It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks for those of us interested in universal free school meals.
Starting with UFSM making front page news in the Daily Mail , where as usual they took a few facts and scandalised them up into a sneering story. The Mail headline led to my having a late night conversation with @odysseanproject aka Dominic Cummings. This in turn triggered an Ill tempered exchange on The World at One where (as I explained in my last blog) David Laws sniped at Cummings and tried misdirection on Martha.
Unfortunately for Laws his week was just about to get a whole lot worse as he had to appear in front of the education select committee whose chairman Graham Stuart was clearly well read on the subject and capable of pressing the minister for answers.
Please do watch this and remember that David Laws is the minister responsible for UIFSM, one of the architects of the policy, someone who should know all there is to know about this issue.
Laws was clearly flustered by the questioning of Stuart, to the extent he bordered on misleading parliament, when he said the policy was suggested by pilots and the school food plan? (Its important and I will return to this later)
Bizarrely, in some misguided attempt to deflect from questions on value for money, Laws then confirmed the main accusation put by Dominic Cummings; that the UIFSM was part of some seedy billion pound pre election deal by the coalition parties. It is clear this policy is the quid pro quo for Lib Dems supporting the married couples tax allowance. (Who is talking “utter balls” now). He then implies that evidence based policymaking shouldn’t be applied to these two policy, one assumes because he knows neither have much of a evidence base.
Laws then gets onto seriously dodgy ground when affirming this policy came out comparatively well in terms of value for money. In stating that an assessment was made, Laws lays himself wide open to the ed select committee asking to see the calculations and comparisons.
It is interesting Laws says the SFP authors are convinced UIFSM can be delivered, it will be even more interesting to find out when they assured him of their conviction, was it prior to the conference announcement? If not, how did he know it was achievable when announcing the policy?
Laws then stretches facts to their limit by stating schools have had a year to put this policy in place, which is odd given his fist letter informing schools that the policy was actionable in September was January 23rd 2014. I suspect most of the infants in receipt of the lunches will be able to tell you this is less than one year.
There are clearly many more questions that need answering, throughout the short time available Laws was at best illusive, at worst deliberately misleading.
As if to prompt the committee into it’s next move, Ed Davey, again on world at one, claimed lib dems would be delighted if the select committee looked into UIFSM, I hope he has a good understanding of the email trail and supporting evidence? Despite this foolhardy bravado, I have no doubt the ed select committee will come under pressure to ignore what’s going on, that coalition and party politics card will be played, but surely this is exactly the kind of process that needs looking at. We have children with no school places and yet ministers spend £billions on a policy they appear unable and unwilling to justify.
As if all this wasn’t enough excitement, on Sunday the School Food Plan, sent a letter to the Sunday Times. I have no idea who actually wrote this, or indeed why, but I thought it was very poor. http://www.schoolfoodplan.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/School-Food-Plan-Sunday-Times-16-March-2014.pdf
I could go through this letter highlighting all the shortcomings in the evidence, (Rapid and marked? Really?) demolishing the the unsubstantiated claims of causation or picking through the signatories, But I want to focus on one particular aspect that seems to run through almost all claims by UIFSM supporters.
- My Big Gripe
I find it increasingly frustrating that the minister responsible for the policy, the school food plan director Myles Bremner and almost every one of the policies supporters put forwards the same distortion, make the same mistake (or perhaps it is deliberate?)
They consistently use the School Food Plan and the UIFSM policy as interchangeable terms.
It may be politically convenient, but it is factually wrong. Let me say this again for the avoidance of doubt, the School Food Plan did NOT recommend the Universal Infant Free School Meals Policy, they are very different and the justifications given within the plan do not stand up well when targeting just infants.
This was the SFP recommendation;
“Government should embark upon a phased roll out of free school meals for all children in all primary schools, beginning with the local authorities with the highest percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals”
No infants first, No big bang implementation. No statutory requirement. The decision to ignore the SFP recommendations and implement this particular policy was political, but that doesn’t stop those self same politicians using the SFP as a smokescreen. I am fairly sure the minister knows there is a significant difference between the School Food Plan and his policy, after all he must have made a conscious decision to disregard the recommendations, yet David Laws insisted to Graham Stuart that his policy was in the SFP.
I am sick of the way this “mistake” is permeating through discussions and it needs to stop.
People are entitled to a level of clarity and openness within the debate, and with this rising up the agenda, people who use the SFP as a justification for the UIFSM policy are simply loosing credibility. If supporters can’t defend the UIFSM policy without resorting to distorting the SFP, they really need to ask themselves is it worth supporting. If you can’t differentiate between the policy and the plan, you really don’t deserve to be involved in the debate.
I would say to supporters, let’s have a debate, put up facts, go public, open up your evidence and stop hiding, because it increasingly looks like you have something to hide.