Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 20 September 2013

The universality question

The announcement at Lib Dem conference that all infants in state primary schools will get free school meals is an interesting one.

Firstly the party leadership clearly thinks it will be popular and they are probably right. Secondly it's a distinctive policy that the party can point to to say "this would not have happened without us". It's almost certainly impossible to measure the benefits of such a policy in cost terms mainly because the benefits will likely be in ways that cannot be measured very easily or quickly such as improved concentration and long term health outcomes. That in itself feels rather liberal and open minded.

You knew it was coming though.

But.

The problem is that this policy is universal. All infants at public schools will get free meals. That includes children of multi-millionaires. It includes Frank Lampard's 5 year old daughter as Nick Ferrari pointed out to Nick Clegg on LBC this morning.

Now I think a good case can be made for a policy like this being qualitatively different from some other benefits that are applied universally. The fact it is children receiving it, who are generally too young to make informed decisions about what they eat is a big one. Also the fact that children eat together and the cultural separation that the current system of some children having free meals and others whose parents pay for them imposes at an age when difference is often pounced upon in peer groups is a very important factor.

But the Lib Dems need to be very careful. Because this level of nuance was sometimes lacking in some of the previous discussions about e.g. pensioner benefits. Those who argue for maintaining other universal benefits that the Lib Dems are seeking to abolish have just been handed a powerful argument that could if not handled correctly make the yellows look hypocritical.

All Lib Dems put up to talk about this need to be hyper-aware of this potential problem and be ready to deploy quick and convincing arguments why this case is different.

6 comments:

boggits said...

But the reason that this needs to be universal is to remove the stigma of free school meals being made available just for poor families. Kids spot this and will use it against the recipient if they have a need to find a difference.

The pilot studies also show an improvement in a short time for those that were already in receipt confirming the biais removal is positive

Jim said...

Lib Dems in saying one thing in one place and saying the exact opposite somewhere else shocker!!!!

Anonymous said...

*IT's our policy*

(despite it being labors, and lib dems opposing it in the past)

Denny said...

Perhaps this could be seen as a good opportunity for (any) government to start considering what other benefits might offer similar indirect improvements to society in general if they were made universal.

Some of the savings currently being found make me think of the old joke about 'the operation was a success, but the patient died'.

Denny said...

"But the reason that this needs to be universal is to remove the stigma of free school meals being made available just for poor families."

Extrapolates nicely to a universal basic income replacing income support /jobseeker's allowance, doesn't it.

SimonF said...

It includes Frank Lampard's 5 year old daughter as Nick Ferrari pointed out to Nick Clegg on LBC this morning.


That is the position of the green eyed and economically stupid and the response response should be, so what? (yes I know that Nick Ferrari is only posing the question and doesn't necessarily hold that view.

According to some estimates Lampard earns around £10m per annum including endorsements. If he pays 40% of that in tax and NI that's £4m. Ok, he probably pays in to pension funds etc but however much he reduces it it will be a big number.

Lets say school meals are £2.50 and there's 180 days. That's £450 per year, top end, Lampard has surely paid enough?

Then what happens if he says tomorrow he's retiring and doesn't earn another penny? His son qualifies despite him having a net worth of probably over £50m. Or are we also going to introduce a net worth threshold as well?

Finally, as Timmy points out here, http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/regulation-industry/perhaps-government-regulation-isnt-the-way-to-go-then, regulation always costs money. I'm betting that the cost of setting up the bureaucracy to punish the likes of Lampard will be more that the £450 per pupils it saves.

Stick to your guns and don't let the green eyed left make you change your minds about universality.