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Blog: Mauled by a skinny Nigel Lawson

15 Jun 2012 in Blog

This week I was gently mauled by Nigel Lawson in the House of Lords. You remember Nigel, former Chancellor of the Exchequer under Thatcher, dad of Nigella. Although he's lost over five stones in weight, and is a ghostly reminder of his former self, he hasn't lost any of his parliamentary wiles.

We went head-to-head trying to get into the Parliamentary debate on Wednesday, both shouting "My Lords, My Lords!" As you do. The House of Lords is self-regulating (it doesn't have a Speaker like the Commons) so you just keep going until the House shames you into sitting down, or the Leader of the House decides he has to intervene. The Tory Leader of the House, Tom Strathclyde, decided to intervene.

You might think Tom is like any other Tom, Dick or Harry except his full name gives it away: Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, 2nd Baron Strathclyde. The Lords' Leader is that rare and endangered species of hereditary peer - only 92 of them survive in their native habitat of the regal red benches.

So Nigel's baying stopped me asking a question I was dying to ask. I'd already "given way" (the parliamentary term for rolling over to other colleagues, or letting them enter a debate) to veteran Trade Union leader Bill Morris, and I wasn't about to do it twice. But then the Leader Tom tells us both to sit down as although he knows "everybody is desperate to get in on this subject," he says we've been talking about it too long. And what is this all-important subject? Don't roll your eyes, as I feel very strongly about it: school nutrition. You think it won't change the world? You'd be wrong. Even Nigel Lawson knows nutritional standards in schools are important. This particular question on the order paper related to Academies, as new research shows many of them ignore nutritional guidelines and have started selling pupils crisps, chocolate and even Red Bull.

So this was my question:

"Is the Minister aware that one third of academies describe nutritional school standards as a burden? When even Boris Johnson, enemy of the nanny state, exhorts Government to "release children from the captivity of fatness", shouldn't the Government act more urgently on the link (established in countless studies) between poor nutrition, under-achievement, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer? Aren't these a greater burden for Britain than giving our children healthy school meals?"

Lord Ramsbottom even pointed out that a nutrition programme in a young offenders institution reduced reoffending by 40%. It's amazing what a difference good food makes. It can reduce the number of muggers on the street, and increase the number of high-achieving kids in the classroom. Surely that'd change the world. And if you give children healthy eating habits while they're young, they're likely to carry them into later life. Or vice versa, if you let them eat rubbish while they're young, they'll probably crave that rubbish for the rest of their lives. I should know. I was always first in the queue at school to buy a deep-fried jam butty. I didn't always stop at one. In retrospect I find it hard to believe my school thought it was a good idea to fry jam in batter, coat it in a thick layer of sugar, and sell it to children. My mum put me on a diet at 12, and I've been on a diet of one sort or another, more or less, ever since.

Anyway, to get back to slimmed-down Nigel, he popped up on the next question about tax liability. The question on the Order Paper was clearly nothing to do with good nutrition. The cast-iron rule in the Commons and the Lords is that you must stick to the subject in question. But that wasn't going to stop a parliamentary sumo-wrestler getting his question in, so this is what he said:

"This Question concerns Customs and Excise. Is the Minister aware that a report published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies last year pointed out that, while some unhealthy foods are subject to the standard rate of VAT, there are many other unhealthy foods which are zero-rated? Would he care to suggest to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that no unhealthy foods should be zero-rated? I am sure the Chancellor could do with the additional revenue."

A very decent point. But even cleverer, as the whole House acknowledged with an admiring "a-ha", was to ask it on the next question after his Leader Tom had already told him to sit down. Hard as I might try, in the four seconds available to me, I couldn't think of a link between my question on nutritional school standards and tax liability (I realise there's probably a clear link, so do send answers on a post-card please, or leave them in the comment section below).

Instead I did the next best thing, which was to wait 24 hours and ask a similar question during a debate this week on "the contribution of schools to the well-being and personal and social needs of children and young people." And if I haven't remotely convinced you that school nutrition is important, check out this link to Hansard from that debate – it's a very good speech by a Lib Dem peer on the subject. In the meantime I will review my parliamentary tactics, in a bid not to be outdone by the svelte and wily Lord Lawson.

Hansard Link: Schools: Well-being and Personal and Social Needs

Read 2100 times Last modified on Monday, 18 June 2012 13:46

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