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14.10.13

Liberal Democrat Conference 2013

Source: Public Sector Executive Sept/Oct 2013

Adam Hewitt reports on the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow.

The biggest announcement at the Lib Dems’ conference in Glasgow was free school meals for all pupils at infant schools. 

The new policy applies to children in reception and years one and two (ages four to six) and is estimated to save parents about £400 a year. Currently meals are only free to children whose parents earn under £16,190 or who are on benefits. 

The policy is universal and not means-tested, in contrast to the general direction of travel of Coalition policy – but its backers suggested it would help end any stigma associated with free school meals and bring children together, while also encouraging healthy eating and, potentially, improved attainment.

Deputy PM Nick Clegg admitted that the policy was a quid pro quo with their Conservative coalition partners for the married tax allowance. 

The £600m roll-out follows successful pilots in a number of local authority areas and a report earlier this year by the founders of the Leon restaurant chain for the Department for Education, which recommended healthy cooked meals over packed lunches. 

Clegg said: “My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day. 

“Millions of parents across the country are feeling the squeeze...I am determined to do all we can to help put money back in the pockets of these families. 

“We will start with infant school pupils because teaching healthy habits young, and boosting attainment early, will bring the biggest benefits. 

“Universal free school meals will help give every child the chance in life that they deserve, building a stronger economy and fairer society.”

The NUT said it should be extended to all primary school pupils.

Restaurateur Henry Dimbleby, one of the authors of the report that the new policy is based on, said: “Even those who have free school meals already benefit from this change of culture...Hopefully it will be the first step on the road to free school meals for everyone.”

The scheme only applies to England, but money is also being given to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for policymakers there to decide whether to copy the English policy or spend the money in other ways. 

The Liberal Democrats were noticeably tougher on the Conservatives at their conference this year, especially business secretary Vince Cable who called their politics “ugly”. He said: “We have got dog-whistle politics, orchestrated by an Australian Rottweiler, we have got hostility to organised labour, people on benefits and immigrant minorities.” 

But Clegg himself also attacked his coalition partners, focusing on 16 Tory proposals that he said hadn’t happened because the Lib Dems are in Government, such as a tax cut for millionaires, ditching the Human Rights Act and profit-making schools. Clegg said: “Here’s what’s at stake at the next election. The country is finally emerging from the biggest economic crisis in living memory. 

“The absolute worst thing to do would be to give the keys to Number 10 to a single-party government – Labour or the Conservatives. 

“Our place in this Government has prevented the pendulum swinging back from left to right. We are now where we always should have been: in power, in the liberal centre, in tune with the British people. And every day we are showing that we can govern and govern well.” 

The party voted to adopt a ‘contingency posture’ and to end support for the UK’s continuous-at-sea nuclear deterrence policy – but it stopped short of voting to scrap Trident altogether. 

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