This policy was universally popular, with the benefits for health and work incentives recognised by politicians of all parties. It would have lifted 50,000 children above the poverty line and benefited 500,000 children and their families, according to Treasury estimates.
One of the first major speeches by the Government was delivered by the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith. He warned that some parents trying to move from benefits into work face effective 'tax' rates of 95 per cent because of benefit withdrawals and the loss of passported benefits, such as free school meals. He has promised a move to a 'dynamic benefits' system ensurng that moving into work pays, without such steep and sudden withdrawals.
The Government has also promised that fairness will be used in making decisions to tackle the deficit. Ministers are now also under a legal duty in the Equality Act to have regard to the benefits of reducing inequality of outcomes for those affected by socioeconomic disadvantage.
Shelving the extension of free school meals is completely at odds with these commitments. It suggests there is not yet any clear and transparent mechanism in place to ensure fairness in the decision-making process on deficit reduction.
The Government will thrust many children needlessly into poverty if it continues to make these kinds of decision in haste. The urgency of deficit reduction must not be cause for a lack of scrutiny in the assessment of options, a failure of communication across departmental agendas or a jettisoning of principles. The education secretary and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury must now ensure that this important policy to support low-income working families, improve children's health and make work pay is reinstated in the spending review.