From next September all children in reception, year one and year two will automatically get their lunches paid for by the state, in a move designed to improve concentration in the classroom.
Critics pointed out that the scheme, which has an annual £600m price tag, will see a subsidy worth £437 a year per child handed to well-off parents.
“The government already ensures that those in need have access to free school meals, so it beggars belief that we are now going to see a policy instated which will subsidise the children of affluent families,” said Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
The deputy prime minister’s aides yesterday insisted that the policy, based on a proposal by the founders of the convenience food chain Leon, “would not have happened without us” and showed the importance of healthy meals.
But they also hinted that the scheme was part of a tit-for-tat spending deal within the coalition, with the Conservatives in return getting approval for the £550m cost of introducing a £150 tax break for married couples. This is likely to be confirmed at the Tory conference later this month, with full details of the funding scheme included in the chancellor’s autumn statement.