UK Politics

Free milk row: Senior Tory Dorrell backs No 10 rethink

Former Conservative Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell has downplayed apparent government confusion over the proposed scrapping of free milk for under-fives.

The coalition said on Sunday that the benefit would not go, after health minister Anne Milton suggested plans for such a move were in place.

Mr Dorrell said it had been judged that the political risk "didn't merit the rewards".

Downing Street said keeping free milk would help the poor and vulnerable.

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.

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

'Difficult choices'

In a letter to the Scottish government, Mrs Milton had said the milk scheme was too expensive - costing almost £50m this year - and the coalition was considering increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers for the poorest families instead.

She said there was no evidence the scheme improved health and that the government was looking at abolishing it by April 2011.

But Downing Street later ruled this out.

A spokesman said: "The prime minister made his decision and that decision has been made known. This is a policy that has been in place since the Second World War.

"More particularly, you have to look at the impact on poorer, more vulnerable members of society. The prime minister felt that keeping milk for the under-fives was part of that."

Mr Dorrell, who is chairman of the Commons health select committee, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "This was a proposal from Anne Milton suggesting that this money might be better used to deliver the same objective by different means.

"It was a proposal that was being discussed at a junior level in the government. Downing Street... clearly reached the conclusion... that the [political] risks didn't merit the reward.

"All life, not just politics, is about making sometimes difficult choices. This was a suggestion that there was £50m spent in providing free milk for under-five-year-olds.

"Could that be better spent to deliver the objective that we all share, which is to ensure that there is the best possible healthy start for all children, but perhaps particularly children from low-income backgrounds?

"If you read the correspondence it's absolutely clear that everybody was seeking to deliver that objective."

Former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was branded a "milk snatcher" by some when, as education secretary, she presided over the abolition of free school milk for children over the age of seven in 1971.

Mr Dorrell said of Mrs Milton's letter: "A change was proposed. When Downing Street found out about it, they recognised the historical context of it... and suggested this was not a change they wished to see proceeded with."

Shadow health secretary and Labour leadership contender Andy Burnham said there was "policy chaos within [David Cameron's] government".

Leadership rival Ed Balls, the shadow education secretary, said: "This is a coalition in chaos, making policy on the hoof."

SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon said Mrs Milton should consider resigning, but a Downing Street spokesman said: "We have full confidence in Anne."

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