THE Scottish Government is facing growing pressure to provide all five-, six- and seven-year-olds with free school lunches.
Scotland's biggest teaching union, the EIS, public sector union Unison, the STUC and the Church of Scotland this week added their voices to the call, which is spearheaded by the long-established Scottish Free School Meals Campaign made up of children's charities and anti-poverty groups.
This powerful coalition is pressing for a popular policy (it would save families around £400 per year) that is already supported by the SNP and fits neatly with the Scottish Government's stated preference for universal rather than means-tested benefits. So why haven't ministers said they will press ahead the second they get their hands on the money? It would even have the political bonus of making life uncomfortable for Labour rivals who are busy assessing whether things such as free bus passes, free university tuition and free prescriptions are an affordable or fair way of spending taxpayers' cash when times are tough. The Scottish Government's position is hard to fathom - and it's even harder to predict what ministers will eventually decide to do.
The campaign for free meals has been reinvigorated by Nick Clegg's announcement that P1 to P3 youngsters in England will be entitled to a lunch from September next year. It's been assumed that the Scottish Government will receive a £60 million windfall as its share of the £600m to be spent south of the Border and that's certainly an issue in St Andrew's House. To put it bluntly, ministers are sceptical. Understandably, they want to wait until the Chancellor's Autumn Statement when they'll see the figures in black and white but that doesn't explain why they haven't signed up in principle at least. Surely any blame for not going ahead could be placed at the door of misleading UK Government cash promises?
That's not the position, though. "We are committed to expanding this provision further and, once we see the financial implications of this announcement for Scotland, we will examine how best to deliver that expansion," say officials. They really are playing their cards close to their chest.
Two things may be behind their caution. If it turns out that England's £600m school meals fund is not entirely "new" money that would be reflected in a smaller allocation for Scotland. The Scottish Government might then face the prospect of cutting existing spending to make up the shortfall and implement the policy in full, something ministers may not want to do. The second possible factor stems from the SNP's somewhat messy record on free school meals. Embarrassingly, back in 2008 the then-Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop announced that all P1 to P3 youngsters would receive a free lunch. The service, she said, would begin in 2010 after a series of successful pilot schemes which saw uptake of school lunches rise from 53% to 75%. But the announcement barely survived a week before councils complained they could not afford to do it. Legislation allowing them to provide free meals if and when they found the money was eventually passed (despite opposition from the LibDems, as it happens) but the power lies unused. The proportion of chidren actually entitled to free meals has risen only modestly, from about 15% to about 25%, since 2007.
The Scottish Free School Meals Campaign, meanwhile, has no idea how this waiting game will end. "They've not said no," one leading campaigner said optimistically when I phoned round yesterday in an attempt to read the runes. However it's clear that arguments over cash, or lack of it, from Westminster will cut no ice with those making the case that free meals would help tackle poverty and inequality, and help children learn too. Mr Clegg's announcement may have breathed new life into their campaign but it is not based on possible extra funding; providing free school meals for all should be a priority for the Scottish Government within its existing budget, campaigners say. If ministers look at the books and announce only a partial expansion of the policy, campaigners will want to know why families down south are getting a better deal. The situation looks finely balanced. Ministers are keeping their options open and that almost certainly means the court of public opinion is sitting. If you believe youngsters should enjoy a free lunch, make your views known.
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