Friday, 14 April 2017

Free anything sounds good - but is it best value for money? Labour's Free School Dinners Policy


I should like, if I may Dear Reader, to start this week’s Easter column with what’s known in the trade as an ‘extended metaphor’.

I shall try and highlight to you how, in many quarters, a seemingly popular idea is invalid by comparing it to something altogether more ridiculous.

Now I must admit extended metaphors can often be a bit clunky, I remember writing one in another publication trying to persuade Leave voters to switch to Remain during the EU referendum campaign by comparing Britain to a magical fairytale land.

Look how that turned out and you can still find my dodgy piece on a major news website!

But today I shall give it a go. All I ask of you, Dear Reader, is to try and stick with me and if you can’t then come back next week when I am sure I will be back to my senses.

Let me ask you how you would feel if I were tell you that I was going to buy you an Easter Egg?

You may well say to me ‘Thank you, that’s very kind’ and go on about preparing Easter Sunday lunch. You might say to me ‘Great, but I didn’t really need one.’

Others still might say ‘Thank, but I don’t really like Easter Eggs’, whilst a few charitable souls may well tell me ‘That’s very kind, but I’m sure others need Easter Eggs more than I do, please give mine to them.’

In short if I were stand at the back of your church this morning handing out Easter Eggs there would be a whole range of responses many grateful and some less so.

The reason that I bring this up is a story which occurred last week of a policy announcement by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Mr Corbyn announced that if Labour were to win the next election his government would introduce free school dinners for all primary school children.

On the face of it ‘free’ anything is a vote winner, we all like free things and when it’s free things for children and hard pressed parents how can it possibly be bad?

But whilst I’m sure that most people would on the face of it like my free Easter Eggs idea when you start to look a little deeper you realise that maybe there would be smarter policies for me and Mr Corbyn to announce.

During the last coalition government, largely due to the junior partner Liberal Democrats, an initiative was introduced to provide free school dinners for infant school children. In terms of simple numbers that initiative has been broadly a success.

In 2014, in the wake of the scheme’s introduction, in terms of pure numbers, 85% of children and their parents took advantage of ‘free dinners’, although take up did vary significantly from region to region. Whilst in inner city London 90.6% of all infant age children received their free meal in more rural and arguably more affluent areas such as the South East that figure dropped by around ten percentage points.

Although figures for subsequent years are harder to come by anecdotal evidence suggests that take up, in some areas at least, may have dropped significantly. A 2015 Daily Telegraph article reported that in places just 30-40% of children were taking advantage of the scheme; in many cases because the children simply didn’t like the food on offer.

And that is the first problem that I face with my metaphorical Easter Egg giveaway. Not everyone likes Easter Eggs and in many cases where that happens many people can well afford to buy Chocolate Bunnies, those ones with the little bell around their neck, instead.

You may well argue though that it is important for people who can’t afford Easter Eggs to get one, and under my hypothetical giveaway I would agree.

You might suggest that instead of giving Easter Eggs to everyone I simply give them to the people who would not be in a position to buy one themselves, I could call it a Free Easter Egg scheme, and then you might point out that isn’t that exactly what we do with Free School Dinners?

But I guarantee you that someone would suggest by giving out free Easter Eggs, which might be different from other paid for ones, it stigmatises those in receipt of the ones distributed for free. You could suggest that for free school dinners too. You could until I point out that these days with the advent of cashless catering and fingerprint scanning no one really know who is on free school dinners anymore.

And then, most of all, I fully accept this is where my analogy falls down you could suggest that a healthy, nutritious err Easter Egg – OK, let's stick with School Dinners - improves learning and whilst it may do even the researchers Mr Corbyn’s proposals rely on suggest that the jury is still out on that one.

But of course, and we all know this, there is really no such thing as a free Easter Egg and this ultimately is where the Labour leader’s plans are most difficult to palate.

For many years many Labour members have had problems with private schools, just like in health care they see the independent sector as a refuge for the rich. They see it as a prime target to be subjected to taxation. If the ‘one percenters’ can afford to send their kids to private school they can afford to pay more is a refrain that you will hear at many a Labour Party meeting.

Accordingly this envy of the wealthy, or perhaps hatred of people who dare to be different, is seen as the perfect way of paying for free dinners for everyone else. So Mr Corbyn  announced that he would raise the £900 million needed for his project by adding 20% VAT on school fees.

Sadly it shows how far out of touch he is with parents who do choose to send their children to independent schools. Mr Corbyn doesn’t seem to understand that many parents don’t send their children because they are rich but because they go without in other areas.

It may be that they don’t go on the family holiday that middle class parents with children at state schools do – middle class parents whose children would under Mr Corbyn’s scheme receive free dinners, it may be that they don’t drive a new car and it very well may be that they are already receiving a significant reduction on school fees.

Mr Corbyn doesn’t seem to get that for a great many parents 20% VAT would be the difference  between their child staying at an independent school or withdrawing them and sending them to a state school, which too cost money to us the taxpayers.

It is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that imposing 20% VAT on school fees would end up costing the taxpayer more through children returning to the state sector than it would on paying for free dinners.

And, of course, if we absolutely must tax school fees (which we don't need to do) isn’t there a better use for them than paying for school dinners for everyone? Would that money be best used on children who need it most, you know, perhaps the ones that already receive free school meals?

For a long time now Labour members have been crying out for Mr Corbyn to announce some real policies. The very real problem is that whilst he has done just that it just doesn’t seem very thought through.

It may well be that borrowing my ‘Free Easter Egg’ idea would be more of a vote winner and because I’m feeling charitable, Mr Corbyn, I’ll let you have it and claim it as your own.

Have a wonderful Easter. 

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