Free school meals 'represent the shape of a new Scotland'

THE campaign to provide universal free school meals has stepped up a gear with a prominent backbench Labour MSP describing the Bill before the Scottish parliament as a challenge to the increasing privatisation of public services.

"The school meals Bill represents the shape of a new Scotland," John McAllion, MSP for Dundee East, told a Glasgow seminar organised by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and hosted by the women's committee of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

Mr McAllion is one of the co-sponsors of the Bill along with Tommy Sheridan of the Scottish Socialist Party who said that cost is not a major problem. The Educational Institute of Scotland gave its backing a fortnight ago.

While the Prime Minister was preparing his weekend speech attacking the "wreckers" who were set to undermine his "modernising" agenda, Mr McAllion told the 120 delegates that the Bill was "a challenge to everything that is going on, and therefore it is symbolic. It is not just a challenge in Scotland but also to Westminster and the Treasury."

He welcomed the support of the STUC and individual unions such as Unison and the EIS. Extra-parliamentary support was vital because "the parliamentary establishment is against the Bill. If the trade unions and anti-poverty groups exert pressure, I think we have a chance of changing minds."

Mr Sheridan dismissed criticisms that the cost, estimated at around pound;174 million a year, would be prohibitive. He said Executive figures showed that underspending in the first three years of the Parliament had been pound;435 million, pound;750 million and almost pound;1 billion. "In each of the three years of the parliament the Bill could not only have been afforded, but could have been afforded three or four times over," Mr Sheridan declared.

The seminar saw the launch of a booklet by the CPAG aimed at opponents of the school meals Bill. Entitled "Even the tatties have batter", it presents the case for free nutritious meals for every pupil and contains contributions from nutritionists, anti-poverty activists and health professionals.

Danny Phillips, policy officer and manager of the CPAG in Scotland, said school meals "have the potential to make a difference" and were a major way of ensuring a healthy diet for Scotland's children.

Agnes Tolmie, a member of the STUC women's committee and a contributor to the booklet, said: "For a parliament which regards equality as one of its key principles, we believe it is time to deliver."

Despite, this the parliamentary Labour group voted 54-2 against supporting the Bill. An "expert panel" is currently considering how nutritional standards can be raised. The Executive points out that only 4 per cent of those entitled to free meals fail to take them.

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