Downing Street rejects child milk scheme cut suggestion

Minister David Willetts was on-air as news about the decision broke

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Plans to scrap free milk for children under five will not go ahead, Downing Street has said.

It comes after UK Health Minister Anne Milton set out the proposals in a letter to Scottish Public Health Minister Shona Robison.

Downing Street said Prime Minister David Cameron "did not like" the idea of scrapping the free milk scheme.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said the "chaos" was "shambolic" and undermined the PM's ministers.

The Nursery Milk scheme allows children under five in approved day care to receive 189ml (1/3 pint) of milk each day free of charge.

Start Quote

Abolition of the scheme is likely to be highly controversial, particularly as this will affect some children in low-income families”

End Quote Anne Milton Health minister

The scheme dates back to 1940, when milk was issued to pregnant women and young children to protect them against wartime food shortages.

'Ineffective universal measure'

Mrs Milton had said the milk scheme was too expensive, and the government was considering increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers for the poorest families instead.

The health minister, who said there was no evidence the scheme improved health, wrote that the government was looking at abolishing the scheme by April 2011.

She admitted ending the scheme was "highly controversial" but said the programme did not "provide value for money in difficult times" and had "become increasingly outdated".

The cost of the scheme had almost doubled in the last five years, she said.

Running the scheme in England this year cost nearly £50m and would rise to £59m in 2011-12, she added.

  • The 1946 School Milk Act provided 1/3 pint free for every school child under 18
  • Wilson's 1968 Labour government took it away from secondary school pupils
  • As education minister in 1971, Margaret Thatcher withdrew it from over-7s
  • Free milk for five-seven-year-olds ended in 1980
  • 1.3m primary school pupils get free or subsidised milk
  • The EU spent £5.8m subsidising dairy products for UK schools in 2003

The intervention left Universities Minister David Willetts floundering in a television interview on the BBC One's Andrew Marr Show, when he initially said ending the provision was on the table along with "a whole range of options" - only to be informed on air that it had been ruled out.

Later, the Department of Health said ending the scheme was an option that had been "considered" but it had "decided to rule it out".

'Stamped on'

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: "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.

"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.

Analysis

Mrs Milton described her views as "proposals" - this was never formal policy - but her consultation letter making the arguments against free milk was very clear.

In one respect the minister was simply doing her job. Everyone in Whitehall wants to find savings and the current milk scheme is expected to cost £59m next year in England alone. She even pointed out the political pitfalls, noting the controversial nature.

But almost 40 years after education secretary Margaret Thatcher decided to end free milk for seven to 11-year-olds, she is still pilloried as a "milk snatcher". The fact a Labour government ended a similar provision for secondary school pupils does not hold the same place in the public consciousness.

So it is surprising no one let the current Conservative prime minister know about a consultation process likely to end up in the public domain.

"What prompted him to act in this bizarre way seems to have been the fear of being compared to Margaret Thatcher rather than the policy itself. It is no way to conduct government business."

The Scottish National Party said Mrs Milton should consider her position, with Scottish Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon saying the minister had been over-zealous.

"She's proposed something David Cameron has immediately stamped on, that's hardly a vote of confidence," said Ms Sturgeon.

"I think it would have been deeply, deeply damaging for nursery school children to have had the milk that they get removed. I believe that there is evidence that milk in a child's development is very important.

"So the substance of the issue is vital. I'm glad that David Cameron has said he won't pursue this, and I hope very much that this remains the case."

But a Downing Street spokesperson said: "We have full confidence in Anne. She is very good minister, who was doing her job to come up with savings."

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