MP slams Lib Dem Council over healthy school food

In a speech to the House of Commons today (Thursday 25 May), Hull North MP Diana Johnson slammed Liberal Democrat-controlled Hull City Council for reintroducing charges for primary school meals.

Hull City Council's award-winning 'Eat Well, Do Well' initiative had introduced healthier menus, while making free school meals universal for Hull's 24,000 primary school pupils. The initiative was seen as a national pilot scheme. In March, Public Health Minister Caroline Flint MP visited Parks Primary School in Hull North to see the policy working at first-hand.

Hull's pioneering policy was praised recently by Professor Derek Colquhoun of Hull University's Centre for Education Studies for "massively increasing" the take-up of school meals in Hull from 36 per cent to 64 per cent. The 'Eat Well, Do Well' policy has been central to Hull's progress in improving children's diets and early research indicates that primary school children's readiness to learn has already improved in Hull.

After the emergence of a Liberal Democrat administration, supported by Conservative councillors, at Hull City Council's Annual General Meeting on 18 May, and the Council's adoption of a motion that agreed "to amend all its plans in line with priorities expressed in the Liberal Democrat manifesto", it looks certain that Hull will resume charging for primary school meals for those not receiving means-tested benefits.

Diana Johnson MP told the House of Commons: "The Leader of the Opposition in the recent local elections said 'vote blue and get green'. But in Hull it's 'vote yellow and get blue'."

Hull City Council's change of policy 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. The National Obesity Forum described these figures as a "public health time-bomb" in the making, as children who are obese in their early teens are twice as likely to die by the age of 50.

As part of the battle against childhood obesity, the Education and Inspections Bill, guided through the Commons this week by the Secretary of State for Education Alan Johnson MP, places new obligations on schools to improve the nutritional standards of school food. The Bill, opposed by Liberal Democrat MPs, also bans the sale of junk food in school vending machines and tuck shops.

The Liberal Democrats claim that charges are the way to further increase spending on school meal ingredients, even though expert opinion shows that many different factors make up the cost of school meals and reintroducing charges would harm the progress made in Hull on increasing the take-up of the healthy meals. Conservative Group Leader Cllr John Fareham told the Hull Daily Mail on 24 March that Tories opposed universal free school meals because "it perpetuates a culture of state reliance".

Speaking after the Commons debate, Diana Johnson MP added: "In their joint policy, Hull's Liberal Democrats and Tories regard universal provision of free school meals as a welfare measure aimed only at the lowest income families. In reality, Labour's 'Eat Well, Do Well' policy promoted healthier eating for all children, because the problems of poor diet and obesity go further up the income range than the entitlement to means-tested benefits.

"Making many parents pay a significant amount - perhaps up to £10 every school week for each of their children - would reverse the improved take-up of healthy school meals and contribute towards the public health time-bomb ticking in a generation of Hull children. The extra cost would deter some parents, as would the pointless extra bureaucracy and the potential stigma that can accompany means-testing.

"The Liberal Democrat reintroduction of means-testing into primary school food is also sheer hypocrisy after their criticism of the Government for using means-testing to direct extra help to the least well off in areas such as pensions.

"The key objective for Hull is to further increase, not decrease, the take-up of healthy school meals by continuing improvements in the quality of ingredients, meeting the new higher standards set by the Labour Government, and presenting school food in ways that attract youngsters. It is also important that the message goes out to parents that healthy food for children, at school and at home, need not be prohibitively expensive.

"Hull's universal free healthy school meals policy needs to be developed further - not abandoned. I look forward to campaigning with Hull parents and others on this vital issue."