Free nursery milk to stay, but costs set to be cut

Glasses of milk used to illustrate a school in Scotland which has only seven pupils The Nursery Milk scheme allows children under five in approved day care to receive 189ml a day

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The government says it remains committed to providing free nursery milk despite launching a review into the rising cost of the scheme.

The Department of Health says the cost has doubled in four years to £53m - with some childcare providers claiming back 92p per pint provided.

A third of a pint of free milk is provided for all under-fives having at least two hours of childcare.

The consultation is on the scheme's future in England, Scotland and Wales.

At the moment 1.5 million children under the age of five receive free milk under the scheme introduced in the 1940s.

The cost-cutting options in the consultation are:

  • Capping the price which can be claimed back for milk
  • Government to give direct contracts to firms to deliver at agreed price per pint
  • E-voucher scheme to enable schools to get milk at agreed price without having to claim it back

At the moment the milk is bought by childcare providers - state and private nurseries and childminders - and they then claim back the cost.

The consultation says: "Childcare providers buy the milk provided to children in their care from a range of sources including supermarkets and corner shops, milk roundsmen, wholesalers, markets and at the farm gate."

Milk scheme

  • 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

There are also some specialist providers of milk who act as agents for schools and claim the money back directly on behalf of childcare providers. They are estimated to now have 40% of the market.

"Over recent years the prices claimed for milk supplied under the scheme have risen significantly, with some claims as high as 92p a pint. This has driven the total cost of the scheme up from £27m in 2007/08 to £53m 2010/11, and this trend looks likely to continue with costs potentially rising to £76m by 2016.

"The purpose of this consultation is to explore options for modernising and simplifying the operation of the Nursery Milk Scheme while ensuring that no parent, child or childcare provider is disadvantaged, and to look for ways to further improve its value for money."

The consultation is seeking views on the options, noting that the average price of a pint of milk is 36p in England.

Diane Abbott, Labour's shadow health minister, said "trying to cut the cost of this scheme may end up snatching milk away from the country's children, disproportionately affecting the poorest".

Jon Thornes, interim chairman of the School and Nursery Milk Alliance, said: "Drinking milk in schools, nurseries and while in the care of childminders is vital in helping children to develop important nutrition and social habits.

"We will be engaging fully with the consultation... and would urge the Government to ensure its focus is on children's wellbeing rather than just the bottom line."

The issue of free milk is historically very sensitive.

Prime Minister David Cameron intervened last year to veto any ending of the scheme after Health Minister Anne Milton suggested free milk could be completely stopped after plans were leaked.

And in 1971, Margaret Thatcher, who was then education secretary, earned the nickname "Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher" for ending free school milk for the over-sevens.

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