Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Free school meals for all not a liberal aim for very long

On 20 May this year, Labour's Iain Wright asked David Laws if the government would consider allowing the children of all those in receipt of Universal Credit to claim free school meals.

Laws shut the door rapidly. 
"We estimate that extending free school meal entitlement to all families in receipt of universal credit would result in more than half of children being entitled to free school meals in England, at a cost of up to an extra £1 billion per year. In the current economic climate this is not affordable."
Now that is a number somewhat larger than is proposed under this scheme, but bear in mind that the Tories will be announcing a pointless tax break for married couples which will take the combined costs of these two measures to around the £1.2 billion mark. Which is apparently now affordable. 

In a letter to 38 Degrees in August this year, he wrote (my emphasis)
"We estimate the current cost of free school meals to schools and local authorities at £460 million per year, and the department's budget remains very tight. Any increase in eligibility would inevitably mean a reduction in the budget to spend on other areas."
Campaign poster from 2009, Diane Johnson MP
And then there's Hull Liberal Democrats, who scrapped the Labour council's universal free school meal policy.

Or we can turn to the rotating political weathervane that is Simon Hughes, who attacked Southwark Council for spending £15m on giving out free school meals.

I'm sure Simon will be back on message soon.

While I'm delighted at this policy shift from the Lib Dems, there are a couple of problems. Firstly - how is this to be funded and for how long? On past form, exactly as David Laws wrote, money is shifted between budgets, so a bit of extra cash here means a cut somewhere else. We won't get that answer until the autumn statement - even though the Tories will be spending a bit more cash when they announce their marriage giveaway.

The second question is how this will be delivered, as so many schools have scrapped their kitchen facilities. Tim Farron has been on the media stump and has suggested that packed lunches may be enough - but will that meet the aim?

I don't think we've heard the last of this policy and it may well stuck in the lunch queue for a while yet.

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