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Opinion: 'If Margaret Thatcher was wrong to scrap free milk isn't Sadiq Khan's free school meals plan the right one?'





Free school meals are to be offered to all primary school children in London, mayor Sadiq Khan has promised.

Now while I have numerous issues with some of his policies, universal free school meals is such an uncomplicated good thing I'm hoping if London can do it the rest of England might follow suit. (I say England because Wales and Scotland already have more generous school meal policies.)

In London every primary school child is going to be given a free school meal. Image: Stock photo.
In London every primary school child is going to be given a free school meal. Image: Stock photo.

Before anyone suggests I think free means free - for the record I appreciate this policy isn't without cost to someone or something - but I don't think we should get fixated with the aspect of someone getting something for nothing when it comes to children and food, columnist Lauren Abbott writes.

In France they're heavily subsidising energy bills, in Germany it's childcare, Scotland offers free university tuition to those who opt to stay and study.

In England there's free bus travel for all older people, free dentistry for every pregnant woman and all new mothers, we're all currently pocketing a non-means tested £400 to help pay energy bills and until 2020 free TV licenses were given to all over 75s - and look at the uproar over withdrawing that offer.

Free school meals are already available to pupils up to Year 2 - so this is an extension to an existing policy. Parents could still send in a packed lunch if they'd prefer and perhaps an opt-out system could take a small payment from those who can afford to and want to take some social responsibility to contribute?

But making provision universal removes from tiny children the shame and stigma attached to not having enough, makes sure no child is left behind and crucially - most crucially in fact - guarantees no youngster goes hungry because of the actions / behaviour / circumstances of their parents whatever that might look like.

And all the while we've teachers providing breakfast from their own pockets and supermarkets offering £1 hot meal deals to help feed the nation's families we can't pretend as a society we're getting this right.

Truth is, we're so knee deep in a lengthy cost of living crisis that over the next 12 to 18 months the government is preparing to send out more than £900 each in cash to more than eight million households to help keep heads above water.

What's more, access to that cost of living money, it turns out, is far easier to claim than it actually is a free school dinner.

To get the recently announced hand-outs arriving this spring, autumn and again early next year, households need to be claiming some form of means-tested benefit, namely Universal Credit, regardless of employment status, household income or how much of that benefit serves as an income top-up.

Plans to abolish school milk were met with outrage in the early 1970s
Plans to abolish school milk were met with outrage in the early 1970s

To get free school meals for their children - a household on benefits must be making less than £7,400 a year to be eligible, which actually rules out hundreds of thousands of cash-strapped working families because they might be fortunate enough to be earning more than £7,400 a year.

If fortunate is what you want to call it. I struggle to see how earning anything close to £7,000 points to being able to afford much at all. In fact it's such a low bar that more than 800,000 children living in real poverty actually miss out on school meals because their families supposedly don't qualify.

Margaret Thatcher was given the 'milk snatcher' nickname for taking away children's free milk
Margaret Thatcher was given the 'milk snatcher' nickname for taking away children's free milk

In the 1970s Margaret Thatcher was pilloried for abolishing free school milk.

'Thatcher Thatcher the milk snatcher' as she became known, unleashed a political and social storm when she stopped the provision for over sevens at a time when access to good nutritious food and money was tight. So memorable was that fall-out that she was seemingly horrified when 19 years later health secretary Ken Clarke proposed ending free milk for nursery children as well.

Files released by the National Archives show that Thatcher – by then Prime Minister – scrawled 'No – this will cause a terrible row – all for £4m. I know – I went through it 19 years ago' in a handwritten note as part of efforts to dissuade him.

And so, if her swipe at universal milk provision was felt so deeply unjust and potentially damaging, why would we be so against bringing back any form of universal food provision for school children today?



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