Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Debate on Free School Meals

I have just been looking at a discussion about our free school meals policy on the East Dulwich Forum website. Some of the contributors attacked the policy as (a) wasteful expenditure at a time when we should be making cuts (b) unnecessary, as they should not be paying for children to be fed and (c) only put forward by Labour to win votes.

OK, so let's look at those three objections.

(a) Southwark Council has spent £180 million on consultants, temps and agency staff over the past 4 years - with spending in this area having risen by £2 million this past year alone. It spends more than any other London borough on communications and publicity - approximately £5 million each year. Each year the council has failed to collect £7 million in council tax. For me, this is wasteful and wasteful expenditure. Call me dangerously left-wing, but I would prefer to use £2.5 million of that money on providing a nutritious and healthy school meal to every primary school child. Yes, we will need to make cuts, and we will, but we also need to tackle some of the really important issues the borough faces - such as childhood obesity, child poverty and inequality. Of course, you are at liberty to say that these issues are nothing to do with you or your money and walk by on the other side of the road. But I think that the vast majority of people in Southwark will want to know that their council is doing all that it can to solve some of these issues. So your conclusion that free school meals is wasteful expenditure = my conclusion that it is an investment to improve life chances.

(b) Any universal benefit will always throw up those who say, why should we be paying for something that others can or should be paying for themselves. Why not target the benefit to those who really need it or use the money in a more focussed fashion? A reasonable point, if all targetted benefits were taken up by those who were entitled. But we know that this does not happen, and that in Southwark 1800 children each year do not take advantage of their entitlement to free school meals. These can sometimes be the children who turn up at lunchtime with their packed lunches full of the cheapest sweets, biscuits and crisps. To my mind a policy which seeks to meet the nutritional needs of those 1800 is well worth pursuing. Let's not visit the sins of the parent upon the child! We might criticise the parent for failing to provide a healthy lunch for their child, but that is no reason to condemn the child to eating that unhealthy lunch.

And if middle-class parents who pay their council tax also benefit from the policy whilst their children are at primary school, then so be it. What is the problem with that? You pay your tax - you get a visible benefit. You pay your tax - you get the NHS. Is that good or bad? What if you don't have children and are unlikely to ever benefit from the policy? Well, I hope that you will recognise that the policy is intended to tackle particular problems which will benefit us all - better educational attainment by improved concentration after lunch; and reduced expenditure on health issues arising from unhealthy eating in early years. The benefits of living in a community where society still matters!

(c) Is the policy put forward by Labour to win votes? Well, it would be a weird political party which advocated policies it hoped would lose it votes! Is it cheap populism? Well, I hope it's a popular policy, but I don't understand why that's a bad thing, particularly if it provides the benefits which we believe it will.

Southwark Labour want to put a clear choice before the voters of Southwark on May 6th, and it looks as if this policy will provide a clear choice for the electorate. It is opposed by all the other political parties!

At the end of the day local politics should be local, but it doesn't always have to be micro - just about my street. It also needs to be strategic for the borough, and with this policy we are tackling some of the bigs issues which in your daily life you may never see or experience, but which exist nonetheless. It's a big idea to tackle some big problems!

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