EVERY child at a Thurrock infant school will receive free lunches from next September, Nick Clegg will announce on today (Wednesday) in a £1.2bn coalition deal.
In his closing speech to the Lib Dem conference, after winning a series of crunch votes, Mr Clegg will make clear that the £600m-a-year scheme was the price he had demanded to support David Cameron’s tax scheme reports The Guardian.
Hailing the scheme, which will save parents £437 a year and reintroduce the concept of universal benefits at a time of austerity, Clegg will say: “The Conservatives have made it clear that their priority is to help some families over others, with a tax break for married couples – a tax break for some, funded through the taxes of others. That tells you everything you need to know about their values.
“We, however, will help all families in these tough times – not just the kind we like best – by helping their young children get the best possible start in life. And that tells you everything about ours.”
The announcement was the result of a direct deal between Cameron and Clegg. The Tories were interested in the idea of free school meals, which were suggested in the School Food Plan commissioned by Michael Gove. But the extra spending was not a priority for Cameron, who announced in summer that the marriage tax allowance would be introduced this year.
A senior Lib Dem source said: “They want to spend roughly the same amount on the marriage tax. We want to spend it on this. It is a straight-up-and-down deal.”
The Lib Dem move means that an extra 1.5 million children aged between five and seven will be entitled to free school meals. This will take to 1.9 million the number of infant school pupils eligible for the meals – 400,000 children, whose parents are on low incomes, already qualify.
Clegg regards the free school meals announcement as one of the most significant since he entered government. In their School Food Plan this year the Leon Restaurants founders, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, supported universal free school meals for primary school children after citing research finding that it had educational benefits in addition to nutritional advantages.
The study under the last government in three boroughs, Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton, found academic benefits that outstripped those from the introduction of the literacy hour.
The Clegg proposal received widespread praise from children’s groups and teaching unions. But two rightwing thinktanks, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies, criticised it. Ryan Bourne, of the CPS, said: “There was me thinking we had huge public borrowing. The poorest children are already eligible for free school meals – the main beneficiaries of this new universal benefit will be middle and upper income households, who really don’t need a public subsidy. I thought that with the huge deficit, ageing population and productivity pressures in the public sector, it was becoming acknowledged that universal benefits were unsustainable.”