On the whole, the announcement that all children in England aged 7 and under will get a free school lunch is something to be welcomed. In fact I've just read an opinion piece by Jemima Lewis in the Telegraph, of all places, and pretty much agree with every word she wrote. It was quite disconcerting!
For those who are interested, the full report on the pilot studies in Durham and Newham is here.
I would, however, want to add one thing to what she said. Schemes which provide a universal benefit—rather than those in which eligibility for the benefit is determined according to the ability to pay—are some of the most useful tools available to government for redistributing wealth and alleviating the effects of poverty. It goes without saying that the benefit is paid for out of general taxation rather than being "free", but that is a good thing in so far as we have a progressive tax system in which the rich pay more tax than those on middle incomes, and those on middle incomes pay more tax than the poor.
This is why, for example, the idea put about by Tories in Wales that rich people shouldn't get free prescriptions, because they can afford to pay for them and would be prepared to pay a nominal sum for them to ease financial pressure on our NHS, is completely bogus. Of course rich people should pay more, but it is much better for them to do it through paying higher taxes rather than over the counter for each item.
The new universal FSM scheme in England is expected, according to this report, to cost some £600m a year, although I'm not sure whether this is the overall cost for all children, or just the additional cost for those who are not currently receiving FSMs. As some 20% currently claim FSMs, the overall cost might be in the order of £750m a year. But bringing the 80% who are not currently receiving FSMs into the scheme represents a very considerable extension of provision. In fact it would be a much greater extension than would be the case with free prescriptions, because the vast majority of prescriptions issued in England are already free.
And of course it would be even better if FSMs were extended to all primary school children rather than just the younger ones, and if they were extended to secondary school children as well.
So in principle this is a great idea and should be supported, but in practice there is one major problem with what has been proposed. It would be fine if this £600m were to be raised by increasing taxation, but there are no plans to increase it. This means that the scheme can only be funded by yet more cuts to other public services, on top of the savage cuts that have already been imposed and which have yet to fully bite in any case.
It means that this proposal is not really going to help the poor, because they are already getting FSMs. It is only going to help the better off, who will save some £400 a year for each child. The poor will in fact lose out because they rely disproportionately on the existing public services that will have to be cut to pay for it.
The ConDem government has done exactly the same thing with income tax. Yes, it is a good idea to take the lower paid out of income tax altogether by raising the threshold, but this should have been balanced by increasing the basic rate of income tax so that the overall tax take remained the same. As things stand, increasing the threshold from £6,475 in 2010/11 to £10,000 in 2014/15 will give every basic rate taxpayer an extra £705 a year (although an allowance needs to be made for inflation, making it maybe £400 or £500 in real terms). So, once again, the overall effect is to reduce the amount the UK government has available to spend on public services which the poor need more than those on middle incomes.
The LibDems will claim credit for both raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 and for UFSMs for those aged 7 and under. They will say they are helping to create a fairer, more equal society. They will say that by being in government, they have managed to save us from the rabid excesses of a government entirely made up of Tories. But this isn't really true. What they've "giving" with one hand is being clawed back by the other.
If universal benefits are to be extended, they need to be paid for by corresponding increases in general taxation. This is the only way that other public services can be maintained rather than cut.