dems. The EDM reads:
"That this House notes the most recent research showing that childhood obesity threatens the health and academic attainment of young people throughout the United Kingdom, with major long-term cost implications in the National Health Service, illness-related welfare benefits and local authority services; acknowledges that the problem of childhood obesity extends beyond those on the lowest household income levels as defined by entitlement to means-tested benefits; believes that a more nutritious diet for schoolchildren has a central role in combating this public health problem; applauds Hull City Council's three-year pilot scheme, combining increased investment in healthier school food ingredients with the abolition of charges for primary school meals; observes that the resulting increase in the take-up of school meals from 36 per cent. to 64 per cent. indicates that universal free school meals is a particularly effective means of extending healthy eating to children in the areas of greatest deprivation; recognises Hull's 'Eat Well, Do Well' scheme to be a nationally significant example of the local innovation encouraged in the Education and Inspections Act 2006; regrets that Hull City Council's new minority administration has expressed opposition to the free primary school meals scheme and has announced the reintroduction of schools meals charging for those not claiming means-tested benefits, without waiting to consider the final results in 2007 of their pilot scheme; fears that this action would reverse Hull's progress in increasing the take-up of healthy school meals; and joins the Child Poverty Action Group in urging Hull councillors to reconsider this decision."
The MPs' call comes after Hull City Council's new Lib Dem leadership, supported by Hull Tory councillors, 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 initiative was 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. 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.
Hull City Council's move has been attacked by the Child Poverty Action Group as "shameful" and comes after the latest official figures showed that more than a quarter of English secondary schoolchildren are clinically obese - almost double the proportion of a decade ago. With one of the highest rates of obesity in England, Hull has also been dubbed as Britain's 'Fat Capital'.
Hull councillors will be discussing a motion on "The Nutritional Content of School Meals" from Labour councillor Daren Hale.
Diana Johnson MP said: "The fact that a significant number of MPs across the parties have backed my motion shows how Hull's 'Eat Well, Do Well' policy is seen as a national pilot scheme in the fight against childhood obesity.
"MPs are simply asking Hull City Council not to prejudge the final results of Hull University's study of the pilot scheme and not to make a firm decision on the future of the policy until we have the these results in 2007.
"Hull's Lib Dems seem to misunderstand what a pilot scheme is and have been inconsistent in their attitude to means-testing. Oblivious to the long term savings to tax-payers of improving the take-up of healthy food in schools, the Lib Dems seem confused about their reasons for withdrawing the free school meals policy, changing their story about what they would do with the money raised from restoring charging.
"Worse still, Hull Lib Dems seem to think that the public health problem of childhood obesity is confined to those eligible for means-tested benefits. Despite expressing hostility to the policy, more recently they seem to be flip flopping on whether they think 'Eat Well, Do Well' is a good idea or not!
"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 over future decades major costs on the NHS, welfare benefits and those council services related to illness and incapacity.
"Hull City Council needs to develop its healthy school food policy and further increase - not decrease - the take-up of healthy school meals. I hope that Hull's councillors will think again."