Row breaks out after Scottish Labour votes against free school meals for primary school kids

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  By G.A.Ponsonby

A row has broken out between the SNP and Scottish Labour after it emerged Johann Lamont’s Holyrood group had voted against a motion aimed at providing primary schoolchildren with free school meals.

The bitter war of words erupted after First Minister Alex Salmond announced the Scottish Government was extending its current free school meals package to include all children in Primaries 1 through to 3.  Also included in the announcement were plans to extend free childcare.

Despite Scottish Labour previously signalling support for both policies, Ms Lamont’s Holyrood group of MSPs voted against the plans.

In a statement issued this evening, the SNP MSP Annabelle Ewing accused Scottish Labour of adopting a “narrow partisan agenda” and said:

“In their determination to attack everything proposed by the SNP, they ended up voting against policies which they themselves have claimed to support.

“Labour MSPs were seen discussing how they would vote right up until the end of the debate, which ended in farce with Drew Smith desperately pretending in a point of order that Labour weren’t voting against free school meals.

“But that is of course exactly what they were doing – and now they have to explain their actions to the coalition of charities which has campaigned for this policy.

“I was proud to vote for the rollout of healthy free school meals to all children in Primaries 1 to 3, and a significant expansion of childcare provision.

“Labour’s shambolic actions today show once again that only the powers of independence offer us the chance to build on this to make a truly transformational change.”

However Scottish Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale defended Scottish Labour’s decision and insisted the party had not voted against free school meals but were in fact opposing independence, which had been included in the Scottish Government motion.

The motion by First Minister Alex Salmond insisted that independence was the only way to ensure that extra tax receipts from revolutionary childcare, outlined in the white paper, remained in Scotland and that it was “vital to achieve the transformation in childcare that Scotland needs and for child poverty to be finally eradicated”.

An amendment by Johann Lamont had praised the Labour party and devolution.  It also claimed “child poverty has stalled in Scotland under the current administration”.

As part of a £114 million package announced by Mr Salmond, every one of Scotland’s P1 to P3 children will have the option of a free meal in school from January next year, improving health and wellbeing, increasing attainment and saving families at least £330 a year for each child.

Free childcare provision will be expanded to every two year-old from a workless household in Scotland – around 8,400 children or 15 per cent of all two year-olds – by August this year.

And by August next year, free childcare provision will be extended further, reaching 15,400 children – 27 per cent of all two year-olds – by widening entitlement to families that received certain welfare benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance.

The row followed accusations by Labour MSPs that the SNP had the wrong priorities and that free school meals would not tackle child poverty.  However it has emerged that in 2007, Labour MSP and former Minister Rhona Brankin highlighted the link between deprivation and obesity and asked about entitlements to free school meals being extended to further address child poverty.

Arguing against free school meals, Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale had also previously questioned whether there was evidence that free school meals improved educational attainment for the most disadvantaged kids.

However in another blow to Scottish Labour’s arguments against the policy, Newsnet Scotland can reveal that in 2010 Labour leader Ed Miliband acknowledged there was, “a strong case for universal free school meals.  It makes a big difference in terms of nutrition.  It makes a big difference in terms of concentration in classrooms.”

It also emerged that in 2010, just before the UK General election, the last Labour Government supported universal free school meals when then Education Secretary, Ed Balls, handed over £1.6m in funding to Labour controlled Islington council.

Mr Balls said: “Thanks to local pressure, Islington is going to get the chance of free, healthy lunches in primary schools. If this shows, as I believe it does, that it’s not only popular with parents but raises standards and health among our children, I would love to see it extended as far as possible across the country.”

Trades unions have also spoken out in favour of the Scottish Government’s policy.  Speaking in 2008, Dave Watson, Unison’s Scottish organiser, said: “Unison has long argued on health and poverty grounds that we should be providing free school meals for all children.”