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House of Lords
Oral Questions

Asked by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will enforce nutritional standards for school food in academies and free schools in the light of new evidence that some schools are reintroducing junk food.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Hill of Oareford): My Lords, we know that nutritious food has positive effects on behaviour and attainment. The evidence indicates that many academies have responded positively to the standards, and some are going beyond them. The quality of food offered in all schools, including academies, has improved, but further improvement is needed. The latest findings from the School Food Trust show no significant difference between the lunch provided by maintained schools and by academies.


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     Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: I thank the Minister for that reply. However, at a time of rising childhood obesity, with more than one-third of 11-year-olds now being classified as overweight or obese, with all the associated health problems, is he not shocked by the School Food Trust's research, which shows that while healthy eating is increasing in maintained schools, nine out of 10 academies are ignoring the nutritional standards introduced by the previous Government and selling crisps, chocolate and cereal bars? Does this not undermine the Government's faith that academies can be trusted to do the right thing on nutrition? How much worse must the situation get before the Government act? Is not the simplest answer to enforce the nutritional standards in all schools regardless of their status?

     Lord Hill of Oareford: My Lords, having looked at all the research and the most recent qualitative survey carried out by the School Food Trust into what is going on in academies, I find it difficult to draw the very clear conclusion that the noble Baroness has come to. The survey concluded that there are maintained schools that are not doing as well as they ought to, there are academies exceeding the standards and there are also academies not doing as well as any of us would like them to do. I agree with her entirely about the importance of decent food in terms of obesity and of concentration in school. The question in my mind is whether the regulatory approach is the necessary way forward. I agree with her that the Government need to reflect on whether there is more that they can do to raise the quality of school food. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has indicated that that is what he will do.

     Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, how would the Minister analyse junk food? Surely he would agree that one man's junk may be another person's Ritz-Carlton.

     Lord Hill of Oareford: My Lords, when I walk to the department in the morning I pass a number of schools and, sadly, I see children drinking Red Bull and eating crisps for breakfast. I would call that junk food because it is not very healthy or good. There are things we need to do to improve the quality of food. There are many schools doing that, including academies, and that is something that we should encourage.

     Lord Morris of Handsworth: My Lords, the consumption of so-called junk food is a clear indication of poverty. What steps are the Government taking to implement the target inherited from the previous Government for ending child poverty?

     Lord Hill of Oareford: I am not sure that I agree with the noble Lord's premise that eating junk food is necessarily an indicator of poverty. It is an indicator of people not being properly educated in the importance of good food and that is something that we need to look at. It can also be an indicator of a number of other things. I know from visiting academies which are dealing with some of the poorest children that they are inculcating extremely good habits of eating with pupils all sitting down together, learning and, I hope,

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building habits for a lifetime. The broader issue of child poverty is clearly important and the Government are working to make further progress on that.

     Baroness Parminter:My Lords-

     Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords-

     Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords-

     The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells: My Lords, yesterday I visited one of our schools, which is hoping to become an academy. It has reinstated its kitchen, providing excellent food not only for the school but for those in the locality. I was also involved in a discussion yesterday about the increasing number of young people whose family food is being taken from food banks around our country today. Does the Minister agree that the priority is to ensure that all school food provides adequate nutritional standards in the light of the fact that too many of our most vulnerable people are experiencing a need to get food from food banks in the 21st century?

     Lord Hill of Oareford: There were two strands to the right reverend Prelate's remarks. One was to make the point that in a school which he knows which is hoping to become an academy good work is being done to make sure that the quality of food is good, and I welcome that. On his broader point, standards clearly can play a part in helping to address the concerns that he raises. One of the things that we have discovered is that although standards are in place and the nutritional quality of food has improved, the take-up of that food by children has not increased at the same rate. So better food is available but the children are not always exercising their choice to eat it. One of the challenges for us is to make sure that children understand that eating healthy food is good for them.

     Baroness Parminter: My Lords-

     Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords-

     Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, we have not heard from a Liberal Democrat on this Question. We will hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and then from the Cross Benches.

     Baroness Parminter: My Lords, with almost 18% of children between two and 15 growing clinically obese in the past decade, can the Minister tell the House what discussions have taken place or are planned to take place with colleagues in the Department of Health to discuss this new evidence from the Government's own advisers on school food and children's meals about the potential risks to the life expectancy of children and the increasing costs to the NHS, particularly in the light of the Secretary of State's own view that the majority of secondary schools will become academies by the end of this Parliament?

     Lord Hill of Oareford: I agree about the importance of my department working closely with the Department of Health. We do so. The Department of Health has recently published a new policy tackling that important issue, and we will continue to work closely with it.



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     Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I declare an interest as the vice-chairman of the Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour which is currently conducting work in a school in Dagenham replicating work that in young offender institutions reduced the offending rate by 40%. Will the Minister agree to invite the scientists from the Oxford Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics who are conducting this work to talk to his officials about what lessons are learnt from this very important trial which has implications for behaviour as well as for nutrition?

     Lord Hill of Oareford: My Lords, I am very grateful for the suggestion. Yes, of course.

     Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords-

     Baroness King of Bow: My Lords-

     Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I know everybody is desperate to get in on this Question, but we are now into the 17th minute and I think we have to go to the next Question. Unfortunately this Question has taken too much time.

Hansard Link: Schools: Nutrition