Confusion over school milk policy
Published 08/08/2010 | 02:12
Downing Street has been accused of making policy "on the hoof" after coalition plans to scrap free school milk were abruptly dropped.
Number 10 stamped on the controversial idea despite health minister Anne Milton insisting the provision for under-fives was "outdated", "ineffective", and too expensive.
The volte-face happened just hours after the proposal emerged publicly, and so quickly that universities minister David Willetts was left floundering in a television interview as he was informed the position had changed.
The Nursery Milk scheme allows children under five in approved day care to receive 189ml (1/3 pint) of milk free of charge each day. It dates back to 1940, when milk was issued to pregnant women and young children to protect them against wartime food shortages.
But in a leaked letter to the Scottish Government, Ms Milton said the cost had almost doubled in the last five years to some £50 million and there was "no evidence that it improves the health of very young children".
Asked about the plan on the BBC's Andrew Marr show, Mr Willetts initially confirmed it was on the table. "We're having a comprehensive spending review, so we are looking at a whole range of options. This is one of the options that is being looked at," he said.
But even as the minister spoke, Downing Street was making clear to reporters that David Cameron "did not like the idea" of cancelling free milk and it would "not be happening".
When this information was conveyed to Mr Willetts on screen, he replied hurriedly: "We have an endless process of assessing options. Of course, it is inevitable that if you go through those decisions some options go ahead and others don't. That is how decisions are taken."
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said the "shambolic" events raised doubts over Mr Cameron's confidence in his ministers. "Scrapping free milk for under-fives was clearly a firm policy proposal, otherwise the Public Health Minister would not have been writing to her counterparts in the devolved administrations," he said. "For the Prime Minister to undermine his ministers in this way - astonishingly while one is live on air in the middle of a TV interview - reveals the true extent of the policy chaos within his Government."
Fellow Labour leadership contender Ed Balls added: "This is a coalition in chaos, making policy on the hoof."