Devon MP slams Clegg's free school meals plan
A senior Liberal Democrat has questioned Nick Clegg's flagship £600 million plan to give all infant school pupils free dinners when older schoolchildren are living in poverty without the benefit.
Sir Nick Harvey, MP for North Devon and a former minister, has warned the party risks getting its priorities wrong and that the Lib Dem leader's conference season pledge "came out of nowhere".
The Liberal Democrat MP pointed to statistics produced by the Children's Society showing that 1.2 million children living within the Government's definition of child poverty are not getting a free school meal.
This represents around 30,000 children on the poverty line in Devon and Cornwall, including 1,400 in North Devon. But the Deputy Prime Minister's proposal for a universal benefit means even children in infant school with wealthy parents will get a school meal they could pay for, he said.
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The flagship scheme, due to start next September, will benefit about 1.5 million five-to-seven-year-olds. But only 200,000 are from poor families.
Sir Nick Harvey told Radio 4's Westminster Hour: "It [the announcement] came out of nowhere, I'd heard nothing about it previously, nor did any others I had spoken to.
"I'd been told 'well we just haven't got the money to do that, of course it would be desirable but the money isn't there'.
"Then suddenly, wham, bam, thank you ma'am, £600 million appears from nowhere and it's going to cover giving all five, six and seven-year-old children a free school meal regardless of their parental income.
"And guess what: 1.3 million of them, who can afford perfectly well to pay for their own school lunch, are going to get a free meal. So you've got 1.2 million children living within the Government's definition of child poverty not getting a free school meal and 1.3 million who are perfectly capable of paying for it are.
"It's a question of priorities and I've got no problem giving all kids a free school meal, but if we can't afford that, then surely the priority should be those who can't afford it."
A key reason why the poorest are not getting free school meals is because claiming other benefits – such as tax credits if on low pay – means their children become ineligible.
In a Westminster Hall debate earlier this year, Sir Nick called for the eligibility criteria for free school meals to be changed.
He argued some parents in the Westcountry are turning down work for fear of losing free school meal entitlements.
Sir Nick had also said some families were not claiming because of the "stigma".