Not just surprised because this was not Liberal Democrat policy: surprised at the way my fellow party members took to their blogs and Twitter to enthuse about it.
To me it seemed an odd policy for a government whose existence is predicated on the need for austerity. It sounded like the sort of thing that came towards the end of the Blair/Brown years. Desirable, perhaps, but extraordinarily expensive.
Nick Harvey put it well - and colourfully - in an interview with Huffington Post back in November:
"It was absolutely astonishing. It came from nowhere," he exclaims. "It seemed to be part of some coalition deal where it was meant to make the Lib Dems feel better about allowing the Tories to progress their wretched married couples tax allowance. I am supposed to rejoice at this other policy that seems to me to be squandering a lot of money".
It's not that Harvey is opposed to free school meals. Far from it. He has been campaigning on it from both within and from without government for some time. His problem is that, in a time of squeezed public spending, he wanted the free lunch to be given to poor children from when they started school at five to when they finished at 18.
Instead, Clegg decided to give the money to the youngest children while doing nothing for those who were older but poorer. The idea is to gradually roll it out to all age groups. But Harvey suspects this may take such a long time as to never happen.
"Suddenly bunny comes out of hat," Harvey mimes. "Someone, somewhere, has found £600m a year we didn’t know about down the back of a filing cabinet and has come up with the brilliant brainwave that the best way to spend it is to give a free school meal to all five, six and seven year olds - regardless of their income level. I am sitting there, gawping in open-mouthed astonishment," he says.Now, not unsurprisingly with a policy over which there was no consultation, that the implementation of Nick's bright idea is running into all sorts of problems.
Oliver Wright itemises them on the Independent website:
The first sign of trouble came in last month’s Comprehensive Spending Review. When the scheme was announced, Mr Clegg said it would cost the Government £635m. But three months later, George Osborne admitted the cost had risen by 20 per cent to £785m. No one, it appeared, had taken into account the cost of upgrading kitchens and extending school dining rooms to cope with the extra demand.
Since then, things have got even more problematic. The DfE has no idea which schools need money to upgrade their facilities. There are more than 16,000 primary schools in England – some big, some small, some with adequate facilities, some with none. But because free school meals need to be in place by September for the start of the academic year, there is not enough time to do an assessment of which schools and areas need money and which do not.It's worse than that. It's not just that the pledge proving expensive and the money is being allocated in a worryingly random way: it turns out that honouring it is impractical in many schools:
Initially, the Government made a commitment that the free meal would be a hot one. A statement on the DfE website said: “The Government will fund schools in England to provide every child in reception, year 1 and year 2 with a hot, nutritious meal at lunchtime.”
Now the Department says this is an aspiration rather than a commitment, because they’ve “discovered” that in many small schools the “dining room” doubles up as the gym and assembly hall, a space which is needed for lessons and activities.
Hot meals take longer to prepare and serve. Small children eat slowly and many schools simply cannot fit an extended lunchtime into their school day. As a result, the Department has accepted that a packed lunch that can be eaten in classrooms will now count as a “nutritious meal at lunchtime”.And by a not very pleasing irony, the policy threatens to undercut Nick's very favourite policy the Pupil Premium. How do you give extra funding to children who get free schools when all children get free school meals?
The root of these problems is the lack of consultation - something no Liberal should be guilty of. As Wright says:
The sad truth is that all these problems could – and should – have been foreseen. There are hundreds of policy officials in Whitehall whose job it is to work through problems, find solutions and devise policy that works.
But in this case, they didn’t even know about it. The policy was put together on the back of an envelope to provide a catchy announcement for the Lib Dems to trumpet at their party conference.Come to think of it, Nick could even have discussed the policy with his own party first.