Fred Jowett – 1914 Speech on School Meals


Below is the text of the speech made by Fred Jowett in the House of Commons on 27 March 1914.

I beg to move, “That the Bill be now read a second time.”

The Bill covers certain points which have been the subject of discussion before in this House. Its objects are, first, to legalise the provision of meals when the schools are in vacation; secondly, to remove the limit which applies under the Provision of Meals Act, restricting any education authority to whatever action they can take within the yield of an arbitrary rate in the pound; and, thirdly, to enable steps to be taken for feeding underfed children where an education authority has failed to apply the Provision of Meals Act to the purpose for which it was designed.

I purpose to pass in review the three main objects of the Bill, taking them in the order that I have mentioned rather than in the order in which they appear in the Bill.

The first object, I repeat, is to enable meals to be provided for underfed children during school vacations, and in regard to that it is hardly worth arguing that if food is necessary during the time the school is open for ordinary purposes it is equally necessary when the school is not open for those purposes and during the holidays. I am in a position to give what I submit is very valuable evidence of the necessity for this particular part of the Bill. In Bradford, for one of the Constituencies of which I have the honour to be the Member, this matter of the provision of school meals has been gone into with exceedingly great care and seriousness. The experience of Bradford is that, while the schools are in operation and meals are being given, the poor children who need the meals consistently improve in physique, and that when the schools are closed, if meals are not provided, they deteriorate in physique and lose part of the advantages which they had previously. The particulars I am now going to give will prove that.

A number of children were put aside by the school medical officer in order to watch the effect during holidays, when there were no meals. The first week during which school meals were given the average gain in weight for the whole of those children was 1 lb. 4 ozs. each. The next two weeks a smaller gain was registered, but still a substantial one, being 5½ ozs. in the first week and 4½ ozs. in the second week. Then there was the Whitsuntide holiday. That should be a time of joy for the children and not a time of extra privation and suffering, but mark what took place during that week of holiday. The loss per child on the average was no less than 1 lb. Then there were seven weeks school, and during those seven weeks there was an average gain of 1¾ lbs. Four weeks’ holiday ensued, and, instead again of being improved in physique, as they ought to have been, the loss on the average was 1 lb. 2 ozs. each. Comparison with other children confirms the evidence that there is a serious deterioration during the times meals are not given, because the children who had never been on the school meal and who were fed regularly at home, improved consistently in weight during their holidays just as they did at other times. Could you have proof more conclusive of the absolute and imperative necessity for the welfare of the children that this object, which is sought to be fulfilled by my Bill, should be effected?

I have here on a rather smaller scale than is possible to be seen across the floor of the House a diagram showing the weight increases of the children during the time the school is open and they are being fed, and the way they lose at other times, but I am prepared to hand it round to such as care to observe it.

The second object of the Bill is the abolition of the halfpenny limit. Surely, if it is necessary that the children should be fed, it should not depend upon the mere incident as to the precise amount that a halfpenny in the £ brings in. Moreover, this tells definitely against the children who need it, because it is precisely in those areas where the yield is often the least that there are most children requiring the meals. The poorer the district the smaller the yield. Thus children who need to be supported are penalised according to the poverty of the neighbourhood. Bradford, I think I may say, is not specially poor, because work on the average is as regular, and wages are as high as in other towns and cities of this country, and certainly there is nothing like the welter of poverty that is to be found here in the Metropolis, or in certain other large cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow; and yet, notwithstanding, that it was found to be quite impossible to do the work laid upon that community within the limits of a halfpenny rate.

The consequence has been that, from year to year, the authorities have been faced with the necessity either of letting children they knew to be underfed continue to be underfed, or of overspending and taking the risks and consequences of so doing. This is the record for Bradford: In 1909, with a yield from the halfpenny rate of £2,885, £1,795 was overspent. In 1910, the halfpenny rate yielded £2,878, and £2,370 was overspent. In 1911, with a rate yield of £2,900, £1,163 was overspent. In 1912, when the rate yielded £2,912, £374 was overspent. In 1913, with a yield from the rate of £2,963, £1,176 was overspent; and in 1914, for this is still going on, and it will go on as long as the need exists, the overspending, on a yield of £3,060, was £793.

All through these years the Bradford authorities had to risk the consequences of this overspending. The Local Government Board, however, ceased to press for the payment of these surcharges, although year after year there was continual controversy between the Bradford corporation education authority and the Local Government Board with regard to the surcharges. Individuals who had been rather hard put to it to pay, cheerfully faced the prospect of whatever the President of the Local Government Board might choose to do in consequence of their action.

Mr. NEWTON Will the hon. Gentleman give us any explanation of the varying figures in the total expenditure of these years?

Mr. JOWETT The variations were due to trade depression and other circumstances. In one year the coal strike caused a large amount of extra poverty and necessitated considerably more feeding. I need not, however, go into details. I will simply say that the variations are due to fluctuations of trade and the increasing or decreasing amount of poverty. How came it that this amount of money was paid? Probably the hon. Member opposite, who appears to be interested in this question, would like to know. It so happens that under the Municipal Corporations Act the Bradford Corporation is possessed of powers which make it possible for it to transfer funds from one department to another, and to utilise the profits—and we are happy to think there were profits available—of municipal enterprise in order to fill up the gap in the education accounts, and thus to take away the power of the Local Government Board to visit them with any serious consequences.

There are 2,000 children now being fed in the city of Bradford by the education authority. It may be suggested that this is probably due to the fact that there is either laxity or over-generosity, and that there is no need for all this. But that is not the case, because, in only a very few instances indeed does the income of the families represented by these underfed children amount to 3s. per head per week, exclusive of rent, and in 57 per cent. of the cases it is less than 2s. per head per week.

Those who have gone into this question are familiar with the Rowntree figures. Some thirteen years have elapsed since those figures were drawn up showing the absolutely necessary cost that a household is put to in order to maintain its inmates, and these figures prove that to maintain a family of five in food equal in quantity and quality to the food supplied in the workhouses of the country—and surely ordinary citizens are entitled to as good food as is provided in those institutions !—the food of that family of five on that standard would, thirteen years ago, have cost 12s. 9d. per week. Add to that 15 per cent., which is the very least which can be put as the additional cost of living since that period, and you have a figure of 14s. 8d. for food alone.

Hon. Members must remember that there are other necessary things for a household, such sits clothing and fire and light, and when they bear that in mind they will be inevitably driven to the conclusion that, exclusive of rent altogether, the amount required for food, fire and light, and clothing and sundries for a household of five necessitates a wage of not less than 21s. per week. Rent would bring it up to 25s., 26s., or 27s., according to the town in which the family resides. On any less wage it would be impossible to maintain children and to feed them as they ought to be fed. Before the settlement of the railway dispute we were told on exceptional authority that there were over 100,000 railway men working on wages of not more than £1 per week. I admit that some little adjustment has since been made, but that adjustment, whatever it may be, is largely, if not entirely, nullified by the extra cost of living which has been added since the time of the settlement. Thus we are driven to the conclusion that if Bradford needs to spend more than a halfpenny rate—and I do not think anyone can deny the necessity for that—when it is merely giving meals to a household with an income of less than 3s. per head per week, exclusive of rent, then it must follow that in other districts, where nothing at all is being done, there is equal need.

That brings me to my third point. I have dealt with the first point, the power of giving meals during the vacation, and with the second point, which seeks to remove the halfpenny limit. My third point is directed to extending the system of school meals in the districts where the education authorities have hitherto refused to act. There are 317 local education authorities in this country. Only 134 of those authorities are doing anything to meet the necessities of the children in their districts. It cannot be argued that there is no need. It simply means that those authorities are not acting. That it is necessary to act there is evidence more than sufficient to convert the most sceptical person, if he will but try to consider the question without prejudice.

The Medical Officer of the Board of Education himself, in his most recent Report, states—the President of the Board of Education will, I think, approve of the words I am going to read, which I have extracted from that Report— Upon the growth and maturity of the body of the child depend mental power, self-control, and ultimately character. If that is so, is it reasonable, even from the point of view of the State, and not thinking of the terrible and awful injustice and hardship on the individual child, that this vast area should be uncovered, and that the work should not be done by those authorities who are now refusing to do it? Therefore in the Bill it is proposed to allow certain action to be taken in those districts where the local education authority has hitherto done this, and the action suggested in the Bill is entirely in harmony with the suggestions contained in the most recent Medical Officer’s Report issued by the Board of Education, as will be seen from this extract.

The Medical Officer says:— In the Board’s view no scheme can be regarded as wholly satisfactory unless the school medical Officer has the right to nominate for school feeding any children found at the routine medical inspection or on special examination to be suffering from malnutrition due to insufficiency or unsuitability of food. Secondly, the Bill provides that any child or children supposed to be underfed may be examined by the school medical officer, or other medical officer, on. the application of the education committee or the school managers, or the head teacher, while, in the interim between the application being made and the report of the medical officer being available, the Bill puts it within the power of the head teacher to provide meals, so that the hardship is not continued during that interim. Where an education authority will not act, although the evidence is clear, and it is shown that the need exists, the Bill provides that five of its members or twenty ratepayers may appeal to the Board of Education for an inquiry, and if the Board is satisfied that the authority is in default the Board may reduce its Grants or proceed by mandamus. Such are the proposals of the Bill. I will not go into them in greater detail, because that is more a matter for the Committee stage.

In conclusion, let me say that the issue is a very simple one indeed. Who is there in this House, or outside of it, who, being a decent citizen of this country, will say that if children are unfed they ought not to be fed? If there be no such individual, then what is the conclusion to be drawn but that they should be fed? The Bill proposes to do it, and that is all. All the debating of small points and all the cross currents are beside the mark. The need is there, and it ought to be met. More than ever at this day, when not only is there so much poverty, but even the Chancellor of the Exchequer has taken up this cry at his meetings, is it necessary that we should act, and act speedily.

I can say nothing better or more eloquent than the words used by the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself at Huddersfield last Saturday. He said:— Has another generation to pass away in wretchedness? Not if we can help it. Is England so poor that she cannot afford to feed, clothe and shelter her own sons and daughters; so mean that she will not spare her wealth to do it; so callous and hard-hearted that she is indifferent to the wretchedness in her own household? These are the questions which, above the din and clang of partisan and sectarian fury, I mean to continue to ask until the proud flag of Britain shall no longer be ashamed to ware over squalid homes and hungry children. I have also been knocking at the door for some years with this little Bill. In that period other questions have been taken up which cannot be said to have anything of the same importance as this one. You have dealt with gooseberry mildew, the Government has given great attention to improvement in the breed of horses, we are now passing a Plumage Bill, and the bee disease has received attention.

Now, at long last, let us have a step taken in the direction indicated in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s speech. Let the British flag no longer fly over squalid homes and hungry children. If the Government are sincere they will welcome this Bill; they will see to it that it passes its Second Reading to-day, and they will afford it every facility, and it will be placed upon the Statute Book within a very few weeks’ time.