As we have noted before, our Leeds NW Liberal Democrat MP thinks of himself as a different kind of politician. This is how he describes himself – weirdly in the third person:
‘Whilst other politicians rely on spin, Greg is known as a plain speaker who is not afraid to speak his mind.’
We have become increasingly sceptical about this.
What’s on Mr Mullholand’s menu today?
Mr Mulholland has welcomed Nick Clegg’s announcement that the government would finance school meals for all infants (Reception and Years 1and 2) from September 2014.
Universal free school meals for primary school pupils were a key recommendation identified in a review of school food produced independently by John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby (old-Etonian and friend of Michael Gove!) for the Department for Education published in July.
Mr Mulholland writes, ‘The review found that in pilots where all children had been given a free school dinner students were academically months ahead of their peers elsewhere and more likely to eat vegetables at lunchtime.’
Leeds NW Constituency Labour Party welcomes this evidence-based policy.
So what’s our beef?
Waiter! Waiter! There’s a fly in my soup.
Well, once again, Mr Mulholland has been somewhat ‘economical with the truth’. He would like his constituents to think that this policy is a new one – freshly baked in the Lib Dem oven – but it isn’t.
Here’s a potted history of the policy:
1. In 2005 the Labour government provided £280m for its Jamie Oliver inspired meals plan to tackle a health crisis amongst young people in England.
2. In 2010 Mr Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, diverted Labour’s planned spending on the extension of free school meals to all primary school children living below the poverty line into financing academies and free schools. When announcing this Mr Gove said, ‘No one who’s currently eligible for free school meals will lose out, but we believe that it is more important to use this money to support measures to raise attainment.’(Our emphasis) Notice that Mr Gove denied the idea that there was a link between having a full and healthy diet and learning attainment! We didn’t hear Mr Mulholland and the Lib Dem leadership complaining too much then!
3. Whilst we are on the subject of Mr Gove! When the school meals report was published in July this year, Mr Gove said that the government couldn’t afford to pay the cost of the proposals.
4. As Labour List has pointed out: ‘The momentum behind providing free school meals for all has been growing fast. Last year the evaluation of Labour Government funded pilots of the scheme in Newham and County Durham showed enormous benefits. Three Labour run councils in London (Islington, Southwark and Newham) have been operating the policy for a few years to great success.’
5. Some Labour Councils such as Hull and Workington pioneered free school meals for all primary school children. Guess what happened when Labour lost power in these areas? Lib Dems stopped the provision.
6. In areas such as Islington and Southwark, the Labour councils have introduced free school meals in the teeth of criticism from Lib Dems!!!!
Here’s what the Lib Dems said in Islington in 2009: ‘Islington Liberal Democrat councillors have slammed Labour’s plans for taxpayer-funded school meals in the borough as expensive and not helping those most in need …. Cllr John Gilbert, Lib Dem Finance boss, comments: ‘There is no such thing as a free lunch. The full cost of Labour´s plan would be £3million every year. ‘Labour’s proposal flies in the face of economic sense and doesn’t help the neediest. Instead, Labour will squander money from some of the most hard-pressed local taxpayers on children from some of the richest families in Islington.’
Southwark Lib Dems were equally opposed to the policy until Mr Clegg said it was actually alright to like it. Southwark Lib Dem leader Anood Al-Samerai announced his party’s U-turn. He told the Huffington Post on 18th September: ‘We opposed the introduction of free school meals three years ago, when Labour were cutting front line services at the same time. But it’s moved on since then. We’ve done surveys over the summer and found out parents are really happy with the extra money in their pocket, and came to the conclusion it would be unfair to take it away from them.’
7. Southwark is in the constituency of Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem Deputy Leader. Mr Hughes is quoted in several sources, including the Daily Telegraph, criticising the policy of providing universal free school meals to primary school pupils.
In a letter to Southwark Council Mr Hughes, the Lib Dem deputy leader, wrote: ‘Labour-run Southwark Council are wasting extraordinary amounts of money …. They are spending £15 million giving free school meals, some of this going to the borough’s richest families, irrespective of whether they can afford to pay for them already.’
The Lib Dem leadership does not deny that Mr Hughes wrote the letter.
Our issue with the Coalition government’s new policy is not that it is ‘expensive and ineffectual’. We do not think it is expensive and the evidence does suggest that it will be effective.
No, our problem with the announcement is that it hides the fact that the ingredients of this policy had been assembled years ago – by Labour government and councils – but through a combination of Gove’s wilful neglect, Clegg’s failure of political will and outright hostility from Lib Dem councillors up and down the country nothing had been cooked with them.
Well, not until Mr Clegg did a deal with the Prime Minister. Mr Cameron gave this bone to Mr Clegg in exchange for a free-run on tax breaks for married couples – a Tory priority.
Should we leave a tip?
On the plus side, we’re pleased to agree with Mr Mulholland when he writes: ‘A healthy meal at school is extremely important to aid a child’s development and concentration at school. It’s great that every child at infant school will be able to benefit from this.’
On the minus side we’ve learned that Lib Dems up and down the country, including their deputy leader, have resisted the evidence-based policy whenever and wherever Labour councils have tried to introduce it.
And we’re interested in the motives for this road to Damascus conversion.
We’ve also seen, yet again, that when it comes to political spin the Lib Dems are the equal of the Tories – indeed they’re past-masters.
So Mr Mulholland we’ll leave a tip.
Our tip is do not spoil good food by plastering it over with a sickly and indigestible sauce.