Coffee House

Revealed: how Nick Clegg cooked up his ‘free school meals’ pledge

11 March 2014

5:44 PM

11 March 2014

5:44 PM

For those who missed Dominic Cummings, recently departed Michael Gove adviser, on BBC Radio 4’s World At One, here’s the extraordinary transcript which confirms what Coffee Housers will have feared. He didn’t give an interview, but responded to the BBC’s questions (below) about Nick Clegg’s plan to give free school meals to all school pupils – even the offspring of millionaires.

And to me, this sums up why coalitions are a bad idea. The junior partner gets desperate for a jazzy-sounding idea to call their own, so ambush their senior partner. An announcement is made, for reasons of spin and nothing else. No policy work is done. The expectations of millions of parents are raised, schools without kitchens are plunged into chaos, and unaffordable promises made. This is politics at its very worst. (PS David Laws gives his version of events here)

Q: How did the policy come about in the first place?

A: Clegg’s team tried to persuade us to do it in 2013. We refused. So Clegg said to Cameron in secret before party conferences, ‘you give me this and I’ll give you your marriage tax announcement for Tory conference, Gove refuses to do it so you’ll have to force him.’ The DfE wasn’t told until about an hour or so before the announcement. No policy work was done in advance.


Q: Did the Department for Education support the policy and did it believe it would work?

A: Officials in DfE were unanimous that it was a bad gimmick and introduced in a way that makes it hard to avoid implementation chaos. Officials were obviously right.

Q: What warnings did the Department for Education give about the idea?

A: We told Clegg a) it was a bad idea in principle as there were much bigger priorities for spending a billion quid; b) if he and DC were determined on it, do not rush it in, it would impose big demands on schools (e.g. new kitchens) at a time when they have a lot of really important changes to adapt to, that we wouldn’t be able to do it sensibly in time, and c) that all the figures bandied about were junk and he should not say them publicly.

Q: What form did the warnings take? (emails? Meetings? Letters?)

All three.

Q: Where did the £150m budget for capital spending on kitchens and dining rooms come from?

A: It was a back of the fag packet number by Clegg’s spin doctors. We told them it was rubbish. It is based on a supposed DfE underspend that did not exist and they were told it did not exist. Because Clegg only thinks about politics – and starts every meeting saying ‘I haven’t been able to read the policy papers but let’s talk about the politics’ – he assumed that our opposition was because it was a Clegg idea but it wasn’t. Our opposition was because it is a dumb idea badly executed that shows why politicians should have less power over schools, and although I had many disagreements with Whitehall officials and the methods of the civil service, this is very firmly the fault of Clegg and not civil servants in general and the DfE in particular.

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Show comments
  • Golben Amduke

    ‘I haven’t been able to read the policy papers but let’s talk about the politics’
    Absolute gift for Farage. That’s all he has to say in the debate.
    Will be like shooting a dead animal.

  • Terence Hale

    (p)rime minister’s question time. Wednesday 12 /3 /2014 . Dhr. Gone der Clegg. Oh! Dear.

  • Smithersjones2013

    Bravo Nick Clegg. Only someone as calamitous as he could demonstrate so perfectly why those coalitions much beloved by the Libdems are a disaster and why he and his foul parasitic party should never be allowed to sit in Westminster again!

    • monty61

      Amen to that. A billion pounds on a pointless Lib Dem vanity project.

  • MirthaTidville

    I dont think anyone takes Lord Brussels of Segovia seriously anymore and his pronouncements are all pi$$ and wind. Joe voter is wise to him

  • Peter Stroud

    The sooner this LibDem idiot is out of government, the better. The man is hopeless: remember his Lords Reform Bill, that turned out to be a Lords Abolition Bill, in all but name? And what about his undying support got the Boundaries Change Bill: only to be reneged on in a fit of pique.

  • London Calling

    Rich and Poor children sitting around the table eating together is a good move, otherwise they are segregated and lose out on important social skills……..:)

    • London Calling

      I cannot pay my respect on the Bob Crow thread so I’ll do it here…….Bob crow RIP………..:)

    • MrsDBliss

      Rich and poo r won’t be sitting round a table together. The rich will be in their selected by expensive post code schools, the poor will be in their schools with limited facilities.

  • Ron Todd

    I think I would have been more worried had this been an example of a policy our rulers had actually thought about.

  • telemachus

    I am surprised at this incomplete reporting
    The segment went straight on to David Laws who put this into context
    I am no Clegg apologist
    But I do like the whole truth

  • Daniel Maris

    It’s actually one of their better policies.

    It puts children in state schools on a level playing field, which is where they should be and ensures children from deprived backgrounds get access to good nutrition – at least potentially (now time to ensure the meals themselves are nutritious – what’s wrong with a rich, nutritious soup?).

    • James Strong

      There is no such thing as a free lunch.
      Who pays?
      Reduce public spending, reduce taxes and leave parents with more money to spend on their children’s lunches.
      Ensuring that children receive nutritious meals is the parents’ responsibility, not mine,or the taxpayers’.

  • Mike Barnes

    ‘I haven’t been able to read the policy papers but let’s talk about the politics’

    Lazy as well as hopeless then.

  • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

    I am bemused that Conservatives seem to want to disavow the policy that makes sure children don’t go hungry, yet say they want government to support marriage for the good of the children.

    • AnotherDave

      Poor children already qualified for free school meals. Mr Clegg’s innovation was for taxpayers to also subsidise the meals of rich children.

      Marriage produces the best outcomes for children. There is no doubt about that. Think of supporting marriage as advocating best practise.

      • Mynydd

        Marriage cannot be that good when 42% of marriages in England and Wales end in divorce. Marriage and having children is a life style choice. Why should the taxpayer subsidise it?.

        • La Fold

          A tax break for married couples is not in anyway, at all, in any conceivable manner, thought process, use of logic or any examination a subsidy.

      • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

        Many poor children did not qualify for free school meals, particularly those whose parents earnt just more than the cutting off point. This cliff edge is being compounded by proposals under Universal Credit.

        Further, as you get more kids eating in school refectories, you achieve economies of scale where each additional child costs less to feed.

        Further, some families who might qualify won’t because their circumstances are very fluid as parents are in and out of work.

        The most efficient, indeed the only way, to ensure all the kids who need it get fed is universality. I’m prepared to tolerate little Quentin and Gemima getting a free baked potato.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Oh for God’s sake. This is not about ensuring children don’t go hungry but about bribing middle income voters with children. As are most policies from the Three Stooges. Don’t be so naive.

      • Samuel Kaine Wheeler

        That’s true for both policies, yet Tory voters only seem to object to one.

  • global city

    “Clegg only thinks about politics”…which justifies the most disgusting lies and deceptions… hopefully Farage will expose this as Clegg’s core character and MO. I also hope that many of his fanatical comments in support of the EU, and those in which he has disparaged the British are also highlighted.

    Clegg is one of the most immoral characters to have risen so highly… and that’s saying something.

    • Mikkytoo

      The Tories should also think about politics, all those Lib Dem votes going to Labour, big-up Nick otherwise its a Labour landslide.

    • Wackford.

      “Character”……………………you are too generous.