Analysis: Why Milton's plans to end free milk soured

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In her letter setting out proposals for scrapping free milk for under fives, health minister Anne Milton told her Scottish counterpart Shona Robison it was an "ineffective universal measure".

Opposition from the media, parents, nurseries, childminders and the dairy sector should not stop the government from ending it, she wrote.

Within hours of her views being made public it was clear the idea of scrapping the milk scheme was also opposed by David Cameron, and such a move would not go ahead. The prime minister had not been aware of Mrs Milton's correspondence.

When first alerted to the fact the proposal was to be put in the public domain the Department of Health said ending the current milk scheme was "one of the options" being examined ahead of this autumn's spending review.

After the prime minister's views were made public, the department said it had ruled out this option.

Mrs Milton described her views as "proposals" - this was never formal policy - but her consultation letter making the arguments against free milk was very clear.

In one respect the minister was simply doing her job. Everyone in Whitehall wants to find savings and the current milk scheme is expected to cost £59m next year in England alone. She even pointed out the political pitfalls, noting the controversial nature of her suggestion.

But almost 40 years after education secretary Margaret Thatcher decided to end free milk for seven to 11-year-olds, she is still pilloried as a "milk snatcher". The fact a Labour government ended a similar provision for secondary school pupils does not hold the same place in the public consciousness. So it is surprising no one let the current Conservative prime minister know about a consultation process likely to end up in the public domain.

Yet while this is a sensitive issue, it is not unique. Other potential cuts may affect provision for children.

Writing in the Sunday Times, David Cameron observed: "The truth is there will be some things that we genuinely value that will have to go because of the legacy we have been left."

The government's experience with free milk makes clear it will have to carefully consider the political, as well as the economic, consequences of every proposed cut to valued services.

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