UK Politics

Free school meals: Universal entitlement right, say Lib Dems

a school dinner
Image caption Lib Dems say the free meals plan will be worth £437 per child for families

Top Lib Dems have defended the decision to extend free school meals to all infant school pupils irrespective of family income, saying the case for universal entitlement is "very strong".

Limiting access to a smaller group would not boost health and performance in the same way, the party's Education Minister, David Laws, said.

The Lib Dems say the measure is not part of a pre-election "bonanza".

But the Institute of Directors said the plan was "completely mad".

All infants in state primary schools in England will get their meals paid for from next September under plans agreed by the coalition, which Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has said will save parents about £437 a year per child.

'Fairly funded'

While welcoming the announcement, poverty campaigners have questioned why all families - irrespective of their income - should be entitled to assistance while one think tank has described it as "middle-class welfare dressed up as help for the poor".

At the moment free school meals are available to all children whose parents are on benefits or earn less than £16,190 a year.

But Mr Laws said half of children in poverty were currently not getting a free meal because of the "stigma" involved in take-up or because they were simply not entitled.

There was a "strong evidence base" that the best way to rectify this was by making the help universal, he told the BBC's Daily Politics.

"Just extending entitlement to a wider group - for example those on working tax credits, or on low incomes but in employment - actually has no impact on the things we care about - on educational attainment, children's health... and giving people incentives to get back into employment."

Mr Laws said he did not back the continuation of all universal benefits in the current straitened economic climate - suggesting that it was "dotty" that wealthy pensioners were still able to get winter fuel allowance.

But, in the case of school meals, he said the argument for universal provision was "very, very strong".


The policy - estimated to cost £600m a year - would be "fully funded" and paid for in a "progressive way", Mr Laws said - adding that the Treasury had agreed to the plan and Chancellor George Osborne would set out how it would be funded in the Autumn Statement.

"We have found the money for it... and I can tell you it will be funded in a fair way."

Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander said the measure would help both low-income families and middle-income families under huge financial pressure, adding that it was "affordable" despite £10bn in further spending cuts planned in 2015-16.

Labour says coalition spending cuts will have taken up to £7bn a year of support away from children by 2015.

Labour List said the Lib Dems' deputy leader Simon Hughes had criticised Labour-controlled Southwark Council's offer of free school meals in 2011.

But, speaking on Wednesday, Mr Hughes said he was "very comfortable" with the rationale behind the government's move.

Meanwhile, Downing Street sources have dismissed suggestions from some Liberal Democrats that the meals plan was part of a tacit policy deal tied to Conservative plans for a tax break for married couples.

The source said the marriage tax allowance - which David Cameron has said will be introduced before the end of this Parliament - was in the 2010 coalition agreement and there was no need for a separate arrangement.

'Floating voters'

The Institute of Directors said neither commitment could be justified given the state of the public finances.

"I think both announcements, the free schools meals and the married couple change, are completely mad and they run completely counter to the whole tone of austerity that the government has rightly been cleaving to in the last couple of years," Simon Walker, the employers' group chief executive, said.

"It does represent the kind of boost to government spending that is entirely unnecessary.

"You might as well just hand out £10 notes to marginal floating voters. It doesn't make sense to do these things in an untargeted way.

"You need to focus on the people who really need help

And Campaign group Don't Judge My Family said it feared there was "no such thing as a free school lunch".

"The price Lib Dems are paying is holding their noses at a hated Tory pet project - the £600m marriage tax allowance - which discriminates against the one in four children brought up by widowed or single parents, children with married but working parents and children with cohabiting parents," said Julianne Marriott.