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I blocked schools from imposing vegetarian diets when I was health secretary, Barclay reveals

Steve Barclay in Downing Street
Steve Barclay, who says as health secretary he stopped schools from imposing vegetarian diets, in Downing Street this week - Jamie Lorriman/Jamie Lorriman

The former health secretary Steve Barclay blocked plans to allow schools to impose vegetarian diets on pupils, he has revealed.

On Thursday, Mr Barclay, who now serves as the Environment Secretary, told farmers that during his time in the Department of Health he thwarted proposals to allow schools to stop serving meat products in school canteens.

In his first speech since taking up the role at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Mr Barclay sought to assure the agricultural sector that he was on the side of farmers.

Speaking at the Country Land and Business Association conference in London, Mr Barclay cited his track record in government and told attendees: “I have always been clear that we need to protect our farmers.

“Indeed, as health secretary, I blocked a proposal which was to allow schools to impose a vegetarian diet, because to me food is a key part and a valuable sector within the economy, but it is also an important part of our diet too.

“So as health secretary, I blocked the proposals which would have allowed the imposition of that in certain schools.”

The Telegraph understands that his comments related to plans from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities to update its guidance for standards of school meals earlier this year.

One of the suggested proposals, understood to have come from the Department for Education, was to allow schools to go completely vegetarian should they have wished.

The plans, which would have affected primary and secondary schools across the country, included suggestions that parents should be consulted before making such a move.

However, it is understood that Mr Barclay, while he was health secretary, expressed concern about the health impact on pupils and the consequences for farmers, and therefore blocked the proposals.

The current mandatory school food standards state that a portion of meat or poultry on three or more days each week should be offered in canteens.

Student unions and town halls going vegan

A number of universities’ student unions in recent months have made the move to go vegan, in a bid to become more sustainable, including most recently Warwick University.

Cambridge University’s student union in February voted to hold talks about removing all animal products from its menus, following lobbying from Cambridge’s Plant Based Universities campaign.

An increasing number of councils in rural areas have recently elected to keep meat and dairy on their menus amid a growing trend among town halls for going vegan.

The MP for North East Cambridgeshire told farmers: “As a rural MP, as someone who lives with his family in the countryside, I know and appreciate first-hand how important our countryside is and I’m delighted to champion the countryside and what it contributes to our country and our way of life.”

A Government spokesman said: “It has been the law since 2014 that schools need to serve meat at least three times a week and we have no plans to change this.

“The school food standards have been designed to offer schools flexibility in what they offer, and we expect schools to provide choices that take account of all special dietary needs.”