No appetite for free meals Bill

THE Scottish Executive maintained its opposition to free school meals for all pupils as the Bill promoted by Tommy Sheridan, the Scottish Socialist Party's MSP, failed to make it past its first parliamentary stage this week.

The Bill's fate had been sealed after the Scottish Parliament's education committee agreed by a majority that it could not endorse the principles behind it. Only the two Nationalist members backed it.

Although the Bill was widely supported by groups ranging from child poverty campaigners to the Educational Institute of Scotland, the committee's report stated that "it is not convinced that the Bill is capable of addressing all of the complex issues of uptake, nutritional standards and child poverty".

Cathy Peattie, deputy convener of the committee, said: "Our committee is not persuaded that the free provision of school meals will automatically increase uptake as there appear to be various other factors, apart from cost, which influence the decisions of children.

"We recognise that it is difficult to legislate for the behaviour of children and that issues such as the marketing and presentation of food, the environment in which food is eaten and the reasons why children do not want to stay in school must be addressed."

Although Mr Sheridan expressed anger and disappointment at the defeat, he has put the issue firmly on the political agenda. In evidence to the committee, the Executive promised to set tough new nutritional standards.

Supporters of the Bill claimed the cost of free meals would have been pound;174 million, or less than 1 per cent of the Executive's budget. But opponents pointed to other costs such as improvements to school kitchens and dining areas to feed extra pupils.

Attention will now switch to the Executive's expert panel on school meals, chaired by Michael O'Neill, director of education in North Lanarkshire, whose report is expected shortly. Gillian Kynoch, the food czar, was one of the opponents of Mr Sheridan's Bill.

The committee, despite its opposition, made a string of recommendations:

* Free drinking water and milk should be available in all schools.

* Fizzy drinks should be discouraged as should the use of vending machines.

* Swipe cards should be used to overcome the stigma of free meals.

* Nutritional standards should be set and monitored.

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