The Daily Mail published an article on Saturday that suggests that the 'flagship Liberal Democrat policy' of free school meals for all infant school pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2 may be scrapped, saving £600 million, as part of the Government's efforts to wrestle with the deficit. It would also go some way towards the £14 billion 'unprotected' part of the Department for Education's budget.
We agree, and set out why in the Spending Plan (Policy 30) we published earlier this year.
Universal free school meals has been beleaguered with problems from the outset: low take-up rates, poor planning and lack of resources in schools being the most prominent of these. Unfortunately many of these problems were foreseen but the policy was rushed through towards the end of the Coalition and prior to the election.
But even if it were not beset by problems, the fact still remains that this a poor answer to the problem of school nutrition and a prime example of misuse of the word 'free'.
It's not 'the government' paying for these meals, it's every taxpayer in the country. Providing the children of richer parents with 'free' school meals requires a subsidy from those parents on lower income through tax, as is true with all universal benefits. Of course every child should be able to eat a healthy meal at lunchtime, but this is why these meals were originally means tested, so that those children whose parents may not be able to afford a hot meal wouldn't be disadvantaged in their education. Providing these meals to every infant school child, regardless of income, only means that money will be diverted from other parts of the budget.
And the stigma that is said to happen when some children get free meals and others don't?
First, this is a social issue that should be addressed by parents, carers and teachers.
Second, dinner bands, tokens or other discreet means can be used to ensure that other children don't know who gets free meals and who doesn't.
Finally, there is no mention of what happens to this discrimination when the child enters Primary school. Possibly by the age of 8 children are expected to be less unkind to those on lower incomes?
In any case, £600 million saved today represents £600 million + debt interest that these children will not have to pay in taxes tomorrow.