David Laws vs Dominic Cummings: Education Department goes to war with itself over free school meals

 

Deputy Political Editor

A bitter Coalition row broke out today as a former Conservative special adviser tore into Nick Clegg’s plans to serve free school meals to all five to seven-year-olds.

The outburst by Dominic Cummings, who was among Education Secretary Michael Gove’s closest allies until three months ago, shone a fresh spotlight on the tensions within his department.

It follows clashes between the Coalition parties over sacking Baroness Morgan as the head of Ofsted, over reforming the examination system and over changes to childcare rules.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s scheme, which comes into force in September, has come under fire from head teachers who warn they lack the facilities to cope with serving meals to hundreds of thousands more children.

According to Mr Cummings, Mr Clegg was warned his plan was a “bad gimmick” based on “junk” calculations and was initially rejected by the Department for Education (DfE).

He claimed Mr Clegg struck a deal with David Cameron to be able to unveil the eye-catching policy at last autumn’s Lib Dem conference in return for the Prime Minister announced tax breaks for married couple at his conference two weeks later.

Mr Cummings’ version of events was ridiculed as “complete and utter balls” by the Lib Dem schools minister David Laws. However, it was not disputed by senior Conservative sources.

  Nick Clegg and his wife, Miriam, with pupils at Lairdsland Primary School in Glasgow, in September 2013 (Reuters) Nick Clegg and his wife, Miriam, with pupils at Lairdsland Primary School in Glasgow, in September 2013 (Reuters)
The clashes were triggered by emails written by Mr Cummings in which he denounced the Lib Dem leader’s support for the £1 billion plan, which will save families an average of £437 per child per year.

He said: “The DfE wasn’t told until about an hour or so before the announcement. No policy work was done in advance.

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

He claimed Mr Clegg was warned there were bigger spending priorities and, if implemented, the policy should be phased in to allow schools to adapt.

Mr Cummings described the £150 million budget for spending on kitchens and dining rooms in the scheme’s first year as “a back-of-the-fag-packet number by Clegg's spin doctors”.

Mr Laws retorted that the comments reflected the former special adviser’s personal views.

He said: “What he said about the background to the introduction of this policy is complete and utter balls. The DfE was not opposed to this policy. It was the result of pilots undertaken since 2009 and a school food review chaired by people independent of the department.

“There was a serious amount of policy work that went into this and it was costed by officials before the announcements were made at the Liberal Democrat party conference.”

Kevin Brennan, a shadow Education Minister, said the claims were “very serious allegations which call into question the quality of decision-making in the Department for Education and in the coalition as a whole”.

Graham Stuart, the Tory chairman of the Commons education select committee, said the start date should be delayed. He said: “It does show the dangers of Nick Clegg pitching into education policy without being aware of the realities in schools.”

A DfE spokesman said: “In July 2013, the School Food Plan, commissioned by the Department for Education, backed universal free school meals for primary school children.

“Bringing it in for the first three years of school from next September will provide big benefits and is Government policy. Thousands of schools are already making great strides delivering it.”

Grumbles over Gove: Criticism of policy

Dominic Cummings, former special adviser to Michael Gove “Officials in the DofE 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.”

David Laws, Liberal Democrat schools minister “What he said about the background to the introduction of this policy is complete and utter balls.”

Liberal Democrat press office “Not just any total and utter balls, but total and utter balls ‘of the first order’. So it’s REALLY total and utter balls.”

Former Liberal Democrat minister Nick Harvey “No one would argue that giving all infants a lunch is a bad thing, but we have to ensure this money is being spent in the most effective way possible... there is still some way to go for the Government to ensure it is smooth sailing.”

Spokesman for Mr Gove: Unavailable.

Gail Larkin, vice-president of the National Association of Head Teachers “This policy was a nice sound bite and took us all by surprise – it just wasn’t thought through.”

 

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Pre School Practitioner

£6 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued expansion, they are loo...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development & Relationship Manager

£45000 - £90000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Development & Relati...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant - Startup

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Personal Assistant is require...

Guru Careers: Graduate Software Developer / Junior Developer

£20 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Software Develop...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific