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Friday, January 21, 2005

Big Breakfast con hits home

The Western Mail on Wednesday accused the Welsh Labour Government of perpetuating a huge con on the public with their promise to provide a free breakfast to every primary school pupil in Wales. Internal Assembly Government documents , they say, prove that when the First Minister promised free breakfasts "on a universal basis", his "£16m scheme" was based on an assumed take-up rate of just 11% - one child in 10.

These revelations seem to have hit a chord as today the Education Minister replied with an article in which she accused the paper of getting "it wrong again". She says that "The pledge was and continues to be that, 'We have committed to providing for all our primary school children to have free breakfasts'. We are actively promoting the scheme and encouraging school to take part - bring benefits to children in Wales.......We have always said we will revisit the funding levels once we have considered the evidence from the pilots and the independent evaluation. The money is there in the budget reserve to support the expansion of the programme as promised."

The Western Mail's Chief Reporter, Martin Shipton hits back with some effective points: "Of course the people of Wales were misled. They were misled into believing that this was a fully costed and thought-through policy so that free breakfasts would be provided for every primary child in Wales.

She knows full well that at the time the promise of "free breakfasts for all primary school kids" was made before the last Assembly election, Labour's "fully costed" £16m scheme was based on the assumption that only 11% of pupils would get the free meal. Free school breakfasts for all was merely a good soundbite.

Jane Davidson also knows that as it will not be compulsory for schools to participate in the free breakfast scheme, not all children will have the opportunity to choose whether they want one or not."

The fact is that nobody actually knows the truth as, just as with a lot of Labour's manifesto commitments, the pledge was not properly worked up or costed when it was made. That is why we spent the first 12 months of the second Assembly treading water and that is why we have had to wait for the first budget after the Comprehensive Spending Review to get any idea of the true costs of their top ten promises. Even then we are faced with vague statements about pilot schemes and a reliance on reserves to pay for some future, unspecified costs.

This applies to free prescriptions, top up tuition fees, free school breakfasts, the crime fund, school building investment and many other budget headings. What is worse is that more than half of the headings in that budget showed no increase at all, not even for inflation, because of the need to divert money from mainstream programmes for Labour's gimmicks.

Of course we have tried over and over again to raise these matters and to get answers from Government Ministers. Occasionally, we have been successful, but what this episode shows as well is the value of an independent and inquisitive press in effective scrutiny.

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