Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1971 Jun 14 Mo
Margaret Thatcher

HC I 2R [Education (Milk) Bill]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [819/142-151]
Editorial comments: 2102-30. MT intervened at cc145 and 150.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 3341
[column 142]

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

Hon. Members on this side of the House and some hon. Members opposite, have treated this matter with fitting gravity and seriousness. I was sorry that the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) spoke in the way that he did, dealing with the subject in a hilarious way, and lowering the debate to a level to which it ought never to have been allowed to deteriorate. I was sorry that phrases like “soup-kitchen mentality” were introduced into the debate. Some of us who have been responsible, as I have, for dealing with school meals and milk have never regarded their provision as in any way [column 143]comparable with a soup-kitchen mentality.

We must stress at the outset that, as the Secretary of State said, no advice was taken about what is likely to happen as a result of the withdrawal of free milk. We were advised when we withdrew free milk in secondary schools, that it would be harmful to do the same in primary schools.

Professor John Yudkin, who is a member of the committee of the Department of Health and Social Security on the medical aspects of food policy, said that the children's milk issue had not been put to his committee and asked,

“What the hell's the use of sitting on the committee if it isn't asked about this supremely important issue?”

This was reported on 27th October last year. Professor Yudkin added that the cuts would be the most retrograde step that could be taken. Children and parents were being tempted increasingly to consume things of low nutritional value. To offer a child at playtime a soft drink instead of milk was to offer it an almost irresistible alternative. Someone had to divert the child's hand from the soft drink bottle to the milk bottle. I am amazed, to say the least, that the views of people like Yudkin and others have been disregarded.

The right hon. Lady said that a survey was to be carried out, but she has been extremely selective in her choice of areas. She says that she intends to give effect to what is found by the survey, but that seems to me to be rather like bolting the stable door after the horse has gone, because the right hon. Lady gave us no guarantee that if the results of the inquiry are what we believe they will be—which is that over a period of time there will be a detrimental effect on the health of children—the Government will immediately reintroduce the supply of free milk to children in primary schools. There seems to be little point in having the survey if its findings are not to be put into effect.

I hope that the results of that survey will not be treated in the way that the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) treated the interim report of the survey of the Queen Elizabeth College. The right hon. Lady said that she [column 144]would not accept the report of the survey unless various things were done. I view with great apprehension what will happen after this survey is carried out in selective areas and shows that grave difficulties are being caused for these children. We have not been given any guarantee that anything positive will come from it.

Many hon. Gentlemen opposite have talked about exceptions under the Bill. They have said that if there is a medical need, if children are in special schools, and so on, they will still be entitled to free milk. As I put to the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South, there is no provision in the Bill for poverty. That is not to be one of the criteria for the provision of free milk. As I put to the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South, there is no provision in the Bill for poverty. That is not to be one of the criteria for the provision of free milk. The right hon. Lady said that as there is now provision for the payment of family income supplement, as social security benefits have been increased and as there will be more free school meals, the need to provide free milk is not so great. The right hon. Lady and hon. Gentlemen opposite are guilty of an omission, and any error of judgment, because they continually confuse eligibility with take-up. One of the biggest indictments of any system of welfare provision is that the provision is there if people need it, but they have to apply for it; but we know that the take-up falls far short of the provision.

That statement is borne out by what was said by the Secretary of State for Social Services, that despite a £340,000 advertising campaign by the Government more than three-quarters of those entitled to free milk, welfare foods, free prescription, free dental and other treatment have failed to apply for those benefits. The Government have estimated that 190,000 people are entitled to claim free welfare foods and milk. The figures given on 11th May by the Secretary of State show that up to 27th April the number of claims was only 23 per cent. of that figure. It is no good arguing that where there is eligibility there will be take-up, because hon. Gentlemen opposite will find that view impossible to prove. Eligibility does not mean that people take up the benefits to which they are entitled.

References to soup-kitchen mentalities and lame ducks discourage people from taking up the things to which they are [column 145]entitled because it makes them feel that they are not welcome to those benefits. It makes them feel that if they are poor, or inadequate, or in some other way unfortunate, they are grudgingly given these things by society. The effect of using phrases such as those is shown by the lack of take-up of many of the benefits provided by society, for the simple reason that people feel that they are being labelled in that way.

It cannot be argued that because there is a family income supplement everything is taken care of. It seems that the supplement is intended to cover a variety of sins. It has to cover everything out of £7 million. The right hon. Lady said that we spent more on milk than on school books. I do not know whether the inference was that we shall now be spending more on school books; I hope so. I know that she intends to spend more on primary schools. Perhaps she will tell us whether more will be spent on books.

Mrs. Thatcher

There is a bigger improvement element this year in the rate support grant.

Miss Lestor

It has been suggested that school milk was being withdrawn so as to give relief to surtax payers. Hon. Gentlemen opposite said that it was doctrinaire and stupid to say that, but I do not know where the money has come from if it has not come from reductions in social welfare services. Let us further consider what was done in the Budget this year. The £15 to £20 million that the Labour party put into the public purse was taken out again by the disaggregation of a child's income. The way in which taxation applied to the income of parents and children enabled parents to pay for their children to go to public and independent schools. We altered the basis of taxation so as to prevent that, but the Conservative Government have put back the old system. That £15 to £20 million is twice the amount which, on the right hon. Lady's figures, would be saved by the withdrawal of school milk.

This is likely to be the way in which the public will judge it. We cannot afford to give free school milk to children, but we can afford to subsidise the rich to enable them to pay for their children to go to schools such as Eton, in my [column 146]constituency. This is an odd set of values. I should like an explanation why we should give relief to surtax payers and put back between £15 and £20 million into the pockets of rich people for the purpose of subsidising public school education.

The Evening Standard tonight and the Guardian and The Times on Saturday pointed out what the Prime Minister said at the time of the General Election:

“The most urgent reform of local government is to get the Government spanner out of the works. Under Labour there can never be real reform of local government for they will always seek to use their powers to bend local authorities to their will. It will be for a Conservative Government to restore to the local elector and the local councillor the freedom of action he needs to make life better for himself and his fellow-citizens and to control his own destiny and that of the community.”

Surely local authorities should be allowed to make the choice. Perhaps this is something else that the Prime Minister did not mean when he said it, or perhaps he has been misquoted. It is an odd situation that, when the Government have the opportunity to give freedom to local authorities, they refuse to allow them that freedom. The same point was made on Second Reading of the Education (Scotland) Bill.

On this question of freedom for local authorities, let me remind the right hon. Lady that this was what all the row in comprehensive education was about. This is what the row at Enfield was about. She wanted freedom for local authorities, but now we are not to have it. I do not know whether hon. Members opposite have seen the evidence put forward by the legal department of the G.L.C. on behalf of the Inner London Education Authority. It has made a statement to which consideration ought to be given. Perhaps it will be mentioned in the wind-up speech. The statement says that this is

“… a retrograde step, the effects of which can only be plainly discernible after it has been in operation for some considerable time.

“In the meanwhile it will fall on us and our staff to implement the proposal and to ascertain which children in this age group require free school milk on health grounds. While we do not feel that any set standard of height or weight should be regarded as the criterion and believe that the decision should rest on the clinical judgment of the doctor concerned, we nevertheless feel that he will be placed in a difficult position without having any definite guide as to the standards he has [column 147]to adopt. We understand that the Department of Education and Science is not willing to lay down any set standards.

“We are moreover concerned at the effect on the parent/doctor relationship and consequently on the whole relationship between the parent and the school health service. The parents of some children whom we consider to be in continued need of school milk will disagree with our decision and conversely some parents of children for whom we do not consider continuation of milk necessary will think that they do need it.”
It goes on in detail and makes the point:

“We appreciate that the judgment of the doctor making the decision in any individual case must be based solely on medical grounds but think that there could well be social grounds why a child should or should not be given free school milk and regret that there is no parallel in the proposed legislation.”

This is something that has not been given the careful consideration it needs. Nor have many of the medical and other views put forward. The question of the care of teeth has received a great deal of publicity since this Bill was announced. A total of £80 million is spent on dental care, including dentures. Dentures among children are much more common than they were. We know that milk is one of the main requirements for creating good strong teeth. I find the ignoring of this point very disturbing. All the evidence put out to warn the Government is being completely ignored on the principle that parents must learn to feed their own children.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Cooper) said that all children up to the age of seven will continue to receive free milk. That is not true. There is a situation among the under-fives which puzzles me. Why is it that children in nursery schools, playgroups and other pre-school and registered establishments, according to the Secretary of State for Social Services, will continue to receive free milk, while children at home with their mothers will continue to be deprived of cheap welfare milk? That may not be in the Bill but it is a fact. I am in favour of children in nursery schools receiving the milk, of course, but I do not understand why those at home should not receive it, bearing in mind not only the maldistribution of nursery schools throughout the country but that many children in playgroups are there—not all but some—because their parents are able to pay the playgroup fee whereas many are not in playgroups because their [column 148]parents cannot afford it. There has not been, and there is not likely to be under this Government, any further development of free nursery schools started under the last government.

I do not understand how the Government have got themselves into this situation. They may say that provision to this effect is not in the Bill and therefore it does not matter. Many speeches by hon. Members opposite have had little to do with what is in the Bill, but we have had to listen to them and suffer as a result. This may seem to be a small point, but, as somebody who has a lot to do with children in schools, I am not happy about the classification “medical milk” . It is not good for a child to know that he is receiving free milk because there is something wrong with him. It could have a bad psychological effect on him. These matters can be explained to older children but this is not a wise classification in respect of younger children. The right hon. Lady should drop the term “medical milk” very quickly.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Curran) said that he would like this to be an ideal society. Would not we all? We are further from it than we were a year ago. He said that there was a limited amount of money available for education, and we had to decide the best way in which to spend it. Making sure that children have at least one-third of a pint of milk a day is one of the best ways in which we can spend it.

The hon. Member for Worcestershire, South, whose speech was, I think, the most disgraceful I have heard since I have been a Member, talked about his fine figure. If his speech is one of the results of all the milk that he drinks, it may feed the body but it certainly does not feed the mind. Looking at him and listening to him, I thought that we were in a circus where a clown had taken over. The hon. Gentleman fell into the trap of talking about poverty and said that poor children will get free school milk. But they will not.

I must ask the Under-Secretary of State to comment on the big drop in the take-up of school meals, which is relevant to the Bill and why many local authorities are reacting so strongly to it. There has been a 20 per cent. drop in Slough. According to the survey carried [column 149]out so far, the drop in Brent is much the same. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a Conservative-controlled authority, says that the Bill should not go through because people are worried about the nutritional effects it will have on children. Someone talked about children fainting in school because they had not had any breakfast. Perhaps it is suggested that they will have a longer faint if their milk is taken away. This is logic gone mad. I accept completely that many parents need to be educated about nutrition—not only about under-feeding but about over-feeding. But we do not do it by saying, “We shall not give your children free school milk, even if they faint” . Positive steps must be taken in educating people in these matters.

If, as the Government say, people must stand on their own feet and lame ducks and soup-kitchen mentalities are the results of welfare services, where shall we go next? If it is said that parents can buy milk for their children and that it is not up to the Government to provide it, I would point out that they can also buy books for their children. Will the right hon. Lady or somebody else on her side of the House suggest that we should start cutting the public libraries and that we should have public libraries only for poor children? People can buy swings at Harrods and Galts. Is it to be said, “We shall not provide these things” ? Hon. Members shake their heads. What is the difference between saying, “You can buy milk. Therefore, we shall not give it to you” and saying, “You can buy swings and books. Therefore, they will not be provided” ?

I get sick and tired of listening to hon. Members on that side of the House talking about “free” —free milk, free this and free that. Everybody who is a taxpayer or a ratepayer is paying for these services. When I see children getting milk, when I see children having access to libraries, when I see, as we saw under the last Administration, a great development of free nursery education, I am glad and I am happy that my taxes and rates should go to that provision. It is being paid for, and the people who are being deprived of this free milk are already paying for it out of taxation. In fact, of course; the money which is to be saved is going to bolster up other people who do not need it. That is the terrible thing.

[column 150]

Mr. Crouch

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss Lestor

Very briefly.

Mr. Crouch

I will be very brief, and I am grateful to her. Again she is misleading the House in suggesting that there has been any suggestion on this side of the House of reducing facilities in education. My right hon. Friend has been at great pains over the last year to show how she is trying to redirect and produce better facilities.

Miss Lestor

What I said was, what is the next principle—what is to come next? If this is the principle, I must suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he reads some of the Bow Group publications. He will find what some of the suggestions are. I hope that, as a result of my putting up that warning, the Government will not do these things. I was asking, if this is the principle, where do we go from here?

The right hon. Lady last Thursday said that those of us who were arguing for free school milk and subsidised meals were saying, in effect, that parents are incapable of looking after the nutritional requirements of their children. Nobody on this side of the House has said that. That argument could well be applied in reference to a large variety of services which are already provided for children, and some of them I have mentioned. Is the right hon. Lady saying that only those people incapable of looking after the nutritional requirements of their children should get free milk and subsidised meals? If she is accusing us of saying that, or of saying it of the majority, we must ask her what her criterion is. I believe the right hon. Lady has never taught in school.

Mrs. Thatcher

I have.

Miss Lestor

Oh, then the right hon. Lady cannot be forgiven. I was going to forgive her, but now she cannot be forgiven. Those of us who have taught know, as I know, that young children—and it is true of older children also, come to that—will eat in school what they will not eat at home, and that they will drink milk when in a community. [Laughter.] Do not let hon. Members laugh about this, because it is a very important point. Everybody concerned with the nutrition and diet of children knows this to be a fact. Most parents [column 151]know it to be a fact. If the right hon. Lady has taught in school she should have known that this provision is worth preserving. Nothing she has said indicates that she has any experience of it—[An Hon. Member: “The hon. Lady is being rather rude.” ]—I am being rather rude? The hon. Member for Worcestershire, South was rather rude. Hon. Members opposite did not object to that, did they? I can be as rude as the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South can be any day.

I do not want to get involved—for they are not relevant to this debate—in arguments about other aspects of public expenditure, except to say this: I believe that it is a public outrage that we as a country see Concorde costing at least £1,000 million, maybe more, half of which we shall be paying, and yet here we are arguing about £9 million—and £9 million minus, because it will not be that much which will be saved. When people talk about saving money it seems to me that the Government look for the meanest, narrowest ways in which to do so, and that is what I believe most people in this country, including a large number of Conservatives, feel about this Bill, that it is hitting at those least able to take it. It is moving away from a principle we have always followed in this country, for we have always shown a great deal of concern for our children. Now the Government cannot give this measure of compassion, and not only turn the welfare services from those in need in terms of poverty but take away what we regard as a right of every child.

This is why we call this Bill a miserable Bill, and that is why I feel in my heart that this is only one of many steps which are yet to come. It is only right that I should put this warning out to the public this evening.