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.
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.”