Nick, did you remember to kick the wheels?

imagesCAOU2Y0C“If it looks too good to be true, then it probably is!” A week ago it appeared that the big idea for this weeks Lib Dem conference was to be charging for plastic bags. Then on Tuesday Nick Clegg visited a primary school to announce that he is going to fund free school meals for children such as those he was visiting. It is hard to criticise this idea, particularly if you have understood the rationale behind it although of course the Tax Payers Alliance did just that! However there are some very obvious questions to be asked that may have slipped through the net of scrutiny that should have been applied to this proposal. It has been widely reported that the money for this proposal was found as a quid-pro-quo for the announcement that David Cameron will make at his conference to give tax breaks to untitled (17)married people. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that idea, it has been a long term commitment made by the party and so it is coherent with Tory Party stated objectives. Lib Dem aspirations are many and varied but free school meals is not something that I have ever heard any of the party advocate for, prior to this announcement. There is also no suggestion that this was something that people had been asking for on the doorsteps. The risk is that Nick took this as the best outcome he thought he could achieve in the negotiations, not because it is what he really wanted (as we now know, the one thing Nick Clegg wants is to be a permanent deputy PM).

To provide school meals for whole classes of young children will inevitably raise a number of logistical questions. If it is to be a permanent arrangement, the need to recreate school kitchens will have to be considered, with huge costs involved. There are real questions about what happens when these children reach year 5 and 6. Those that hate their free meal will be delighted, but there will be some that would like to continue with a lunch that their parents are now unable to afford, all of the reasoning for making this a universal provision, will return. The amount to be spent on each meal is critical, not enough will make the idea look a failure, if the commitment is to ensure these children are well fed, the costs will be as hard to control as the family budgets this is destined to help. There is also an inevitability that a future Government will need to stem the funding for this (probably by demanding that local government mainstream the approach!). This will cause its own future problems, but perhaps Nick is confident he will be off the national stage by then!

On the face of this Nick may feel he got a good result, but the big difference between a married persons tax allowance and free school meals is that the Government gets to control the former, and the latter depends on either local government, or in the case of academies, on the governing body. Whatever Nick may have announced to his party members, he surely knows that this will only work if local government and governers agree to make it work. If a School is facing the loss of a member of staff or a playing field, or providing lunches that are not widely liked, it is pretty certain that the lunch will take the hit. How will the minor partner in a coalition force Labour, Conservative and Green Councils to deliver on a promise they arrived at with Conservative Ministers. Perhaps there are solutions to these problems, but bearing in mind the distaste for ringed budgets within the current government, this ‘free’ lunch appears to be only half cooked.

About ianchisnall

I am passionate about the need for public policies to be made accessible to everyone, especially those who want to improve the wellbeing of their communities. I am particularly interested in issues related to crime and policing as well as health services and strategic planning.
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