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Theresa May's Conservatives Are Poised To Become The Party Of The Lunch Snatchers

19/05/2017 09:10
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Less than a year ago, Theresa May stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street and declared that she would lead a country that works for everyone. On yesterday's evidence, she has already given up on that aspiration.

The Conservative manifesto has set out plans to scrap universal free school lunches for our youngest primary school children, a move which would hurt both the most deprived families but also those working parents that Mrs May claims to be the champion of. All her talk about helping the "just about managing" now rings hollow, while the prime minister's interpretation of "compassionate Conservatism" should raise serious questions about the type of Conservative Party she is leading.

But to find out that the Conservatives are placing greater emphasis on "their" type of voter comes as no surprise to me. As deputy prime minister I repeatedly blocked their policies on welfare, tax and education which made no attempt to help the neediest in society. Indeed, it was their determination to bring in "marriage tax breaks", an expensive gimmick which helped a far smaller percentage of people than the right wing press' clamour would suggest, which prompted me to bring in a policy which would help hard pressed families across Britain. So in the autumn of 2013, just a few weeks before the Conservatives announced the "marriage tax breaks", the Liberal Democrats set out a policy which would provide healthy, free school lunches to nearly two million children in the first three years at primary school.

At the time, four in 10 children who did not receive free school meals were officially in poverty. Has Mrs May not realised that it is these children who will lose out? The Conservatives say that they will instead benefit from the introduction of free school breakfasts. But given that their manifesto estimates that the level of savings from withdrawing the lunches is £650m, almost exactly what it cost to introduce the free lunches in the first place, it's clear that they don't expect that there will be much new demand or cost for school breakfasts. We also know that breakfast clubs, taking place before the start of the formal school day, tend not to reach the hardest-to-reach children. School lunches, shared by all children in the middle of the school day, do.

The Conservative manifesto explains that means-tested families will still get free school meals, but what about who don't qualify? At present, the government subsidises each school lunch to the tune of £2.30, so removing the free lunches means working families will have to find around £480 extra per child a year. That means that a family with two children under seven - in Year 2 and below - are facing a bill of around £1,000 to pay for their children to eat lunch. For a low income parent, losing the entitlement to free school meals may act as a deterrent to stay in or find work. So it's clear that taking away universal provision jars with Conservative promises to incentivise work.

This is not just a case of the Liberal Democrats standing up for a policy which we are proud of. At the the 2015 general election the Conservative manifesto promised to keep the free lunches, and many of the Conservative MPs who stood on that manifesto had previously voted, under the Coalition, in favour of the legislation to introduce the free meals in the first place. Now they are standing on a manifesto to take them away and, if elected to Parliament on 8 June will have to vote to remove them.

So over the next three weeks be sure to ask them this simple question. Would you vote to take away free lunches from the children of some of the most hard pressed families in the country? Or will you stand up to your leader? The Conservative Party is poised to become the party of the lunch snatchers. Before polling day, every single Conservative candidate, in every constituency, must declare if they support Theresa May's unjustified and regressive u-turn.

Nick Clegg is a former deputy prime minister and Lib Dem candidate for Sheffield Hallam

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