Opinion: Nanny no more – a real test of the Coalition

It was inevitable, it had to happen at some point, the honeymoon couldn’t last forever (insert any other clichés you’d like to add); the Coalition government, drenched in soft summery praise in its opening weeks – enough to spark a nauseating case of cognitive dissonance in the case of Martin Kettle’s latest offering – had to face a stern test of its unity sooner or later, and now we have it. But I’m not talking about the referendum on electoral reform, nor about cuts to public services or even the VAT rise. No, I’m talking about Turkey Twizzlers, fizzy drinks and Jamie Oliver – that’s right, it’s the battle over school dinners and regulation of the junk food industry.

OK, admittedly there are bigger fish to fry (groan) than the nutritional status of a 6-year-old’s afternoon meal, but for me Andrew Lansley’s pronouncements on the regulation of the food industry – or rather, conspicuous reduction thereof – and the accompanying denigration of schools’ food policy goes to the heart of the difficulties we face as Coalition partners with the Conservatives.

First and foremost, there’s the simple matter of Lansley just not getting his facts rights now that his assertion that Oliver’s School Dinners campaign had been ‘counterproductive’ has been disproven; leaving aside nerdy arguments about statistical significance and the like, the latest data suggest a (modest) rise in uptake of school meals, so for Lansley to suggest otherwise is in itself counterproductive.

More important than this apparent failure to base policy on evidence, however, is the question of how liberals (and Liberals) perceive the issues surrounding nutrition, obesity and school meals – in contrast to the viewpoint of our Coalition partners. For many classical liberals, what people eat is simply a matter of personal choice and responsibility; no place for a hectoring State to get involved, a line that Lansley sincerely adheres to. And yet, for those of us who believe that a choice is only valuable when accompanied by the capability to exercise said choice, it isn’t as simple as leaving schools and junk food corporations to their own devices, hang the consequences.

Let’s take Mr. Lansley’s approach to school dinners and junk food in turn. The introduction of healthier school meals, initiated lest we forget by a private citizen (Oliver) not some hulking Whitehall quangocracy, could be seen as an excellent example of the Big Society at work; individual schools, education authorities and councils deciding for themselves what to offer kids at lunchtime – often sourcing the food from the private sector – free from central diktat. Indeed, some would say that Oliver’s campaign, highlighting the undisputed benefits of healthier eating for school kids, was just the sort of grassroots activity that was to be encouraged under the banner of The Big Society – and yet Mr. Lansley seems hostile to the very idea.

Then there’s the way in which the government intends to regulate the junk food industry. There are many who feel that the mass-marketing techniques employed by food conglomerates – spending billions of dollars per annum – creates a form of information asymmetry between them and their customers, thus making it unfair to ask (especially young, often poorly-informed) people to make supposedly free choices about what they eat without some form of public counterbalance. Not so Mr. Lansley, who would prefer light-touch regulation (now where have we heard that one before?) in return for the crisp-and-soda manufacturers contributing to governmental healthy-eating campaigns. For clarity’s sake I should say that there’s nothing wrong with the latter part of this proposal; asking companies to pay a little towards the mitigation of the negative externalities that they create is only right, and may well be something that could be applied to the banking and fossil fuel industries (pace, RBS and BP…). But for the government to deny the need for regulation of an industry whose products, when consumed in excess, cause such a burden on society, is naive at best and negligent at worst, threatening the well-being of the next generation.

The thread that runs through both the criticism of healthier school meals and the removal of regulation of junk food exposes what is for me a fundamental flaw in Conservative thinking; that all State action designed to alter behaviour is inherently A Bad Thing. It falls to the junior partners in the coalition, in this case as in many others I imagine, to stand up for a State that enables people to really live lives free from disease and hardship – in the cases described here, by using both regulation and better school meals to help develop a healthier relationship with food. Credit to Sarah Teather, who said:

We welcome the increase in the number of children getting a healthy meal in schools. We want to ensure school meals continue to be healthy.

I hope Lib Dems in government go further in the future.

Prateek Buch is a Liberal Democrat member in Chingford and Woodford Green, and blogs at teekblog.blogspot.com.

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18 Comments

  • I’m sorry but I don’t need the State to tell me what to do in the area of feeding myself. And with respect, I submit that those who do are not really functioning as well as they might be.
    Let’s be even more blunt here, if I may. If you are a fat, out-of-shape, ‘victim’ of the food industry —— give your head a shake and STOP EATING SO MUCH JUNK. If you can’t be bothered about yourself, why should I pay for someone to be concerned on your behalf ?
    Just say no. It’s not the State’s job to keep shouting at you to Smarten Up. It’s YOURS. I agree with listing food ingredients and approximate calorie content so that responsible people can make informed decisions, and I like the idea of ‘healthy’ food in schools, but that’s it. I see no need for large State expenditures to shake some sense into the perpetually senseless. And I DON’T want to pay for them. Especially when that payment means that something else goes short.

  • Andrew Suffield 13th Jul '10 - 2:22pm

    Sigh. Lansley’s comments are silly. So far as I can tell, he is complaining that making school meals healthier results in only 75% (or more) of the pupils eating more healthily – and that’s supposed to be a failure?

    And he hasn’t even established that the drop in pupils eating school meals is caused by the change in food. There doesn’t seem to be any examination of the causes.

    On regulation: this one’s easy. School meals are a monopoly: there’s only one school kitchen that a child can go to, hence neither the child nor the parents has a free choice, and “informing” them is irrelevant. Hence school meals need to be regulated to prevent that monopoly from being abused. It doesn’t need to be very heavy regulation, but something must be present to prevent snack companies from subsidising schools to feed the children sugar syrup instead of food. From the perspective of Lib Dem attitudes, this regulation should be local in nature: it should represent the parents and governors of the school (which gives you a pretty good idea what it should look like – a national rule that school meals must be subject to local democracy of some form).

    Packed lunches are not a monopoly, they are a free choice. No regulation of packed lunches is appropriate. That was a stupid idea.

  • Excellent article – can’t find anything to disagree with!

    This is a good example of how we sit in between Labour and the Conservatives on many issues. Instinctively, Labour say “the state is the solution” while the Tories say “the state is the problem”. Both are simplistic viewpoints and neither (IMO) is true.

    This also illustrates one of the big problems we often face in getting the Lib Dem message across and communicating what we stand for. Simplistic ideas are a lot easier to explain. “You’re either with us or against us” – who could fail to understand that? But a more nuanced position that recognises the complexity of real life – how do you get that across a) in a sound bite and b) without sounding like you can’t make up your mind?  

  • I think one of the points Lansley was trying to make was that the standards developed by and for the SFT for school meals have been so over-enginereed – there are two separate sorts plus a further set of FSA-set guidelines – that it’s almost impossible for school caterers to make an attractive, affordable meal which contains elements that kids recognise as foods that they want to eat. In some respects, the standards actually militate against eductaing people to make healthier choices: they don’t discriminate between Diet Coke and full-sugar Coke; or between an oven chip and a deep-fried lardy chip. Net result: kids walk out and buy full-sugar Coke and lardy chips down the road at less than they pay in schools; throwing school meal finances into crisis. I suspect that school food standards are a good idea that the dietary zealots have completely hi-jacked and thus, for the best of reasons, effectively neutered.

  • Given that young people are forced to attend these hellholes we call schools, and are required to eat the filth they are served, I think it is right that government should step in and make the meals as healthy as possible. Traditionally, school food has been on a par with the stuff fed to prisoners, and that is a measure of the contempt with which teachers and school authorities regard the young people. In the case of school meals, there is no real issue of personal choice and government nannying. I would argue that prisoners should be fed healthily too, and for the same reason.

  • Jane Elwood 13th Jul '10 - 2:48pm

    “And I DON’T want to pay for them. Especially when that payment means that something else goes short.”
    Oh but you will. When they are an increasing drain on the NHS. Assuming that’s still around.

    Nice piece authour, but …
    “.. for Lansley to suggest otherwise is in itself counterproductive.”
    There is a difference between “counterproductive” and “making things up”.

  • Prateekh,

    “I may be naive, but I for one feel that evidence of improved performance in schools that offer better food would trump Mr. Lansley’s dogmatic insistence on rolling back Nanny…”

    Evidence from Birmingham and the Netherlands that polyclinics improve patient care (and, in particular, reduce inappropriate use of A+E) didn’t stop Lansley scrapping “Healthcare for London”.

  • Andrew Wimble 13th Jul '10 - 3:34pm

    What sort of regulation would you advocate. I would strongly object to any regulation that prevented me from buying an extra large burger if I wanted to. In general I eat fairly heathily but occasionally I like to pig out on some unhealthy, fattening junk. I do not believe that it does me any harm as an occasional indulgence, and would strongly object to some law deciding what I am and am not allowed to eat.

    As far as school meals go, I think they should be generally healthy and ballanced but that does not have to become some kind of fanatical cruisade. There is nothing wrong with chips, not every meal maybe but they do no harm every now and then. The same goes for a coke or anything else. In general it is not particular foods that are the problem, it is consuming too much of them to the exclusion of more heathy options.

  • Andrew Suffield 13th Jul '10 - 3:39pm

    The SFT standards are ridiculously complex and quite inappropriate. There are pages of detailed examination of food groups, and a centrally defined set of nutritional requirements to be applied nationally, without regard to individual needs. If a school cannot comply with the requirements then they aren’t allowed to provide meals.

    What we need is just a requirement for the school to consider the health of students when setting menus, to take any reasonable steps to improve that, to regularly report on their actions and meal quality to parents, and to ensure that school meals are covered by their existing parent and governor oversight systems. Ofsted can check that they’re doing all those things. That would be an appropriate level of regulation here. You can throw in some detailed reporting criteria to ensure it’s done properly – forcing schools to determine and disclose the nutritional content of their meals is reasonable, and then we can leave it up to the parents to do something suitable with that information.

  • In some articles about the furore about Lansley’s remarls, it was said that Sarah Teather is reviewing school meals policy: does anyone know anything about this?

  • Andrew Suffield 13th Jul '10 - 7:56pm

    I’d also like to see the sort of regulation that Andrew Suffield argues for covering all public institutions – getting councils/hospitals/schools etc to sign up

    It would work for schools because ofsted can check that a good faith effort is being made, and report on performance in comparison to other schools. I’m not sure it would work for the other things, since they don’t have an independent inspection agency.

    Mind you, maybe they should have one.

  • Time was when school dinners met our nutritional requirements for the day and were popular – nearly all children ate them. Those that didn’t were the posh middle class girls who bought in lettuce leaves. Then came Thatcher and now and the destruction of the school meal system in the name of choice. Now you LibDems claim to have a nuanced approach between nanny state and big capital! No you are supporting Tory policies and the result is big business will win at the expense of the nation’s health – and massive costs to the NHS in rising obesity – treating Type2 diabetes, heart attacks, etc cost money. Smoking has been managed by regulation and this is what the food industry fears. Grow up liberal democrats and start fighting.

  • Pratekk, see para 9 in:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/jun/30/jamie-oliver-school-meals-lansley

    Though as she has pre-ruled out any change to the standards, it’s not clear what a review will address or achieve!

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