Election 2023: Chris Hipkins said there is ban on fizzy drinks in primary schools, ministry says there isn't

Labour leader Chris Hipkins said he was responsible for banning fizzy drinks in primary schools - but the Ministry of Education says there's no current required ban.

The former Minister of Education made the claim in the first televised leaders debate on Tuesday night, saying: "I banned fizzy drinks in primary schools already and I think they should be banned in secondary schools as well, and we will do that if re-elected."

Speaking to media shortly afterwards, he said he wanted to extend the ban to secondary schools as the Government has "now got the evidence that it has been successful in primary schools".

But after questions from Newshub, the Ministry of Education said on Wednesday: "There is no requirement on schools to ban fizzy drinks". Instead, there is just a duty for schools "to promote healthy food and nutrition". 

After Newshub contacted the Labour leader's office for comment, Hipkins decided to front media. 

"I was alerted by my office just now that I made a mistake in last night's TV debate," he said.

"As Minister of Education, I consulted on banning sugary soft drinks in schools. We had got all the way to the decision-making around banning them in primary schools, but not secondary schools. We had done public consultation on that. I misremembered what happened next."

He said the Labour Party's policy is to ban sugary drinks in schools.

"Most schools have done it already, so yes there is a good strong evidence base to show it makes a significant difference. That was one of the things that came through the consultation, that most primary schools had already done it," he said.

"I had misinterpreted all of that, misremembered the finer details of that, that we hadn't as a Government made final decisions to make it mandatory."

Hipkins said it wasn't a topic he anticipated being raised in the debate.

"It wasn't something I had gone back and brushed up my memory over. I literally just got the detail of the final decision-making on what was quite an extensive process in terms of public consultation, I got the final detail wrong. I accept responsibility for that."

It's the latest in a line of inaccurate comments from Labour MPs during this election campaign. Earlier this month, Hipkins was forced to send a reminder to his team to stick to the facts, and had to deal with a case of misinformation from an MP as recently as Tuesday morning.

The Ministry of Education ran public consultation between April and June last year on promoting healthy drinks in schools. This included adding a duty on primary schools to provide only healthy drinks.

According to a summary of submissions it received, the majority of the submitters wanted the duty to be placed on all schools. This led the ministry to provide an option to ministers to only provide healthy drinks in primary schools from January 2023 and in secondary schools from January 2024. Alternatively, ministers could just impose the duty straight away on all schools.

However, the ministry still recommended only imposing the duty in primary schools. It said there was limited feedback from secondary school boards, principals and teachers about potential barriers.

"We recommend that further work is undertaken in 2023 to gather more evidence about the impact of the loss of revenue that secondary schools may face and the plans for phasing out contracts with providers for unhealthy drinks, with the intent to implement the same duty in secondary schools in 2024 or 2025."

A Cabinet paper dated August 29, 2022 - when Hipkins was Education Minister - shows ministers agreed schools should promote healthy food and nutrition and asked the Ministry of Education to gather evidence by December 2023 about "how to implement a duty to provide only healthy drinks in secondary schools as well as primary schools".

"While there was significant public support for adding this new duty, the majority of submitters wanted the Government to apply the duty to primary and secondary schools," the paper said.

"We considered this further but have decided against this approach because fewer secondary schools have water-only policies, and there was limited feedback from these schools on the impact of this duty. 

"We propose that the Ministry of Education undertakes further work in 2023 to assess the impact of implementing this for secondary schools, with the intention that the duty will be implemented in primary and secondary schools at the same time."

In a statement on Wednesday, Jennifer Fraser, the Ministry of Education's general manager of learner success and Tiriti policy told Newshub: "There is no requirement on schools to ban fizzy drinks.  However, schools have a duty to promote healthy food and nutrition".

"Last year’s public consultation showed strong support for a duty on all schools to only provide healthy food and drinks to students," she said.

"Whilst many primary schools already voluntarily adopt healthy food and drink policies, only a minority of secondary schools are doing the same.

"In light of this feedback, it was agreed that further work was necessary to better understand the impact of introducing a healthy drinks requirement for secondary schools before making a decision on whether to implement a healthy drinks requirement for all schools."

This process came about as the National Administration Guidelines for school boards were ceasing on January 1, 2023 and requirements within them were being shifted to new regulations, legislation and other areas.