The Lib Dem conference was never just going to be about Vince moaning and a plastic bag tax. Sure enough, Nick Clegg's big announcement is free school meals for all school children aged between five and seven.
As Robert Halfon MP notes elsewhere on ConservativeHome this morning, the sensible part of Clegg's proposal (that which gives equality on school meals to poorer students at FE and Sixth Form Colleges) is actually nicked from the redoubtable MP for Harlow, which is further evidence of the need for Conservatives to take full credit for our ideas.
But leaving that aside, two problems strike me with Clegg's headline policy of free school meals for all – one of principle, and one of practice.
1) Principle: In July, a politician made a bold attack on universal benefits, saying: "you've got to start at the top, you've got to start with welfare for the wealthy". The principle he was laying out was clear – it is wrong, particularly in a time of limited resources, to offer benefits and perks to those who could afford to get by without them.
That politician's name was Nick Clegg, and today he will be turning that principle on its head by proposing that the taxpayer provide free school meals for the children of well off families. Those in need already get free school meals – this extension is by definition targeted at those who don't need it, AKA "welfare for the wealthy".
Similarly, the giveaway clashes with the wider message about the public finances. The deficit may be reduced but it certainly isn't gone – only a couple of hours before Clegg's announcement was made public, Danny Alexander told the Lib Dem conference that "There’s no spending bonanza round the corner." If an unecessary £600m giveaway isn't a spending bonanza, I don't know what is.
2) Practice: One of the Lib Dems' proudest policy successes is the Pupil Premium, by which schools with higher numbers of impoverished pupils get extra funding. It has long been a flagship policy, and they regularly remind everyone of its implementation. There's only one problem – the amount of Pupil Premium each school is given is calculated based on the number of pupils who apply for free school meals.
Inadvertently, Clegg has just pulled the carpet out from under his main education policy. If all children in the first two years of every primary school are automatically on free school meals rather than those in need applying for them, where will the data come from to calculate the Pupil Premium? The only alternative I can think of is for schools to start collecting and verifying the income data of every parent of every child in those two years – an large extra administrative burden on schools and the Department for Education. Oops.