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Conservatives abandon plans to axe free school lunches for infant pupils after election disaster

Decision to backtrack on axing universal free lunches for all infant pupils marks latest in series of Tory manifesto U-turns

May Bulman
Tuesday 04 July 2017 18:32 BST
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Schools Minister Nick Gibbs said the Government would “retain the existing provision” after being pressed by Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner on the Conservative proposals to scrap free lunches
Schools Minister Nick Gibbs said the Government would “retain the existing provision” after being pressed by Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner on the Conservative proposals to scrap free lunches (Peter Cade)

Tory plans to axe free school meals for infant pupils from better off families in England have been dropped, in the latest of a series of Government proposals that have been abandoned since the general election.

Schools minister Nick Gibbs said the Government would “retain the existing provision” after being pressed by Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner on the Conservative proposals to scrap the lunches and instead offer a free breakfast for all primary school pupils.

Mr Gibbs told MPs in the House of Commons: “We have listened very carefully to the views of the sector on the proposal to remove infant free school meals and we have decided that it is right to retain the existing provision.

“Universal infant free school meals ensure that children receive a nutritious meal during the day - it saves hard working families hundreds of pounds a year and it boosts educational achievement, especially amongst children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.”

During the election campaign, the Tories said evidence showed a free school breakfast was as effective at helping children learn as a hot meal at lunch and can be delivered at a 10th of the cost, at around £60m a year.

But the move provoked criticism from school leaders, who warned that hundreds of millions of pounds pumped into funding the free dinners would be wasted. Some parents meanwhile complained the offer of a free breakfast was not directly comparable and was merely a cost-saving measure, and Theresa May was branded “the lunch snatcher”.

Responding to Mr Gibbs' remarks, Ms Rayner hailed victory, saying: “Theresa May's ministers are now in full-scale retreat from their own manifesto. The coalition of chaos is crumbling before our eyes."

The Tories have abandoned a host of proposals since failing to win a majority, including plans to means-test winter fuel payments, end the triple lock guarantee on pension increases and to hold a vote on foxhunting.

The party cast doubt this week on whether they would continue with the manifesto pledge in an answer to a parliamentary written question, in which education minister Robert Goodwill said the Government was “reflecting on our programmes in relation to school meals”.

Wes Streeting, Labour MP for Ilford North, who submitted the question, said he was "really disappointed" that the Government appeared to be "stalling" on the promise for free breakfasts.

Mr Streeting, a former president of the National Union of Students (NUS), said he believed free school lunches were "enormously beneficial in terms of tackling childhood obesity and promoting healthy eating among young people," but he said there was evidence that primary school breakfast provision had both "health and educational benefits".

He told the Press Association on Monday: ”I think it's genuinely disappointing that one of the few glimmers of light and hope in the Conservative manifesto is now up for reconsideration.”

During education questions, Mr Gibb also promised that no school would have its budget cut as a result of the national funding formula, which aims to make funding fair for schools.

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