New Clause 17
Provision of Free Milk After Referendum
Any local education authority may, after securing approval from a local referendum, seek authority from the Secretary of State to provide free milk to any pupil at educational establishments maintained by them within its area from its own financial resources and such expenditure shall not count as relevant expenditure for purposes of rate support grant.—[Mr. Buchan.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.
The Clause is not only of great importance to the House but of immense concern to local authorities throughout the country. Its purpose is fairly simple—to try to give local authorities the option to provide milk for the children in their area. It goes as far out of its way as possible to make it easy for the Government to do that, because it puts the charges upon the local authority.
We have still received no evidence from the Government of which groups, if any, wanted the Bill. We are told about acceptance from their own medical officers after the decision was announced, but there is no sign of any pressure or request from any local authority. That means that virtually every local authority has deplored the Bill, and many of them are looking for possible ways out. Some feel so strongly about the issue that they say that, despite the Bill, they will put the matter to the test by providing milk for their children. Some say that it is obviously reasonable that once the matter has been aired in the House the Government should at least give them discretion to provide milk.
In Scotland, within two or three days, of being asked, 11 local authorities came together in Glasgow. They represented an area stretching from Banff in the north to Wigtownshire in the south, and they were not mainly Labour-controlled but were mainly Conservative or Independent councils. They were united in one thing, their opposition to the Bill, because they realised the medical and nutritional necessity for milk for their children. They recognised their responsibility to protect their children against bad legislation, [column 632]which they saw the Bill to be, and the administrative difficulties it would create. Above all, many of the rural areas were worried about getting any milk for their schools when such a large proportion was cut out. 10.15 p.m.
I want to refer to one or two of the counties in particular. I am surprised at the two Members for Perthshire, the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) and particularly the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, because they have been prompted sufficiently by their county on the difficulty it faces. The county was one of the 11, and it has asked me to bring this forward, which I am glad to do.
It is told that suppliers are ceasing to tender in some of the country areas. It states that the milk suppliers
“… in the Central District of the County during the past session have indicated that they will not be tendering for next session on the ground that it is not worth their while financially if milk is to be restricted only to pupils up to seven years of age. Other smaller suppliers have sent in similar intimations and it is already becoming clear that in parts of the County it will not be a question of providing milk for those up to seven and no milk for those over seven but of providing no milk at all for any pupil simply because nobody will contract to supply it.
The answer given by the Scottish Education Department to that yesterday was:Both the County and City Medical Officers of Health are quite convinced that there are many primary pupils over seven years of age who ought to continue to receive milk … and their fear, shared by the Sub-Committee, is that, if it is not provided free, it is unlikely to be provided at all in many cases.”
“Education authorities in some parts of the Highlands may have to give primary school-children reconstituted milk, powdered or ‘long-life’ milk instead of fresh milk.”
That was the Department's answer to Scottish county councils which had complained that they were having difficulty in getting milk from suppliers following the Government's decision. Is that the answer which the hon. Gentleman really wants to give?
It is all the more shocking not only that this sort of thing should be said in the Scottish Office but that it should come from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor). I hope he repudiates that statement in view of all we have heard from him [column 633]about the freedom of local authorities. Not only did the Conservative Party manifesto in England and Wales refer to giving freedom to local authorities, but the very first Measure which the Government introduced for Scotland was the Education (Scotland) Act, restoring freedom to local authorities to charge school fees. It was a Measure of educational apartheid. Throughout the protracted discussion of that Act, no arguments were advanced by the Government on the merits. The argument throughout was that it had been introduced in order to restore freedom to local authorities.
On Second Reading the Secretary of State said:
“This illustrates a fundamental difference between the philosophy of the Government and their predecessor. We believe that in running their own affairs people should have some freedom to choose what they consider to be the best. The Socialists seem to believe that people should get only what the Government think good for them.” —[Official Report, 11th November, 1970; Vol. 806, c. 415.]
That is what we were told when it was a matter of allowing local authorities to charge fees for education, but no freedom is to be given to local authorities when it is a matter of depriving children of free milk. But then, of course, the Act concerns a privileged élite while this Bill affects most of our children. A strange word, freedom. What sins are committed in its name! If the Government were to stick to their manifesto, their boastings and their arguments, which we heard during the long proceedings of the Education (Scotland) Act, they would be granting freedom now to local authorities at their own expense to provide milk to children.
We were told that the Act was brought in because it was requested by the two city authorities which have a direct interest in the preservation of fee-paying schools. Which local authority has asked for this Bill. Have any? The Under-Secretary of State accused me of being a Big Brother for suggesting that we should not give freedom to local authorities to charge fees for these schools. Who is Big Brother now? It is no wonder that Conservative councils in Scotland, such as Perthshire, are up in arms about the behaviour of the Government. [column 634]
We have been getting answers about dried milk, but no answer has been given to those rural authorities which say that they can no longer guarantee supplies. No answer has been given to those local authorities which say that they are being pushed into further expenditure—for example, Dunbartonshire—councils which say that they will have to pay an average surcharge of about 10 per cent. because of reduced supplies.
Then there are those authorities and hon. Members who say that, despite what the Government do, this legislation is so evil that they will oppose it. Today's Glasgow Herald says:
“Ayrshire education committee are to defy the Government's planned restrictions on the supply of free milk for school children over seven. They decided yesterday, by 19 votes to five, to tell the Secretary of State for Scotland that they will continue to supply free milk to all primary children in spite of the terms of the Education (Milk) Bill.”
What will the Secretary of State tell the Ayrshire Council, which thinks that children should be provided with free milk? Ayrshire is a tough county. It is the county from which Rabbie Burns came, and the Under-Secretary will have a fight on his hands. We should like to know what he will do about that. Those are the options open to the Government if they push the Bill to the furthermost limits.
We have made it easy for them. We have offered a Clause which tells the Government that if they do not want to give freedom to local authorities, despite what they have been saying about giving them freedom—if they did not mean it, if, like the right hon. Lady, they were engaged only in an intellectual argument which they run when they have nothing else to say—they need not pursue the matter. It discards the rate support grant and suggests that we check whether the people want the Government's proposal.
There is much talk in the air of referenda, but it is to do with the Common Market. We accept parliamentary democracy and local democracy, but the Government are resisting it, and we can well understand why. We are putting them to the test and suggesting that we ask parents and ratepayers whether they are willing to end the supply of free milk, or give local authorities power to [column 635]provide it. [Interruption.] If the Under-Secretary wants to mutter, I prefer him to get to his feet and mutter.
The Bill is evil, and local authorities want to mitigate its evil effects. They want freedom to save some of the children in their areas. We hope that the Government will withdraw from their intransigent attitude, will stop acting like Big Brother and will allow democratically-elected local authorities to protect the welfare of children.
Mr. William Hamilton
This is a new Clause which the Government must accept, if only because there is a precedent in Scotland and, I think, in Wales. We have what is called a local veto, and I think that there is a similar provision in Wales, in the licensing laws. We have “dry” areas in Scotland which are decided by local poll. All we are saying here is that that kind of procedure should be applied to decide whether an education authority is entitled to provide free milk for its children if it so desires and if its ratepayers so desire.
On Second Reading the right hon. Lady said that it was impossible to give education authorities the freedom which she was so willing to give them, almost on assuming office, to go comprehensive or not as they thought fit. On matters involving public expenditure the right hon. Lady said they could not have this right because it was just increasing public expenditure and would therefore defeat the object of the exercise.
This was the gist of the right hon. Lady's argument against giving local authorities the freedom that we are asking for in this Clause. But this does not increase public expenditure, it is a transfer of payment within a local authority area. It is certainly not increasing central Government expenditure. All that the local authority would be asking its rate-payers is: “Are you prepared to foot the bill to enable our primary school-children to get the free milk of which the Government have deprived them?”
Nothing could be more democratic than that. If we want to decentralise decision-making this is a good way of doing it. It would be an earnest of the Government's good intentions to get people to stand on their own feet. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand) here. He is a distinguished servant of Durham County Council and a friend of my family. He knows what local participation means. If the ratepayers in Durham County say “We have got a wicked Tory Government who have taken the milk from the sons and daughters of miners, but we are prepared to foot the bill” , why should the Government not say, “All right, if you are foolish enough and uncivilised enough even to think about the wickedness of putting milk into children's mouths, then so be it. Let your sins be on your own head. It is your problem.” There is nothing sinister or wrong about that. This would be a case of Durham taking a decision, paid for by Durham, and benefiting the children of Durham. The same would apply to Fife, or any other local education authority. It would not cost the Government a penny. It would be borne by the ratepayers in the knowledge that only their people were benefiting. Surely this would be local government at its best? We should accept it with alacrity and get on with the Bill.
We cannot over-emphasise the importance of this Clause and its relationship to the co-ordination of local government and central Government. There is a wide division of opinion in the Tory Party about this. A great many councillors, Labour and Conservative, disagree with the Secretary of State. The Association of Education Committees, which still has a Tory majority, this year at any rate, has opposed the Minister. It is true that three years ago the then Labour Government stopped milk in secondary schools. I voted against that, but I had no letters from parents or teachers and neither did the Government receive letters from councils or from the Association of Education Committees. There was no real opposition to that action. Some of my former colleagues thought that I went a bit too far.
Dr. Tom Stuttaford (Norwich, South)
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that if milk goes into a milk drink such as Horlicks or Bournvita the ratepayer can pay for it.
We have already had the argument from the other side about giving breakfast without school milk. In the City of Manchester an election was fought with this as a major issue. The [column 637]Manchester City Corporation now has 180 Labour members and 24 Conservative members. The 24 Conservative members have been converted to the view that the local authority should provide for milk from the rates. 10.30 p.m.
I remind the Secretary of State of what is said in her party's election manifesto:
“The independence of local authorities has been seriously eroded by Labour Ministers. On many issues, particularly in education and housing, they have deliberately overridden the views of elected councillors.”
What the Labour Government had done had stopped Tory councils raising rents by as much as 30s. or £2 in a year, and they had started the machinery to implement a Bill for making plans for comprehensive education.
The Tory Party manifesto went on to say:
“We think it wrong that the balance of power between central and local government should have been distorted, and we will redress the balance and increase the independence of local authorities.Conservative authorities do not think she is doing it. The reputation of the Government is in shreds anyway, and if this Amendment is not accepted there will be hardly any shreds left.
The Secretary of State argued on Second Reading that it was not possible to have councils providing for milk out of their rates; it would affect the rate support grant, whether they liked it or not. But the Department of the Environment does not agree with her. I asked the Prime Minister on Tuesday whether he was satisfied with the co-ordination between the two Departments and he said that he was. But in February my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment
if he will seek powers to allow expenditure by local authorities on consessionary bus fares for retirement pensioners … to be eligible for rate support grant.”
—in other words, to allow local authorities to decide to pay money out of their rates to the local transport undertaking. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said, “No, Sir” . My hon. Friend went on to put the case for small local authorities and received the reply:
“This is a matter for local authorities to decide for themselves. They are spending their own money, and they can make the best judgment of the local needs of their own people.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Denis Howell) asked a supplementary question and received the reply:
“I repeat that it is for local authorities to decide what best to do with their own money for their own people.”
When my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Bob Brown) asked him to start to talk to town hall Tories and encourage them to give this facility for old-age pensioners, the hon. Gentleman replied:
“The difference between the hon. Gentleman and myself is that we on this side of the House believe that local authorities should make their own judgment about the expenditure of their own money. “ —[Official Report, 17th February, 1971; Vol. 811, c. 1833.]
The Department of the Environment and the Department of Education and Science apparently do not agree.
If the Secretary of State has been told by the Cabinet and by the Treasury that there is a global sum available and she can move the amounts around as she likes and she has chosen this £9 million cut herself, she should be thoroughly ashamed. Since this is her first Bill as Secretary of State, she should be doubly ashamed. If it is a Cabinet decision and she has not fought it and won it, she should resign. She has no support in her own party for this Measure. We heard on Second Reading long-winded speeches from the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) and one or two others. The education group of the Conservative Party was entirely missing on that occasion, as it has been for most of this debate, and it was not represented in Committee.
I remind the Secretary of State that her majorities tonight have been extremely low—as low as 18. Although there may have been no ostentatious abstentions, she should have worries. I urge her at this late stage to think again about giving local authorities the right to do what the Government said they would be allowed to do—to decide what is best for their own people.
Mr. David Clark (Colne Valley)
It has become increasingly clear during the period that the Bill has been in Committee that the Government's case is almost indefensible. It has been criticised in all the education journals and in almost all education circles. [column 639]
Tonight, we have been trying to rescue the Government, to get them off the hook, because they have got themselves into a very difficult situation. In the Clause, we are offering them the kindest lifeline for which they could hope. We are suggesting a way out, on their own criteria.
Consistently in Conservative pronouncements over the past few years we have heard the word “freedom” . The previous Administration were criticised for not giving freedom. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks) quoted some words of the Secretary of State. To show that there is no split in her Department, perhaps I might quote from the speech of the Under-Secretary on the occasion of the Swindon by-election in October, 1969. The hon. Gentleman criticised us for not giving freedom, and he went on:
“A Tory, on the other hand, believes in meaningful local government, and ‘meaningful’ in this context includes meaningful decisions on the biggest item in the local authority budget.”
Mr. William Hamilton
That was one of his jokes.
The hon. Gentleman may have been joking. Perhaps I was a little foolish to take his words seriously. But certainly it has been the consistent line of right hon. and hon. Members opposite. By offering the Government this local option, we are letting them off the hook, on their own terms.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton, pointed out, the argument used by the right hon. Lady on Second Reading does not stand up to examination. She said that the rate support grant does not cover concessionary fares for old persons, and, therefore, that there is no need for it to apply in this case——
There may be a little confusion. Concessionary fares are not relevant expenditure for the purposes of rate support grant. They are actual expenditure for the purposes of distributing the rate support grant according to the resources of the local authority.
I maintain that the main point is one of need, and I think that that covers the right hon. Lady's point on Second Reading.
Then I take matters a stage further. I look for precedents, because I know how [column 640]right hon. and hon. Members opposite dislike doing anything for the first time. We have heard of cases in Wales and in Scotland. Even in England there is provision in local government legislation for referenda to be held. I recall two instances in Manchester where the city council has consulted its inhabitants. The first was to decide whether to build houses in a public park. The second was whether to promote an iniquitous lottery. There are precedents.
Mr. Robert Adley (Bristol, North-East)
I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with some interest. What proportion of the people taking part in a referendum does the hon. Gentleman consider to be meaningful? A local paper in Bristol has conducted three referenda quite recently. The first concerned British Standard Time, the second whether the s.s. “Great Britain” should remain in Bristol, and the third whether there should be a referendum on the Common Market. The last one attracted 1,700 replies, the one on British Standard Time about 3,600, and the one on the s.s. “Great Britain” about 6,000. What proportion of the population should take part to make a referendum meaningful?
Obviously the response rate in a referendum depends on the topic. This is a burning issue in many parts of the country—I do not say all—and certainly in parts of my constituency. We had a referendum in one part of my constituency on local government reform, and the response rate was about 60 per cent. I believe that in certain parts of the country there would be an extremely high poll on a referendum on this subject.
Right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite do not seem to appreciate how much people feel about the need for the provision of free school milk. I feel sure that in certain parts of the country there would be a fairly high poll on this issue.
All that we are asking is that where there are these pockets of poverty, if the local authorities in those areas—Sheffield, Manchester, the Rhondda, or wherever it may be—are prepared to back their judgment, after getting local support, by putting in their own money—that is essentially what it is—then we should give them the go ahead. Lastly, if these areas, which are not rich, but areas of low rateable values, are prepared to spend their [column 641]money in this way, I believe that the right hon. Lady should give them a concession.
On this occasion I appeal to the Government's sense of commitment to education. My local authority would be delighted if the new Clause were accepted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) pointed out, we in Scotland have provisions for referenda of this nature. In asking the Government to make a commitment to education I want them to consider a point which they do not appear to have considered. We should provide milk not only from the medical and nutritional point of view but from the educational point of view.
Children, especially young children up to secondary school age, ought to be educated in an atmosphere of pleasant experiences. It should not be a matter of going to school to have the three Rs inculcated into them. There is much more involved in teaching, as I am sure the right hon. Lady will concede. I suggest that it is a long time since many hon. Members opposite visited primary schools to see what goes on.
When I suggest that teaching should be associated with pleasant experiences, I am perhaps delving into the philosophy and the ideological concept of teaching. But what could be better in the break up of the school day than the break for milk? [Interruption.] An hon. Gentleman may “haw-haw” at this, but psychologically it is an important aspect. Children should learn by playing; they should not learn by having facts and figures rammed down their throats. I submit that this break which occurs in the school day is an ideal way of teaching children to get together to drink milk. Right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite can do it in their clubs. It makes an excellent break as far as they are concerned.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will stick to the terms of the new Clause.
I accept your admonition, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite cannot see this, then clearly they do not know anything about the psychological or even the ideological concept of education. [column 642]
Mr. Edward Taylor
I cannot recomment to the House that we should accept the Clause, and I shall say why.
The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that I had a meeting with my local authority on this subject. I explained the Government's policy, and my authority appeared to be reasonably satisfied with the assurances that I was able to give.
The hon. Member for Renfrew, West (Mr. Buchan) said that this was an evil Bill, and that we had to treat the matter with the greatest seriousness. When the previous Government abolished the provision of free milk for all children at secondary schools there was no suggestion of giving power to local authorities to provide free milk if they wish to do so. There was no suggestion of a referendum. The previous Government did not give this power to local authorities for the same reason that we cannot accept the Clause. It is because at the end of the day the Government must have control of total public expenditure.
It would be inconceivable to allow local authorities to decide whether to spend the money in this instance, and not allow them to make that decision on other occasions. All Governments have accepted that control over total public expenditure must be retained by the central Government.
The hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) said that if the Clause were accepted it would not cost the Government a penny. This is an argument about rate support grant, and so on. But, even if we were to accept that, it would lead to increased public spending, and it is over that that Governments have always accepted they must retain control.
The hon. Member for Renfrew, West talked about supply difficulties. I accept that there have been reports of difficulties being experienced by local authorities in getting adequate supplies, but I am sure that the difficulties would have been greater and the total reduction in quantity relatively greater if we had not granted the power to sell milk in secondary schools. It is my hope that the difficulties will be overcome before the new term begins, but I shall look into any special problems that are raised to see what can be done to help. [column 643]
The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of dried milk and said that there had been a monstrous new policy introduced by an anonymous spokesman at the Scottish Education Department. My information is that the provision of reconstituted dried milk or milk tablets has been permissible for many years—since 1953 at least.
The Clause does not just give power to local authorities, subject to a referendum and the approval of the Secretary of State, to provide free milk to primary school children. If the Clause were accepted, and I think that this is the hon. Gentleman's intention, local authorities would have power to provide free milk in primary schools, in secondary schools and also—and this has never been suggested before—in further education colleges, certainly in Scotland. It would give them total freedom to provide milk in the educational establishments concerned.
The arguments have been well gone over. We think, as the previous Government did, that it is essential for the Government to contain and restrain total public expenditure. For that reason, although I accept——
Mr. J. D. Dormand (Easington)
At long last the Government have said that the criterion adopted in deciding whether to devolve authority on local authorities is whether it would take away from the Government the control of total public expenditure. Surely every penny spent by local authorities is public expenditure? That being so, will the hon. Gentleman explain why since June of last year the Government have repeatedly said that they will encourage local authorities to decide their own priorities for spending money? Will he explain how the Government's policy will work, because all spending is public expenditure?
It is over total public expenditure that the Government must retain control. Of course we believe in the maximum possible freedom for local authorities. [Laughter.] Hon. Members must know that one of the first actions of my right hon. Friends on coming into office was to remove local authorities from the straitjacket in which the Labour Party had placed them by saying that, irrespective of their own views, they had [column 644]to develop their education along comprehensive lines.
Is the Under-Secretary saying that it is wrong, and that the Government will interfere, if a local authority spends money on milk for children, but that the Government will not interfere if that authority decides to spend exactly the same amount on more mayoral receptions or something like that? Where does this control start and end?
We have made the position clear—that, by giving this freedom, we would be creating a situation in which it would not be possible for the Government to retain what we regard as the proper control of total public expenditure. The previous Government accepted this argument. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will ask himself why the previous Government did not do this when they abolished free milk in secondary schools.
The logic of the argument is that we should go the whole way and give home rule to local authorities and total freedom to spend any money. We do not accept that, and we do not accept that it can be right for any Government to do this, because it would be taking away our power to control total public expenditure.
Mr. R. C. Mitchell
Rumour has it that somewhere in a basement room in Conservative Central Office there is a little man whose full-time job is to “reinterpret the Conservative election manifesto in the light of changed circumstances” —in other words, in plain English, to explain why the Government have broken one election promise after another. We all know that over the last few months this little man has been working overtime.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks) quoted from the Conservative manifesto. I will quote it again because it should be engraved on the hearts of the Government Front Bench—[Hon. Members: “They do not have hearts.” ]:
“The independence of local authorities has been seriously eroded by Labour Ministers.”
Not a “Hear, hear” ?
“In many areas, particularly in education and housing, they have deliberately over-ridden the views of elected councillors.”
Shades of Barnet.
“We think it is wrong that the balance of power between central and local government [column 645]should have been distorted. We will redress the balance and increase the independence of local authorities”
In two successive days Conservative Ministers have made a complete mockery of that election promise. Yesterday the Secretary of State for the Environment told us that he will compel local authorities, whether they want to or not, to have a rent rebate scheme——
And to put rents up.
Today Ministers tell us that they will refuse any request from local authorities to pay for milk for children in schools who would normally have it free.
Mr. Edward Taylor
Do hon. Members believe that local authorities should also have the freedom to withdraw all milk from all children in their schools if the local people decided on this?
I will come to that point in conjunction with another, in a moment.
Local authorities throughout the country have protested strongly against this action. Merthyr has added £5,000 to its current estimates in the hope that it will be allowed to provide free milk to children—and if it is not given permission to do so, it has threatened to do it anyway. Protests have come from Inner London, Manchester, Brent, Islington, Newcastle, Gateshead, South Shields and a string of others. I could give a list a mile long—all proving that authorities all over the country condemn this Government action outright.
Sir William Alexander, not a well-known Socialist but a very capable man, has written:
“Leaving aside for a moment the issues of health and the merits or demerits of providing milk free for children between the ages of seven and 11, there is another issue which must make it a matter of regret that the Government have resisted any change to this Bill. That issue is basically the relationship between central and local government. As I have said in an earlier note, it is difficult to argue against the right of the Government to decide that they are not prepared to provide moneys for any given purpose and therefore it is perfectly right for them them to decide that they are not prepared to provide moneys from the Government for provision of milk without charge to all primary school children; but surely it is no less right for the ratepayers in the area of a local education authority, through their elected representatives on that authority, to be able to decide that [column 646]they will spend money—their money—on such a provision if they think it desirable to do so. The Government are entrusted with the taxpayers' money; the local authority is entrusted with the ratepayers' money.”
That is the view of the local authorities, and the A.M.C. has expressed similar views.
I would be the last to claim complete autonomy for local authorities. I recall criticising the Labour Government for not taking a tougher line over comprehensive education, and at that time the Under-Secretary, from the opposition back benches, chided me and asked me to agree that the local authorities knew best. He will remember how I criticised my party at that time; but he has changed his mind radically since then.
Throughout our debates on the Bill the Government have consistently refused to include a provision covering hardship, which is very much a regional problem, as is unemployment. Poverty tends, therefore, to be greater in one region than in another. It follows that the local authorities in those areas of greater poverty or unemployment have a bigger reason to want to provide school milk out of their own funds.
It is interesting to consider in this connection some figures given in a Parliamentary Answer about the provision of free school meals in certain areas. For example, 26.7 per cent. of all Durham school children get free meals compared with 6.8 per cent. in Buckinghamshire. The percentage in South Shields is 49.5 as against 5 per cent. in Solihull. While it is 30 per cent. in the I.L.E.A. area, in Bexley it is only 6.9 per cent. In Wales there are variations, from 39 per cent. in Merthyr Tydvil to 11 per cent. in Montgomery.
A great many authorities are prepared to provide their own funds for school milk, yet the Under-Secretary of State for Education keeps trotting out the same argument. He argues that part of the Government's policy was to reduce public expenditure and, therefore, if we allowed local authorities to spend the £9 million, that would defeat the Government's purpose. 11.0 p.m.
That is a justifiable argument if the purpose of the reduction in public expenditure was to reduce overall demand, but it was not. The package deal was intended not to reduce overall demand [column 647]but to effect a redistribution of income between the poor and the rich, to take away £9 million from school milk and give it to surtax-payers. The aim was not to reduce overall demand, which was the aim of previous Governments, but to have a redistributive effect within the economy. On that basis, the whole exercise falls down.
I get rather worried at some of the speeches that the Secretary of State is reported in the Press as making. The right hon. Lady tends to give the impression of not understanding what it is like to be poor and what poverty is all about. She gives the impression of not understanding how the other half of the world lives.
The Secretary of State is in danger of becoming the cartoonist's caricature of the typical Tory suburban lady sitting at a party conference wearing a wide-brimmed hat, baying for blood on the one hand and booing Lord Boyle on [column 648]the other hand. I am sorry to say it, but that is the impression that the right hon. Lady gives, although I do not think it is the reality. I wish she would have a talk with her hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, because I am sure he understands these things. I wish he would take the right hon. Lady into the corner sometime and explain them to her.
There has been much play about a referendum. In Committee we tried to make it a straight issue of giving the option to local authorities. I am sure my right hon. and hon. Friends would not vote on the Amendment but would agree to withdraw it if we could tonight get a firm undertaking from the Government Front Bench that in another place they will move an Amendment to restore local option in this matter.
Question put, That the Clause be read a Second time:—
The House divided: Ayes 203, Noes 227.