The Lib Dems have today announced that all 5-7 year olds will now be given “free” school meals. And there was me thinking we had huge public borrowing? The proposal, which has almost universally been accepted as a “very good thing”, has the Children’s Society waxing lyrical about how this will help deal with child poverty. I have to admit, I’m struggling to come to terms with this viewpoint. After all, the poorest children are already eligible for free school meals – the main beneficiaries of this new universal benefit will be middle and upper income households, who really don’t need a public subsidy.
For me this policy and the reaction to it has been a bit of a wake-up call in terms of where we are in terms of public debate. I thought that with the huge deficit, ageing population, and productivity pressures in the public sector, it was becoming acknowledged that universal benefits were unsustainable. I was wrong.
1) This is a new universal benefit, the introduction of which doesn’t fit into what the Government has been doing elsewhere (see child benefit).
2) This is yet further evidence, if evidence were needed, that the state is not just a safety net for the poorest, but has become a vehicle for gimmicks and middle-class welfare in the name of fairness. It will now be irreversible, with pressure groups running hysterical campaigns against its abolition.
3) There is lack of widespread appreciation for the fact government just redistributes resources. This policy is, of course, not “free” at all. It provides unpriced dinners to now all 5-7 year olds irrespective of parental income. That money comes from somewhere. It comes from us.
4) There are some rumours the money will be redistributed from within elsewhere in the budget, but almost nobody bar Mark Littlewood is arguing that it would be better to cut people’s taxes instead (and encourage personal responsibility in looking after their own children).
5) This raises the real concern that the Government is going to view tackling this cost-of-living issue by small government interventions (paid for by tax from others), rather than the significant supply-side reforms required to lower the cost of things.
All in all, a poor show.